Friday, August 8, 2014

Taekwondo training when you're 60+, Part 2: Building a Team

My most recent post, "Taekwondo Training When You're 60+," seemed to strike the right chord with this blog's readers, because it has become the most popular article in the series.  This is a highly encouraging sign, because it suggests that more than a few martial artists have figured out that training doesn't need to stop when you're 30, 50, or 80.
   So I decided to follow up with "Building a Team," because I have found this to be a critical training strategy for senior athletes . . . especially those who continue to compete.
   Fifty years ago, when I was 18, I didn't worry much about sports injuries.  They rarely occurred, and when they did, they generally vanished in a day or two without any effort on my part.  But 68 isn't 18, so I now rely on a highly skilled training team to keep me fit for competition.  Finding the right members for this team can be a challenge, but it's well worth the effort. 
   Here are the team members along with a few key points about each of them:
     Primary Care Physician.  Decades of searching for an athlete-friendly doctor taught me that most physicians, even those who tout themselves as "sports medicine" experts, continually give the same advice: "Just take a few weeks off."  Seriously?  For this kind of advice I should pay?  The whole point of being a competitive athlete is that I don't want to take a few weeks off.  And, frankly, when you're pushing 70, taking a few weeks off can set you back by months, not weeks.  As I said at the top, 68 isn't 18.
   I am fortunate to have found a doctor who is willing to work with me in advance of injuries.  If I have a major competition coming up and feel that some physical therapy would help me work out specific body issues, she is willing to write a prescription.  Makes sense, doesn't it?  Why wait until after the injury to prescribe physical therapy when a little PT can help avoid the injury? 
   If you're still working with a doctor whose answer to every injury is, "Take a few weeks off," ask around and find a physician -- preferably an athlete -- who understands that minimizing lost training time is good.
     Physical Therapist.   You need to shop around for the right physical therapist, because not all of them have experience in working with serious athletes.  I've visited enough PT clinics to know that many physical therapists spend most of every day working with older patients who have simply neglected their way to injury.  If you look around and see that most patients are 200 pounds overweight, have trouble breathing because they've been smoking for 60 years, and can't do a sit-up, you may need to find another clinic.  Clinics that work frequently with high school and college athletes are ideal, because the physical therapists are treating the most common injuries AND have a keen understanding of how to prevent those injuries. 
     Massage Therapist.  No, I'm not talking about one of the big chains that hires trainees who have some education but zero experience.  What you generally get from these massage therapists is a "relaxation massage," which is fine only if you simply want to relax for 50 minute or so.  So what you need to do is ask around until you find a massage therapist who a) understands anatomy extremely well, b) has years of experience in working with athletes, and c) is prepared to cause a little pain on the way to fixing what ails you.  I have learned the hard way that tight muscles and joints need more than "relaxation" techniques.  What they need is someone who can find the problem areas and then apply enough hand pressure to cause the tight muscles to release. 
     Videographer.  Sounds pretty fancy and expensive, no?  Relax.  Your spouse, significant other, or training partner can do all you need with an iPhone or iPad.  Look, even if you work out in front of a large mirror you can't really see your technique.  And you can't rely on your Taekwondo school's master instructor to be there every time you need him or her.  So get used to shooting short videos of your forms, punches, kicks, blocks, and such.  You can critique them on your own, of course, or you can email them to your instructor.  Fifty years ago you would have needed a ton of expensive equipment to pull this off.  Today you can probably get it done with a cell phone.
   So there's my short list of the folks who belong on your training team.  Each of them must understand that you're an athlete, not just another old guy complaining about aches and pains, and must be willing to treat you like the competitor you are.  Your goal is to train and compete, not take a few weeks off.  So work with professionals who will do everything possible to keep you in action.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Taekwondo training when you're 60+

