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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 4 June, 2020
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At 60, I was unfit, but two years later, it's Olympic weightlifting for me

Ruth Deasy was advised by doctors to take up resistance training and has never looked back

Ruth Deasy

THEY SAY IT’S never too late to start getting fit. At 62 years of age, I say, you can amaze yourself.

Yes, it needs patience and help, gradually teaching your body and brain to do new things, but the satisfaction it gives when you succeed is the same, whether you’re 20 or 70.

It’s never too late to love what your body can do.

I had literally never set foot in a gym until less than two years ago. I sat at a desk for nearly 40 years and although not overweight, walking and gardening were about the only exercise I did.

Since my children had grown, I had never lifted anything heavier than a bag of groceries.

Now, here I am in a chilly warehouse, looking down at a 15 kilo steel bar with metal plates on each end, and hoping to throw it up in the air, over my head, and hold it there.

Otherwise known as Olympic weightlifting, I’m learning a sport that has been practised for millennia, right back to the ancient Greeks.

The sequence of movements, or lifts, that Olympic weightlifters do are known as the clean and jerk, and the snatch.

You learn the technique, slowly, patiently, working with little weight, and then gradually add the kilos as you improve. It’s a strange tango dance with steel and your body’s hard drive. Which every so often takes off like a bird in flight – or that’s how it feels.

Resistance training

My journey began when I got medical advice to do “resistance training”, which to my horror, would entail lifting weights and possibly going to a gym. My heart sank.

I wasn’t sporty. I didn’t play golf. I had never joined a gym, nor wanted to. But that was going to have to change. Re-building bone and replacing lost muscle was going to take work.

I have two twenty-something sons who have been weightlifting, including the Olympic kind, for some years.

Having scoffed and groaned about them and the gym for years, I had to eat crow and ask for their help.

I needn’t have worried as they were willing, patient coaches. A family experience worth its own chapter – I will be eternally grateful to both of them.

So, recently retired, I started going to the local gym twice a week with each son taking turns to go with Mum and show me how to warm up, teaching me the baby-steps of how to squat with and without the 15 kilo women’s Olympic bar on my shoulders, and generally learning the basics of what I do now.

After some months, my sons declared me ready to join a club. It was yet more role reversal as they pushed me out my comfort zone. But they were right – it’s like you’ve played guitar in your bedroom for long enough – you’re ready to join a band.

Out of the comfort zone

Off I went to a women’s beginner course in Dublin 8’s Capital Strength Club.

In the local gym, the lifters train alone but in a club it’s different. It’s like going from jogging in the park to joining a harriers’ club – it’s got sociability, mutual respect and encouragement, and for some, big competitions to train for.

The club coach Harry Leech took over from my sons and I couldn’t have wished for a more wise or caring tutor.

The club’s athletes were a fair representation of the sport in Ireland. The surprising fact is that the two fastest growing groups in Olympic weightlifting here are 1) Women and 2) Masters (35 years and over).

I was astonished by the number of women training and how it completely changes the dynamic in a room.

Women have only been allowed to compete at this sport in the Olympic games since 2000 but they are making up for it now. Weightlifting has room for all body shapes, heights and ages. If you compete, you do so in your own age and weight group. There are provincials, nationals, Europeans and Worlds.

Learning the ropes

Moving up from basic bar-bell skills and onto the clean and jerk and the snatch, I’m fighting my way out of beginners and into novice class.

I’m way behind the young women in their 20s and 30s I started learning with, who have improved by leaps and bounds.

But my age group mentor, Irish international Lucy Moore says: “Don’t compare yourself to them, their bodies are completely different!” And of course, she’s right.

The beauty about doing it at my age is that, for now, there’s little competition. While the sport is big amongst older women in Australia, the USA, the Nordic countries and the UK, there are few of us oldies in Ireland.

My sons’ latest exhortation: “Mum, you could get a medal, you need to start planning to compete!”

Not sure about that but this non-sporty person is just a little tempted…

You can do it too, and here’s how:

Building muscle and bone, improving coordination and balance, these are key as women get older.

We lose about 8% of muscle mass each decade as we age and without weight-bearing exercise, our bone mass deteriorates. I’m not lifting to look better, nevertheless, there are some changes.

The first question people ask is, do you lose weight? No, I’m almost the same weight as when I started. But my body composition has changed so I look slimmer.

My waist has reappeared, and I have shoulders. I can wear sleeveless tops again. Your body firms up. The turbo charge to my circulation has improved my skin and makes me mentally sharper and happier.

The next question is always: “but aren’t you afraid you’ll get too muscular and look like a man?” No, this doesn’t happen.

Of course I’m stronger, which is great. But women don’t have the amounts of testosterone needed to muscle up like a man. There are skinny, chubby, short, tall women weightlifters who are all wonderfully feminine.

Do you need to change your diet? Obviously, you need to make sure you are having plenty of protein but as you get older you should be doing that anyway. This does not mean living on steaks. A nutritious home-cooked diet with plenty of variety works for me. Carbohydrates should also be part of the mix.

So, all this sounds great, what’s the catch?

At first the sore muscles were like nothing I’d felt before. A proper massage and a hot shower helps. I haven’t had an injury but as an older athlete I need to be vigilant to avoid it. Listen to your body. Plenty of recovery time as you go is vital.

The fixed appointments to train were hard to stick to at first but now I just plan around it. I miss it so much if I don’t go. It takes a couple of hours each time and I train three times a week. If I don’t, I start to fall behind so even on holiday, I seek out a gym with barbells.

Living or working near a suitable gym makes everything easier.

Finally, the mental challenge of sticking at is hard, I won’t lie. I’m still a member at my local gym chain and I can top up my training there if I miss a club session – this has helped.

Sharing an interest with my grown-up kids has been a lot of fun. Wanting to stay well and healthy is a spur, though no one can hold back time.

A professional coach will give you sound advice but personally the tips I follow are:

  • Find a buddy to train with – a club, a family member, a pal.
  • Be patient.
  • Have a snack not less than an hour before training.
  • Never skip stretching all over before training. That’s before the warm-up which can’t be skipped either.
  • Drink water before, during and after training.
  • Stretch after training if you can but certainly before going to bed that night.
  • Eat something nutritious and filling within an hour of stopping.
  • Older athletes need longer rest times – our bodies recover more slowly.
  • A proper massage can help your muscle soreness but only on a non-training day.
  • People think you must eat a special diet but unless you’re going to pull a truck in Ironman, any healthy home-cooked diet will do. Just make sure there’s plenty of protein and carbohydrates.

- by Ruth Deasy 

 

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Ruth Deasy

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