|An unknown older skater.|
Sometimes people are dismayed at how hard skateboarding suddenly seems. Sometimes they are bewildered at how much equipment has changed. Sometimes they ask for info/tips about starting-up again, or express some concerns about getting back on the board. Sometimes it is obvious there are considerations that haven't even occurred to them yet. Whatever the situation, frequently the exact same concerns/issues/questions come up over and over again. Thus, it seemed worthwhile to write an in-depth post which covered all of those situations.
So, here we go! This is the first in a series of posts on making your way back to skateboarding after a long break. The aim is to maximize fun, reduce common old-guy injuries, and to get you reacquainted with the skateboard market if you’ve been out of the loop for a while. The four parts this series are:
(1) The (Mind/Body) Reality Check: What to expect, and what not to expect (e.g. this is the one you are reading right now)
(2) Equipment: Boards. Trucks. Wheels. Shoes. Pads. Etc.
(3) Social Navigation: Navigating social aspects of being a “renewed” skater without making a turboclown of yourself.
(4) Epilogue: Dealing with Skate-Related Anxiety
I have been skateboarding for 34 years. While I never quit, there were long periods where the amount of time I spent skating was drastically reduced (e.g. when I was in law school, serious injuries, etc.). Starting up after some of these periods was almost akin to beginning all over again. Thus, I speak to a lot of this material from direct, personal experience. However, it is not also just my experience. Similar stories are repeated all over the Internet among other older skaters that started-up again (especially the common injuries). Heed these words, and it will help avoid injuries, keep you in a good mental space, and keep you skating for years to come. Ready to drop back in? Let’s fuckin’ roll!
PART I: THE (MIND & BODY) REALITY CHECK
We start with a reality check. You are not a spring chicken anymore. There are two major points related to this that are essential to remember. First, have no expectations. Second, we are far more susceptible to injury when we are older. Worse, injuries take longer to heal when they occur (and they will). Let’s take a closer look at each of these two points.
1. HAVE NO EXPECTATIONS
Have no expectations about what you “should” be able to do. None. Nada. Zilch. Zero. You will be shocked at how much you (now) suck compared to a previous version of yourself. It’s not like riding a bike. You will also be amazed at how much your mind thinks you can still do, contrasted with how much your body can actually do. It’s basically the difference between lightening and a lightening bug. This can be really disheartening for some people. Don’t let it be. Remember that progress is relative to where you are today, not where you were 20+ years ago. You are encouraged to have expectations based on your present-day situation, but none from decades past.
When you start skating again, go in to it with no expectations, especially none from years past. Skateboarding is not the same later in life as it was when you were young (I would, however, argue that it’s substantially more fun now). If you carry the weight of expectations from your past, you will not last long. Your skateboard will only bring frustration, despair, and disappointment. The fun and joy will never manifest. Abandon expectations, and skateboarding will open up to you like never before. I can’t stress this point enough. The single most important thing to remember when starting-up again is to have absolutely no expectations based on your own past. Please read that sentence again. Now read it one more time. It is the single most important thing to take away from this entire series of posts.
My friend Eric added these words of wisdom, “The whole "I use to do this and now I can't" part is often over-looked when getting back on a board. At a young age you could ollie the moon, but now the years have caught up. Don't expect what 15-year-old you did with the reality of older-you. Go slow, get the feel/balance back before doing much else. Relax. It will either come back, or you will discover new forms of skating that are just as rad as moon ollies, only easier on the present-day-body that your brain now occupies.”
I will soon have to take my own advice on this one. Seven months ago I broke my leg on a 6' high mini ramp. I had surgery and they put in a bunch of hardware. I just had a screw removed four weeks ago. My ankle is not nearly as flexible as it used to be. I do not know if I will ever again be able to skate (or walk) as well as I did before the injury. As soon as I get back on the board, I have to go at with an open mind, and not bring any expectations from the past with me. Things simply will not be the same. Even assuming that I will eventually be able to skate at the same level again (big assumption), I have to work my way back up to that point. It's not going to happen on Day 1. Moral of the Story: Have NO past-based assumptions about what you "should" be able to do in the present.
2. MINIMIZING INJURY
First, I want to start with these two screen grabs from Facebook.
