You have heard all the strength and fitness cliches before:
No pain, no gain.
Just do it!
Only the Strong.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
I have had these concepts pounded into my brain by coaches and athletic trainers since I was knee high to a grasshopper 🙂
Each statement, in reality, has an element of truth and falsehood contained within. Yet, we tend to use these mottos to help us to achieve something in sport (and life) that goes well beyond what we think we can achieve. After all, most significant accomplishments do NOT happen overnight. It takes many years, even decades of planned and consistent training to reach our physiological and psychological peak.
Young athletes with significant natural ability, but with inadequate discipline, motivation, and external guidance, often fail to live up to the hype of their junior years. Perhaps, nowhere is this more obvious than in the world of professional cycling. These same young athletes may achieve World titles in the under 23 years-of-age category, often based on pure unadulterated natural ability and a moderate amount of training. Once they enter the realm of the Continental or Pro Tour ranks, they often just fizzle out. Few of us mere mortals can comprehend that, at that level of cycling, most riders are putting on 25,000 to 30,000 kilometres of training and racing per year. That is more mileage than most of us drive our cars in a year.
So what does this have to do with masters-aged athletes and cyclists? The short answer – everything. Recently, I had a brief discussion with an attractive and bubbly mid-thirty’s British woman (dippydottygirl) who was wondering if it was too late to go out and buy a bike and start cycling. My answer to her question would be simple – it is never too late!
Even in the fifth decade of my life, after training and competing for the better part of my life in numerous sports including Cross Country Skiing, Biathlon, and Cycling, I am still learning, growing, and improving. Although athletic performance obviously declines over time, it does not mean that one cannot continue to improve their overall fitness, skill and technique to age-graded perfection. Remember, everything in sport, including age, is relative. There are not a whole lot of 50+ years of age cyclists who still ride, let alone compete in my city of roughly 250, ooo inhabitants. The ones that do cycle, ride to achieve a high level of fitness and/or compete against the 20 or 30 somethings head on – and often beat them.
That can be really humiliating and frustrating for a Millenial to be trounced by someone old enough to be their father or even grandfather.
Remember, I did not grow up in a time where everyone got an achievement award for just participating. I was raised in the Athletic School of Hard Knocks, where one trained hard, often solo, and competed to win. To place second or third was still an accomplishment, but rather disappointing to all those concerned. We live in a different time now where participation in an event-based group setting seems to be more important to the younger generation than outright winning. That is not a bad thing in itself, however, I see it as a limiting factor for young male and female athletes achieving their best in cycling.
I keep an eye on the training levels of my friends and associates on Strava. I am actually a bit shocked and disappointed at the lack of training volume and intensity that many young riders accomplish before and during the race season. It is almost as though they depend on newer and better technology to achieve race results rather than plain old fashioned hard work. For example, some people I know broke the hour in the 80’s and early 90’s (an individual time trial) by riding simple 14-speed steel racing bikes with drop handlebars while wearing ill-fitting spandex shorts and jerseys and clumsy and heavy hard-shell helmets. This equipment had absolutely little to no aerodynamic advantage compared to todays gear. Many of those bicycles cost well under $700 dollars compared to the $10,000+ dollar sleek carbon fibre wonder bikes of today. And yet, I hear 27-year-olds bragging about how much faster they are today by riding our 40 km individual time trial course in about 56 minutes or so. Put that same individual on a bike from yesteryear and they would fail to achieve a 1:10 or worse.
One thing I have noticed about masters-aged cyclists is their ability to endure pain. Granted, most of us are already broken down, with many aches and pains, before we even swing a leg over the saddle. But, when push comes to shove, especially on a long and difficult course, invariably I see the younger riders drop off the pace and eventually loose contact with the pack. As I mentioned before, this is a training volume and intensity thing and could be remedied. At the same time, I think that older riders can endure more pain because of their experience and not so much because of their natural ability to endure physiological pain. Allow me to explain – when a rider has reasonable aerobic and anaerobic fitness as a cyclist, and has the psychological experience from the recent past of riding a long and difficult course, it is just easier mentally and physically to do well the second time out. In other words, we can mentally handle something that we endured and succeeded at previously a lot better the next time out (all things being equal). This is precisely the reason I try to ride a hilly and difficult 100km course early in the season.
Better to experience pain and misery now than later – another illogical motto.
Masters-aged athletes have a wealth of knowledge and experience that works for their benefit every time out. Many of the road courses around my neck-of-the-woods I can practically ride with my eyes shut…well almost. I know instinctively when to push hard and when to hold back. I am also keenly aware of my weaknesses and strengths in just about any kind of situation in an under 200km ride.
So why am I telling you all this? Simple…I am going to be in serious trouble this year. Due to some persistent health issues (asthma) I have had to drastically cut back on my training volume this winter. I still rode (on my trainer) a consistent schedule of various types of hard intervals two to three times a week, but that is it. I did not XC ski all winter long, and therefore my aerobic endurance is quite low coming into the outdoor riding season. In one week I will undertake a planned FTP/CP test to determine my overall fitness and I am completely freaked out about it. The 50 minute test is essentially done on a bike trainer with a gradual warmup of increasing intensity, 20 minutes of almost all-out intense effort and a gradual cool down. I do these tests every three months, rain or shine, to get a baseline of my fitness throughout the year.
I honestly do not know what the cycling season has in store for me this year and, regrettably, I have had to adjust my goals accordingly. The Regina Cycle Club (RCC) has planned some fantastic routes and sprinter-friendly events this year and I may throw down the gauntlet. After a decade of not racing formally, this should prove to be both enlightening and interesting. And yes, I plan to be a participant this year in group events with zero to no chance of getting on a podium unless I am racing against 80-year-olds 😉
May the force be with you…