As we get older, staying active becomes harder. But while the pervasive belief is that ageing means a steep decline in athletic performance, losing strength and fitness isn’t nearly as inevitable as we once thought. As research is finding out, maintaining a high level of fitness for decades is possible, although it takes a lot of hard work and a careful balance.
So what does it take to remain competitive well into your later years? To find out, we reached out to two older athletes — Rick Bobigian, a 73-year old masters boxer, and John Chino, a long-time distance runner who recently took up ice hockey — to get a sense of what official recommendations for older athletes looks like in practice.
As it turns out, both Chino and Bobigian hit upon a workout routine that, while it looks different at face value, both incorporate elements that scientists are starting to realise are essential for maintaining athletic ability for decades. Here’s what they look like in practice.
What it’s like to learn an intense sport later in life
Rick Bobigian, an oil and gas executive who has founded multiple companies, started boxing ten years ago after a friend brought him to a sparring session at Main Street Boxing and Muay Thai in downtown Houston. Although Bobigian was in excellent shape at the time, one round left him exhausted.
Then and there, he made the decision to start training, choosing to work with Main Boxing’s co-owner, Bobby Benton. In addition to coaching white-collar clients, Benton also coaches a number of professional boxers like light welterweight Regis Prograis, currently ranked #2 in the world, and O’Shaquie Foster, a super featherweight currently ranked at #6.
Soon after starting, Bobigian roped in two more colleagues, including his lawyer, Rod Drinnon, and a friend, Allen Case. For the past ten years, they’ve been training and sparring together every week, eventually nicknaming themselves “The Three Amigos.” (The jury’s still out on who gets the better deal: The lawyer who gets to punch his client, or the client who gets to punch his lawyer.)
Bobigian’s original goal was just to spar. In 2017, he started competing as a masters boxer, competing in USA Boxing-sanctioned matches, which require him to be matched against opponents who are within ten years of his age, and has since accumulated 18 fights.
John Chino has a similar story. A 63-year old insurance broker from California, Chino was also in good shape and spent most of his adult life running, which included 60 marathons before taking up ice hockey four years ago and playing in a league with other players his age. As someone who came in with little experience playing hockey, he’s had to learn everything from the ground up, including how to ice skate.
“Who knew ice skating was hard?” Chino said. He hired a coach, and now dedicates a substantial portion of his workout time toward learning skills.
Chino’s complete lack of knowledge in the sport has been part of the attraction. As he puts it, learning ice hockey has been about the challenge of being “really, really awful, humiliatingly awful,” at the game, only for all of his hard work to come together one day, allowing him to finally master a skill he didn’t think he was capable of. It’s that joy of discovering his capabilities, as well as the challenge of learning something really hard, that captivates Chino.
“I do not have an athletic bone in my body. I’m terrible,” Chino said. “But with sports, it’s about how much you put into it. When people like me hit a plateau, that’s the challenge. What do I have to change to get better?”
Strength training is really, really important
As we age, we lose muscle mass. Starting at age 30, we begin to lose about 3-5% of our muscle mass per decade. That doesn’t mean that maintaining or gaining muscle mass is impossible, though. What it does mean is that an older athlete must work harder to maintain their muscle mass.
For Chino, he started strength training only after his coach told him he needed upper body strength to run a marathon. Since then, he’s become more dedicated and now has a regular routine of strength training, which includes bodyweight exercises and free weights. To stay on track and avoid overtraining, he’s careful about keeping an eye on his heart rate.
Bobigian has been regular about strength training for the majority of his life, due to a back injury he incurred during his military service. When he was discharged from the military, the doctor told him that in order to prevent future back issues, he needed to avoid getting a belly and to strengthen his back muscles. Bobigian took the advice seriously.
For weight training, he relies solely on bodyweight exercises, which includes chin-ups, push-ups, sit ups, leg lifts, and planks, with a focus on maintaining good form and doing repetitions until exhaustion. When he needs, he’ll modify these exercises to make them more challenging or to incorporate additional movements.
Mobility work is an overlooked, yet necessary component
When it comes to maintaining athletic performance over our lifetime, one of the most overlooked components is often mobility work. Although we tend to think of flexibility and mobility as being the same thing, flexibility refers simply to how much a joint can move without injury, whereas mobility is how much you can move a joint without injury. The first is a passive motion, whereas the second requires strength, balance, and skill.
As we age, our range of motion tends to decrease, usually due to stiff muscles, injuries, or an overall lack of activity. That decrease in mobility makes it harder to do certain activities, especially if those activities are complicated and hard, such as getting into an ice rink to skate around with a hockey stick or getting into a boxing ring to hit an opponent and trying not get hit yourself.
In recent years, Chino has learned just how important mobility work is for improving his athletic performance. As he admits, he’s been guilty of neglecting it in the past, often skipping it altogether in his earlier years. In the past few years, he’s taken to scheduling dedicated, assisted-stretch sessions at StretchLab. Much to Chino’s surprise, the mobility work he gets from these stretching sessions has been the missing component he needed to improve as an athlete. By Chino’s own admission, if he’d started focusing on mobility work earlier, he would have been a far better runner.
For Bobigian, he combines his strength training with his mobility training by doing bodyweight exercises in a way that ensures he’s getting the full range of motion for each repetition. As his coach Benton notes, although he usually needs to incorporate mobility work for the other masters boxers he works with, the work Bobigian does on his own is more than enough for his needs.
“When Rick comes in, he’s ready to go,” Benton said. “We spend our entire time hard at work on the boxing.”
High intensity training is critical
There a common idea that high-intensity training will wear you out faster, and that sticking to endurance training is best if you want to be active for the long term. As it turns out, not only is this not true, but regular high-intensity training is critical for maintaining and improving as an athlete over the course of a lifetime.
As research is showing, one of the main differences between athletes who lose significant fitness as they age and those who don’t is regular, high-intensity workouts. Athletes who train regularly, but don’t incorporate high-intensity workouts, will lose a moderate level of fitness as they age, which is what we expect. However, a commonality among athletes who maintain much higher-than-expected fitness levels for longer than expected is regular high-intensity training sessions. It looks like a strong focus on high-intensity training plays an important role after all. But balance is important, as it’ll take older athletes longer to recover.
Realise that it will take longer for your body to adapt
The biggest difference between a young athlete and a masters athlete is the time it takes for their body to adapt to new training. Older athletes need more rest and recovery, so it’s all the more critical for a masters athlete to train smarter — gone are the days of training without a plan and failing to consider the impact a workout will have on your body.
“I train Rick like one of my pro fighters,” Benton said. “The only difference is the amount of time.” Since Bobigian can’t spend as much time in the gym as a younger boxer, he’s a lot more deliberate about what he chooses to spend his time on, with a heavy emphasis on analysing his sparring sessions.
Chino has also discovered that in order to achieve what he wants as an athlete, he has to be a lot more intentional. “When I was in my 20s, I could cheat a lot and get away with it, and now I can’t,” Chino said. “Those days are over.” When Chino was younger, he was guilty of just putting in the miles without thinking too much about a long-term strategy.
Now, Chino is more thougthful about how he approaches his workouts, making sure he gets the rest, recovery, and nutrition he needs to stay competitive. “There’s no junk,” Chino said. “It’s extremely deliberate.”