Updated: Jul 28
Jonathon M. Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
If you train like an athlete, you're an athlete.
Every now and then, somebody tries to take us to task for using the term "Athlete of Aging." The objection is always strictly semantic, fastidious, sclerotic...and, well, obtuse. As in, "wow, Dude, you really missed the entire point." Most recently, somebody sent me this:
I don't think you're right. Yes, if someone's participating in these physical activities and training for something, they are engaging in athletic training. A firefighter lifting weights is athletically training for the athletic/physical requirements of his duties. However, I think it's disingenuous to call these people 'athletes'. To call someone an 'athlete' implies that the athletic component is the primary descriptor of their activity. The primary component of Track is running. They are an athlete. The primary component of firefighting is using strategies and technologies in order to control and extinguish fires.
Imagine a descriptor other than athlete. Let's say animator. If someone works for a company and animates a five second logo for them, despite their primary department being customer service, they're not an animator. If somebody works for a company and is paid full time to animate, then they are an animator. (EmPHAsis added.)
This is an attempt to militate for a cramped and ossified definition of athlete using an argument from analogy, and I think we can dispense with that analogy handily. Yes, of course, you can indeed animate something as a one-off and not be an animator. You can give us your two cents on a movie or a book but not be a critic by either training or vocation. You can take your clothes off from time to time, but that doesn't necessarily make you a stripper, even if you are very talented at it.
But the analogy does not obtain, because you just can't be involved in athletic training half-ass. You've either integrated training into a complete and dedicated way of life (this is who athletes are, in the classical sense), or you haven't. You're either engaged in a long-term program for the optimization of physical performance (this is what athletes do), or you're not. And if you are that, and you do that....you're an athlete. This has practical and existential implications that transcend the semantic dimension--just as being a human transcends the semantic dimension or unitary identifiers. After all, you actually can be a world-class firefighter and an athlete at the same time. In fact, I would maintain that you have to be the latter to be the former. Consider our approach to injury. Everybody sustains an injury at some time or another, and athletes and exercisers are far from immune. Athletes will incur tweaks and strains and sprains in the gym, and they have been known to fall down and go boom outside the gym as well. (You people know who you are. Please be more careful). Either way, there will be an impact on physical performance. If you are sedentary or the sort of person who exercises grudgingly, without a specific program, your hamstring tear or your broken elbow seems to indicate rest, a cessation of physical exercise, to "heal up." The athlete approaches the problem rather differently. Minor musculoskeletal injuries do indeed require initial rest and support, but they also require early mobilization through the range of motion and gradual but early resumption of progressive overload. We have seen this time and again, and as a principle it has never let us down: motion is lotion. Movement is medicine. Broken bones and serious ligamentous injuries also require rest and recovery, sometimes for protracted intervals. A twisted ankle with an avulsion fracture, a torn wrist ligament, a knee injury with effusion--all of these can end up with a splint or a cast or some other form of immobilization for healing, or simply a well-considered prescription to avoid loading the injured member. In such circumstances, the casual exerciser is more likely to retreat into inactivity.
The Athlete of Aging--like any other athlete--has no time for that, and will instead train around the injury. Indeed, training around injuries is a fundamental skill for athletes and their coaches. You have a broken elbow? Well, press, bench, and dead are out. But if you can find a safety bar, you may very well be able to squat. If your elbow splint or cast won't permit that, you can air squat, and perhaps do one-handed goblets or leg presses. You can drag a sled or hit the stationary bike for conditioning. You can do dumbbell presses and curls until that damn cast comes off. Other injuries and conditions will require similarly adaptive and creative approaches, which are really just modifications of our overall approach to Masters training: Find the retained movement patterns that can be loaded safely, and load them. We have seen a lot of this recently, in the context of a global pandemic. Many people go to ground, and I know a lot of folks who've gained weight and become even more weak and flabby than they were. But my Greysteel Athletes? Couldn't be prouder. Locked in their homes, they took on the lockdown program or dusted off their home gyms and stayed in the game. This is the sort of thing an athlete does, always keeping an eye on the prize. That's what the word means, after all. Athlete comes to us from the Greek athletes άθλητὴς, which in turn derives from athlos, ἄθλος, which means contest or prize. As Athletes of Aging, we contest the degeneration of our bodies by time and inactivity, in pursuit of the prize of more vitality, better health, and broader horizons. As I've said many times, the Athlete of Aging is the most extreme athlete of all, engaged in the contest with the biggest stakes, against the most implacable and deadly opponent there is. Compared to a 93-year-old man doing goblet squats and Romanian deadlifts alone in his apartment during a global pandemic to retain his hard-won strength, I think LeBron James and Patrick Mahomes are pathetic weenies. Nothing will dislodge our identities as Athletes of Aging: Not the unstoppable arrow of time, not tweaks and injuries and illness...and not the language police. Keep your eyes on the ἄθλος, go forth, and train.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.