Many elite athletes have spoken about their fears of irrelevance after retiring from their sport. According to a 2018 BBC State of Sport survey, more than half of the former athletes said they felt like they had lost their identity. “Loss” and “devastation” were among the feelings cited.
Former India football captain Renedy Singh, who also played for East Bengal and Mohun Bagan (now ATK-Mohun Bagan) before retiring in 2015, says such feelings certainly play a part in making athletes lose their way when it comes to maintaining fitness. “While playing, you are motivated. Motivated to be good enough to be picked in a squad, to be recognized for the right reasons, and to be talked about in the media. This suddenly changes after retirement. You start questioning why you need to work hard any more on your body. This is why some former players lose their way fitness-wise,” says the 41-year-old, who is the technical director at the Classic Football Academy in Imphal. He’s also the president of the Football Players’ Association of India (FPAI).
Singh has continued to work on his fitness even after retiring from the game. Of course the drills aren’t as intense, but he still needs to set an example for the 450 children across the three training centres he’s in charge of. “There are different ways to motivate yourself. I use my coaching career as a big drive. I think generally football coaches should be fitter to set a precedent. But even if I wasn’t coaching, I would still stress on the importance of being physically active,” he says.
The former midfielder’s fitness regime these days mainly involves running. Day 1 of a typical three-day cycle includes a brisk, muscle-activating warm-up, a 30-minute run (during which he tries to beat the 6km mark at least), five sets of 20 push-ups and some core work. On Day 2, he runs for 70-80 minutes on a treadmill set at a running speed of 12. This is followed by some back work. Day 3 includes a set of sprint drills done on the football pitch before or after training, followed by more push-ups, core and back work. On some evenings, he sprinkles these sessions with some leg-strengthening work.
Singh realizes that to do this kind of workout, one may need to be from an athletic background, but he says any physical workout done within one’s means should not be discounted. “Not all people have access to treadmills or weights. But I am not asking anyone to do what I am doing, I am asking them to start somewhere. It could be something as mundane as walking. And if you don’t want to run, cycling is an excellent alternative. There are other alternatives like Pilates. You will have to push yourself the first two weeks, but soon you will find that zone where you can like your workouts. You will see changes in your body and that is enough motivation,” he says.
Maintaining a six-pack at 41 is not as easy as it was when he was in his 20s, but Singh says expectations should be realistic, managed according to age and fitness level. “Ask yourself why you want to exercise. My father trains with me every day even though he’s 74. But does he do it for the muscle? No. I don’t think at that age, you want to get bulky. He does it to keep his body fit and active at a time when he could just relax on the couch all day. But I can see that even he feels good about himself after hitting some weights.”
The other challenge is food. Singh isn’t someone who is extremely strict with himself. “Some time ago, rotis were apparently the secret to manage weight but then you come across an article that says there is too much gluten in them. So every three months there is new research on what you should and shouldn’t eat. But you should eat what suits you. Drastically changing a diet unless absolutely necessary isn’t really a way to remain fit. I have been living with my parents since the lockdown started and the only change I have made is asking my mother to keep the oil and masala in control,” he says. Just follow the basics of proper nutrition, says Singh. “Eat vegetables, control the junk food and sugar, but as long as you are active, allow yourself to eat what you want.”
The other factor that affects former pro-athletes is managing injuries. Singh says he, like many others, feels sore sooner and takes more time to recover. But this is where workouts become more important, because they offer signs of what you need to work on. Singh’s Instagram handle is full of workout posts and stories, and he seems to have inspired quite a few followers, including former footballers like East Bengal’s Alvito D’Cunha. “So many people without a sports background have also asked me on how to start off—and they all have. That makes me happy, to be a small inspiration for someone to start taking part in some physical activity.”
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writes on football and fitness.