Martina After 50

By Hannah Wallace February 1, 2009


You could call Martina Navratilova an “active retiree.” The nine-time Wimbledon singles champ enjoys tending the fruit trees around her Casey Key home. She walks along the beach and dines out in downtown Sarasota. Like so many retired Sarasotans, she’s also filling her golden years with charity projects and world travel. But she’s hardly a senior citizen: At 52, the tennis legend has the lean, muscular body of a woman half her age


For Navratilova, an active over-50 lifestyle goes beyond the occasional game of tennis. She also skis, plays ice hockey, and tries whatever other new sport strikes her fancy. In a 35-year career punctuated by 18 Grand Slam singles titles (31 doubles), Navratilova earned a reputation as a fierce competitor, ranked 19th on ESPN’s list of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. She finally retired from professional tennis in 2006, a month before her 50th birthday.


Now, as AARP’s fitness ambassador and the author of lifestyle-improvement book Shape Your Self, she devotes much of her time to sharing her fitness triumphs and setbacks in order to motivate others. Motivation, she understands, is half the battle for older Americans. Their strength and stamina may be deteriorating and their aches and pains increasing, and many have to break a lifetime of unhealthy habits as well. Having faced obstacles from injury, constant travel, public criticism and private stresses, Navratilova is both sympathetic toward such hardships and certain those hardships can be overcome. In her mind, “willing” and “able” are the same.


“You will find motivation if something bothers you enough,” she begins in typical no-nonsense fashion. Eating all-natural cereal, she’s seated at the lone table in a sparsely furnished house on Casey Key. Despite an impending photo shoot, she’s dressed comfortably, in flip-flops speckled with paint—accidentally stylish—the result of hitting colored tennis balls against a canvas for an artistic collaboration called Art Grand Slam, one of her many projects. She wears cotton shorts and a T-shirt with a bird on it that reads, “Chicks dig me.” An outspoken leader in gay rights efforts since she publicly revealed her homosexuality in 1981, Navratilova is neither evasive nor apologetic about her personal life.


She discovered Sarasota by accident: Driving down I-75 to Naples, she grew tired and turned off the interstate earlier than she’d planned. “I turned right, kept driving, and I ended up on Casey Key,” she says. She now owns several properties in south Sarasota, but she’s put this house up for sale—part of a cleansing of assets after an eight-year romantic relationship turned sour, affecting her mindset and her midsection. The woman had become too accustomed to the trappings of fame, Navratilova carefully explains, and ending it proved the right thing to do. “I got out of [the relationship] and the weight came off,” she says.


“Find something you really love doing. Something from your childhood.”


Navratilova spent the better part of four decades working every angle, every moment, to optimize her fitness. But that was her job. Now that she’s retired, Navratilova says her youth in Czechoslovakia has become the basis of her over-50 fitness philosophy.


“I was always active,” she writes in Shape Your Self. “I climbed spruce trees next to our house. I started playing tennis before my fifth birthday. I ran and bicycled around our garden and pretended it was a track. I skied and played ice hockey and soccer. I was a total jock.”


Those childhood activities were occasional cross-training tools throughout her tennis career; now they comprise the bulk of her workouts. She calls the gym “a supplemental thing” and instead gets a good deal of her exercise from what she enjoys most: sports. “All sports,” she says proudly. Kite surfing is next.


Exercise “has to be entertaining,” Navratilova insists—games, sports, music and teammates are all motivators. The variety that comes with following your impulses is important, too, she adds. “With the same old routine, the body gets lopsided.” Hers is not: The granite strength of her left shoulder and forearm, responsible for unleashing crushing serves during her career, is evident even as she holds her cereal spoon. But her right arm and legs, too, stand out with the tan, toned look of constant and varied activities. Just looking at her body, you might think she was an Olympic swimmer or ambidextrous heptathlete. She’d probably be eager to prove her prowess in those sports, too.


