Getting Older In Early Retirement

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A reader writes:

I’m 42 years old and I won’t be able to retire for five more years. I see that you surf. I do Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and I love it. I’m interested in how your body and health are holding up. Can you still surf reasonably well? How do you feel?

The context is that I want to retire early and train more often but I’m worried my body will be a mess earlier than what I think.

I used to surf as well, but I live too far from the coast to surf regularly unless I retire and move. I have three kids and I really don’t want to move too far away from my family.

The military insisted that I stay fit during my 20s and 30s, and during military retirement that habit has persisted to my 50s.  I just turned 55 years old.

I started surfing at age 41 and taekwondo at age 43. Both turned out to be great father-daughter activities. We’re surfers for life and we both earned our black belts. I see guys in their 70s surfing all the time (I hope to be one of them) and I know a few in their 80s. Rabbit Kekai surfed and paddled canoes into his 90s.

I do these activities despite torn ACLs in both knees. Instead of surgery, I’ve opted to strengthen the quads & hamstring muscles around the joints (which I’d have to do anyway) and my knees are stable enough. I won’t ski moguls or skydive because I’m not willing to risk the consequences, and I avoid running because I don’t have much meniscus cartilage left, but I’m fine for surfing 15-footers or doing ten-mile hikes.

Image of Doug and Carol Nordman's taekwondo black belt family portrait March 2009 | The-Military-Guide.com

2009 taekwondo black belt ceremony.

However, physical performance does decline with age. Effort and perseverance (and obstinance) will only get you so far. My experience indicates that you’ll be good with BJJ at least until your 50s, but do as much as you can while you still can.

When I went up for my taekwondo 2nd dan test at age 51, I was struggling. I passed with flying colors, but I was pushing my endurance limit. During the year after that, I had to gradually cut back on the TKD training and spend more time recovering.

At first, I stopped tournament sparring, and then I gave up clinics, and then I stopped dojang sparring. I got down to two classes per week and I was barely recovering in between them. I took a six-month break and then came back for another six months, but it was no longer fun. I grudgingly realized that it was time to hang up my belt. I was smart enough to give away my uniforms and gear so that I wouldn’t be tempted to “try just one more time”.

I still miss taekwondo every day. I feel an atavistic testosterone-poisoned challenge in competing against someone who’s taller and heavier. I also miss competing against myself with more complicated kicks and spins. However, I’m finally responsible (“mature”?) enough to feel the diminishing safety margin in my capability (and my knees). Overtraining on a sore knee, or an instant of inattention, would have ruined what’s left of the ligaments and cartilage.

Part of the aging decline is brutally physical: human cardiac muscle gets stiffer every year and can no longer achieve its hypothetical maximum heart rate. It’s linear: “MHR = 220 minus your age” or “208 – 0.7(age)”. In my 30s my MHR used to be routinely up in the 180s, but these days I’m rarely over 160. Lung performance also declines with age. The diaphragm and the alveoli stiffen and don’t expand as much. Six months ago I had a pulmonary capacity test and learned that my lungs are operating at 70%. Most humans can survive at as low as 30% but the trend is unmistakable.

The other age-related insult is recovery. My body does not flush out lactic acid and repair its muscle damage as quickly as it used to. TKD taught me how to endure significant anaerobic exertion, and I can still do that, but I know that I’ll pay for it over the next 48 hours. When I was in my late 20s I used to swim a mile in the morning, play racquetball at lunch, and lift weights before dinner. These days I have to limit myself to just one workout every other day, with maybe two-mile walks during off days. Anything else hammers me into spaghetti arms, rubber legs, and even respiratory infections.

Advancing age can be countered with a healthy diet. I take daily vitamins, antioxidants, and supplements. (Even the placebo effect is better than nothing.) I eat more protein and raw veggies and very little sugar, bread, dairy, or simple carbs. I’ve completely cut out alcohol. My big thrill is a small daily handful of chocolate chips with my yogurt & nuts.

The “good news” for older athletes is that I didn’t have any of these issues in my 40s, and they suddenly popped up around age 52. I’m frustrated by this age-related betrayal. I remember what I used to be able to do, but now I pay a much higher price for it. I start the day with a fixed amount of energy, and if I burn through it then I’m chewing into the next day’s quota as well. There’s no magic supplement, although Thai massage helps. However, even surfing for five days in a row during a long-lived swell carries a price of 800 mg of ibuprofen… two or three doses a day.

Your physical condition may be different. Your genes may help you go longer. You may age better than me, especially if it turns out that my recovery issues are symptoms of early-stage arthritis. Or maybe I’m hypersensitive to submarine nuclear radiation or atmosphere-control chemicals. Unfortunately, I’ve checked with guys in their 70s, from semi-pro golfers to Navy SEALs, and they all have declining performance with longer recovery times.

The irony is that my surfing skills are better than ever. I pop up smoothly. My knees can easily handle sharp cutbacks (thanks to squats & lunges) and I can hang five on a 9’0″ longboard. I’m much smarter about choosing a wave and reading it as I ride it. But as soon as I paddle in I take a dose of ibuprofen.

When I had to make a choice, I realized that surfing is more important to me than TKD. I still miss martial arts, and I’m looking at yoga and kendo. But if I want to keep surfing two or three times a week then I should probably just stick with bodyweight exercises, vigorous yardwork, and brisk neighborhood walks.

My advice is what you’d expect: focus on what’s important to you. I’d suggest that you keep up with BJJ as long as your joints can handle it. Train hard until you bump into a limit. Watch out for injuries and don’t train while you’re sick. If you maintain a fitness baseline and watch the junk calories then you should be fine for at least another decade!

