Athletic Longevity: Redefining Athleticism through Life’s Stages

Personal, Wellness

Woman running away from camera along a tree-lined bike path

I have heard the term “athlete” loosely defined as “anyone who chooses to move intentionally.” I’m a 41-year-old female athlete, and I have always been an athlete in some form or fashion since childhood. Of course, both the form and fashion of athletics has evolved with me over the last 40 years. 

I was a tri-sport athlete in high school, running cross country and playing both basketball and soccer. As a college student, I played some intramural sports and ran long distances. I played adult league soccer for a while.

In my early 30s, I was much more informal with activity while I was beginning my family, and then, about five years ago, I started CrossFit. CrossFit is a high-intensity programmed workout that often includes elements of weight training, gymnastics, and cardiovascular endurance.  

CrossFit has been a deep dive into understanding my own body’s physical needs. I first gave it a try due to a push from a couple good friends…one of which happened to be a CrossFit gym owner. For about a year I pushed myself to learn new movements and lifts that I had never before tried. It was incredibly fun and challenging. 

And then I got pregnant….cue an entire year of not doing CrossFit. Then I did that same thing again. Workout for a year, followed by taking a year off to have a baby and heal after having said baby. So to be fair, I have been doing CrossFit for about three of the last five years.  

Working really hard at something for a year, and then taking a year off, only to start all over again is intimidating for sure. I have, however, learned quite a lot about my own body, how to hear its cues, and honor its varying needs. 

Prior to, and at the start of a pregnancy, I would tell myself that I was going to be able to work out through this new pregnancy, and invariably every time I’d get to about eight weeks and realize absolutely not. During those phases of my life, I had only enough energy to live my normal day-to-day life and maybe go for a walk. Anytime I tried to do more, my body would respond with aches and pains, headaches, and deep, deep fatigue.  

Postpartum was a different story. At about four months postpartum, my energy started to improve and my body started to crave some physical movement challenges. Of course, I was also wanting to return to a shape I was more comfortable and familiar with, but honestly that bit was secondary to just the endorphin rushes of a good hard workout.  

Currently, I do CrossFit about 3-5 days a week. Each class is 60 minutes total, including some form of warmup and typically a couple workout pieces. I have friends at the gym who can do CrossFit consistently 6+ days per week, without breakdown to their bodies, and still others have to be very thoughtful about choosing workouts that feel generative and not depleting for their systems. There is not a one size fits all here. The very first step in athletic longevity is an open and honest communication between the athlete and their individual body.  

As all athletes know, you cannot be an athlete without getting hurt at some point. I have had dozens of injuries along the way; some minor and relatively insignificant and some that sidelined me for long periods of time. That included some bad ankle sprains, two ACL ruptures with surgical repairs, muscle strains, and never-ending bumps and bruises.  

Now, as I lean into a type of athletics that does not have either an on season or off season, I am focused less on an endgame and more on longevity. It has forced me to be realistic about when I can push into a new movement or PR weight, and when “it’s just not the day.”

I usually have more energy in the gym on Mondays than I do on Fridays — that’s just a fact for me. If I didn’t sleep well the night before, I sometimes choose to skip a morning workout as I know I’m not recovered well from the cumulative effects of the day prior. If I am in the beginning weeks of my menstrual cycle, I know I have the support of my hormones to go hard. Last two weeks of the cycle, I don’t expect to make huge strength gains while in a progesterone dominant phase.  

Tan text over a water surface background states "Self awareness doesn't stop you from making mistakes, it allows you to learn from them."

Diet, hydration, cycle, sleep, emotional stress…all of these things impact my moment-to-moment decisions in the gym. They are less of a checklist and more of an honest, whole-person self awareness. I trust my intuition, and if my intuition or my gut tells me not to add weight today…I don’t. That intuition was hard won plenty of times that I ignored it and tweaked something or other. Days that I pushed too hard for too long, and then was sidelined for a week or two at a time. People who ski know this…”one more run” is always when someone takes a tumble or gets hurt.  

Our bodies are actually as “smart” as our brains, we just don’t alway listen to the subtle cues they drop us. As we ignore the pings we feel in our systems, the body just tends to get louder in order to get our attention. Just that hit of “maybe I shouldn’t add anymore today” is often coming from a deeply intuitive place. The more you hear and heed your body’s guidance, then less likely injury is to happen. I hear so often that people felt a “knowing” right before they got hurt, or they experienced a moment of hesitation that they pushed through and ultimately led to injury. Trial and error and trial again.

In addition to trying not to get hurt, I also utilize consistent body work and self care to maintain my ability to keep working out hard in my 40s. I personally receive CranioSacral work monthly, a massage every two months or so, and chiropractic care as needed. I have done a bit of cold dipping and sauna intermittently through the winter, and regularly use my personal hot tub for relaxation and sore muscles. Dry needling is another very effective modality that I use in the clinic to help my patient athletes heal quickly through trigger point release and blood flow.  

I personally have some room for improvement in the category of diet. I have been trying to do simple things like up my protein consumption, add collagen and needed vitamins, drink more water than anything else, and limit high sugar foods. Some days are better than others in this regard. Caffeine and sugar are a couple vices that I can see affecting my athletic performance and ability to heal and recover. Always room to grow…thank goodness.

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