Neil McNab – Health, Vitality and Longevity for the Ageing Athlete!
Practical Yoga, health and fitness for the ageing athlete.
I’m no fitness guru or sports science expert, but I’ve been performing, professionally, at a high athletic level in the adventure sports arena for over 30 years and so, if any of the following is useful or can help or inspire anyone else in their search for health and sporting longevity, then I am more than happy to share what I have learned along the way…
We are the new generation of the Ageing Athlete, we are as passionate now as we where when it all began, and so the big question, as our bodies start to ache and stiffen is, ‘how long can we keep on doing what we are doing’?
Unlike the generations of our parents and those that have paved the way before, we are the new generation of ageing athletes that have grown up with and helped develop the adventure sports we love and we aim to keep going forever!
As the new younger generations take over our beloved sports and push the performance levels to higher and higher, previously inconceivable levels on an almost daily basis, the desire to keep up, to keep performing, to keep pushing ourselves onwards, jumping higher, riding faster, getting fitter and trying harder with increasing, not dwindling enthusiasm is testing both us, and our aging bodies to the max.
By middle age, most generations before us were already swapping their skate shoes for slippers and releasing the tight grip of their oversized MTB bars for the slimmer grip of a Zimmer.
Where our fathers gently eased themselves into a comfy chair in front of the TV, we at the same age, ease our over used aching bodies into a tight wetsuit, a pair of baggy snowboard pants or full body armour to go and play our beloved games as we try to continue advancing the progression that we possibly started some 30 years before.
Today, after 30+ years as a professional athlete, I know that I am not alone when I wake each morning to a stiff back, tight limbs and ease myself slowly out of bed before hobbling my way into the day ahead.
Our days are full of intention and desire. Our aim is to over perform and our enthusiasm is as high as the unattainable goals that we still strive for.
The passion that we have for our chosen sports is as strong as ever.
New and better equipment, new training methods and an increased understanding of physical performance has allowed us a glimpse of where we would like to be and entices us onwards.
Our sports have become more and more exciting and on our day, when it all still works, when everything comes together, we’re feeling good, the conditions are right and everything flows we can still feel that peak performance running in our system and the endorphins are addictive.
We know its still in there and that odd glimpse of perfection every now and then just keeps us striving for more.
So how do we keep our ageing bodies going?
How can we keep getting up and going hard at it day after day with out suffering the consequences?
And more importantly, how long can we do it for?
I am rapidly approaching the big 50 and yet I have no intention of slowing down or opting out.
In fact at 48, I decided to move house, family and home from the mountains to the sea in order to try to achieve new goals in a sport that I have always wanted to master but never had the opportunity to pursue.
Now, at the grand old age of 49, I am Surfing everyday, working to achieve new goals and am the oldest grommet in the sea.
My enthusiasm is almost impossible to control, some days I just can’t drag myself out of the water, for fear of missing the next perfect wave, even though my arms no longer work to paddle, my legs are done from a thousand squats and my throat hurts from glugging salt water and excessive dehydration.
I wake each morning with the uncontrollable desire to catch a better ride than the last.
I drag myself out of bed and perform my warm up ritual in order to get my body moving and flowing in order to give myself the very best opportunity to progress, not just in surfing, but in everything that I do.
Of course, I can feel there are now limits to what I am willing and able to push my body through, but mostly I feel, after a good warm up, as able, motivated and even keener than ever.
I just can’t help myself, I just LOVE it!
I know that there are many others out there finding themselves in the same situation as me, Snowboarders, Skiers, Mountain bikers, Cyclists, Climbers, Surfers etc. all out there trying to prolong and progress their participation in their beloved sporting pastimes for as long as possible, but also, like me, all feeling the aches, pains and niggles growing year by year.
In a way, we are all in this together!
We are the NEW generation of the aging Adventure Sports Athlete and so here I intend to share some of the experiences that I have come across in my on going search for physical longevity.
My personal athletic career has already been a long one.
I’ve been performing in the ‘outdoor adventure sports’ arena since my mid teens, progressing from one activity to the next as my developing abilities led to greater opportunities and new directions.
Like many in my position today, I came through the system on my own, way before the explosion of sport science, sports scientists, fitness clubs and personal trainers.
Mine was a physical exploration of ‘what works and what doesn’t work’ for me, my body and also for my mind.
Perform here, learn this range of movements and develop these muscle groups. Perform here, learn these movements and gain this flexibility, progress, learn dynamic movement, increase speed and fluidity, adapt to changes in terrain and conditions. Learn new movements, gain stamina and become environmentally aware… the progression continues.
