Why it sucks growing old while in Judo

If we’re to be Stoic about it, each day we live we get closer to our eventual demise/death. Our bodies may have adapted over the thousands of years we’ve been in existence as a species but we don’t just “pop off” like that – if we don’t succumb to a severe illness, accident or something equally tragic, we degrade over a long stretch of time.

Our sweet spot when it comes to performance in sports is around our mid-20s to mid-30s. Some sports are more hard-wearing on the bodies than others (rowers tend to last longer, rifle marksmen are an extreme representation from an older elite participant standpoint) but the rule generally holds. Allow me to lay out the different ways that age impacts our bodies.

We become inefficient with oxygen

The way we breath directly impacts how efficient we are within our sporting domain. I won’t go into breathing methods as that’s a bit of a digression, for that I recommend the Combat Intelligent Athlete podcast as a starting point for that study. For our purposes, I want to discuss the age factor:

We need oxygen to power ourselves, and we all know what gassing out is like in the middle of a randori. In the general population, VO2 max (also known as our maximum volume of oxygen) tends to decline by about 10% per decade after the age of 30. Athletes who continue to compete and train hard can reduce the drop by about half, to 5% per decade after the age of 30.

But why does our VO2 max decline with age? The heart – our maximal heart rate reduces alongside our maximum stroke value.

Balancing worsens

From age 25 with the onset of time and prolonged inactivity our balance is impacted. Balance depends on the coordination of three main systems in the body — visual, vestibular, and somatosensory systems. For these to work there’s an additional burden from cognitive load which is fine when you’re young but more challenging once you get older and your abilities reduce.

Testosterone – forget it

For men – testosterone levels peak in the late teens and early twenties. Reaching thirty, testosterone levels decline by about 1 percent per year, resulting in a drop in aggression and a decrease in both muscle mass and muscle strength. Again, detrimental to the “fighting spirit” you’re supposedly exerting against others.


Sleep is important for body restoration and repair – it’s very underrated. You create melatonin with your sleep. Your body produces less melatonin as you get older, and by the time you’re forty you’re typically sleeping fewer hours per night than when you were eighteen. That means your body is restoring slower, leading to a higher probability of injury.


“The part of the brain in charge of motor control starts to decline at forty. Neural cells rely on well-insulated nerve fibers.” (taken from the Why We Fight book by Josh Rosenblatt ). Neural cells rely on nerve fibers to send commands to muscles. The insulation of these fibers is in the sheets of fat called myelin, which build up in adolescence but then production slows down around 40 – this then leads to a slow-down in the electrical conduction and hence the communication between the body and the brain. The lower the frequency of these electrical signals, the slower you can respond with that o-soto-gari when you see the opportunity.

Muscles age

Another effect of aging is the involuntary loss of muscle mass, strength, and function which is known as sarcopenia. Judo relies on a lot of strength and power, and there is extra stress on our skeletal muscles, those muscles that move our bones and joints.

Type II muscle fibers (called “fast-twitch” muscles) produce this strength and power, and research indicates that these cells decline in number and function with age. Not only do these cells decline with age, but so do the cells that support the repair and growth of skeletal muscles in response to exercise decline.


Better training can help you stay at your peak longer. There’s a wealth of research in this field and in the coming years we’re likely to start seeing more athletes in their 40’s remaining competitive. As a human population we are getting older and living longer so this stands to reason.

The challenge is to train smarter, not harder. It’s about focusing on the quality of a workout rather than the number of times you train. Older Judoka need longer to recover and adapt to a training stimulus, so working out less regularly, but with more focus will pay out in dividends.

An emphasis on “active recovery” strategies (an easy run or swim on your rest days) and improved sleeping habits are important for athletes of all ages, but become essential for older Judoka.

The physiological changes I’ve outlined are a normal part of aging but hopefully it won’t discourage you from training. Put it this way: the less physically active you are the more you will accelerate your age-related problems!

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing,”

Sports Psychologist and Coach Rob Bell

One last thing..

I wanted to finish up with a reference to a video by Ryron and Rener Gracie about BJJ practitioners over 40. Putting aside that it’s BJJ and not Judo, the things worth calling out are that perhaps your aspirations don’t have to be “how can I throw all the young’uns in the room” but rather on more admirable, impressive and less egocentric pursuits. Examples could be:

  • How can I optimise my ashi waza? What adjustments can I make to become a club authority on e.g. De Ashi Barai?
  • How can I refine my feints and diversions to get my opponent in a square stance every time? (Regardless of whether the speed is there to throw them or not).
  • What dynamic defenses can I pull off with confidence without incurring penalties, but cause frustration to a more athletic opponent?
  • What can I look out for, based on feel alone, to read my opponent better?


  1. A few points in the above post were taken from Why We Fight by Josh Rosenblatt. An utterly enthralling read – I couldn’t rate it enough!




Leave a Reply