Motivation Monday – Marla Sweeney

I had a totally different Motivational Monday lined up this week, but while driving home on Friday evening I was listening to the Spartan Up Podcast, and heard the story of Marla Sweeney, which I thought was so completely on point, I decided to bump it to this week’s MM.
Marla is 72 years of age – I won’t say years old, because it does not seem appropriate and ’72 years young’ sounds ridiculously wanky regardless. She ran her first obstacle race aged 70 and has just completed her 23rd Spartan race in 24 months with a 16 mile Spartan Beast with 5000 feet of vertical gain at an altitude of two miles.

There are a lot of useful lessons in this interview, but I particularly like “There’s always a way to adapt but you won’t find it sitting down.”

I am frequently annoyed by the ‘wrap in cotton wool’ Auntyism attitude of supposed authorities on health and fitness for middle aged and older people. Every day I see advice given to not run too far or too fast or try to lift the big weights… stick with the little 1kg dumbbells, toddler along at conversational pace, maybe do some chair yoga… you’re not as young as you were, you know! Don’t try doing the young people’s e excise or you will injure yourself…

and I see the same thing from people themselves: “oh, I’d love to get fit/lose weight/ be more active but at my age…” People who use their age an excuse not to be fit or lean. You don’t have to be fit or lean if you don’t want to be, but if that’s the case be honest about it. Worse yet, people who have talked themselves into, or allowed themselves to be talked into this myth of ‘gentle. moderate, age-appropriate.’

FFS we’re not dead yet, people.

Yes, of course it behooves us to be aware of the effects of age on our bodies,on our recovery times and that it may take longer for adaptations to take place when we train. No, I don’t imagine we can be as fast or become as strong at 40 or 50or 60 as we could at 20. It is a hell of a  long way from accepting that reality to resigning ourselves to the bowls club.
I get accused of trying to be over macho with my fitness posturing. Of making out that we should all being doing more than is necessary. Of being unrealistic about Fitness after 40. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I couldn’t agree less with that. My workout volume and intensity is a lot less than a lot of of other people I know who are my age and absolutely put me to shame with the work they put in and the results they get out. Or, in fact “put to shame” is not the correct term because I don’t feel any shame about it. There will always be someone bigger, stronger, faster, better, leaner, buffer and with a better work ethic than you or me. I am not in competition with anyone else. I am not trying to be better than anyone else, just better than I was yesterday and work towards the best me I can be.
The question, however, is where do I pitch my vision of the best me that I can be? What do I aspire to? When I first started getting fit, I though maybe lose a stone or so and be able to jog for 10 minutes. I really didn’t have any aspiration higher than that. Secretly I harboured a little fantasy of doing a Spartan Race one day, but didn’t really imagine that would ever become reality, and because I didn’t want to appear ridiculous to myself even in my daydreams, the Spartan Race I fantasised about was just the Sprint – the 5km one. The Spartan Super and the Spartan Beast were way beyond even my daydreams. I wish I had known about Marla then. Echoing what I said last week in the piece about Roger Bannister, once one person shows that something is possible then it becomes possible in the minds of others. In my mind at that time, a slow shuffle around the block was about the limit of what was physically possible. I was 46 years old!
There is that Henry Ford quote that gets trotted out so often it has become cliché:

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t-you’re right.”

but it is entirely true when it comes to the limits we set ourselves, and the limits that we are conditioned to believe regarding our capabilities and potential, particularly as we get older. There is absolutely nothing wrong with gently trogging round Parkrun on Saturdays if that gives you pleasure, but if you want to run an Ultra-marathon in Death Valley, then set your mind on it, train for it and make that race your bitch. Jack Denness, a school caretaker from Kent did it at the age of 75, then again at 77 and again at 80. He has an MBE for the money he raised for charity doing it.

There are plenty of men and women who never set foot in a gym or lifted a weight until their 40’s and 50’s, were significantly obese, and achieved bodybuilder physiques or became Master’s level Crossfit Games athletes. I’m not going to link them all today, but I will be doing so in the weeks to come.
Of course you are not obliged to push yourself if ll you want to do is become a bit fitter and trim your tummy a bit, but equally there is absolutely no reason why age should be an impediment to achievement.
Train sensibly. Listen to your body. Build up slowly. But keep building to wherever you want to get to. Don’t be brow-beaten into setting your sights low because of your age or anything. You can sprint if you want to sprint. You can have muscles if you want muscles. You can smash 23 Spartan Races in 24 months at the age of 72. Don’t let anyone who is not a medical practitioner tell you otherwise.


  1. Irishprincess

    I read this post at the airport with a big smile on my face. I’d just left my mum after spending a week with her. So on our last day together we found ourselves in a gym (her idea not mine). She decided she wanted to join so I went with her to check it out.

    The manager looked and started talking to me as he just assumed I’d be the one joining but in all fairness when I interrupted him to say it was for my mum he didn’t bat an eyelid.

    Long story short, mum has her induction tomorrow, two weeks after getting a job. She is 85.

    I wish I’d recorded the guy’s face when mum revealed her age (she doesn’t look it).

    All these women rock. Love this post.

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