If you’re like most “weekend warrior” outdoor adventure athletes who’ve been at it a decade or three, you’ve probably had your fair share of injuries and/or surgeries. Or at the very least, life has gotten in the way of you getting out there as often as you’d like.
Whatever the cause, it’s probably become clear that your body will never feel like it did when you were in your twenties — or even your thirties. Once you lose your base level of fitness for kayaking, skiing, biking, climbing or whatever, it’s difficult to hold on to some of your bigger adventure dreams and believe you can still make them a reality.
I know this firsthand. I spent my twenties ski bumming, mountain biking, whitewater kayaking and working as a raft guide. I played hard almost every day. Then life took over.
Battling with injuries
Despite continuing to kayak, mountain bike, and ski hard two to three days a week as I got older, I was forced to make concessions and take weeks, months, or years off my sports due to injuries. In my 40s I blew out a shoulder and had chronic SI joint dysfunction leading to brutal sciatica and back pain. I ended up sidelined from whitewater kayaking for almost five years.
Then I developed a chronic wrist and thumb issue keyboarding that was so bad, for about six months I was unable to so much as pick up a glass of water — let alone paddle a boat. Doctors told me I’d have to learn to adapt and live with it all. That I might never do my sports the way I used to, if at all (while I pictured the new mountain bike gathering dust in my basement and tried not to cry).
For two years I skied without poles and — once I could ride even my town bike at all — I biked with my thumbs going over the top of my handlebars. My lifelong dream of kayaking the Grand Canyon, something I’d been planning on doing the same year I blew out my shoulder, evaporated.
I’ve learned my body is stronger and more resilient than I ever thought possible.
Thankfully, I never gave up. And I’ve learned my body is stronger and more resilient than I ever thought possible. I can now hold ski poles, which allowed me to return to backcountry skiing. And I can wrap my thumbs around my handlebars when I bike, making technical mountain biking a part of my life again.
My crowning achievement, though, happened this past November at age 51… I self-support kayaked the Grand Canyon, logging 226 miles in 12 ½ days. That meant paddling a fully loaded, 150-pound kayak four to five hours a day. On our longest day we covered 28 miles.
5 top tips to getting fit for adventure in your 40s and 50s
So, how did I regain such a high level of fitness for kayaking in my 50s? And how can you do the same?
01Acknowledge your body will never feel like it used to
And that’s okay! Heck, if you’re like me, it might even feel better than it has in a while. But the important thing is you only need to be fit enough for the adventure, not in the best shape of your life. However you also have to acknowledge that maintaining a reasonable level of adventure fitness doesn’t happen all on its own. You have to work for it. Which leads me to my next point…
02Train, train, and train some more
At some point we all have to admit we can’t just hop off the couch (or desk chair) and go boating, skiing, biking, climbing, or whatever like we did in our twenties. As you get older, it’s important to train for kayaking (and other adventure sports) more than you used to. Which for me was not at all. I didn’t start lifting weights until my mid-forties. While I still don’t really enjoy doing it, I adore the results. That keeps me motivated. The last six weeks before my Grand Canyon trip, with the rivers dry, I did laps around a small lake. It wasn’t the most fun, but on those long mileage river days I was as ready as I could’ve been.
03Recognize it is going to hurt
No matter how fit you are in your forties or fifties, you’re going to be sore. But as a friend of mine in his seventies told me after a day of backcountry skiing together, he used to be sore after a big day in his twenties so he doesn’t see why it would be any different as he aged. The key is knowing the difference between injury pain and general soreness, and not overdo it before you’re ready. Take rest days. Plan activities that are shorter or easier than you used to do and check in with your body before going harder. Also, buy yourself a good foam roller and use it daily.
04Build a team to help you achieve your fitness goals
Our body’s tissues become less supple as we age and don’t heal as quickly. Your team can help you through injury recovery and guide your training to keep you from getting injured as easily in the future. No one person knows, or can do, everything your aging body needs to keep getting after it. So, if you can afford it, find yourself a good sports acupuncturist, a physical therapist, a personal trainer, a massage therapist, and a Rolfer and see them regularly — even if you’re not injured.
05Find ways to do your sport that suit where you are now and work up from there
My first few river trips last year involved two-mile paddles on an easy Class III run to test the waters (and my hips, hands, and shoulder). I gradually increased my river time until I could paddle longer runs two days in a row. When I’m recovering from injuries, I make plans that allow me to bail early if I need to, and where my physical weaknesses don’t put my partners at risk.
Go for it!
I’ll be honest, when I pushed off the shore at the put-in of the Grand Canyon, I seriously wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into. Just loading and unloading my boat made my arms, back and shoulders ache. And the first couple of nights were more painful than I expected. But I knew it was soreness not injury.
Thankfully, despite limited space I prioritized taking (and using) a foam roller, a Thera Cane™, massage balls, and TheraBands™ so I could do PT for my hips and shoulder daily—which proved to be a genius move that got me through those early days. By the end of the trip I felt surprisingly strong and fit.
Most importantly, I paddled the whole damn thing! With the right support and guidance, and a dedication to prioritizing your fitness and self-care, chances are good you can stay, or once again become, fit for adventure, too.
Read more about Stacy and her adventures at stacygold.com.