Middle age and beyond is not what it used to be for the recreation-minded. Older joints and all, lifelong athletes and late-to-the-game novices have many year-round options to keep moving, keep competing, and keep healthy.
For active middle-agers, stepping up the competition can provide new thrills and challenges to workouts - and a whole new social set to enjoy. But don’t be intimidated. Most competitive sports enjoyed by older athletes have an entry level for the novice and the wary, and a choice of abilities or pace for pretty much any duffer.
And finding such sports is easy, even in New England. Opportunities abound in winter, for example, with activities ranging from long-distance running to cross-country skiing, and even ice hockey, which has experienced a generations-spanning boom since the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup last season.
The New England Senior Hockey League has 35 teams for over-40 skaters, and about a half-dozen more for the over-50 set among its 350 squads in Eastern Massachusetts, said Paul Laubenstein, who founded the league in 1982.
“It’s a good game to play, it’s active, and it’s a cardiovascular workout,’’ said Laubenstein, 56, who lives in Swampscott and still plays in what is billed as the largest independent adult hockey league in North America. “There are a lot of older players who want to keep up with it.’’
The league has two seasons, which allows players to compete in summer if they choose. And for the uninitiated, the organization runs clinics and a “rookie league’’ that allow older beginners to learn skills, get coaching, and find their place in the game.
“We have guys who probably played in college. But we’ve also got guys who learned late, who go to our beginners program at 35 and 40, and all of a sudden they want to play hockey,’’ said Laubenstein, a former goalie at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Maybe they went to their doctor, and he said, ‘You’ve got to get off the couch and stop eating chips all the time.’ ’’
Health, of course, is a big motivator for older athletes. But so are feel-good intangibles such as competition and camaraderie.
For the area’s many running clubs, for example, the social benefits are as important as the group runs that help members achieve their goals - whether it’s dropping a few pounds, completing a 5-kilometer race for the first time, or clocking a personal best in the marathon.
Rob Tyrrell, 59, a board member of the L Street Running Club in South Boston, has been running with a group on Saturday mornings for years.
“We’ll do anything from 6 to 20 miles, depending on what we’re training for. The more fun, though, is getting a cup of coffee afterward,’’ said Tyrrell, who lives in Braintree and captained the Milton High School cross-country team in the late ’60s.
“The thing about running is that you don’t have to be elite, you don’t have to be fast. Our motto at L Street is no pace too slow. We’ll take anybody who wants to run.’’
Although Tyrrell ran competitively in high school, he backed away from the sport for years until he gingerly reacquainted himself in 1988.
“I’d gained a lot of weight, and I said, ‘I’ve got to stop this,’ ’’ Tyrrell recalled. “I literally started by running nine-10ths of a mile out and nine-10ths of a mile back. I just kept adding a little bit, adding a little, and I started to run area road races.’’
Now, Tyrrell is at 20 marathons and counting.
Bob Grant, vice president of the L Street club, said that more than a third of the club’s 500 members are older runners. Newcomers among them, he stressed, should not be concerned that they will be outrun or out of synch.
“The biggest fear is they think that everybody who belongs to a given club is an elite runner,’’ said Grant, 51, of Swampscott. “I get this a lot: ‘I don’t run very fast, and I feel I’ll be intimidated.’ We’ve got people who run 6-minute miles, and we’ve got people who run 15-minute miles.’’
The club allows prospective runners to join group runs every Tuesday and Thursday at 6 p.m., beginning from the Curley Community Center at the L Street bathhouse. The distance is usually 6 or 7 miles, but the workout can be customized for each runner’s abilities and desires. The key, which is never difficult, is finding other runners of similar pace.
On Sunday mornings, the club holds training runs for the Boston Marathon.
That mix of competition and camaraderie also extends to cross-country skiing, which has a devoted following in the area. At the Weston Ski Track, where artificial snow substitutes for the real stuff this winter, a weekly free-style race has attracted skiers who range into their 70s.
“It’s something that you can keep doing. It’s hard to play football when you’re 50 years old,’’ said Rob Bradlee, 53, of Reading, who is a Nordic ski coach at the Cambridge Sports Union and an avid competitor. “It’s much gentler on the body than running because there’s less pounding, and you can do a lot more of it.’’
Skiers also embrace an intimacy with nature that comes with the sport.
“I love the aesthetic of exploiting the snow, of relating very intensely to exactly how the snow is structured, how to slide as far and get as good a kick as possible, and then the life lessons that come from racing,’’ said Roger Wilson Jr. of Winchester.
“I’m 60 years old, I’m just learning how to race, and I’ve been racing all my life.’’
That attitude - of searching, striving, and doing - embodies a philosophy that is gaining popularity all the time. For Wilson, and for countless other older athletes, age is truly just a number.
Let your fingers do the running
Finding sports groups online
New England Senior Hockey League - neshl.com
L Street Running Club, Boston - lstreet.org
Cambridge Sports Union - www.cambridgesportsunion.org
Weston Ski Track - skiboston.com
Mass Senior Games - www.maseniorgames.org