Strategies for rethinking your self-image and goals so you can enjoy the benefits of a realistic, and really fun, fitness identity.

Most competitive athletes, no matter their age, have a vivid, personal highlight reel: sprinting across the finish line ahead of the field; eluding ferocious tackles to score the winning touchdown; swishing an impossible three-pointer at the buzzer.

There’s real pleasure in cuing up these glorious, defining memories, of course. Except that, for many of us, those memories didn’t happen yesterday — or even last year. The most remarkable stuff occurred in high school or college, some 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years ago.

Back then you were fueled by a tightly focused determination and drive. You practiced hard, got to the gym early, and stayed late. You trained until you were beyond sore, fueled by fierce competition or the love of your game. You slept well and ate right because you knew it would improve your performance. You had a clear vision of what you intended to achieve.

Today, your fitness focus might be a good deal blurrier. Maybe watching ESPN is your most vigorous activity. Or perhaps you still work out regularly but find that your heart is no longer in it. Perhaps, because of an injury or the passing of the years, your body’s been sidelined from your favorite athletic activities — or it balks at the idea of moving as fast as it used to.

In your chest, though, there still beats the heart of an athlete. You’re a person who once loved activity and challenge — a person who once lived for an athletic goal. You just need to find your way back. You need to find a reason to get fired up.

The good news is that, for most of us, there’s still plenty of time to get strong, play hard, and have fun. It simply requires dedication and an understanding that what you accomplished “back in the day” can both inspire and improve your present situation.

Part of making this forward-looking transition may involve setting new goals and rekindling a new, healthier relationship with your body, one that suits your current priorities, physical condition, and way of life. It may involve letting go of what was, saying goodbye to a former sport of choice, or stripping off an old, outgrown athletic identity that’s begun to feel like a too-tight varsity jacket.

In other words, you don’t have to jettison your golden athletic memories; you just have to loosen your grip on them — and their grip on you. As Marianne Williamson, best-selling author of 15 books, including The Age of Miracles: Embracing the New Midlife (Hay House, 2009), says, “It’s important to start defining ourselves by who we are right now instead of who we aren’t anymore.”

Shaping Up a New Identity

Back in college, Adam Tinkham lived to play soccer, and he was good at it. In fact, he even went pro for a time before he retired because of injuries. For years afterward he drifted from job to job without finding his niche. He’d train for soccer tryouts from time to time, but his fitness routine felt monotonous. Tinkham’s college team had been like a surrogate family, and without this social network, he had trouble meeting people. He also missed the admiration generally accorded star athletes.

Eventually, Tinkham discovered yoga and meditation, which helped him relax and exercise more mindfully. These days, he also cycles for transportation and to stay in shape. And, he’s finally found work he loves: coaching soccer at Chicago’s Team Evanston. “I see my former self in the athletes I coach, but I wouldn’t go back,” says Tinkham, now 43. “It was hard giving up my primary identification as an athlete, but I’m more balanced now — and it feels good.”

Tinkham articulates a realization that many of us would do well to take to heart, notes Williamson: Once we let go of preconceived notions of how things “should be,” we become free to embrace a radically new kind of life — one that’s often more satisfying than we could have imagined.

“It’s sad saying goodbye to youth,” she admits, “but after we’ve moved through that grief — not denied, suppressed, or minimized it — we can joyfully embrace where we are now.”

Perceptions and Priorities

Age eventually becomes an issue for everyone, but it hits many body-oriented athletic types particularly hard. A person who was identified heavily by his or her physical presence and abilities may experience frustration, grief, and even shame over the perceived loss or downgrade of those attributes.

Navigating physical changes can be challenging, Williamson acknowledges, but she argues that getting older brings unanticipated gifts, too. “When you’re young, you might not appreciate what a miracle your body is,” she says. “When you’re older, you realize, ‘Wow, look at where this body has taken me and what it still does for me.’ That understanding will carry you through the next stage of life in a healthy way.”

The first shift involves realigning our relationship with cultural biases that accompany aging — whether we’re 21 or 65 — that are both unfair and unproductive. “If your mental attitude about age is that it’s all a decline, then your body will be in decline,” Williamson explains. “If you see aging as a change — but not a bad one — then your body can physically age in fantastic ways.”

This shift in competitive consciousness will help you become more sensitive to your body’s true needs, desires, instincts, and responses. For instance, Williamson suggests striving to cultivate awareness, curiosity, and patience rather than raw force and conventional competitiveness. “Who made the rule that faster is better?” Williamson asks. Athleticism in later life, she says, is “all about the journey, not the finish line.”

That last truism may sound laughable to serious competitors — because to them, of course, it’s always been about the finish line. If you stay overly attached to race times, rankings, and other rigid results, however, Williamson believes you’ll eventually wind up feeling that you’re fighting a losing battle. You’ll also miss out on some of the better, subtler experiences that a maturing body and life have to offer.

Take 63-year-old Phyllis Dodd, a massage therapist from Cary, N.C. “During the 20 years I was a competitive runner and triathlete, you could set your watch by my training schedule,” she says. “Racing defined me for so long, I couldn’t imagine life after competition.”

In 2001 Dodd was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a disease in which the body stops making insulin. “At first I thought my diagnosis was a death sentence. I went through all the stages of grief; I wanted my old life back.” Just a year later, though, she ran a half-marathon — blood-sugar test kits and all — and won her age group.

Regular exercise reduces Dodd’s need for insulin, and she started to genuinely enjoy doing a variety of new activities. Today, competitive racing is no longer important to her.

“I exercise for fun and fitness now,” she says. “I hike with my husband and friends, play coed softball, work out at the gym, run for fun, ride my mountain bike, and play sports with my grandchildren. I used to train to beat the clock and other athletes, but now I train to beat the disease.”

Reprinted with permission from Experience Life.