I am not trying to scare anyone with this, but I am trying to give you a reality check. Keep this poor guy's experience in mind as you read the next section. He may have something to teach us.
Reaction time is slower with age. A hard fact of life is that our older-selves simply cannot move as fast as our younger-versions. Gravity, however, remains unaffected by our age. This means some things will be a lot harder to do (e.g. there is a real reason why older skaters often have trouble with flip tricks, and/or why people in their 40s people don't run marathons as fast as people in their 20s, etc. Again, hard fact of life and biology.). Additionally, we are not able to react as quickly to tricks that have gone wrong as we once did. This is an important consideration, because the inability to react fast enough can lead to some nasty bails and, well, injury. More on this later on.
We are more susceptible to injury with age. This one is another hard fact of time, life, and biology. We are more "fragile" now than when we were kids. Bones become more brittle, and easier to break. Soft tissue is not as pliable and flexible, making twists, tears, pulls, and strains much easier and likely to occur.
You will get injured, and it takes longer to heal. Yet another hard fact of life and biology. It takes much longer to heal from injury when you are older (esp. the soft-tissue injuries). Avoiding injury today means skating (or going to work) tomorrow.
So, what are the best ways to approach and deal with all these considerations? The answers are below.
Start slow, and ease your way back in. I also can’t stress this one enough. I frequently hear about people injuring their Achilles and Patella tendons when first starting-up again (tendinitis, tears, Achilles ruptures, etc.) because they go too hard and too fast, before the body has had time to become reconditioned to the demands of skateboarding. Take this poor guy for example...
So, in order to help prevent this, do small, short, low-impact sessions when you first start again. Slowly work your way up to longer, more intense sessions. If you have been off the board for a really long time, start out by rolling around on a flat surface to get your balance back. Trust me, you will be surprised at just how much of it is gone (at least for the time-being). To be perfectly clear, if you have been off the board for awhile, even just pushing around a parking lot too hard/too fast could cause your Achilles (pushing foot) to have a little melt-down. Take it slow. Listen to what your body is telling you to do. And last, if you are much larger now than you used to be, don't worry about it. There are plenty of larger people who skate, and skate quite well.
Be extra careful on ramps: Skate parks, and thus ramps, are now everywhere. I have seen countless post on social media that follow this pattern: Person has not skated in a long time. Person starts skating again. Person starts hitting ramps/transition before they are really comfortable on the board. Person ends up with a broken bone in short time. Ramps are really, really, really something you need to ease your way back into. Make sure you are very comfortable just riding around again before you hit the ramps. Moreover, when you do start hitting them again, start out on the smaller ones and work your way up. Always remember that small ramps can still bite, and bite hard!
Start your sessions out slow, and end them slow. Warming up is critical when you are an older skater. Moreover, the time it actually takes to warm-up becomes longer and longer. Again, if you go too hard too fast you open doors to injury. Listen to what your body is telling you to do/not do. A long time ago I developed a specific “warm-up” routine (I have different ones for street/transition). Basically it’s a series of tricks that become progressively harder/more physically demanding. They are all still very easy, low-impact tricks, but they get the blood flowing, and the muscles/joints loosened up—which is exactly what you want to have happen. Injuries often happen at the start and end of a session. At the start, they happen because you're not warmed up yet. Towards the end, they happen because your muscles are tired and you get sloppy. Make sure you have increased situational awareness (of your body) during both of these periods, especially towards the end. Additionally, a slow end to a session helps your muscles "cool down" before coming to a complete stop (otherwise you'll stiffen up really quick). Ever notice that marathon runners just don't "sit down" as soon as the race is over? It's because they are "cooling down" to avoid muscle cramps. While it's to a much lesser degree, the same principle holds true with ending your skate session. Ease your way into and out of every session.
Stretch for flexibility. If your flexibility is compromised a simple bail, or even a run-out, can quickly turn into a twisted or torn muscle, ligament, joint, etc. The more flexible you are, the less chance there is of soft tissue damage. Soft-tissue injuries are among the most common injuries with the older crew (that’s us). Stretching on a regular basis can be a tremendous help to minimize these from occurring. I often see people “stretch” for 30-60 seconds before a session. This is not stretching. This is polishing brass on the Titanic, for the first time, after the ship has already broken into two peices. Like going to the gym, to get any real benefits from stretching it has to be something you do on a regular basis, not just for 45-seconds before a session. Consider this post on Facebook as an example.