During this process, I’ve always been very analytical of how my body works and feels and always looked at what and how I might need to develop physically in order to perform to the desired level.
I’ve often stopped my progression and reset back to basics when I’ve felt a flaw in the foundations of my movements.
I discovered and adapted to the process of ‘Micro Gains’ in both performance, but more importantly in muscle movements and alignment, way before it became a catch phrase of today’s sporting hierarchy.
Through this trial and error process, I feel I have gained important insight into how my body works and what it needs in order for me to continue on my journey.
So far the progressions has been both exciting and interesting…
In my teens, physically anything seemed possible, I could perform in many different activities to a high level of performance and success, but my focus was like a bee buzzing from flower to flower, I wanted it all and I wanted it now.
My early 20’s were more focused, I found a pathway and I ran full tilt down it to see where it would lead and how far I could get.
I had determination and dedication but no clear goal or schedule beyond performing, physically to the best of my ability. This brought significant success, but in trying to maintain a peak level of performance for a long duration it eventually led to a physical and mental burn out.
With no direction I had lost the reason and passion behind what I was working for.
In my late 20’s and early 30’s I discovered a new direction and now passion led my performance onwards and my goals became clearer, less competitive and more personal.
Through my 30’s my performance and passion were evenly matched and I felt that I was performing as well if not better than ever in all the activities that I pursued.
40 didn’t seem like the physical turning point that I thought it would. It was probably more a mental milestone than a physical one.
At 40, although I felt physically as fit as ever, I subconsciously started to feel the need to re-boot my body physically and challenge myself a little more.
Looking back now, I guess I was looking and readying myself for signs of physical decline, almost unconsciously prepping my body to stay one step ahead.
Like most ageing athlete, I guess I’ve been waiting with dreaded anticipation for that moment when I feel I can no longer perform at my best.
In my early 40’s I tried to convince myself that this wasn’t going to happen to me and so to stay ahead of the game, I started to challenge myself with a new harder and tougher training regime.
Suddenly I was riding harder, running further, cycling faster and squatting heavier.
I was challenging myself to be stronger and fitter than ever before and I could feel improvements, but also I could feel that it wasn’t necessarily what my body needed and I seemed to be always compromised by some niggling ache, pain or injury.
Although I still enjoyed the physical challenge, mostly, I felt like I was training for the sake of training and constantly managing injury.
Physically, it was easy to see that there was no longevity in my new tougher regime; mentally it felt like I was admitting defeat.
I could feel that my body now needed looking after physically rather than suffering though the punishment that I was delivering and I started to search for less aggressive ways to train.
I took a step back, slowed things down and started working on joint alignment and micro movements, building physical fluidity and joint strength using my own body weight, rather than searching for raw power with weights and Gym work.
I didn’t yet feel like I had reached a physical decline but my performance focus was definitely shifting and taking on a more personal, holistic and internal orientation.
Around this time, my wife convinced me to attend one of her Yoga classes and I guess it suddenly felt the right time to give it a try.
Like a lot of guys, I guess, I imagined Yoga to be for bendy girls and a relaxing easy affair consisting of a bit of stretching, deep breathing, lots of stillness, meditation and a bit of a social catch up for the ladies… but how wrong was I?
I have always stretched and am quite flexible and so I thought, as I went along to my first class, that I’d go along and I’d probably find it a quite easy, but whilst the girls focused on having a chat, breathing and relaxing I’d at least get in a good stretch, even if I just did my own thing in a corner at the back of the studio.
An hour or so later I exited the studio exhausted, sweaty and somewhat shell shocked, but in between the moments of trembling, panting, groaning, losing my balance and knocking everyone over, I had also, for a fleeting moment, felt something incredible happening to my body.
My first attempt at Yoga had been a real eye opener and my body yearned for more. Without really understanding the question, I had surprisingly found the answer I was looking for.
The gentle relaxed and easy looking flow that a good Yogi portrays takes years to master and even then the journey has only just begun.
I was surprised by the strength and power needed not only in holding the poses, but also in the transitions made between them.
I could almost immediately feel the benefits of my practice as my flexibility improved, muscles lengthened and strengthened, niggling pains disappeared and joints that had always creaked started to move more easily.
I spent the first summer, as I’m sure many do, thinking of Yoga as a physical activity of deep stretching, balancing and strengthening.
I could feel myself improving physically, but had failed so far to make anything of the mindful connection that experienced Yogis relate too.
