“I’m back after 50 years off from sport and stronger than ever”

After half a century away from the sport he loved, Kevin Bates has made a comeback. He has some great advice on how to return to sport.

Life – work, family, mortgages, and just about anything you can think of – tends to get in the way of our sporting life. When we’re at school, everything seems so easy and so much fun, and then suddenly, we’re older and we haven’t done anything sporty for years. 

It’s a vast club and plenty of us are members. But many are now looking to leave and start that comeback, whether that’s for running or any sport.

“That was me,” confirms Kevin Bates, now in his seventies and enjoying an athletics career as one of Europe’s best shot putters, after fully half a century of not doing a thing. 

“I was good at school, though,” he modestly says, flicking through a wonderful sepia-toned scrapbook made by his mother, filled with clippings from the 1960s. They tell a fabulous story. 

Kevin Bates and his scrapbook of cuttings covering 50 years agoCredit: Paul Larkins
Kevin Bates gave up sport 50 years ago, but today is back, strong as ever

Mixing with the stars

In his day, he was a rival to Geoff Capes, the TV star you’ll recall from World’s Strongest Man, plus of course the Olympics as well as the Commonwealth Games, where Capes twice picked up the gold medal for the shot put. 

Glory days, indeed, and ones Bates can recall in detail – everything from when he used to train by lifting boxes of onions to lively encounters with Capes around Holbeach in Lincolnshire where they both lived. “He once jumped out of the crowd onto a football pitch and started dribbling the ball away,” laughs Bates. 

The clippings also confirm Bates was in the same league as the giant Capes, and was more than a match for him in almost everything they did. Except for one major thing: Bates was half the size of Capes. Bates was undoubtedly strong and, as a Fen lad, he could pick up a 76kg (12st) sack of corn, while his uncles competed in local country fairs, hauling 114kg (18st) sacks around the showground. But today – as he was then – he is a slight-looking athlete.   

“As a result, I could throw the shot a long way,” says Bates, recalling the day he was second in the English Schools (the national championships for school age competitors). “But I realised I just wasn’t big enough. After I competed at the English Schools, I went to the cattle field and threw the shot 48 feet and thought, ‘I’ll never go any further’, and that was it. I just gave up.” 

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A new beginning

Apart from a quick fling with running in his forties, which involved a couple of Great North Runs, Bates didn’t really feel the urge to return to the sport he once excelled in – until a routine checkup at 60 suggested he might have slightly high blood pressure.  

“I didn’t, as it turns out,” he laughs, “but it did get me back training again. I started doing circuit training and joined a gym, and it all started from there,” he continues, agreeing that strength training for runners and older athletes is massively important and rewarding. 

He also used a distinctly old-fashioned method of cluing himself up on what he should do. “I went to the library and got a book out on shot putting,” he says. 

And from there it’s been an amazing upwards spiral that has seen him record a throw that ranks him in the top 20 of all time for his age group and compete for Great Britain in events, such as the World Masters Athletics Championships. 

“Nothing has changed,” he laughs. “Back in 1968, we threw the shot by someone’s back garden – and last year in Finland I threw it by a cycle path as people were riding by. 

“But I love the camaraderie of it all. Masters athletics is all about the social side, and I never really compete to win. I just want to do my best.” 

A newspaper cutting from Kevin's scrapbook, which was made by his motherCredit: Kevin Bates
A newspaper cutting from Kevin’s scrapbook his mother made

Top tips

Kevin shows us how he got back in shape

Returning to something you loved so much as a youngster does of course require a touch of realism, and he’s quick to point out he’s not the athlete he once was. “I’m still strong but I’ve lost power and speed. And I wish I could train every day, but I can’t. I just train when I can. If my back gets tight, I don’t throw. Plus, think about these things.” 

  • “Take up Pilates. It’s great for mobility and strength and I do it as often as I can in a week. 
  • “Watch your diet, as that can help your energy levels. I take vitamins and I watch my weight. Yes, the vitamins probably are expensive, but I have been healthy, so I can’t argue. 
  • Add protein. I make sure I have 80g [3oz] of protein every day. I Google things, check packets. I’m strict about it, as it’s hugely important for maintaining muscle strength. 
  • “Stretch. Along with Pilates, I also make sure my back is flexible. 
  • “Use what’s around you. Until recently I used to train in a churchyard, then I moved to a field that has a maintenance hole cover in it; it’s the perfect size to use as a shot circle, as they’re a bit big for me these days.” 
  • “Join British Masters Athletics. It’s a great, friendly, social club.” 

How to return to sport

Coach John Shepherd advises thinking about these things

Adopting a “less is more” approach (with plenty of recovery) is going to be more fruitful than trying to train as if you are in your twenties or thirties.  

 If you have had an extended period of inactivity, then of course you need to begin training slowly and sensibly. It will take time to gain the necessary robustness to lift heavier weights. The muscles of your spine, for example, will need to be conditioned to squat and lunge – and, of course, you need to watch your knees and shoulders, and avoid overloading too soon. 

“Strength is one of the physical attributes that deteriorates less with age – providing we train appropriately and consistently.” 

Muscle mass declines with age unless we train to combat this. Additionally, we lose explosive strength, as our “fast twitch fibres” reduce. However, it’s very much a case of “use it or lose it”.  

If we train optimally, sensibly and consistently, then power and, in particular, strength can be maintained well beyond our fifties and into our sixties. We can also reduce the natural shrinkage of our muscles.  

 Post 60-65, it’s more difficult to maintain muscle mass and power, as the ageing process can speed up. At this point it’s more about stemming the tide, rather than swimming against it.

Obviously, the more muscle mass you have going into your sixties, the more there will be to lose.   

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Paul Larkins

Written by Paul Larkins

Updated:

Paul Larkins has been a sports journalist for more than 30 years, covering two Olympic Games, one Paralympics, numerous World Championships and, most recently, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. He’s also been a magazine editor, heading up titles covering everything from running to cooking and buying tractors. But his real passion is running. As a former GB International athlete and sub-4-minute miler in the 1980s, Paul has a great understanding of life-long fitness and the benefits it can provide.