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from an old friend -- in other words, a friend who is actually as old as I am.  He's a 68-year-old runner, and I'm a 68-year-old Taekwondo competitor.  Despite the obvious differences between the two sports, my friend wanted my thoughts on "Training for Oldsters."
   My advice, in a word, was MODERATION.  Although our brains can sometimes trick us into believing we're 25, our bodies can't be fooled.  So if we attempt to train as though we're 40 years younger, we'll most likely end up at the local physical therapy clinic . . . or maybe even in the ER.
In my friend's case, he's thinking about broadening his running experience by becoming a sprinter as well as a distance man.  Hmm.  Does a 68-year-old body really want or need sprinting?  Well, I suppose if you've been a sprinter since high school, perhaps your muscles and tendons can handle the stresses that sprinting will put on them.  But if you're setting out to become a sprinter for the first time, I hope you're 18 rather than 68.
   My friend also wondered how often I train.  Answer: seven days a week.  MODERATELY.  Three of those days are maybe what I'd call "moderate +" because they incorporate my usual workout as well as weight training.  But the other days are simply "moderate."  I spend 30-40 minutes warming up, another 15 or so stretching gently, a half hour or more practicing my Taekwondo poomsae [or forms], and a final 15 stretching.  The best stretching comes at the end of the workout, of course, because that's when the old body is really warmed up.
   Now you might be wondering what I mean by "moderate."  Well, it's impossible to get overly scientific about the definition, since you and I are different in countless ways.  Our ages are different; our experience levels are different; and our training histories are different.  Oh, and our bodies are different.  I generally keep my weight around 145, which feels just about right for competition.  But if you weigh 180 or 220, any specific advice I can offer you goes right out the window.
   That said, I can offer some general guidelines that seem to work well for me.  I'll let you -- or you and your doctor -- decide whether these markers make sense for you.
   Weight training.  I don't belong to one of those mega-gyms where serious body builders pump as much iron as they can.  I tried that once and found myself getting caught up in the competitive spirit that pervades these testosterone havens.  The result: injury.  Naturally.  You might be able to lift more weight than you should, but eventually your joints, tendons, ligaments, or muscles rebel.  So now I train in a gym located within a physical therapy clinic -- the very same clinic, in fact, where I get put back together every now and then.
   My weight-training guidelines are as follows:
      One arm dumbbell curls: 15-18% of body weight for each arm, or whatever you can lift 10-12 times using proper form.
      Triceps push-downs [on a weight machine]: 50-60% of body weight, or whatever you can do 10-12 times without struggling.  If you struggle, you end up using muscles that shouldn't be part of this exercise.
      Bench press:  40-50% of body weight, or whatever you can do 10-12 times without arching your back or dropping the bar on yourself.  I like using a bench press machine that prevents the barbell from falling on my neck.  The older I get, the more I like it.
   My primary warm-up device is a recumbent exercise bike, which I ride for 20-30 minutes at roughly 80 rpm.  Set the bike to whatever resistance level allows you to ride for at least 15 minutes without becoming exhausted.  The idea is to break a sweat, not pass out.  I like the recumbent bike because it doesn't put pressure on my lower back the way an upright bike does.  Elliptical machines are okay because they're fairly gentle on your joints, but I prefer the recumbent bike.  Stair steppers?  No way.  My lower back doesn't like stair steppers, with one exception: a machine called the Nu Step, which is essentially a seated stair stepper.  If you have access to one, by all means use it.
   Stretching: I suppose some people actually enjoy stretching, but I'm not one of them.  I stretch because my sport calls for kicking.  And if you kick hard without sufficient flexibility, you stand a good chance of pulling a hamstring muscle.  Ask me how I know.  So I stretch every day -- gently right after warming up, more intensely at the end of the workout.
   So there you have my general tips on MODERATE TRAINING.  When in doubt, do less, not more.  Build up to the targets slowly.  That way you'll stand a better chance of training without injury while making the kind of progress that anyone of any age can make.  Hey, Taekwondo isn't just for kids.   If you're a Taekwondo senior, get off the couch and go for it.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Preparing Seniors for Elite Competition

