Getting Older, Getting Stronger
An interview with Second Wind: The Rise of the Ageless Athlete author Lee Bergquist
Anne Stein, M.S. Sports & Fitness Journalist/Author Chicago, IL
Getting older no longer means giving up sports. Marathons and triathlons regularly include age-groupers in their 60s and up, and it’s no longer odd to spot a 20-year-old sharing the ski slopes with folks two generations older. Journalist Lee Bergquist explores the world of older athletes in his new book Second Wind: The Rise of the Ageless Athlete.
When journalist Lee Bergquist took up track in his early 40s, he discovered a world of seriously talented athletes his age and older involved in competition. Thus began Bergquist’s quest to discover the secrets behind athletics and aging. In Second Wind: The Rise of the Ageless Athlete, (Human Kinetics) Bergquist profiles a dozen athletes ranging from their mid-50s to their 80s. Some had been competing their entire lives, while others didn’t start until late in life. “The whole definition of what’s old has changed these days,” says Bergquist, 55, a former high school football player. “It’s not 50 or 60, its 80.”
Q. WHAT MOTIVATES PEOPLE TO REMAIN ACTIVE AS THEY GET OLDER?
Bergquist: In a general sense, most feel the need to be physically active and physically fit. For some it’s unfinished business in their lives. They still need to prove that they’re an athlete and that they have a goal they want to knock off or record they want to beat, or there’s someone they want to beat. Others do it purely for health; some do it for vanity; some do it for social reasons — they like hanging around people who are fit and aren’t ready to accept the fact they’re getting older. Some just need it as a release valve – it’s part of who they are and it’s meaningful – and not everyone needs to race.
Q. HOW ARE OLDER ATHLETES ACHIEVING PERFORMANCES TODAY THAT COULDN’T HAVE BEEN IMAGINED A GENERATION AGO?
A. We know more about fitness and training than we did a few decades ago. And a lot is driven by pro athletes and big-time college competition – that knowledge has been pushed down the food chain to older athletes and to people like you and me. The Masters athlete movement began in the 1970s, so 30 years later you have a generation who’ve come up in an environment where they didn’t have to stop exercising by age 23. It’s perfectly acceptable to be athletic as you got older. It goes to show that if done properly and correctly, and with the right talent, you can slow or delay the aging process for decades.
Q. WHAT ARE THE PHYSICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAITS THAT OLDER ATHLETES SHARE?
A. Psychologically, there’s an ambition or competitive streak. They feel the need to push themselves — some are as complex and driven as pro athletes because this is the defining characteristic of who they are. Most of the athletes I interviewed were pretty nice but some were pretty self-absorbed because that’s what it takes to do what they do. Obviously they have to be conditioned, but most of them have self-selected to a sport their bodies will be good at. They’ve got fast twitch muscles and are in track, for example. Triathletes and marathoners do what they do because they’ve got endurance.
Q. WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT AVOIDING INJURY?
A. Start slow, especially as you get older. You need to warm up and loosen your muscles before pushing yourself, no matter how experienced you are. Many of the really good athletes I interviewed, however, were constantly battling injuries or were at the fine line of judicious training and pushing themselves to get that much better. It’s also important to do strength training, no matter the sport. And in a perfect world, they stretch and cool down when they’re done. They’re also training less than they used to and they’re cross-training.
Q. WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT OLDER ATHLETES?
A. I didn’t think they’d be so ambitious and driven. It also surprised me how good and fast some of these people are. In my 40s when I started training for track, I was training as hard as I could. I was a wide receiver in high school and I was fast. In my 40s I could run the 100 in 13.5 seconds, which isn’t bad. But I was at the back at most races and there were people running just as fast who were 10 years older. There were swimmers swimming faster in their early 50s than they swam in college. Athletes can take advantage of all this training knowledge that’s available today, along with the mindset that you don’t have to quit. Lee Bergquist is a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. For more information on “Second Wind: The Rise of the Ageless Athlete” (Human Kinetics) go to: www.secondwindathlete.com