I grew up a sedentary nerd, resenting PE and failing miserably at the few sports I tried. But in my twenties I found some forms of exercise I didn’t hate, and in my thirties I started using the word “athlete” to describe myself.
It’s weird to be an adult beginner at this stuff, but we also have some advantages over people who started their sport as tweens and teens. Here are some handy tips and words of wisdom:
P.E. class was a rough time for junior high Michelle. I hated gym class and did what I could to avoid it. I complained of “cramps,” begged my mum to write excuse notes and considered joining the marching band because it was the only way out. (Sadly, though, I didn’t know how to play an instrument.)
You’re competing in a different league, metaphorically, at least
There’s always somebody on your team, or competing against you in a race, who started running/playing/whatever at a young age. And they’re blazingly fast, amazingly talented — okay, fine. You’re not going to catch up to them anytime soon. My local 5Ks always have a bunch of young folks who cross the finish line at 15, 16, 17 minutes when my own goal is in the mid-20s. Yes, I’m jealous. But that’s ok.
Fortunately, a lot of sports have age groups, or other classifications that make more sense. I can see how I fare in the “women 30-39” group, and not worry about that teenage dude who beat me by a full ten minutes. Or maybe you’ll gravitate toward a team or group where the other folks are around your same skill level. You don’t need to pretend you’re a high school athlete.
You have a reason to be here
You’re not playing a sport because it’s the thing you’ve always done, or because your dad wants to see you succeed. You’re a grown-arse adult, and you decided you wanted to try this thing, and you decided it’s worth reshuffling your work schedule or arranging for child care. You can quit at any time, and that makes it all the more special that you’ve chosen to be here.
You know your body
OK, and that body might have its share of issues. There’s a push and pull to finding the right things for your body: on the one hand, you might be a little overprotective of that knee you injured years ago. But after living so many decades in your body, you know what it feels like when you’re really hurt, and so you’ll be able to tell the difference between soreness and legit injury.
The more experience you get with exercise, the better you’ll get at figuring out your own limits: when you’re getting a little too tired, too overheated, too fatigued. And at the very least, you’re not suffering through puberty at the same time you’re trying to figure out what your body can do athletically.
You can outlast
Next time you run a 5K, stick around to see who else comes in behind you. Chances are there are only a handful of people in the older age groups. I cackled with glee when I realised—as a very slow, sorta-beginner runner—that I had a sure path to an age-group medal. All I would have to do is keep running until I was old. Then I would be, if not the fastest, possibly the only person in the higher age groups. Automatic win.
But even before you’re competing with octogenarians, you’ll have outlasted a lot of people. Many high school and college athletes drop their sport when they graduate; they didn’t really love it, perhaps, and they have better things to do. But you’re here because you want to be, remember?
You have forever to work on this
If you actually enjoy your new sport, you can take on a multi-year plan of improvement. Look at the people running ultramarathons, the races that go for 30, 50, even 161km. You can’t train for that in a semester, but if you’ve taken some time to work up to a marathon, you may well decide you’d like to go farther. Set your sights high—you’ll be older when you reach that goal, but damn will you be in good shape.
You’ll be less frail when you actually get old
One of the best things you can do for your future self is to exercise. We get weaker and frailer as we age, but exercise helps your heart, your brain, your mobility, and more. Stay strong.