Now, no one is expecting any of us to do full-splits--that's just not realistic. But, if you have greater flexibility in your groin, hamstrings (or any other muscle for that matter), bails like this might not produce injuries that are as acute or damaging. Simply put, stretching can turn what might have been a catastrophic injury into a far less serious one. The body is like a bridge, if all the little supports are stronger, the whole structure is stronger, too. There are plenty of simple and easy ways to incorporate stretching into daily life (Google will show you how). This Instagram account, run by Dr. Kyle Brown, features some great stretching and training exercises designed specifically for skateboarders. It's absolutely worth a look/follow.
Your feet will hurt for a while. There are so many small muscles in your feet/body that support the larger ones. They have “atrophied” over time, and are not use to the rumbling and quick movements involved with skating. It will take awhile for them get used to it again. Seriously consider different shoe options (more on this in the equipment section).
Once you start, don’t stop. Once you get up and running again, skate as much as you can. Like stated above, skateboarding is like a lot like going to the gym. If you only go once every 14 days, you will not see any retained benefit. You will have to relearn the same tricks every time you skate, and you will be really sore after each and every session. Worse, you leave yourself open to injury because you never really become “conditioned” again. There is real truth in the phrase ”use it or lose it.” You will be surprised at how fast you loose something (e.g. balance and tricks) by taking time off the board. The more you skate, the easier it becomes. But also, don't over do it, either! Taking a few days off here and there can really help rejuvenate both the mind and body.
“Getting your legs back” and cross-training. When you get back on the board, your legs will feel like a gelatinous mass of non-responsive, unstable, and uncontrollable muscle tissue. One of the most common questions returning skaters have is, “How do I get my legs back?” The short answer is keep skating, on a regular basis, and they will come back. It will take awhile. Cross-training with other stuff will help (riding a bike, squats, etc.). But much of it does not replicate the jumping, crashing, and sudden jarring of body like skating does. Jumping rope, box jumping, and running can all be huge assets in this department. That said, remember two things; Take it slow in the beginning, and once you start, do not stop. Slow and steady wins the race.
NO CORRECT ANSWER
Everything above is hard fact. Reaction time decreases with age. Healing time is slower with age. Stretching will help minimize injury. Go too hard, too fast, and you’ll get hurt. Falling is part of skateboarding. These are undeniable, irrefutable facts. Now, we are moving into a gray area, and covering something a little more subjective: Pads. You may have balked at pads in the past, but keep reading. You may start to realize things that were not even on your radar before you started reading this very post. Pads fall into the realm of personal cost/benefit analysis, and what risk factor(s) you are willing to assume. There is no correct, or even fact-based, answer. The only answer is the one that makes the most sense for you. That said, here are few things to consider.
Mini Ramps, Embankments, Bowls, Etc.: If you’re going anywhere near mini ramps, bowls, quarter pipes, or even embankments seriously consider pads (and a quality set). Remember what I said above about not being able to react as quickly to tricks gone wrong? Well, when your reflexes, balance, core strength, and flexibility are not what they used to be, when your brain remembers things that your body just can’t do as well anymore (and you don’t heal as fast), pads can be the only thing that saves your ass.
If you are skating any inclined surface, knee sliding out of a bail (that you could otherwise easily run-out of) can help avoid twisted ankles and knees. This is not to say you should knee-slide out of every bail--you simply shouldn't. However, run-outs gone wrong can end horrifically. Knee-slides take the potential injury of a sketchy run-out off the table. This guy learned the hard way.
Knee-slides also saves energy and can put less impact on joints. For example, if I run out of a lot of tricks on 5’ mini, my knees hurt at the end of the session (from all the jarring/jamming motion of running down the tranny). If I wear pads, and knee slide instead, I have no knee pain later on. Moreover, pads can give a confidence boost, and help remove some the hesitation and fear that absolutely becomes more acute with age.
Personally, I won’t go near any ramp 4-feet tall (or over) without knee/elbow pads anymore. I cannot begin to count the number of times that they have saved my ass from some really serious injuries, as can be seen here. That link is absolutely worth reading, because it shows how pads can indirectly save other parts of your body. Never be fooled by the size of a ramp. Mini ramps can bite, and bite HARD (and again, healing is slower with age).
