Eric is a weight lifter and former college athlete with an interest in a wide range of sports.
Sports at a Master’s Level
In most sports, by the time a professional athlete hits 40 the party is over. But the vast majority of us don’t even get that far. Maybe we’re lucky enough to continue our athletic careers into college, but after that, it’s pretty much downhill.
Sure, you can probably find a 6-foot-and-under basketball league, or join a slow-pitch softball team and lend your athletic prowess to the local bar, but otherwise, there isn’t much hope. Or at least that’s how it used to be. Over-40 athletes aren’t giving up so easily these days, and many are turning the depressing lull of their 20s and 30s into impressive masters-level athletic careers.
Okay, so maybe you’re not going to lace up the cleats and get out there on the football or baseball field again, although there are semi-pro leagues if you have the guts. But sports are about new opportunities and adventures, and there are definitely plenty of both out there for the over-40 athlete.
A masters-level athlete is defined differently depending on the sanctioning organization, but the cutoff usually begins somewhere around the age of 30 or 40. Passing age 40 doesn't mean the track has come to an end. There are opportunities in sports for all ages.
Warning: Be sure to get cleared by your doctor before embarking on any new exercise program or physical activity. Our bodies may be over 40, but sometimes our brains still think we are 18.
1. Running and Track
This is probably the most common sports activity for adults when it comes to competition. Many people take it pretty seriously and compete in distance races, and even train for marathons and ultra-distance events. Yes, you can do that if you are over forty! In distance running, age is less of a factor than many other sports, and runners in their 40s, 50s, and above can put up some impressive times.
On the other hand, some recreational runners simply enjoy lining up a string of 5k events throughout the year and running for t-shirts. There is nothing wrong with that either. Running is a great cardiovascular exercise and fat burner, and we could all use a little more of that as we age.
You can even participate in track and field events such as the 100-meter dash.
How to Get Started
If you have been inactive for a long time, a walking program is a good first step. If you are already fit and up for the challenge, consider entering a local 5k race to get your feet wet.
2. Cycling and Mountain Biking
Biking is a sport that presents similar cardiovascular benefits to running but is a bit less jarring to the joints. If you have some trouble with your knees, or if you just prefer the wind in your hair and bugs in your teeth, there are plenty of opportunities for older athletes in all venues of cycling.
Some different categories to consider are:
- Road Racing: Just like running, older cyclists can do well in distance road races.
- Mountain Biking: Thrill-seekers may prefer to race on trails.
- BMX: Yes, there even BMX has an age group category for older racers.
You don’t have to race, either. Some cyclists just enjoy getting out there and riding and exploring places they have never been before.
How to Get Started
Start with short rides and work your way up. Even if you are fit you will be using muscles you haven't worked in a long time. Once you've built a little confidence you can look into local races.
Maintaining strength as we age is a major concern, and in your 40s and 50s is when it all starts to go downhill. Fortunately, there are plenty of athletes well past 40 who do well in strength sports if they work at it.
If you’re looking to show up the younger guys at the gym, putting up big weights in the squat, bench and deadlift is the surest way to get them to start calling you sir. You can compete in local events, but if you get good you might even earn yourself a few records at the masters level.
Even if you don’t want to go whole-hog with the powerlifting thing, there are bench-press-only competitions you can compete in and spare yourself from all that heavy leg and back training.
How to Get Started
Unless you have already been lifting weights for a while, you'll want to start out with a basic strength program to build a foundation for all of that heavy lifting you intend to do. From there, talk to some local gym owners who may know about meets in your area, and may even be able to coach you.
Maybe you don’t care how much you can lift or how fast you can run. Maybe you just want to look awesome as you get older. For men and women, bodybuilding and body sculpting have become great ways to stay athletic and healthy. Even if you don’t want to compete, the advanced exercise and nutrition will pay off if you choose to pursue another sport.