If you're a regular visitor to this blog, you know that I generally recommend entering a tournament now and then AND just having fun.  Competing in a tournament is a wonderful way to sharpen your focus while making new friends who share your enthusiasm for Taekwondo.
   But at some point you may find yourself preparing for elite-level competition -- the upcoming USA Taekwondo Nationals, for instance -- and asking yourself how a major national or international event will affect your training routine.  That's what today's post is all about.
   Before putting pen to paper, I decided to do a bit of online research.  I used a major search engine to see what I could find about "age-appropriate training for seniors."  The result was rather shocking: I got roughly 28 million hits, virtually all of them about age-appropriate athletic training for children.  I didn't bother looking at all 28 million references, naturally, but a quick scan of the most frequently visited pages told me that seniors really don't show up on the radar when it comes to athletic training.  Furthermore, the few senior-related references I did find were of the "gentle activities that can help you live longer" variety.
   Now here's a fact: some seniors martial artists routinely compete at an elite level in both national and international tournaments.  If you attend July's USAT Nationals in San Jose, California, for instance, you'll see quite a few of them -- both men and women -- in action.  And trust me when I say that to get there and to compete respectably these athletes take "senior training" to a whole new level.  Evening strolls around the block won't get the job done, and neither will some stretching, sit-ups, and push-ups.
   Unfortunately, if you're 50, 60, 70, or older, most of your friends and physicians will have trouble accepting the fact that age-appropriate elite training for seniors looks very much like age-appropriate elite training for someone who's 28 or 30.  And you'll have a hard time finding books, DVDs, or even qualified coaches devoted to the training of senior athletes.  So you'll need to become your own elite-level coach and develop a training program that will allow you to compete against the best of the best in your age group.  Now keep in mind that what works for me at 68 may not be optimal for you at 58 or 78.  But the general training outline that follows should help keep you on track for peak performance.
   1.  Annual physical.  Half a century ago I had to get an annual physical before I could train with my college track team, and an annual physical makes as much sense today as it did then.  If you're going to train seriously, make sure your body is ready for what's coming.
   2.  Commitment.  In his wonderful book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell mentions the rule of 10,000 hours.  In short form, the rule says that you don't get really good at something -- playing a piano, solving complex equations, painting watercolors, etc. -- until you've invested about 10,000 hours in practice.  So let's say you begin studying Taekwondo and train for 5 hours every week, or 260 hours per year.  At this pace it will take you roughly 38.5 years to reach a level of high proficiency.
   But let's say you're a black belt in training for a major national tournament.  Assuming you've already reached a level of high proficiency, how many hours each week will you need to train in order to compete at an elite level?  For me the answer is about 10 hours per week.  I say "about" because I commit to more than 10 hours a week well ahead of the tournament, then back off gradually as the tournament date approaches.  The right number for you is the one that is highly demanding without pushing you into "overtraining" territory, where injuries and burnout rule.
   3.  Full-body training.  Taekwondo is mostly about kicking, striking, and blocking.  But your training program can't be limited to, say, practicing your forms, or poomsae.  The key building blocks of an effective training program are strength training, cardio fitness, and flexibility.  If you're a senior athlete, you absolutely must make use it or lose it your motto.  Unless you push your muscles with resistance training, you'll lose muscle mass and replace it with fat.  Unless you push your heart by running, biking, or working out on a stair-stepper or elliptical trainer, your endurance will falter.  And unless you keep all muscle groups -- from head to toe -- adequately flexible, you'll end up sitting on the sidelines on the day of the tournament.
   4. Visualizing success.  I'm a huge believer in the mind/body connection.  My mind plays a key role in my body's health; and my body's health can absolutely strengthen my mind.  So when I train, I train with an attitude.  I do so silently, but I do it.  My attitude is "I'm capable of achieving any goal."  This doesn't mean I achieve every goal.  It means that with sufficient commitment and effort I am capable of achieving success.  If I fall short, it's because I didn't work as hard as the guy who beat me.
   Let's end on a truly important note: training hard enough to win is a good thing, but only if you can graciously accept defeat.  Respect for your fellow martial artists is paramount.  Do your best.  Strive to win.  But be the first to congratulate someone who has outworked you.
   Then get back to the dojang and train harder.       

