Building Life-Long Champions

After his wife's death, 80-year-old Fauja Singh moved to the United Kingdom to live with his son. Being in a strange country and speaking a foreign language, Singh felt isolated until he rediscovered an old passion — running. Thirteen years later, he is the marathon world record holder for adults 90 years of age and older. His time is 5 hours, 40 minutes.

Singh's rise in the marathon world started five years ago, when at age 89, he completed the 26.2-mile race in six hours, 50 minutes. What made this so special was that he knocked 58 minutes off the previous world best in the 90-plus age bracket. Since then, he has completed seven marathons and holds eight world records. His achievements have not gone unnoticed. In 2004 Adidas signed him for an advertising campaign that also featured soccer great David Beckham. The campaign's tag line, “Impossible is Nothing,” reflects not only Singh's achievements but also those of older athletes from around the world.

The United States alone has more than 250,000 older athletes. Their desire to compete has created the need for the national and state Senior Games and Senior Olympics. Last year, more than 10,400 older athletes went for gold at the National Senior Olympic Games.

How can you tap into this market? The following are eight tips to share with your staff and your clients as the first steps to building life champions:

  1. Don't underestimate your clients' desires

    When older clients want to train for a competitive sport or a competition, such as a marathon or triathlon, don't discard their commitment or capabilities. Singh is only one example of what happens when desire is set in motion.

  2. The aging body

    Many of the perceptions of the older body's capabilities are incorrect and debilitating to a generation whose true potential is snuffed out by ageism. Gerontologists have found that many of the issues we attribute to aging are more a function of disuse. When your clients choose to challenge their bodies and minds, they can push past what was once thought unachievable.

  3. Set goals

    When setting goals for your clients, identify the challenges they will face along the way. Create a realistic picture of what they will and won't have to do to achieve.

  4. Short-term advances

    Monitor your clients' progress on a regular basis to ensure that they are making the desired improvements in performance. This not only motivates older athletes, but it also ensures that their bodies can handle the training. For example, an older body takes more time to heal after a competition, so encourage your clients to compete less frequently but to go for it when they do. And, competing less may improve their performance.

  5. Create a foundation

    Before starting your clients on a sports-specific training regime, build a solid foundation by having them participate in a regular fitness program that includes cardio, strength, balance, range of motion and flexibility training. Once they have the foundation in place, you will be able to build upon it, bit by bit.

  6. Get rest

    Older athletes may require more rest to recover from their training. Structure the program to take this into consideration. Also recognize that people over the age of 50 are more likely to experience aches and pains. For some, the pain may be debilitating, which will require adjusting their training. Some may find relief by doing flexibility exercises throughout their program or by participating in less strenuous sessions in the pools. You may also wish to make warm-ups and cool downs more gradual and longer.

  7. Water counts

    Aging reduces the body's mechanism to alert us about thirst and dehydration, placing the older client at risk. This can affect older people's ability to compete and process their medication. It can even lead to illness. Remind your older clients to drink water before, during and after training.

  8. Enjoy the experience

    For many older adults, the most rewarding part of the journey on to competition is the experiences they gain and challenges that they overcome. Make sure to recognize and reward these along the way.

They may not be household names, but Gail Kantak, Al Gabbard and Oscar Peyton are all Senior Olympians who tapped into their passion for competition and desire to excel. They are all life champions. By helping your members tap into their competitive spirit, you are helping to create an environment that says, “It's never too late to pursue your dreams, and we will help you.”

Colin Milner is chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging. An award-winning writer, Milner has authored more than 100 articles on aging-related issues. He can be reached at

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