How Mike D Stays Fit at 50

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Photograph by Randi Berez

About a year ago, my kids and I were surfing from a boat a hundred nautical miles off the Mexican mainland. I did a top turn, where you go up a wave, do a high turn, and go back down. It was a turn I’d done a thousand times. I didn’t make the world’s biggest spray or get the most air or earn a perfect 10 in my nonexistent heat, but I did tear through the meniscus and part of the ACL on my right knee. I felt it and heard it, and it was immediately terrible.

When I got back home, I hobbled around a lot, and my knee would pop out on me. So I got surgery and I did the rehab. But I knew that if  I wanted to continue doing the things I wanted to do and function the way I needed to, I had to figure out a new way to get fit.

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Something’s Gotta Give

I was a punk-rock kid who loved music. I grew up in Manhattan and went to school in Brooklyn, so running to catch the subway was the closest thing I had to playing a sport. I never did any training. I guess I consider myself gym-averse. I don’t know if that’s even a category, but if it is, I’m in it.

Cardio-wise, I’ve always been solid. Touring for decades with the Beastie Boys was great for that: I ran around like an idiot for hours at a time, yelling for a living. But touring is torture on your immune system. You’re not sleeping properly. You’re getting on and off airplanes all the time. Your adrenal glands are going crazy because you’re performing for thousands every night. I was constantly getting sinus infections and colds.

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Yoga kept me from losing my shit while on tour because it’s a mindful practice I could do wherever I was. I happily settled into a daily ashtanga routine, which led to a meditation practice that I still do every day.

But as I aged and surfed more, I realized that yoga — or the way I practiced it, anyway — hadn’t prepared me for everything I wanted to do. I would be on my surfboard and realize, “Oh, fuck, I’m not very comfortable.” And I’d think, “It would be nice if I were stronger.” Not just stronger, but stronger in specific ways to be a better surfer and allow me to keep doing fun shit with my kids. I have only a few years before they’re basically talking to me once a week (and then only through Snapchat), so I want to get the most out of this time.

The Chain Reaction

If I had known before that Mexican surf trip what I know now, I would have prepared by activating and strengthening my glutes and core. Then, when I turned on that wave, the force would have come from my core, where all the power is, rather than my knee, which is literally the weak link. No wonder it blew out.

For the past year, I’ve been working with a trainer on proper muscle activation, mobility, and balance, trying to unravel 40 years of bad habits. The hard part is taking the old patterns, which my body has been doing for decades, and saying, “Stop doing that. This way is more efficient.”

Since I’m in Malibu, I’m lucky to be in proximity to knowledgeable fitness types. I started strength training in the pool at Laird Hamilton‘s place. He does a lot of breath work, and since I’d done so much yoga, I was comfortable doing that. And what was scary about the training — holding your breath underwater while moving weights around — intrigued me because I went to those scary places in my yoga practice. Training in the pool, though, is physically and mentally fatiguing on a whole other level. The afternoon after a workout, you hit a brick wall and need a nap and an espresso just to get back in the game.

The pool work is all about breathing, and it complements surfing. You’re moving 35-pound dumbbells on a pool floor, and your heart’s like, “Give me some effin’ oxygen, hello!” It’s an opportunity to override that natural panic. Because at some point when you’re surfing, you’re gonna take too many waves on the head or get dragged farther underwater than you thought possible, and part of you is going to say, “I can’t.” I’ve had that happen — but now I go to a different place in my mind, where I think, “Wait, I do this in the pool. I’m OK.” Then I relax, stop expending unnecessary energy panicking, and I’m fine.

Control What You Can

This might sound douchey, but I aspire to surf with enough grace and skill that I can hang with my friend Stephanie Gilmore, who is a six-time world champion. But at the same time, I’ve given up on trying to keep up with my sons in the water. My injury allowed them to officially surpass me. All of a sudden, they went from being Brooklyn kids to being California kids, and — you know that sound a board makes when it hits the lip of a wave? — it was like whack!

Last winter we surfed the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, and I was just testing being back in the water while my older son paddled to the pipe with all those world-famous waves. I had to watch it from the beach, which sucked; I would have loved to have been out there with him. But it was also a chance to check one’s pride and embrace humility (and the joy of being a parent). I’m not 14, working toward being a great surfer at 24. Thank God I’m still able to be active and do what I love. Such moments teach you to appreciate what you have and to be at peace with it.

I know a lot of this is a reaction, conscious or unconscious, to mortality, which teaches us that we have to accept that people we love, ourselves included, are going to die. And we try to become as OK with that reality as possible. I’ve had a strong dose of that. Adam [Yauch], who died four years ago, was such a huge figure in my life on so many levels, and if there was anything I could have done to change the circumstances and help him live longer, I would have done it. But there wasn’t. It’s not something you can control.

But then you realize, “OK, there are a few things I can control, steps I can take to set myself up for longevity. So why not take them?”

Three techniques that improved Mike D’s mobility, stability, and strength are key for us all.

1. Activate the Body

“I have Mike foam-roll before every workout,” says strength specialist Adam Friedman. “This helps turn down tight, overactive muscles that are compensating, like the quads and calves, and it turns on muscles that are often shut off from sitting around, like the glutes and hamstrings.” After a few minutes of rolling, Friedman says, every muscle is primed for the workout.

2. Fire Up the Core

To build stability, Friedman uses Bird Dogs, which engage the abs and back. Start on all fours, and raise opposite arm and leg. “I put a dowel rod on Mike’s back to ensure he’s aligned.”

3. Pinpoint Weaknesses

You can get a 3-D strength assessment with Suitcase Carries, Friedman says. Holding a kettlebell in one hand, arms at sides with shoulders pulled back, walk for 30 seconds. Switch hands and repeat. “You’ll feel if the left or right side is working harder, or the abs or lower back, or if your posture is compromised,” he says. “Then you can focus on fixing that imbalance.”

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