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Setting the right goals

I recently attended a superb three-day Taekwondo training camp run by Grandmaster David Turgeon of Colchester, CT.  And on the third day of that program I had the great privilege of working with four-time World Champion Suji Kang.  Master Kang is a young woman -- in her 20s -- who humbly makes the impossible look easy.  If you want to see what I mean, check out the YouTube link at the end of this post. 
   For the moment, I want to focus on her accomplishment.  Think about this with me: the odds against being the best in the world at any sport are virtually infinite.  Among the variables that you would have to factor into the equation are natural talent, motivation, family support, quality of training, the number of other world-class competitors, the ability to overcome injuries, and, of course, plain old dumb luck.   If the sun, moon, and stars align perfectly, you might find yourself in Master Kang's position -- as the very best of the very best in an incredibly demanding sport.
   But this blog is about those of us who are 50, 60, or 70, right?  So here's a bit of tough love: none of us will ever be nearly as good as Suji Kang.  Sorry to burst that bubble, but it just won't happen, friends.  Suji Kang on her worst day is infinitely better than this 68-year-old author will ever be on his best day.  You can bet your last dime on that.
   So here's an interesting question.  If you and I have no chance whatsoever at being the best in the world, what sorts of goals should we set as we sweat and strain in our Taekwondo dojangs?   Or should we just retire to the couch with some beer and pretzels?
   A resounding no to the beer-and-pretzels path!  You practice Taekwondo because it is a way of living -- a way that links you to an honorable tradition of striving; welcomes you to the camaraderie of practitioners of all ages, races, religions, and nationalities; and encourages you to respect all others as you would like to have others respect you.   When taught properly, Taekwondo asks you to be the best person you can be . . . not just some of the time, but all the time.
   Okay, now on to the task of setting goals.  Here are a few to consider.
       1.  Become the best athlete you can be at every age.  Only you can make this happen.  And no one can ever ask more of you.
       2.  Show the utmost respect for the traditions and training methods of a martial art that has developed over many centuries.
       3.  Share your knowledge with those who know less, and humbly accept the advice of those who know more.
       4.  Consider yourself part of a very large, global Taekwondo family.   There is no "them."  There's just "us."
       5.  Enter competitions as often as you can, always with the aim of improving your skills or scores.  Winning a medal may be nice.  Attaining a new level of personal achievement is always much more satisfying.
   The Taekwondo life invites you to become more than you ever thought you could be -- physically, mentally, and spiritually.  And if becoming a better all-around person isn't a worthy goal, I don't know what is.
   You and I will never be as good as Master Suji Kang.  But she will always be our sister in Taekwondo.  Check out her video now at Suji Kang video  

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The wisdom of age-group competition

I don't believe I'm smarter than I was as a young man, but I'm definitely a lot less dumb.  You grow less dumb, of course, by making mistakes . . . then trying not to make the same ones over and over again.  As kids we learn not to touch hot stove tops, often by touching hot stove tops.  And when it comes to athletic competition, we learn -- sometimes the hard way -- that younger and stronger generally trumps older and wiser. 
   First let me say that one of the wisest moves you can make as a martial artist is to enter a tournament now and then, because the competition allows you to assess your level of progress alongside the progress of other serious students.  This is not about medals or trophies.  It's about having a panel of judges rate your mastery of key techniques: stances, blocks, strikes, and such.  For all of us who continue to train after age 50, 60, or 70, the mission is showing respect for the knowledge that has been preserved over hundreds of years by the masters and grandmasters who came before us.  Our goal should be to master all techniques to the best of our ability, so that we become part of the process of passing along our various martial arts to future generations of students.
   But when you decide to compete as a senior, I believe the wisest move is to search for tournaments that offer sensible age groups.  As I said at the top, younger and stronger usually works better than older and wiser, and this is certainly true in Taekwondo tournaments.  I might flatter myself and think that at age 68 I can spar with guys in their twenties, but all I would be doing is increasing the likelihood that I'll have to take several months off while my broken jaw and cracked ribs heal.  Yes, you can suffer an injury even in age-group competition.  But when you decide to compete with athletes half your age, you're trolling for trouble.
   The very good news is that I find an increasing number of Taekwondo tournaments offering age divisions for athletes who are 50 or 60.  In fact, beginning this year the World Taekwondo Federation and its U.S. affiliate USA Taekwondo have begun offering a "4th Master" division for poomsae [or forms] competitors 66 and older.  This means that guys my age can compete on a level playing field in state, national, and even international tournaments. 
   Why, you might ask, do we need age-group competition for poomsae?  After all, we're not talking about sparring, right?  True. But we're still talking about significant differences between athletes who are, let's say, 28 and those who are 68.  Flexibility comes to mind.  If you're still as flexible as you were 40 years ago, God has been awfully kind to you.  The rest of us simply keep changing our definition of "high kick."  This is something that the WTF and USAT have recognized, and it's something that certified judges understand as well.  When you compete in a WTF or USAT tournament, you're judged alongside athletes who are close to you in age, and that means you can assess your level of mastery against a reasonable benchmark. 
   Note, however, that not every tournament offers age-group competition that accommodates seniors.  I can think of lots of reasons for that, none of them good.  So I believe that seniors should vote with their feet and walk away from tournaments that seem not to accept the fact that many of us still want to compete in our 60s, 70s, or beyond.  Another option, and one that sometimes works out well, is to call the tournament director and ask about adding older age groups.  The more of us who ask, the more likely it is that tournament directors will help encourage us to continue competing for as long as we can.
   Taekwondo and other martial arts are not just for kids, and they're not just sports.  They represent a way of living . . . a way of maintaining the discipline to keep our minds and bodies in the best condition possible.
   If you know of senior-friendly schools and tournaments in your area, please let me know.  I'll gladly mention them in this blog.  In the meantime, stay the course.  We need more seniors in the martial arts.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Three good reasons to be a senior martial artist