At home, practicing alone however, something slowly began to click.
As I became more accustomed to the poses and the flows between them, I felt myself starting to understand the importance of the breathing, the form and body alignment over the depth and range of movement.
Instead of stretching my body, I now felt that I was opening it from the inside, releasing tension and unblocking channels I didn’t know where there.
My breathing started to fit into the flow of movement and I could now feel the tense areas of my body easing and a strange kind of inner calm growing inside.
Finally I felt like I was starting to practice Yoga!
I’m now a couple of years beyond this initial revelation and practicing Yoga every day and yet my practice still follows most basic movements, poses and flows.
The primary series of Astanga Yoga, upon which I base my practice, follows a relatively easy flow of simple poses, but the more I practice, the more complex each of these simple poses can feel.
I am no Yoga purist. I am not searching for spiritual enlightenment under the gaze of God and I don’t feel the need to follow a strict progression of asanas (poses) that will apparently lead to eternal life.
I adapt the sequence and flow of my practice to give me what I feel I need in terms of my mind and body, adding things here, taking things out there.
My practice is personal to my body, my time, my needs and me.
I’m now approaching 50. My body shows signs of ageing and wear and tear and yet physically, overall, I feel great and my movements feel strong, free and flowing.
I may have tempered my expectations down a little over the past few years and I definitely take less risk and take to the air less than I used to, but I can still do everything I want to do and still feel improvement in my daily performance and I don’t yet feel like there is a physical ceiling holding me back.
I am definitely more aware of my body ageing now and know I will feel the consequences of a hard performance. I expect to wake with aches and pains, but I also know the yogic formula to ease most of them away before my day begins.
I feel like the Yoga that I do has given me stronger foundations on which to build and prolong my performance in all the action sports upon which my life revolves.
I don’t just do Yoga. I mean, I didn’t start Yoga and just drop everything else. I still train specifically for movements and actions that I want and need in order to perform in the activities that I do, but Yoga has helped me tie it all together and keep everything working, it is like the back up computer of my body.
I’m not saying this is ‘the way’ or this is the only way, for sure there are many ways to keep your body tuned and running smoothly as you age.
Elements of a healthy life style such as good nutrition, hydration and rest and recovery are of equal in importance and elements that I try to adopt.
With regards how my body feels though adopting Yoga seems to have helped me the most and seems to be the one element that has made the biggest difference in my sporting longevity so far.
Like I said right back at the beginning, I’m no fitness guru or Sports science expert by any means, but I’ve been performing successfully at a high athletic level for over 30 years and so if any of the following can help or inspire then I’m happy to share.
My Ten top tips to get you started.
- Get up early and get it done – If I don’t get up and get my routine done before the day starts, then chances are I’m going to find excuses or not find the time to do it. If I skip a session, my body feels tight and in need of a stretch all day long. The hardest thing about getting up early is convincing your self to actually get out of bed. If you lie awake all warm and comfy your brain will run through a multitude of excuses and reasons why you should hit the snooze button one more time. I set myself a time to get up and when the alarm goes I simply count to 3 and get up before my brain can engage and stop me. I give my self an hour every morning before breakfast, so I’m normally up at 6am.
- Create your space – Whereever I am, (and I say this because I travel a lot) I always try to find a space where I can run my session without being disturbed. If I’m in a hotel, and there’s not enough space in my room, I might find an empty conference room, the gym or even the end of a quiet corridor. I always try to find somewhere were I won’t get disturbed and there’s enough room for me to stretch outwards and upwards. At home, I create a calm space where I can lay out my matt the night before so that it is ready for the morning.
- KISS – As my Dad always says to me, ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ – One of the easiest ways to fail in your fitness routine is to make it too long, too complicated or too hard. If its too difficult you’re quickly going to start to dread getting up to do it and the excuses will win you over. I developed a super easy; 10-minute morning routine based upon the Astanga sun salutations (but slower, easier and more specific to my needs) that I perform every morning. I repeat the flow 10 times, the first rotation I don’t expect much depth in my movements, I’m normally stiff and sore, but by the fifth rotation I’m usually starting to feel more flexible and so I start to go deeper and add more movements to the sequence. By the 10 rotation my body is warm and my movements are flowing and I usually now ‘want’ to perform the more complicated and deeper poses that make up the hour long practice that I perform most mornings.
