What masters athletes know about 'harmonious passion', a key to healthy aging
In his new book, Jonathan Beverly focuses on the traits and strategies that enabled his subjects to keep finding new reasons to get out the door to push their limits, decade after decade
When a hip injury hobbled Jonathan Beverly in his early 40s, he figured his competitive running days were over. After all, his race results had been steadily declining, and he thought aging runners who continued to take their racing seriously when it was clear their prime had passed were simply living in denial.
But somehow, he didn't quit. When his hip healed, he started jogging again for his mental and physical health. Then, on a whim, he entered a half-marathon – a decision that eventually led him to a crucial epiphany.
"Just signing up for a race," he says, "is an act of hope that keeps us forward-looking."
Masters athletes – a loosely defined category that generally refers to people over the age of 35 who regularly train for and compete in a sport – have become a topic of fascination for researchers in the past decade, because they're viewed as " exemplars of successful aging." And it's not just because they get lots of exercise: "Lifelong competitors" also tend to have high psychological, cognitive and social functioning, prompting researchers to wonder what makes them tick – and whether the rest of us should be emulating them.
For Beverly, a Nebraska-based writer and former editor of Running Times magazine, this question led him to dig deep into his contact list and interview more than 50 lifelong runners, ranging from mid-packers to Olympic medal-winning marathoners Joan Benoit Samuelson and Deena Kastor, to search for common threads in their stories. The resulting book, Run Strong, Stay Hungry: 9 Keys to Staying in the Race, was published last week.
Some of the lessons he came away with were practical: the importance of consistent but not monotonous training habits; the power of training by feel rather than by numbers. But the meat of the book focuses on the psychological traits and strategies that enabled his subjects to keep finding new reasons to get out the door to push their limits, decade after decade.
One key: Cultivate what psychologists call a "harmonious passion," in which your chosen sport occupies an important but not overpowering place of importance in your life, rather than an "obsessive passion." The latter is marked by feelings of obligation about fitting training in and performing well, in order to bolster self-esteem. You need passion, and perhaps even a bit of obsession, to fit training around the other responsibilities of adulthood. If your passion is harmonious, unexpected challenges such as a sick child who needs to be picked up when you'd planned to train don't turn into sources of conflict and resentment.
Interestingly, a 2015 study by University of Ottawa researcher Bradley Young and his colleagues found that competitors at the world masters track and field championships had more signs of harmonious than obsessive passion – and also less obsessive passion than younger athletes. Their sport, in other words, seemed to occupy a healthier and more balanced place in their lives.
So should 40- and 60- and 80- year-olds all be signing up for competitive sports, in the same way that virtually all children are dragooned into some sort of athletic activity in the interests of character-building? It's not that simple, of course – but there are some surprising parallels between the widely acknowledged benefits of youth sport and the more under-appreciated benefits of masters sport.
In a study published last month, York University researcher Jessica Fraser-Thomas and her colleagues interviewed a series of masters athletes to explore the "psychosocial development" they gained from sport using theoretical frameworks developed to study youth sport. Sure enough, they found similar benefits including enhanced confidence, embrace of challenge and commitment to pursuing goals.
That doesn't mean every older adult should feel obliged to lace up the cleats, Fraser-Thomas cautions. "Many of these benefits can be experienced in other non-sport contexts," she says, citing pursuits such as volunteering, playing a musical instrument or simply belonging to a social group.
Still, sport has the unique ability to combine physical, psychological, social and cognitive benefits all in one activity. And taking it seriously, for example by signing up for a race or a club round-robin, intensifies the experiences and offers crucial motivation to keep striving, Beverly believes – regardless of how fast or slow or unskilled you may think you are.
"Those who have never run in the front of the pack have, in fact, an advantage as they've learned to appreciate the intrinsic joys of competing, undistracted by the external bling and accolades," he says.
At 53 and still racing hard, Beverly has come to realize that masters athletes certainly aren't living in denial of the passage of time. "How can we?" he writes. "We are reminded, every time we race, nearly every time we run, that we're slower and that it isn't a matter of being out of shape."
In fact, it's the other way around. Denial is choosing to stop competing when you can no longer match the shadow of your younger self, and imagining that this somehow halts the flow of time. The satisfaction of competing, Beverly says, "is about mastering the challenges of today and pushing our limits – whatever those current limits are."
Alex Hutchinson's new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, will be published in February. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.