As one of the greatest tennis players of all time — with Grand Slam titles, Olympic gold medals, and numerous other impressive achievements under her belt — Venus Williams knows a thing or two about staying in shape. Along with her younger sister Serena, Venus has redefined what a tennis pro looks like with her landmark achievements as a Black woman in a majority-white sport, inspiring a generation of fans in the process.
Venus went pro at just 14 years old — and at 42, she’s still going strong. In January, she started her 30th year on the Women’s Tennis Association Tour, beating a player half her age. Williams’ latest project is a partnership with Purina Pro Plan; as part of the pet food brand’s Monday Like a Pro Challenge, she and her pup, Harry, promote Athletes for Animals and encourage pet parents to be active with their dogs.
Venus is passionate about staying happy and healthy, and is surprisingly forthcoming about the challenges she’s faced in recent years — specifically, adjusting her exercise routine with age; dealing with an autoimmune disease; and learning the value of slowing down. We interviewed her last week, discussing everything from tips for keeping fit after 40 to the peace that letting go brings. Read on for more from our conversation with the tennis legend.
Train smarter, not harder.
Williams is known for her aggressive playing style, and while her training is undoubtedly intense (“My life is one great big workout,” she says), she’s had to rethink aspects of her routine as she’s aged. “I’m learning to train smarter, which is something I should’ve been doing long before I hit my 40s,” she admits. “When you’re younger, you think that more is better and pushing every extreme is better, but it’s actually not.” Clearly, even an accomplished athlete like Venus has to go easier on her body with age — and as she points out, what ultimately builds longevity is honoring your body’s changing needs.
One of Williams’ favorite ways to “train smarter” is by using blood flow restriction. This training technique — in which you put elastic bands around your arms or legs to reduce blood flow to the area — allows you to use less weight to build strength than you typically would. She notes that this technique has helped ease her sore knees and allows her to “build muscle without a horrible load like I used to do.” Williams was previously devoted to an intensive weight-lifting exercise known as the deadlift — “but I realized I had to get out of the deadlift game,” she explains, since the technique became too hard on her body.
Finding a training method that works for you will require having a detailed knowledge of your body and its needs; in order to get this, you may need to consult with a doctor or other professional. But in Williams’ experience, working out with less of a load has been nothing but beneficial: “My body loves me for it,” she says.
Self-knowledge can ease painful symptoms.
In 2011, Williams was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that causes dryness of the eyes and mouth, joint pain, fatigue, and other symptoms. She battled her painful symptoms for six years before receiving her diagnosis. Williams has since found that a plant-based, gluten-free diet has helped her feel her best. She even has her own line of vegan superfoods and shakes, Happy Viking — though she’s not afraid to indulge from time to time. “I’ve never met a French fry that’s not vegan!” she notes.
Autoimmune diseases are all too common, and known to impact far more women than men — so anything that can be done to understand and potentially mitigate symptoms will be beneficial for a woman following her diagnosis. “It can be overwhelming because it’s out of your control. That’s the hardest part,” Williams acknowledges. “Definitely look at all the different things that might be outside of the box, like vitamin levels and iron levels. It’s so important to find a doctor who will listen to you.” Her other tips include getting enough sleep and drinking enough water: “As simple as they sound, these things make a huge difference for people with chronic illness,” she explains.
Don’t be afraid to step back.
While she’s still bringing power to the court, Williams’ diagnosis has made her think differently about her relationship to fitness. “You gotta realize when you’re at your breaking point,” she warns. “That doesn’t happen every week, but sometimes you realize you need to step back — because if you don’t, you’ll be unpleasant to yourself and others.” Stepping back can give you a valuable perspective on your situation; and if you’re facing chronic illness, being gentle on your body can be especially vital.
Williams urges women to be realistic with their fitness goals, which can help to build enthusiasm for exercise. “If you don’t enjoy the movements you’re doing, it’s not going to be sustainable,” she says. “For example, I hate planks. People who can plank for 10 minutes? They’re not human.” So don’t force yourself to do exercises you aren’t excited about. In addition to her workouts, Williams makes sure to practice self-care by eating healthy foods (“I can’t live without smoothies”) and finding joy in spending time with her dog (“We’re codependent. He’s like my little shadow.”)
While Williams has faced her share of setbacks, she remains positive and active at an age when many of her peers have stepped away from the game. Her athletic prowess is still extraordinary, and her days are filled with hardcore workouts — but now she also understands the value of slowing down. “If you can only move 10 or 15 minutes, it’s still worth it,” she says. “Just move a little bit every day, and eventually your glass will be full.”
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