Contrary to today’s low-carb philosophies, Navratilova enjoyed a childhood diet dominated by rice, potatoes and dumplings, traditional Czech dishes that fueled her nonstop activities. But when she came to the U.S. at 19, she says, the protein-rich American meals (along with lots of ice cream sundaes) affected her metabolism—she lost energy—and her weight—she gained 20 pounds in just a few weeks. The added weight was both a burden to her game and an easy target for the press. “Reporters wrote that my parents didn’t recognize me,” she writes. One columnist labeled her “the Great Wide Hope.”


The criticism made the famously competitive Navratilova determined to correct her eating habits. She cut back on desserts and adjusted her meals according to her activity level.


Still, the American diet wasn’t all bad. She tasted her first mango when she came to the country at 19. She’d never heard of mangoes before then; now she eats them religiously. The first thing she did when she purchased her Casey Key home in 2002 was plant fruit trees throughout the property. It’s a dream to walk out her door in the morning and pick fresh litchis and mangoes, she says, sneaking a peek out the windows. “Every time I come home, I’m checking the trees.”

In fact, Sarasota provides an abundance of foods she loves. She shops at Whole Foods, the downtown Farmers Market and Veggie Magic on Bee Ridge Road. She’s a big fan of the healthy food at Simon’s on the South Trail. (Mediterraneo and St. Armands’ Dolphin Café are also favorite spots for meals out.) As she’s gotten older, her diet has moved toward more all-natural, organic and even raw foods. “I noticed a near-immediate boost in my energy levels” after eating organic, she says. Motivated by her love of animals, she even became a vegetarian for seven years—until she decided the meat-free diet lessened her stamina. She still mostly avoids red meat—it makes her feel sluggish.


Though it’s not evident in her lean frame, Navratilova says she’s accepted that her waistline may expand a little with age—an attitude that frees her conscience for the occasional milkshake or slice of pizza. It’s the discomfort of an unhealthy diet that she can’t stomach. You could call it an intuitive approach to dieting, though it also sounds like a child’s matter-of-fact philosophy: “If I feel like crap after eating something,” Navratilova explains, “I won’t eat that any more.” Easy as that.



“Pay attention to your body.”


After playing competitive professional tennis well into her 40s, Navratilova is familiar with aches and pains. In her 50s, she admits, “I feel them more.” Still, she’s yet to use age as an excuse.


Two years ago, she began having pain in her hand—then her wrist, then her elbow and shoulder. She’d rest for a week or so, but every time she returned to the court, the pain came back, too. As it affected her entire left arm and even her neck and back, she might have assumed it was a serious injury—or worse yet, the inevitable decline that comes with age. Instead, she wondered if the soreness stemmed from her new tennis racquet. “I changed racquets, and the pain completely went away,” she says.


Something as basic as footwear can also be the source of discomfort. In fact, she says, usually, “it’s the shoes.”


But some changes with age are inevitable. “You have to pay attention to your body,” she says. “Train smarter, not harder. Do less more often.”


And finally, “Take one day a week of total rest,” she advises. Consider it part of the fun of your new fitness routine.

“There’s always running.”


This morning, Navratilova has just two hours to devote to our interview and photo shoot. She gets her makeup and hair done in between bites of breakfast and playing with her dogs, describing their personalities to the styling crew—the lazy French bulldog, the diva Pekingese—as though she’s hosting a dinner party, never letting the conversation die, asking as many questions as she answers. How long have you worked there? Do you know so-and-so? She makes fun of her short, thin blond hair—“God stopped when he got to my head.”


She’s relaxed amid the powder brushes and hairspray. But then she disappears upstairs, unannounced, for five long minutes. When she returns, her just-styled hair has been brushed out. She’s conciliatory to the crew, but stops short of apologizing. “It didn’t look like me,” she says. “I looked matronly.”


Like our time together today, much of Navratilova’s life is still planned down to the minute. Constant travel was one of the major fitness roadblocks she faced as a professional athlete, and one that continues into her retirement as she remains active in television commentary, charity appearances, recreational travel and more. She tells us that in the last three years, the longest she’s stayed in any one place was three weeks in London. And she doesn’t live in London. Smiling, she mentions a new relationship, a woman who complements her healthy lifestyle—but lives in Paris. “I’m on the road so much,” Navratilova says, “by the time I fill up the fridge, it’s time to go.”


