Sports psychologists have developed various theories about what motivates athletes to train and compete at their best. Weinberg and Gould define motivation as the “intensity and direction of effort.” They suggest intrinsic motivation drives us to be competent, drawing from self-determination and a belief we can succeed. In sport, that does not necessarily mean winning. Rather it means performing to our potential. An athlete cannot control who shows up at a race but they can control whether they show up, in top form and ready to compete.
I’ve been thinking about this recently as it pertains to my own training and performance. And from conversations with my peers, I know they think about it too. The conundrum as we age is how much we fall off from personal bests and training volume and, most importantly, how we process that so we don’t get trapped in a spiraling sense of disappointment and failure. I’ve concluded the “secret” is to maintain a sense of joy and optimism about our athletic endeavors. As trite or obvious as that may seem, I recall recent conversations with aging peers as they lament about their current level of fitness compared to earlier years. And note it’s getting harder and harder for them to lace up and get going. I’ve known some of these people for many years and to the person their younger selves were gung-ho enthusiastic runners. They enjoyed the workouts and loved the racing. But their self-talk now works against them.
So how do we maintain, or regain, that enthusiasm as we age? Let me pose and probe three questions:
- Has our enthusiasm waned due to lost interest in the sport and the “scene” around it?
- Would we rather being doing something else, perhaps a less physical activity that shows less drop-off?
- How do we feel about younger athletes who are displacing us in the race results?
As to the first question, we might look at what drew us to running in the first place. I venture most would note the inherent challenge as well as social interactions it enabled. As we improved, we set new goals in time and distance. And became members of a “tribe” we felt proud to be part of. Training required us to structure our days and helped us focus in our jobs and other obligations so we could carve out time to run.
At the races, we see times go up and the numbers in our cohort decline. At a recent local race, there were five people in my age class, whereas in the grouping 10 years younger there were 22 and 10 years before that 47. People I used to train with either aren’t running or racing less as they’ve slowed. I miss those guys! I’ve found it a challenge to get excited about being part of a five person age group, even with race times that are competitive in the younger age groupings. In theory, the age-grade tables level the playing field and provide an adjustable bar to clear each year. But theory and practice don’t always jive.
Another issue we face is an increased perceived effort in training and racing in spite of slower times. Can we adapt to and accept that? It is something of a take-it-or-leave-it Hobson’s choice — while we may be able to mitigate some of the effects of aging, the internal neural and muscular gears work less efficiently. We press the pedal to the metal but the chassis doesn’t respond as well. That’s not just theory!
So there are various reasons that might damp our enthusiasm. But let’s look at the other two questions.
If the answer to the second question is yes, so be it, and go do it! We are not obligated to keep pounding out the miles if we don’t enjoy it. Life is full of options and it is short. Or if we decide to split our energies beyond running, know that will likely impact race times. This may be good for those who ran mega-miles in younger years. The hard-truth is that high mileage in older years is generally not sustainable. So other interests can help moderate this urge (or need!) for a certain volume of activity.
The last question is not intended to gauge our altruism. Rather as our cohort shrinks, we are faced with smaller age group participants, as noted above. The “kids” gather at post race parties as we used to. Many are new faces to us. And they are laughing and having fun – like we used to when our numbers were greater and before we began to commiserate among ourselves about declines in performance. It’s natural to feel a bit “out of it.” OK, but what can we do to ward that off. One thing is volunteer at more races, even those we run in. Races are always short of volunteers, especially those who understand the mentality of those running (e.g., always trying to run the shortest distance even if the course is marked otherwise.) Or jump in feet first and offer to be a race director, which requires various skills and around the days and weeks before an event, a LOT of time. This not only supports the new generations of runners but also keeps us in touch with the older cadre, who if asked are probably willing to help out.
We probably don’t need a therapist to answer the above questions and determine a course of action. We each have the power within us to do this. But it does take some resolve and, I suggest, courage to be honest with ourselves. To engage in some self-talk. For those of us for whom running has been a life-long mainstay, it’s not easy to envision life without it. Perhaps we should view this in terms of degrees. If our running is 80% good in terms of joy and enthusiasm, maybe that is sufficient for now. As we adjust to the new normal, maybe that 80% grows to 90%, or higher!