Photo: Lake Independence, Minnesota, March 2022
The pedals rotate unevenly— my left foot loses contact with the pedal for a brief arc over the course of a full revolution. My triceps ache. My lower back hurts. For the last fifty years this is the right of spring: back on the bike after the northern winter recess. I thought maybe this year would be different. I spent the winter skate skiing—over 340 miles. No. It didn’t translate; different muscles, different movement. Based on history, it takes me about six weeks and five hundred miles of riding to get back in form. These are Minnesota spring miles… frequently cold, windy and overcast.
Why do I push myself? Why should anyone push themselves? Slow down, relax, enjoy the twilight of your years. Fortunately, I’m not wired that way. If you want to get the most out of life, you shouldn’t be either. Read What I learned article Don’t Let the Old Man In: Seven Strategies for Adding Life to Your Years. Is it possible to slow the aging process? Even reverse it? Stay fast or competitive in your sport? Get faster or better? The answer is yes to all. I practice and teach my clients functional independence. This edition of What I Learned is titled Spring Forward: Prep for Renewal. I write about the training required for spring and summer sports to maintain performance and prevent injury.
Training is key to preventing injury in life and sports. Intensity is key to maintaining performance. Science proves as we age our aerobic capacity decreases, body fat increases, muscles shrink and bones become fragile. Early spring is the perfect time to prepare your body for spring and summer sports. Aerobic and strength training; mobility and stretching; reviewing your nutritional needs all play a role in keeping you competitive, injury free and functionally independent.
My summer competitive sport is cycling. I don’t ride indoors in the winter. I’d rather be skiing. I go into the cycling season with a high level of aerobic capacity (Nordic skiers have one of the highest VO2 Max scores recorded). Scientists and athletes use VO2 Max as a measure of aerobic capacity Aerobic capacity is related to age. Generally, as we age we lose aerobic capacity; the average 60 year-old male has half the capacity as when he was twenty. Aerobic capacity is a good marker of your fitness age. My VO2 max is the same as the average 20 year-old. Unfortunately my lower back, joints and muscles haven’t got that message.
You improve your aerobic capacity by interval training. See my What I Learned Interval Training: Live Longer, Live Healthier. It is important to get some base miles on your bike before starting interval training. I try for two weeks and 200 miles of low to moderate intensity. After that, I start with low to moderate intensity aerobic threshold intervals improving my fat burn and pedal stroke efficiency. Next I work on high intensity lactate threshold intervals to adapt my body to the stress of maintaining a longer duration intensity. Once I hit the 500 mile mark, I work on maximum aerobic capacity intervals to improve my hill climbing and sprint times.
You can adapt these principles to any sport: running, pickle ball, tennis, triathlons, hiking and mountain climbing. The goal is strive for intensity. If your interval intensity starts to drop off during your workout, then quit. Training when you are tired, or lack the capacity to maintain the desired intensity is counterproductive. Make sure you allow for adequate recovery between interval workouts. See my article Recovery: The 50+ Athletes Secret Weapon
The loss of fitness with aging relates directly to muscle strength; true for your heart, sport specifics muscles, and overall strength. Strength training does not mean developing big, bulging muscles. What you need are strong, aerobically active muscles. Muscles that are in balance and active through their full range of motion. In my clients, I work on building strong, aerobically active muscles through endurance sets: lighter weight, more reps and less recovery time between sets.
Opposing muscle groups must be in natural balance. For example, cyclists and distance runners are quad dominant. Their quadriceps muscles on the anterior of the legs are stronger than hamstring muscle at the posterior. While are quads are meant to be stronger, when too dominant they can cause patella tendonitis or knee pain.
As we age, we lose a disproportionate amount of Type II muscle—our fast-twitch muscle used for power. To improve power and work fast-twitch muscles, I incorporate power or plyometric sets: box jumps, med ball slams, battle ropes.
We lose bone mass and density as we age. Especially for men after age fifty and women after menopause. In addition, bones become more brittle. Evidence exists that the risk of lower than normal bone density or osteopenia is greater for those who don’t exercise and for cyclists that ride exclusively. Studies show older cyclists are at greater risk of bone damage than younger cyclists.
In my practice, I stress the importance of strength training; especially total body exercises with weight like squats, deadlifts, bench press and rows. As soon as the snow melts in the spring in Minnesota, I am out hiking with a pack. Rucking— walking or hiking with load, is a great way to strengthen both muscles and bones. I find it an excellent complement to my cycling training.
Injury Prevention: Flexibility, Mobility, and Balance
I work with my clients on improving their mobility by increasing their range of motion on common exercises. I frequently see limited mobility in the lower back, shoulders, hips and ankles. When left unaddressed, these mobility issues can lead to more serious joint issues over time.
As we age, our joints become stiffer and less flexible. Muscles also become rigid with age. Risk of injury increases due to loss of strength, instability, restricted mobility and flexibility. Working with my clients and myself, I stress exercises that improve your mobility by working your muscles over their full range of motion. It is possible to maintain range of motion and improve it, even into your 70s and 80s. Balance is another skill that deteriorates with age. With that deterioration comes the risk of injury. I work with my clients using a wide variety of exercises designed to improve balance.
Stretching your muscles is controversial. There are two general types of stretching: static and dynamic. Scientific studies show that long duration static stretching decreases short-term muscle strength. Dynamic stretching has shown positive benefits which include warming the muscles and tendons, and lubricating your joints.
With my clients, I have them warmup prior to the workout with five minutes of dynamic stretching. Post workout we deload with five minutes of static stretching to release muscles tightened by the workout. I personally add yoga positions into my and some of my clients weekly routines. I find it beneficial for improving range of motion, flexibility, and joint strength. It also provides body awareness and mindfulness.
Spring Nutrition: Emerging from Hibernation
I used to gain weight every winter. Now that I am skate skiing, I have maintained my summer weight. If you gained a few pounds no worry. If you gained more than five pounds, you have an issue. Read my article Get Lean and Stay Lean.
One thing I learned over the years is you can’t exercise your way to lower weight. You have to be disciplined with your nutrition. Start with purging processed food and “comfort food” from your diet. Add more protein and healthy fat; cut your carb intake. Be careful when you eat.
Once you have some miles under your belt, work on low to moderate intensity aerobic intervals in both your strength training and sport specific training. See my article Fat for Fuel on how this works.
To Everything There is a Season
Looking out my window, there is a trace of new snow on the ground. It’s cloudy, cold and windy— a typical early April day in Minnesota. No cycling. Today I’ll do yoga, tomorrow strength and mobility training; maybe a ruck at the local ski area. It’s time to get ready for spring and summer regardless of the weather. My number one goal this summer is don’t get hurt; number two have fun. My third goal is to beat the other old guys in the coming racing season.
Thank you for the opportunity to share What I learned. If you have any questions of I can help you spring into action please contact me at 612-322-4734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Steve on the Stone Arch Bridge, Mississippi River