When you think of bodybuilding you might imagine massive muscle-bound men and women who have trouble fitting through a doorway. Unfortunately, that’s what the sport has become in recent years. However, years ago the sport was based on health and wellness, with increased muscle mass being a means to that end. There is a resurgence of appreciation for that classic physique, with some contents having specific classes dedicated to it.
How to Get Started
A basic strength program along with increased attention to diet will get you off on the right foot. Spend some time learning about nutrition and the science of muscle building.
When many people think of triathlons they immediately come up with images of a brutal swim through jellyfish-infested waters, then an endless bike ride topped off with a marathon run at the end. Hey, you can do that if you want, and certainly many over-40 athletes train for and compete in such extreme Ironman events and worse.
However, there are less-severe events a triathlete can participate in while they build up their nerve for the big ones. Local triathlons usually consist of shorter, safer swims, and shorter runs and biking events. There are also biathlons, for those who aren’t thrilled with the swimming part.
Extreme events like a full triathlon are incredible tests of physical fitness. For athletes who feel like their sports careers have passed them by there are few more dramatic paths to redemption.
How to Get Started
Follow the advice above for running and biking. As for the swimming part, you may wish to start out somewhere safe like your local YMCA. Once you feel brave enough, start looking around for local triathlon and biathlon events.
Bonus: Adventure Sports
Maybe you prefer life off the beaten path, metaphorically and literally. Windsurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, distance hiking, and other adventure sports may not provide a lot of chances for competition with others, but they are great for challenging and competing with yourself. And, you’ll have to stay in shape for these sports just as you would any other if you want to be any good at them.
For athletes with families, this is a great way to go. Your spouse may not be eager to go to the gym and do deadlifts with you, but you can probably convince them to go for a hike, or even hop in a kayak. Sports are a great way to get kids interested in physical activity, especially when the whole family is getting involved.
For single people, many of these adventure sports offer opportunities to seriously test your mettle.
How to Get Started
There is no playbook here! Work on your general fitness so you can take advantage of any opportunities that come up, and be ready to try different things.
Tips and Precautions
It is pretty exciting to think about getting out there and competing again. But before you do, consider these important points:
- As mentioned above, be sure to check in with your doctor before embarking on a new athletic adventure. Remember, even high school kids get physicals before they start playing sports. Better safe than sorry.
- When you first start running or cycle, be very careful about the path you choose. If possible, opt for a track or trail away from car traffic. As you progress you will get better at understanding good and bad places to train.
- Seek the advice of a coach when learning new weight lifting exercises. Of course, it goes without saying that you will train safely with a spotter when doing certain exercises like the bench press.
- Take it slow. Even if you consider yourself fit you may be working muscles that haven't been called into action in a long time. If you've been a couch potato in recent years, you can really hurt yourself if you overdo it. So go easy!
- Have fun, and don't put too much pressure on yourself. It may be a long road back to the competition you. Enjoy the scenery on the way. Remember: A good day riding your bike in the sunshine beats a bad day sitting on the couch.
Don’t Give Up!
It can be depressing when we realize we’ll never again compete in some of the team sports we used to excel at, but there is a wide world of athletics out there for older athletes. Passing age 40 is just the start of it.
If you loved sports your whole life, don’t stop now. Competing in a sport can give you a renewed joy for living, help you to deal with a day job that is less than fulfilling, and give you something to look forward to besides the World Series, NFL playoffs, or Nathan’s Hotdog Eating Championship. As a wonderful side effect, if you’re training for a sport you are probably getting all the exercise you need, and you’re more likely to eat healthy.
For older athletes, their sport is what gets them going in the morning, and their training is the most enjoyable part of their day. Athletics are the bright spot in their life that drives them to be the best they can be.
Resources for Athletes Over 40
Here are a few organizations that may help you find your way
- World Masters Athletics
- USA Track and Field
- USA Cycling
- USA Powerlifting
- World Natural Bodybuilding Federation
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.