Related articles:
Finding Your Military Work-Life Balance
One More Year Syndrome
Medical tourism at Bangkok’s Bumrungrad Hospital
Exercise With A Purpose
During retirement: Healthy lifestyle
Lifestyles in Early Retirement: Habits And Getting Things Done
Book review: “Lean Body, Fat Wallet”

WHAT I DO: I help you reach financial independence. For free. I retired in 2002 after 20 years in the Navy's submarine force. I wrote "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" to share the stories of over 50 other financially independent servicemembers, veterans, and families. All of my writing revenue is donated to military-friendly charities.

4 Comments
  1. Don’t knock water aerobics – like anything else, the workout you get is determined on how much you put into it.

    Thanks for the candor, Doug. I’ve noticed the same decline as I age. The biggest issue is recovery – my husband is trying to fight it, but he is succumbing as well. Injuries take longer to heal and you need to be careful about your pacing of activity. Switching to activities that don’t demand such high intensity over long periods of time helps as well. It doesn’t help the psychological or emotional hit regarding the loss of ability, but then I guess time and wisdom are supposed to take the edge off the hit. :-)

  2. It was refreshing to read this article. I was beginning to think something was seriously wrong with me. I just turned 53 and its getting harder and harder to keep up my training. I’ve been a runner since I was in the seventh grade, running track and cross-country. I kept it up throughout my military career and added weight lifting to the routine while serving on my first ship (out of boredom). After retirement in 2001, I didn’t run or lift weights as much while I sat on my butt through law school, but continued to eat like I did when I was in my 20s. So naturally, I put on weight and didn’t feel as good. So I changed to a super-healthy diet and started running and lifting again–never felt better. I enjoyed competing in 5K, 10K, and trail races for a few years and then I started training for triathlons. I was never much of a swimmer and was fairly pathetic at it at first, and the price of a decent bicycle is a sickening. But for the last three or so years I have been running, lifting, swimming, and biking, all in an effort to compete in a few triathlons and other races throughout the year (those are sprint tri’s, I am incapable of doing longer distances at this point in my life). And that’s when the problems started, probably just a couple of years ago. First it was plantar fasciitis, back stiffness, a sore Achilles tendon, a sprained ankle that took six months to heal, a painful bunion, something about my second meta-tarsel being too long, inability to tolerate the heat like I used to, etc. My race times were getting slower, and running was becoming painful. It’s to the point where I rarely even enjoy it anymore. A 10K race is probably the longest distance I can do. Most of my training runs are only a few miles and then only about twice a week–it takes several days between runs to recover. Biking and swimming are okay, but don’t result in the “runner’s high” you get from good run. And regardless of what anybody says, you don’t get any benefit from the cross-training: cycling helps you be a good cyclist; swimming makes you a good swimmer; lifting weights makes you good at lifting weights; etc. But swimming or cycling does not make you a good runner or vice versa. Anyways, trying to do at least one of these activities everyday has worn me down. I am constantly stiff, sore, and fatigued. I think stretching and yoga helps some, but not much. In my 20s and even into my upper 30s, I could do two-a-days in the gym, threes days on with one day off, and go for long run several times a week (if the ship was in port). Nowadays, I almost gave myself a heart attack trying “to do something everyday.” And that is literally true–I felt like I was giving myself a heart attack. A year ago, my 5K times were suddenly two minutes slower and the Florida heat and humidity was intolerable. I felt awful during races and couldn’t seem to suck in enough air. I thought I must be having heart problems.

    So I had it all checked out and fortunately, there is nothing wrong with my heart. During the time I was having that all checked out, I was getting plenty of rest and started feeling better. Amazingly, it turns out that if you get enough sleep and rest, you feel a whole lot better–lessoned learned. But I must have unlearned that lesson because I have overtrained again here lately and once again feel fatigued and fear I am actually causing damage to my heart rather than helping it.

    And that is why I appreciated this blog entry; It is nice to hear this from someone else. When you read in Runners World or Triathlon magazines, all articles are about the benefits of training, suggest various training regimens to help improve your times, and everybody is happily running ultra-distances. There are numerous people my age that are somehow able to train everyday at distances I haven’t been able to do since I was 30 years old. Yet now I can barely tolerate a three mile run. My times don’t improve. (I have a theory that 55 year olds that run impressive distances and times didn’t start running until they woke up in their mid-40s, after a lifetime of being sedentary, and decided to get in shape. Those of us that have been doing this all along don’t have a 25 year head-start, but rather, have 25 more years of wear and tear). Numerous books and articles tout the benefits of “minimalist shoe” running paleo-style. It supposedly cures the evils caused by running in padded shoes. (It didn’t work for me; running with the fore-foot strike technique is what caused my sore Achilles tendon). But there are no articles that discuss what I am going through. Most information regarding “aging athletes” omit the bad news. Instead, such articles “beat around the bush.” Rather than saying that it may someday get to the point where you can’t do this stuff anymore, they say that everything will be wonderful as long as you are more careful, eat like a vegetarian, do yoga, get plenty of rest, listen to your body, etc., etc., etc. I do all of that, and it doesn’t cure getting older. The truth is I may be coming to the end of my running career, which is sad for me because I’ve loved doing it essentially all my life. Getting my heart rate up to its max a few times a week might be causing damage at this point (or may even kill me). I may have to switch to walking/hiking. I’ll definitely have to increase recovery times–maybe just doing something every other day. I never lift heavy weights at the gym anymore; I don’t care how embarrassing it looks doing curls with 10 lbs. dumb bells. Maybe I’ll take up aqua aerobics with the old ladies at the pool–just kidding.

    Comment? Question? What's on your mind?