Here is one last screen grab from Facebook about knee pads:
Street Skating: If you are pure street skating, pads are not as “essential” as they are on transition. That said, contrary to what many claim, you actually can “knee slide” on street (Natas, and a 10-year-old, will show you how). I don’t wear knee pads on street (yet). I am sure it will eventually happen some day, but I always wear an elbow pad on my forward elbow, even if just skating a curb. Falling on your hands sucks, and can also lead to a sprained/broken wrist (remember, we break easier now). When I fall, I tuck my arm in, and let the elbow pad take the brunt of the impact. No cut hands, no wrist injuries, no swelbow (and to really drive the point home, everything takes longer to heal with age). A friend of mine, and good skater, shattered his elbow two weeks ago. Slipped out on something, and came straight down on his elbow. Surgery and lots of hardware. An elbow pad probably would have prevented that. Yeah, freak accident, but they absolutely happen. Again, there is no "correct" answer to anything pad related...just some things to think about and consider.
|My friend's elbow, post surgery. |
Here is another one from Facebook about elbow pads.
Helmets: In recent years much new information has come out about concussions. I am sure you are aware of that material. If you want to go down a really grim rabbit hole, look up skateboarding and head injuries. You will see a lot of stories about people of all ages becoming incapacitated and/or having serious long-term injuries related to head/brain trauma. If you have a family to support, or a kid to set an example for, or any other considerations, a helmet might be something to think about. Again, there is no correct answer. Historically, I wore a helmet on ramps 5’ high or taller. It’s an arbitrary line, but that’s where I had drawn mine (probably because I hit my head on a 5’ mini without a helmet on, and then quickly learned to start wearing one). Some wear a helmet anytime they step on a skateboard. Others never wear one, on any sized terrain. It’s your call...but remember that image from Facebook above? Think hard about that one, esp. when you are first getting back on the board.
2020 Update: This video clip is my friend Chad.
Chad is a very good skater. He is doing a nollie bigspin to backside disaster in this clip, which is a trick he has on lock. But some times things go wrong, as they did here. Imagine this slam without a helmet. Head trauma is one of those things like cancer or a bad car accident--they don't seem "real" until they happen to you or someone you know. I saw my friend Chad take this gnarly head hit. It became real for me. I am now wearing a helmet even on 4' ramps.
Here is one last clip. This one is me. I made a little railside bar that fits exactly in the back of my car. Before I went to skate that night, I had a common mental debate with myself, "It's just a mellow street session, do I really need pads?" I decided to bring them (I'm still recovering from that broken leg injury mentioned above). Well, check out my switch stance frontside railslide to fakie in that video clip. Watch my left arm/elbow...I am pretty sure I would have shattered my elbow cap without an elbow pad. Turn the sound up, and hear just how hard that hit. The point of my clip? To illuminate the fact that you do NOT need to be skating "hard" to get seriously injured, or to reap the benefits of pads. Thank fuckin' god I had that thing on.
HAPPY & HEALTHY ROLLING
In closing, you will get injured skateboarding. Healing is slower with age. Yeah, it sucks, but that is our reality. As a result, really consider everything above about injury prevention (e.g. taking it slow, stretching, warm-ups, pads, etc.), and make decisions that are right for you. And remember, if you have no expectations about what you should be able to do, skateboarding will flourish like never before, and you will have more fun on your board than you can possibly imagine. Happy and healthy rolling!
I'll end with this quote from Bernie O'dowd, "There are infinite ways to have fun on a skateboard. But, it is inherently dangerous. Especially for an older person. We are slower, weaker, heavier, less flexible and as a result of all of this often more fearful. It's OK. I think it's just important to be aware of this. Get comfortable, and confident. Then you can find your limits, and push them without immediately getting hurt."
[In the next section, which can be found here, we dive into equipment. This is the best time in history for skateboard gear. You can get literally get anything you want. An early 1980s reissue, an early ‘90s football shape, a popsicle, or a modern shaped board. Whatever you want to ride, it’s out there. Wheels don’t really get flat-spots anymore. Bearings are better than ever before. Shoe technology has advanced a lot, and that can be a huge help for old-guy knees. You will be more stoked on your set-up than at any point in your life.]