In any given sport, a number of former professional athletes who haven’t played in 20, 30 or 40 years look like they haven’t even exercised in 20, 30 or 40 years.
Safe to say Mark Howe isn’t one of those.
The Hall of Fame defenseman, who spent the best 10 years of his NHL career in a Flyer uniform, stays in shape by running five days a week at an average distance of close to four miles.
At 66, he’s found this form of athletics not only benefit him physically but mentally as well.
Howe put his body through the grinder as a player and it took him the better part of a decade after retirement to come to the realization that aerobic training, while challenging, might be the best form of therapy.
Today he’s out the door on a regular basis and currently he’s training for the Flyers Alumni’s Stroll, Run, Walk event on April 23 at Washington Crossing Historic Park. Howe is gearing up for the 10K. Other distances include a 5K and a 1K.
“The strange part for me in all the years I played was I tried to run but when I ran fast my knees would get really bad,’’ said Howe in a telephone conversation from his home in Jackson, New Jersey. “I used to get tendinitis. So after about three weeks I couldn’t run at all.’’
Thus, Howe pretty much limited his off-ice conditioning to riding on a bicycle. It was less stressful on his body and there were even a couple summers where he was “reduced’’ to just swimming under the watchful eye of then head trainer Pat Croce.
By the time he finished up a three-year stretch with his hometown Detroit Red Wings, he was 40, decided to retire and the last thing he needed was to drag himself out of bed every morning and feel obligated to stay in shape.
Howe said he gained about 10 pounds over his 185 playing weight and knew they weren’t just going to come off without some work.
But the decision to run went well beyond weight control.
“I had kind of quit doing probably everything for about 10 years,’’ Howe confessed. “The biggest reason I started back up was I had no energy. I felt lethargic, I didn’t like the feeling. Then I started doing something and the easiest thing to do is put on a pair of shoes and run out the door. I ran to feel better and running did that for me.’’
One mile led to two, two led to three and now – another 10 years later – Howe is doing long runs in the 12-mile range.
His long-range goal is to take part in the 13.1-mile (half-marathon) leg of a half-Ironman triathlon coming up in September along with his daughter and one of her friends.
If all goes well there, he might even allow himself to dream about running his first marathon. Imagine a two-time Norris Trophy runner-up making his way through the 26.2-mile ultimate challenge.
Make no mistake, there have been setbacks along the way. Upping his speed and setting some time goals, he fell victim to a bad case of plantar fasciitis in one of his feet which cost him the better part of a year. A hamstring blew out. And so forth.
Howe finally found a happy medium. He’s not trying to set any records, he just wants to make sure he completes a workout or a race.
Back in the day, Howe used to focus on speedwork, specifically to simulate hockey’s 45-second shifts. The transition to long distance wasn’t all that easy.
“I feel like I’m running with two sea anchors behind me trying to slow me down,’’ Howe said with a chuckle. “But that way you can do more miles.’’
Distance work allows a runner to “clear the mind’’ so to speak. Lots of life decisions are dwelled upon when the open road stretches out ahead.
“Running really helps me mentally,’’ Howe said. “It keeps my mind clear, keeps the stress away. It’s wonderful for me that way.’’
Why don’t more ex-athletes see the light as Howe did?
“I don’t know,’’ Howe said. “I was one of those guys for 10 years. During that time I just wasn’t myself. Running gets you up wanting to do things. My sleep habits are so much better now. My body just functions better when I’m exercising.’’
Maybe the problem for some of the ex-athletes is the inability to “gear it down.’’ They went all out in their hey-days and it’s tough to make compromises.
Howe was one of the fastest skaters in his prime but everyone has to make concessions to Father Time.
“I can’t come close to doing what I used to do,’’ Howe said. “And I wouldn’t want to. Every once in a while you have a day when you feel wonderful. But if I push too hard, my body talks back. I just had too many injuries and I just can’t tolerate doing that.’’
Howe sets realistic goals. He hopes to run the 10K in the 55-60-minute range and would like to do the half-marathon around 2:10-15.
“This (Washington Crossing event) will be my first real race,’’ he said. “And it’s for a great cause (including the Bucks County YMCA’s military wellness initiative).’’
A silver medal Olympian at the tender age of 16 in 1972 and a former left wing about whom many skeptics said would never make it as a defenseman, Howe has always surprised the doubters.
So look for him to achieve his goals, and more, in running.
“I see people out there running with headphones but I like to think,’’ Howe said.
That approach goes back to his hockey playing days and certainly is a healthy outlook for the years ahead.
Princeton 5K, 8:30 a.m., Princeton. Contact www.runsignup.com