Toolbox: The Aging Cyclists Old and Young
Aging ‘warriors’ have been around since the beginning of time (see Noah…). Older athletes have been performing and competing just about as long; however, our current generation is the first to be involved in such large numbers. We have embraced the active lifestyle as never before. But what does this mean? What are we truly capable of as we move through the years? And how do we find our path to athletic longevity and personal success?
As I searched for a title to this article, this was my first attempt:
“How To Lie To Yourself and Believe It…Because Believing Is Being”
I decided to scrap that one only because I did not want to start the article by telling you to lie, even though there is a lot of truth is this statement!
Dropping Power and Recovery?
Like me, you probably have heard the well-worn axiom that most masters athletes have less power and endurance, and recover more slowly than their younger peers. Not so long ago both the press and popular opinion played this card so often that a generation or two of us started believing there was stuff we really couldn’t or shouldn’t do anymore. If you are a kid, or a kid in spirit, like me, you should probably just ignore this line of chatter completely.
Call it lying to oneself if you like, but recovery levels, like the words we hear, then believe are really more about understanding how to defeat those engrained cultural limitations with a healthy mind-set that says AVOID BUYING anybody’s universal truisms about who you are, and where you are going, athletic or otherwise.
So, are masters athletes really not as fast and do they recover more slowly than their younger counterparts? A recent Wall Street Journal article by Robbie Shell seems to indicate this is not necessarily true in the higher echelons of endurance cycling. The interview between Shell and 70 year old cyclist Michael Patterson, a retired executive and Brent Ruby, director at the Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism at the University of Montana is a breath of fresh air for all of us who fit into the category of “older-generation athletes.”
70 Year Old RAAMs
The article explains how Patterson’s four man team, all 70 years or older, competed in the 2013 Race Across America. Patterson’s little cadre of septuagenarians covered the distance in 6.55 days, blowing away the previous record for the 60-70+ age category. But how does that compare with a top team effort in RAAM? The answer – less than 2% slower!
The previous overall record time of 6.45 days was established by an elite British team, using similar training methodology as the 70 year olds, but the Brits average age was only 37. The only measurable difference was that they consumed slightly more calories than the old guys who were probably more concerned about maintaining their weight and youthful physiques!
“We clearly need to rethink our ideas about what older people are capable of doing, yet we discount those capabilities all the time. As people get older, we can still do amazing things” says Ruby. From my perspective, the RAAM ride by the senior team stands as a hallmark achievement that should jog us into reconsidering some of the traditional roadblocks we cast into our inevitable path to the grim reaper.
As one of the original four founders of RAAM, and a 2nd-place finishing individual participant, I would add that while endurance training and racing seems to be the exploratory arena of more active older athletes, a healthy sense of deceit is needed to counter our self imposed limitations. Among the limits we will struggle with is maximum output, but let’s put that in perspective.
We Lose Some Capabilities, But Not All…Not Even Close
Performance stats used to be important to me, I liked to use my numbers to boost my own self confidence compared to my lower scoring peers. Now I couldn’t care less. Since I was 20 years old I have measured my VO2 scores. I stopped this only a few years ago. Mentally it is self defeating. Why do I need to be reminded of the fact that my performance is on the skids? In fact I’ve lost about ¼ of my VO2 max and the same pattern is painfully apparent in watts per KG scores; the horsepower ain’t there no more!
Yet, at 66, I still hold a category 1 racing license and can still hold my own against the kids on both training rides and races. Am I lying, you may ask? To borrow the spirit of Sun Tzu’s manifest from The Art of War, coaching is like following water running down a rocky hill; we must follow the path dictated by nature. Similarly, the formula for finding a cyclist’s inherent strengths, irrespective of age, is to address his/her weaknesses.
Here are the facts that I can both appreciate and address. While it is important to know maximum sustainable power numbers and heart rate with an appreciation for cardiac drift, monitoring such variables plays a very small role in the total performance equation. Far more important is finding personal idiosyncrasies that affect range of motion (ROM) and strength, as we discussed in the third part of my bike fitting series.
Body work in the form of dynamic motion or active release therapy can pinpoint immediate soft tissue impingements, which dramatically affect our ability to leverage power. Systematic balancing of power for both hemispheres of the body is critical to maintaining a linear vector of force, which in turn is important not only for holding on to “what we have” but also turning it into “what we need.”
ROM must first be improved before strength training is implemented, once the “chisel” phase begins. Strength training must complement the same motor action as pedaling. A customized program that addresses individual flexibility, strength and biomechanical variations is an absolute must for improvement. Simply put, as we lose our vital capacities, we need to engage an array of creative training applications that fit our specific goals with fun new games that stretch human potential.
John the Praying Mantis
A personal example will illustrate my point. I’ve had lower extremity x-rays that show a 7 mm variation of left/right femur length yet I choose to deal with this biological fact as an issue of soft tissue inflexibility and back it up with core strengthening rather than the traditional approach of “shim the short side.” Enduring the decades, and serious back injuries, I have actually improved my “Hinge Range” as I call it, flattening a 6’2” body into a natural aero position on a road bike that is lower than most others with 5-6” less altitude.
My set up allows me a flattened upper torso stretched out over the bike, which at once brings the stable core into play while simultaneously tapping the parasympathic nervous system to improve a comfortable sustainable cruise speed of 2 mph faster under ideal conditions. The core activation saves the big muscles from drawing down too much power too quickly by utilizing the core as a true and stable platform for reducing heart rate.
When we talk about diminished recovery for masters athletes, let’s tell the truth about what is actually happening and what we can do to compensate. As one’s bodily function slows – say our oxygen carry capacity – we switch gears and train another capacity that is standing idle. An individual plan includes working all functioning components to take up the slack. While I’ve lost VO2 capacity, I have increased flexibility and vastly improved upper body strength, added more actual hands-on body work, replaced missing nutritional essentials, and generally made myself a better rounded athlete.
There are some common areas to focus on that can help you to be the best athlete you can be:
• Get a thorough, honest assessment of your strength, flexibility and range of motion
• Turn any weaknesses into strengths; mobility and stability trumps everything else
• Search for the combination of training, recovery and rest that works for YOU – no one else!
Since I’m first and foremost a coach, I welcome your input. For a continuation of these observations and insights, please see my book Mastering Cycling.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
– Dylan Thomas
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.johnhowardsports.com.