- Start easy, Adapt and let it flow slow – Some mornings are more difficult than others. Be ready to change and adapt your initial start up sequence. Sometimes if my back is super stiff I might start lying on my back or I’ll start on my hands and knees. Once I’ve loosened up enough I’ll run into my 10 regular repeats and this in turn will usually lead me into my full session. I never set out looking further than performing the 10 repeats, this way I don’t feel rushed or under pressure to fit everything in. If after the 10 repeats, I feel that I’ve done enough then that is fine. My 10 repeats work through every joint and warm all my muscles and I normally add poses and movements as I get into it anyway. By keeping it easy I don’t worry or dread getting started.
- Understand each movement and each pose – All Yoga poses and the flows in between, serve a purpose. Try to understand the benefits that each pose brings to both your body and your mind. Alignment and fluidity is often more important than depth of movement so try to feel for the correct alignment and position for ‘your’ body. For the standing poses your feet are the foundation upon which everything else is built. Take a moment to set your feet parallel and perfect and feel how you use them in everything you do.
- Move within each pose – Adapt to each pose and play with micro movements within it. I twist, sway and rock within each pose to open my joints and gently warm up my muscle fibres. Subtle movements within each pose can help you warm up and get deeper in your range of movement. I’m always adding new movements; twists and stretches to poses that start to feel comfortable in order to work deeper into new areas of my body.
- Breathe and believe – Breathe with your movements. In Yoga, the breath is an important part of the journey and the movements and poses flow with it. Inhale stretch up, exhale fold forwards, inhalations are associated with lengthening and expanding or movements of strength, exhalations are associated with relaxing and softening the body into folds. As I warm up into my routine I might hold each pose for an inhalation and exhalation, sometimes longer. As I get warmer the flow will move faster with each breath in and out fitting to a movement or pose. In the more strenuous or more difficult poses, I sometimes find it hard to control my breath and immediately I can feel my stress level rise and my body tighten against the pose. Understanding and feeling this tension helps me understand how important the breathing is and helps me relax back into the correct rhythm and find the depth needed to attain the pose.
- Listen to your body and learn from it – learn to listen to your body and find out what it needs. Quite often the movements and poses that we find the hardest are the ones we need the most. Learn which areas of your body need the most attention and learn the poses specific to opening these areas. I suffer from a stiff lower back when I wake each morning and so I work my way into the movements and poses that free this up. Lots of forward and backward bends obviously help, but most importantly I’ve found that working into my quads, glutes and hip flexors release my back the best. Before I started practicing Yoga, I suffered from chronic tendonitis in my patella tendon above my right knee. I began to think this would be one of those permanent pains that I’d have to learn to adapt and live with. By listening to my body I discovered and worked within the poses that helped release the tension in this area and my knees are now pain free. I continue to work through these poses within my practice everyday, even though the pain has gone. Hero pose was my knee saviour.
- Add strength and power through Yoga – The more I practice Yoga, the less I feel the need to train with weights. The classic poses in Yoga can be adapted and held to increase power and strength using your own body weight. Handstands, pistol squats, balances, planks, holds and presses can all be added to your flow to increase your power and strength output. Adapt your practice to your needs. I’m trying to add one legged pistol squats to my daily program in order to get myself ready for Snowboarding this winter.
- Let it into your life – Frequency is the most important thing in all of this, so make it part of your daily routine. Like everything we do, as I often tell my girls, ‘practice makes perfect’. There’s no secret, if you want to get better at something then you need to practice and the more you practice (as long as you’re doing it the right way, so get good supervision!) the better you’ll get. I’ve been practicing Yoga everyday for a good few years now, and I can definitely feel myself progressing and reaping the benefits regular practice brings. I’ve accepted it as an important part of my life now; its what keeps my body moving. I can feel my Yoga practice in everything I do now. Its present in how I bend to pick something up, how I sit as I type this blog. I feel it in my breathing, in the micro movements of my stride, even how I use my feet as I walk. It is present in the subtle stretches that I subconsciously perform all day long, as I wait in a queue, stand and chat to friends or even as I relax and watch a movie. Every moment and every movement has taken on a purpose through Yoga. Every ache now has a solution and more often than not I’m finding the solution comes before the ache begins.
I’ve taken many different roads in my journey to end up where I am now.
I’ve explored many avenues and followed many pathways and in the end, all seem to have led me here and this journey has so far given me the ability to continue the ride, whether it be on bikes, boards, snow or surf.
Like I said in the beginning, I am no expert and I’m not saying, by any means, that this is the only way to do it. This is simply how I’ve done it… So far!
I hope some of my experiences might be useful to you and if you like what you’ve read please share it.
To be continued…