Here in rapid-fire style I offer three reasons why it's good to be a senior martial artist.  Whether you're 50-something or 60+, check out these opportunities.

The Mercer County Nationals.  On Saturday, March 22nd, you can compete in the 19th annual tournament hosted by Master Ivan Mendez.  This is a well-run and well-attended event that welcomes martial artists of all styles.  And this year you'll find 60+ divisions in sparring, weapons, and forms.  You can register at the door if you can't beat the online deadline.  If you live anywhere near New Jersey -- the tournament is being held at Rider University -- try to attend.  For full details on the event and the competition categories, visit Mercer County Nationals right now.

The 2014 U.S. Taekwondo Classic.  On Sunday, March 30th, Grandmaster David Turgeon will host the 20th edition of this major Taekwondo tournament.  Grandmaster Turgeon, a five-time member of the U.S. National Team, brings in some of the world's elite judges for this event, and the Classic is widely recognized as one of the premier sport poomsae [forms] competitions for black belts in the country.  The tournament will be held at Tolland High School in Tolland, CT.  Please note that there will be absolutely no registrations at the door.  To preregister, visit 2014 U.S. Taekwondo Classic.

USA Taekwondo State Qualifiers.  USA Taekwondo is America's official link to Olympic Taekwondo, but you don't need to be an Olympian to compete.  Taekwondo practitioners of every age and every rank can compete in state tournaments to earn a spot at the USA Taekwondo Nationals, which will be held this July in San Jose, CA.  This year USA Taekwondo added a new age division for poomsae competitors: 66+.  So now there's a 60-65 division as well as the new 66+ group.  What are you waiting for?  Find a state tournament near you, and give it your best shot.  Visit USA Taekwondo State Tournaments.

What's that you say?  You're not quite ready for competition?  If that's the case, get yourself in the martial-arts mood by becoming a spectator at one of the events discussed above.  This year you can watch; next year, compete.  Listen, health is largely a use-it-or-lose-it proposition, and Taekwondo can help keep you on the right path.  If you're not already in training, find a senior-friendly school near you and get with the program.

Hope to see you at a tournament in 2014.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Senior-friendly Mercer County Nationals, March 22nd.

Just a quick reminder to those of you who are looking for a very well run and senior-friendly martial-arts tournament: the 19th annual Mercer County Nationals will be held on March 22nd at Rider University.  According to tournament director Master Ivan Mendez, the event will offer more than 145 divisions to accommodate competitors of all ranks, all ages, and all martial-arts styles.  Last year's tournament attracted 450 competitors and 700 visitors, and this year's version incorporates a number of highly attractive elements.  Among them:
     -- the tournament will take place in two Rider University gyms, not just one, in order to keep things on schedule;
     -- the event will feature several new divisions, including age 50-59 black belts, age 60+ black belts, age16-17 continuous sparring (lightweight and heavyweight), and black belt team sparring (3- or 5-person teams);
      -- and a portion of the tournament's proceeds will be donated to the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
   As always, the tournament is open to competitors from anywhere in the U.S. as well as to non-U.S. competitors.  So if you're looking for a way to make some new martial-arts buddies while participating in some senior-friendly competition, this is the way to go.  I can tell you that this is one of my favorite tournaments of the year.
   For more information, click over to the tournament flyer, Mercer County Nationals.
   Whether this will be your first tournament ever or the first one in a long time, I hope to see you there.
                                      All the best.