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Age, Pain and Training: When Is It Time to Give It Up?

By James Parker

Fans of mixed martial arts (MMA) have seen events lately featuring some older contestants. Randy Couture, the poster boy for being older than one should and still in the game, recently fought another 40-year-old in his bout against Mark Coleman. Hershel Walker, also in his fourth decade, just had his first MMA fight ever—and won! My own coach, Kathy Long, a five-time world muay Thai champion, came out of retirement at the age of 46 to fight her first MMA match last year, and also won decisively. Has medical science given us a longer time frame in which to compete, both against others and ourselves? Or are we deluding ourselves and allowing our egos to push us into areas and ranges that should be left alone?

A combination of knowledge and wisdom has allowed these champions to push past barriers normally thought impenetrable. It's not just the knowledge gleaned from biology, physiology, and medicine—it's also the wisdom to know when to use that scientific knowledge to make gains, and when gains might be unattainable. Now, even though we are seeing older athletes compete successfully, it might be wise of us to know that their boundaries are not necessarily ours. Someone with a lifetime of sports-specific training might achieve more later in life than what the rest of us can do. Should you just quit, then, and give up the dream, or even something you love, because of Father Time?

No! Emphatically no. What we might learn from those that surprise us with their persistence is maybe how to persevere. Randy didn’t make it as long as he did by ignoring his body. In the fight game in particular, the idea is longevity. What does that mean? To some, it’s about making it to the end no matter the cost. However, to me, it’s also about being healthy and sound enough to enjoy the results. This means I have to take seriously whatever costs I incur along the way. And, regardless of the sport or goal you train for, you can’t forget that there will be an end. That’s what a goal is, an end. And after that goal, you need to be in a position to set a next one. I have a very strong feeling that to hall of famers like Randy, Kat, and Coleman, the ends do not justify the means.

For the rest of us, this means that every so often we need to stop and asses how we go about our training. In my experience, many people stop training for good when something causes too much pain or is too uncomfortable. Even worse, some start to pile on the pain medications so that they can continue what they were doing, how they were doing it. Neither one of these responses is ideal if you wish to achieve a fitness or athletic goal—they completely ignore the root causes to the problem. Pain can be a signal flare to assess how you’ve been training and whether or not changes need to be implemented.

One of my favorite examples of this is Randy Couture’s realization that too much running was bothering his knees. Instead of just continuing on and ignoring the obvious problem, and yet knowing he still needed the cardiovascular training if he wanted to be champ again, Randy came up with another solution. He joined a gym where the floor was made up of the same air-filled material one would find in a child’s inflatable jumper. He had a trainer work with him to achieve the same cardio fitness he would get running with much less stress on his ligaments and joints, by bounding back and forth. Whether that was the key to winning the heavyweight belt back doesn’t matter as much as the fact that he found a way to keep his goal in sight without getting derailed by injury.

On the opposite side of that spectrum is the last time Ken Shamrock was scheduled to have a big fight on Elite XC. He was training hard enough immediately prior to his bout to open a fight-ending cut on his forehead, one that required stitches and a suspension of his pro license. Of the many that commented on this behavior, most poignant to me was the one from his own brother: “He should have known better." One reason we fail to achieve fitness/fight/life goals is not an over-abundance of information, but a stifling of rational thought towards that info. With an eye toward listening to the body's signals while pursuing concrete training objectives, here are strategies I implement during my journey towards fitness or fight goals.

This one requires a leave of absence for the ego. Periodically stop to assess and re-assess not only your progress, but your condition. Why wait for pain signals to let you know something’s wrong? By the way, creaky joints are also an important signal. Just because there’s no pain, it doesn’t mean everything’s okey doke. You can asses at scheduled periodic times from every month to every day. Give yourself the mental and clinical once-over just to note whether anything’s out of the ordinary. It also wouldn’t hurt to get a doctor’s physical, a physical therapist’s structural and gait analysis, and/or an athletic trainer’s functional fitness assessment. It’s good to know how your body’s held up to the past strains you have put it under, as well as find out where things should be corrected before you even begin to work toward a new goal. These professionals can also give you excellent frames of reference for your own periodic re-assessments.

Along with the assessments is the objective analysis (here's the ego part). You need to look at what your body is presenting you with with honesty and with openness to solutions you may not really like. Sometimes the assessment shows you that you need time off. Many of us, myself included, hear some sort of death knell tolling whenever this happens, like if we can’t work out “we’ll die!” But the reality is that our body is put under stress every time we exercise or train. Taken to the extent so many of us do, it’s merely a matter of time before the machine gets a little worn.

Even though it can drive you crazy, time off is actually a productive response. Too much of it gets us in the trouble that may have started us towards the fitness goal, but too little can be just as bad. Other times, we need to realize that an aspect of our training was ego-driven from the start. Going full bore at a younger opponent in sparring is a quick way to make you feel your age, and might even make you leave what you love. However, it’s easily solved when the ego is removed. Just remember that assessing is an objective mental exercise—otherwise it can end up being called obsessing. 

This one goes hand-in-hand with the above statement. If you find there is a problem, table your goal for the now and give your body a chance to heal. You’ll be back before you know it; so why not use the time wisely to determine an alternate route to your goal, or just enjoy things that training time can make you sacrifice? It won’t ruin you if you don’t let it. If you put that much work into improving yourself, you have to trust that you wouldn’t let it just stop.

Exercise Modification Options
Have some ideas ready for changes in exercises and routines in case you do find something out of order. I suffer from arthritis in my knees from genetics as well as training procedures I did when younger. Instead of completely avoiding leg work (not an option if I want to keep up with my students and clients), I’ve studied and spoken to many different experts on alternatives to those exercises that put undo strain on my knees. It doesn’t hurt me to have options, even if some of them seem a tad weird. As long as my joints don’t hurt, and I can continue doing the things I love the most, then I’ll gladly do them. Having an open mind is a requirement to this part of the plan. You might not need to give up the entire sport, but just some of the things you’ve been doing in it.  

Know When You’ve Reached Your Goal
This might seem like a weird one, but many folk don’t seem to realize when they’ve reached the goal they set out for themselves. Goals are meant to be reached. It doesn’t mean it’s over, only that you need to make a new goal. The never-ending goal can not only lead to trauma, but also to disillusionment. How many individuals have you ever met that gave up because they just couldn’t seem to reach that elusive goal, while completely missing the smaller ones they bypassed in their frenzy?  

It’s much like that old adage of stopping to smell the roses. There are many (I hesitate to use the word) minor goals set when one sets a big one. To miss those is to miss what is to me one of the best aspects of training: the journey. Sometimes watching for those little goals lets you know when you hit the big one—like place markers on the way. You might even realize that the small goal you just reached looks an awful lot like the big goal. Maybe it’s time for a reassessment?   

I’ll say it again: if you love something, you shouldn’t have to give it up. The trick is to change it up enough so that it’s still something you love, but also something that “loves” you back. Be honest, but not brutal, with yourself, so that you can stay healthy, pain free, and never have to quit. I’m 39 and I plan on doing what I do into the days I have to use a cane to help. 

About James Parker: James Parker is a certified personal trainer, mixed martial artist, mma conditioning coach, and freelance writer in Los Angeles, California.