Ask Stew: How Have You Adjusted Your Workouts as You Age?

Swimming is an activity that can be done at any age.
Swimming is an activity that can be done at any age. (Cpl. Shane Manson/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

This topic strikes home as we all age and try to do the things we did in our teens and early 20s. Here is an eight-step explanation of what to do and what not to do to keep  going strong. 

"I am 41 years old and still try to hang out with the younger soldiers and athletes. Can you give me an estimate on what percentage you believe you have lost in your aging process? Strength, speed, agility, things like that. If when you were in the SEAL teams you were 100%, what are you now, and if you tried hard enough, could you accomplish what you did then? I am really struggling with this, I am working hard, and I am still not able to achieve what I used to."

I know your pain. Every day, when asked how I am doing, I joke and say, "If I were 20 years old and felt this way, I would be concerned." Needless to say, years of hard work in the military or law enforcement takes its toll on your joints, lower back, strength and speed/agility. The good news of being alive longer is that the years of learning how to train properly (smarter, not harder) can help you with your training longevity.

I am at 39 right now but feeling good. However, I need to train smarter now, even though I still train very hard.

Here is a list of things I do (and do not do) now to stay healthy -- and how I fared 20 years ago:


Lifting heavy weights after 35 increases the risk of injury, so I do not try for my heavy lifts anymore. Heavy for me is defined as anything not much more than my body weight. I do not try to get two times my body weight, like I used to do at 25 years old. Instead I shoot for how many times I can bench-press my body weight (195 pounds) or bench 225 (which is used at the NFL Combine.)


After suffering any running injury you can think of -- stress fractures, shin splints, tendinitis, torn ligaments -- in the past 20 years, I am not running more than 30 miles a week anymore. I change shoes every three months and wear prescription inserts, too. I am not as fast as I used to be in sprints, nor can I maintain a six-minute mile pace. I can do seven-minute miles easily, but a six-minute mile hurts more than it used to.

I do not care to run more than 10K races anymore, either. Sprinting and agility are off slightly, though I have noticed some loss in short explosive speed, compared to athletes 20 years younger. My stamina makes up for it, and I usually can use the first 5-10 sprints to hang back and warm up and then win the final five sprints with the younger guys. It just takes me longer to get warmed up now. Overall, I run less and swim more; running at 195-200 pounds is challenging when doing distances greater than 10K.


I stretch like a madman daily. For me, flexibility is the key. Check out "The Stretching Plan" for details.

Numbers on PT test

I'm nearly as good as when I was 22. I still beat 95% of the kids around here going to BUDS/SF. Mainly, this is due to never having stopped doing body-weight exercises, such as push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and others. This has been a staple to my training for decades now and has proven to me that calisthenics work well for longevity.

Now, the students can beat their teacher after months of training, but I still can push them. I lift weights for about 12 weeks a year to break up the monotony of high-repetition PT to give the joints time to rest for 3-4 months.


I am still improving each year. The non-impact helps with not slowing me down. My cardio is as good as ever, and it seems my technique gets better as I swim more often than I run. My best season is the winter, as I do not run as much and tend to replace running with more swimming. 


This is the biggest area where I see the effects of age. It takes me a few days to recover from a long, hard workout. My younger guys can bounce back the next day, even if I worked the group hard and exhausted them. I always give myself 48 hours before working the same muscle groups and try to limit hard workouts on consecutive days.

Eating well and resting

I eat mostly fruits, fresh vegetables, drink 100 ounces of water a day and consume lean meats (fish, chicken and steak). Whole-wheat pasta, breads and nuts have replaced white bread and chips. 

The Importance of sleep

I cannot stress it enough. The human body needs sleep. Seven or eight hours a night is optimal to aid with recovery from stress, training and work. See the "Importance of Sleep" article for more information.

Gone are the days when I could work out every day, eat anything I wanted and stay out all night. There are not only training changes you have to make but major lifestyle changes as well. I think I could hang with the Stew Smith of 20 years ago in most cases, but I would not like myself very much the following day when the pain set in. Sometimes there is just not enough Motrin to make working out that hard worth it.

Hope some of these ideas help you with your training and beyond.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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