Lessons from Martina Navratilova

I wasn’t expecting to learn much about fitness from a woman who’s nearly 50, even if that woman is tennis champ Martina Navratilova. And, as a relatively young male (37), the last thing I anticipated was feeling jealous, but that’s what happened.

After six years of aches and pains every morning, I’ve forgotten what it feels like to wake up feeling refreshed. Until I stretch and have a hot, muscle-relaxing shower, I’m useless and grumpy. In my daily life, I walk a lot, practice yoga, and eat very few processed foods, but I do it all with rickety bones and somehow still have a chronic energy deficit.

Navratilova’s new book, Shape Your Self: My 6-Step Diet and Fitness Plan to Achieve the Best Shape of Your Life ($27.95), offers common-sense diet and exercise tips, including how staying healthy first requires a personal commitment, regardless of age, and why setting realistic goals is more important than pushing hard.

Two programs are plainly laid out: a 28-day meal plan emphasizing natural and raw foods, including juices, and an exercise plan with step-by-step illustrations. But diving into the preamble to the plan, which comprises the heart of the book, I found myself hoping that when I’m 49 — or preferably, much sooner — I’m in her shoes, tennis or otherwise. With humorous, confessional anecdotes, she describes an energetic, holistic life that would make most anyone either jealous or inspired.

One chapter opens, “I’ve been in the twilight of my career longer than most people have had careers.” Maybe that sounds like bragging, but I forgive it for one simple reason: she speaks the truth. Navratilova’s won 58 Grand Slam titles, including 9 singles and 20 doubles titles at Wimbledon, and at age 49, she’s still competing.

Navratilova’s main point is that everyone can simultaneously be fit while getting older. It comes down to lifestyle choices — nothing I don’t already know, but an epiphany every time I hear it. Navratilova even recounts her own epiphany. After quitting the singles circuit, she gained weight and developed a few bad habits. After pooping out halfway through a day of skiing, she resolved to turn things around.

Her six steps, each given their own chapter, boil down to:

  • Develop an athlete’s mentality (in a chapter titled, “Make Your Own Comeback”)
  • Build a support team
  • Fuel body and mind
  • Do “functional fitness” training (focus on posture and strengthening so you can lead the life you want, whether you “function” as a pro athlete or a soccer mom)
  • Recharge and energize

The subtitle of that last step, “When You’re Tired of Being Tired,” grabbed my eye. Navratilova’s solution would have me eating smaller portions but more often; eating mostly vegetables, no dairy and organic food whenever possible; getting the right mix of carbohydrates and protein (four to one); “traveling light” when it comes to emotional baggage; and overcoming my Achilles heel — listening to my body’s sleep signals and getting more quality ZZZs.

Taking stock, I realized I’ll probably never have Navratilova’s pep, at any age, but at least I know where I’ll plot my comeback, and it’s not on a ski slope or a tennis court. I’ll be scheming with my head still on the pillow.

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