Photo: On the podium with a silver medal in the distance time trial, 2021 Minnesota Senior games
I feel the adrenalin surging as the timing judge counts down the seconds: three, two, and one. The starter judge drops her hand. I stand on one pedal, push off, clip in the other foot. Gaining speed, I settle my arms into my aero bars and make myself small. It’s June 15th and my first race of the season: a ten mile time trial over rolling hills in the western suburbs of Minneapolis. Time trail, the race of truth, just you and the clock. Heart rate rising to my anaerobic threshold, I pass the rider who started 30 seconds ahead of me. The turnaround comes at five miles then back up the big hill heading for the finish line. Legs and lungs are burning. A mile before the finish I feel my left calf cramping. Forced to stop pedaling, I get my calf to relax enough to finish, but lose 20 seconds.
The next day I checked the results. My time is 29 minutes and average speed 21.3 mph. More work lies ahead preparing for the 2021 Minnesota Senior Games in August where I hope to compete in four cycling events including two time trials. I need to drop another three and half minutes and increase my average speed to 24 mph to win. I can do it. I know how to train. Training is ten percent cycling and ninety percent not cycling.
The subject of this edition of What I Learned newsletter is Recovery: Your Secret Weapon. For age 50+ for rookies to master’s athletes, recovery is on par with conditioning and nutrition. Recovery includes adequate rest periods between training, hydration, quality sleep and proper nutrition.
The Why behind Recovery
Muscles of older athletes are more susceptible to damage from intense exercise. The repair process is slower and the adaptation response to training is more gradual. If you go at it hard day after day you risk not only injuring your muscle tissue, but your joints, tendons and ligaments. These soft tissues heal slowly as we age. Over-training is counterproductive.
During recovery, the body realizes changes in form. These changes include improved fat burning and decreases in body fat; stronger and more resilient muscles and tendons; greater heart stroke volume; increased lung capacity; increase in muscular capillary density; and enhanced glycogen storage. Allowing this adaptation sets the stage for an increase in workload in the next training stage.
Signs of over-training include chronic fatigue, irritable mood, and high waking heart rate. With proper training you can maintain power and high blood oxygen capacity into your 70s. However, you can only do this if you incorporate longer recovery periods in your training. You have to fight the tendency to respond to a loss of competitiveness by ramping up your training.
For us older athletes the number one rule is train harder not longer. See my article Interval Training: Live Longer, Live Healthier. With this type of training, you need rest days. I try to take a day off every week. If you are training for an event or trip use periodization training to integrate recovery weeks into your monthly training. See my article Deliberate Training: Principles of Periodization
I also use active recovery workouts during the summer racing season. Training for the senior games, I was on a two week schedule. Every other Tuesday night I was racing in a time trial event. The next day I would ride a longer distance, but at a slower pace. Over the course of the next week, I would ride at 80% of aerobic capacity and do hill climbs or sprints at maximum aerobic capacity or power. The number and duration of the intervals would vary. Four days before the next race, I would taper. Each two week cycle would see increasing intensity and longer recovery.
There are a number of recovery therapies that help relieve soreness, restore strength and improve range of motion. I stretch and foam roll after a workout to unload my muscles. I do yoga several times a week to improve my core strength and mobility.
There are a number of more expensive recovery therapies available. They include cryogenic, hydro, massage, EMS (Electrical Muscle Stimulation), and TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation). My experience with these is that they provide short term relive from muscle pain, but don’t solve the underlying problem. Muscle groups that are unbalanced will continue to hurt. Muscle and soft tissues that are overused will continue to give you problems. A good trainer addresses these issues in a well-conceived training program.
As a recovery tool, good sleeping habits are critical. Read my article A Body at Rest: The Science behind a Good Night’s Sleep Roger Federer, the one of the greatest professional tennis players of all time, sleeps twelve hours per day. All professional sports teams put a high premium on getting their athletes a good night sleep. Get consistent high quality sleep will aid recovery and improve performance.
By age fifty, what you eat has as obvious impact on both performance and recovery. Fatty foods are harder to digest. High carb diets lead to weight gain. I have had good luck with a diet that emphasizes good fat, restricts carb intake, and consumes at least 100 grams of protein per day. For three years I have practiced daily intermittent fasting. The eating window opens at 12 noon and closes at 8 pm. Over that time I have lost fifteen pounds and reduced my body fat by four percent. For more information on diet and fasting see my article Get Lean and Stay Lean: 7 Strategies for Losing Weight
All recent studies indicate older athletes need more protein. As we get older, we have a harder time synthesizing protein. Protein aids the muscle rebuilding process especially during sleep. Protein is important for slow twitch muscles used in endurance sports. I increase my protein intake on hard interval training days consuming an extra twenty grams before and after training. On hard, long days in the mountains, my body craves protein.
Recovery and Reward
Every two weeks over the course of the summer I drop time and increase my average speed. Some weeks I am fatigued, but modify my workouts to fully recover. August 14, 2021 and I am ready for the Minnesota Senior Games.
I line up for the start of the first of four races, the distance time trail. My turn and I am off. Digging deep I push myself to the limit. I gave it my best effort, averaging 24.2 mph—good for a silver medal. The next day, I take gold in the sprint time trial. Thirteen years ago I took third place in Minnesota State Time Trial averaging 24.8 mph. That was a longer course, but the point is I have not lost much aerobic capacity from age 54 to 67. My secret? Train hard ten percent of the time and recover ninety percent of the time.