6 secrets of exercise as you age that no-one tells you about



David Gordon, founder of BAM, has a degree in sports science, has spent a lifetime in elite sport and is now a European and World Masters pole vault champion, as well as a pilates regular.

10 years ago, when I started pole vaulting again, at 45, I thought I understood the rules of the game. I knew I was 45, and yes I was pole vaulting again and thought I was being smart, being careful to avoid injury. Little did I know I was embarking on a boot camp of understanding. Understanding the science gets you some of the way. But it was discussions with dozens of World and European medallists in Masters athletics, aged 40 to 80, as well as personal experience, that really helped me understand how the rules change. Stuff that isn’t talked about.

Here’s a quick glance at some of those lessons; I’d be thrilled if you have a look, they are hard-won truths. If you apply these principles intelligently to your own situation and never stop learning about your body, I passionately believe you’ll have better outcomes.

The training effect.

Classically, you stress your body, then rest as your body adapts, then go again at a higher level, and so on. That still applies but add some big caveats. The body takes longer to recover and the body has to dig deeper, which can really cost you. The timetable of ‘stress/recovery’ is so skewed by these two things that you’ll run yourself into the ground very quickly unless you ease up on intensity and duration, don’t dig so deep. In fact, be selective about when you dig at all. Digging deep can be fun, but it’s like going into the death zone at the top of Everest; do it consciously, selectively and for short periods. The great news for non-masochists is that ‘digging deep’ can be counter-productive.

By doing a little and often instead of these big heavy sessions, you recover faster, you don’t risk your body as much, and it’s not so difficult. Better to ‘tick along’. It’s also the best way to build momentum. And momentum is the keyword here. I often ask, what’s my next training session, when is it, and is this session going to allow me to complete that one, should I ease up on today’s session so my body is ready in two days for the big session – if it’s still recovering two days later because I really went for it today, I’m risking a niggle or worse. And that kills momentum. If it’s 3 days away, then let’s go for it. Everyone has their own calculation and it changes with each year and how much momentum you have, but the principle stands. Nurture momentum as the precious gift it is.

Warming up – a longer affair.

Are you sometimes a bit grumpy and temperamental for no reason?! Do you sometimes need a bit of coaxing to get moving? Welcome to the world of older muscles, tendons and ligaments. I used to do impromptu gymnastics for fun. I won’t do that now without a 20 minute warm up because bad things happen when you ask a cold, middle-aged muscle to do something even vaguely challenging. That’s the new rule. I can sprint better than most 20 year olds, I just need half an hour’s notice!

When your body is young and elastic, you can get away with anything. As you age, you have to coax it, prepare it, fill your muscles with blood, get the juices running and sometimes be patient. For example, it can take 15 minutes for a joint to relax and for a knee to produce the natural lubricants to avoid microscopic tears around the ligaments and tendons. So if you like to run, start with a 10 minute walk.


Elasticity – closely connected to warming up. Because your muscles and tendons lose elasticity, you have to be a bit more respectful. Most of us know this intuitively. Prioritise stretching, once your muscles are warm. I also don’t ask unusual questions of my body without checking in. It’s good etiquette – if you want to be a friend to your body. Would you throw a challenging surprise on your best friend? By being routinely thorough in warming up and stretching, you can sidestep so many problems. If I don’t have time, I prioritise getting the blood flowing over stretching, it’s far more important in my view, but I always make time for the key stretches at the end.

Hip and shoulder mobility and stability.

Work in these two areas reaps great rewards. The ability to walk, not shuffle, is maintained by hip mobility. I will always come back to mat Pilates for this. if you keep your hips in a full range of motion and you’re strengthening the stabiliser muscles, you are future-proofing your entire life. When I started pilates at 50, I asked my instructor to spend some time on hip mobility and after a lifetime in exercise, I discovered a whole new set of stretches. Do the same and ask for help, we’re always learning. It will also help avoid hip issues, of course.

Shoulders are the devil’s own job at correcting once they’re out of alignment, which happens. Apart from keeping the rotator cuff strong (google some exercise or ask a physio, they’re pretty common), keeping your shoulders mobile will stop bad things from happening. Get into the ‘use it or lose it’ headspace, see it as preparing mentally for when you’re older! No one mentions this at 25 because there are no consequences at 25 to not doing shoulder mobility work. Now, there is. Not doing it means you won’t have good shoulder mobility and the first you’ll know of it is when you expect it to be there, and it isn’t, and now you have a bad shoulder. Which can take forever to sort out. Half of my gym work is preventative. ‘Pre-hab’ – as opposed to rehab. It pays dividends.

Middle aged rattling.

Imagine a little figure made of Mecanno, with nuts and bolts. As we age, those loosen. We get slumpy. By doing pilates, yoga or other preventative actions, we dramatically slow things down. By doing new stuff, you can actually be in better shape than you’ve been in for decades by doing this. Imagine that. There’s absolutely no reason why not, which will help you mentally, too. By tightening up your muscular-skeletal system, you allow it to operate efficiently. A mountain biking friend of mine took two years off, but did pilates at that time. When he started again, he cycled his old 90 minute circuit and on the first outing, beat his best ever time by two minutes. Because he’d tightened up, so his body system worked more efficiently. Arms, legs, core, pulled together in a new and more efficient way. Powerful stuff.

Recovery and injury avoidance.

This is the nub of everything. All the other elements really just feed into this, it’s all about Momentum. If you can figure out how to avoid injury and then maintain momentum when you do have a niggle, you’re going to stay in great shape. Keeping your body inside the tramlines of risk, not outraging them; allowing them to recover, doing a little and often, coaxing them when necessary and building a knowledge of exercises that apply to whatever your weaknesses are. Always learning when to ease off or slow up or stop immediately for that day. That will always include hips and shoulders and the reason I always come back to Pilates (or yoga) is because the body loves to be kept moving and stretching. Pre-hab becomes a big part of your routine – Pilates is really just one big prehab session (Pre-hab: exercises that stop you from getting injured).

All in all, a conscious, intelligent and flexible attitude, where you are a good friend to your body, helping it to give you the best quality of life at any age, is rewarding on every level.