In her book, she details a variety of exercises that can be done with little or no equipment—especially helpful in hotel rooms. Variations on push-ups, twists, tummy tucks and leg-lifts are the sort of controlled, low-weight exercises that help form a Navratilova-like stone-smooth muscle tone.


Wherever you are, she adds, “There’s always running.”


When she heads to New York tomorrow afternoon, she’s already got a tennis appearance scheduled. When she’s in Florida for four days in March, her hockey team will have a tournament to get her blood pumping. Whether she’s playing a celebrity doubles tournament in San Diego, a pick-up hockey game in Aspen or learning to paddleboard for our photo shoot on Casey Key—an idea she enthusiastically embraces—exercise is still second nature.


In the Gulf, removed from the photography crew on the shore and accompanied only by a local surfboard maker, she’s a kid again, grinning as she balances on the waves, the board wobbling and spinning. After a few shaky moments, she falls backside first into the water—and comes up laughing. Then she climbs back on the board and tries again.


“I love being on a team—that’s why I play doubles so much.”


On any given weekend when she’s home in Florida, you might find Navratilova on the ice at Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, strapping on her hockey equipment, joking with teammates, challenging referees and throwing her 52-year-old frame against 22-year-old opponents—just one of the gals. She once became so involved in arguing with a referee that a teammate called her “McEnroe.”


Ice hockey is among her very first loves. “If there’s a game, I’m there. I’d move mountains to play hockey,” she proclaims. As a child, she played in figure skates; her mother, an active woman in her own right, thought hockey skates were unfeminine.


At a weekend women’s hockey tournament in Orlando last year, Navratilova played four games in a single Saturday. Afterwards, she joined teammates for beer and pizza. “I love being on a team,” she grins. “That’s why I play doubles so much.”


Camaraderie, Navratilova points out, has been scientifically linked to successful fitness plans. She cites an AARP study in which participants began a walking program either independently or in groups. Eighty-seven percent of those walking in groups completed the program.


She likens hockey—and team sports in general—to the symphony: the harmony of different instruments working together. “I like scoring goals, but I would prefer setting up the perfect pass,” she says.


Getting in shape is about more than looking good or increasing your physical prowess, she insists.


“Mind, body—they’re all connected,” she argues. “You can’t say, ‘I work at a computer all day so I don’t need to be fit for work.’ Chess players have known this for centuries.”


She likes to start her mornings with a sudoku puzzle. She finds that her level of fitness has a profound effect on how quickly she can solve it. “People tell me, ‘I don’t have the time.’ I like to say, ‘Exercise saves time.’ If you do an hour of exercise, work that normally takes four hours will only take two.”


She believes that staying fit fuels her sense of well-being, her charity projects and her overall desire to be a good person. “You have the energy,” she says. “You want to spread the good cheer. The older you get, the more it’s about the people. It’s not about how big a house you own. It’s about the people you affect.” She recalls a woman who spotted her on the street and said, “I met you when I was 14, and you were so nice to me. I always remembered that.”


When our two hours are up, she graciously thanks everyone and excuses herself. With just one more afternoon in town, she can’t wait to get out the door, cross Casey Key Road and go down to the beach. Today she wants to swim in the surf; tomorrow she’ll plunge into some other sport.

Navratilova’s nutrition:

Tips for eating healthy.


Think about how you feel after eating—especially after eating something unhealthy.


Plan meals around vegetables and whole grains instead of protein.


Plan social outings around activities, not food. Meet friends for a walk or a movie instead of pizza or desserts.


Plan ahead: Bring your own snacks to work and on long trips. Scout ahead for healthy restaurants near where you’re staying.


Think of everyday objects to estimate serving sizes: one cup equals a baseball; half a cup is a cupcake wrapper full; one-fourth cup is a golf ball or two checkers.


Keep a journal of food and exercise activities.

Filed under
Show Comments