The Aging Athlete

3
1968

By Kelly McPherson — Unless the unthinkable happens, we will all have the privilege of getting old someday. According to Lara Briden, author of Hormone Repair Manual, research shows that civilizations which respect and give productive roles to its aged, thrive more than those that just value youth. I don’t know about our civilization but cycling definitely tends to prioritize youth. The sport gives its priority, coverage and biggest prizes to the categories filled with young, fit bodies that take amazing punishment and recover quickly. This is a sport that considers 35+ a Masters athlete. Some of us haven’t even gotten into the sport by that age and we are already considered too old? Wow! Alas, this is not the article for addressing the seeming unfairness and politics of older athletes in a youth dominated sport, but an article to help those of us who have reached this phase continue forward with a little more joy and grace.

Kelly McPherson at the start of the Salt Air Time Trial. Photo by Kelly McPherson

We do not really have a choice as to whether or not we age, and to some degree how we age. How we age depends a lot on our genetics and what kind of care we took with our bodies for the first 50 or so years of our life. Some of our bodies will age very well with nothing more than a slight decline in our athletic abilities. Some of us will have aging hit us like the cement berm in the middle of a crit course causing us to crash and burn and wonder what happened and to hope that we might be able to get back onto our bike and roll to the finish line.

We do, however, have a choice as to how we respond to our aging. The way I look at it, we have basically three choices. All three options require some level of acceptance. All three options are very personal, and I would highly recommend working with your doctor to figure out what is right for you. Disclaimer: I am not a doctor and am not giving medical advice. The only claim to credibility that I have is that I am old and have been trying to figure this out and thought I would share my research.

  1. Accept it and let it happen. There is something to be said for enjoying the golden years how you please. Many have said, that once you get over the fear of it, aging is quite liberating. Oftentimes as we get older, we have more free time and more expendable income which equals more opportunities to choose what we want to do. For some of us, this may mean the freedom to ride when we want, how we want and where we want without the pressure of a formal training plan. We can ride just for the joy and health of it. If we enjoy having the latest and greatest in bike equipment, we might have the money to get it. If we would rather ride a cruiser with a basket, more power to us! If we simply don’t want to ride at all and want to start playing pickleball instead, that is our choice.

    This also may mean not worrying so much about our nutrition and maintaining a racing/riding weight. Eat the freaking cookie! Enjoy the late-night potato chips and savor every minute of it while laughing, either internally or aloud at your younger counterparts who are counting every gram of carbs and saying “no” to what you can say “yes” to.This option has some definite appeal. Of course, it also comes with the slowing down and an expanding waistline with all of the health consequences that comes with that. Still, the happiness and joy of it might make it worth it.

  2. Accept it, but slow it down with lifestyle changes. There is a lot we can do to help our bodies age better. I will divide them up into several categories.
    1. Maintain Muscle Mass – As we age, we start to lose muscle mass. Maintaining muscle is critical to weight management as well as mobility and function as we age. Most cyclists will do some weight training during the winter. As we age, it becomes important for these workouts to be year-round. Every body is a little bit different. Seek out the help of a good certified personal trainer or coach to help you put a plan together that is right for you.
    2. Nutrition – You may have noticed that your body just doesn’t process nutrition the same way as it did when you were 20. You are going to have to pay attention to what you eat now and eliminate as many junk calories as you can. You aren’t burning as many as you used to, and you can’t afford to be spending your calories on foods that don’t pack the nutritional punch you need to fuel your body to its peak. Stay away from sugar, refined carbs, and fried foods. Most of these, wasted opportunities for nutrition, offer nothing but junk calories and can often damage your digestive track and energy systems. Many older athletes, especially women, may benefit from moving to a vegetarian or a plant-based diet.
    3. Recovery – One of the things you may have noticed is that your recovery needs may have changed. Where you used to be able to ride hard day after day, week after week, that kind of riding now tends to burn you out and leave you feeling drained at a starting line rather than fresh. Recovery now becomes at least as important as your workout. This may mean decreasing volume so you can keep your intensity higher. It may mean adding in more rest days. I have really dialed back my workouts this year and it is interesting to me that my race performance has actually improved. It has been really fun to roll starting lines feeling rested and happy. Doing more does not always equal improved performance. It could be beneficial to work with a coach for a while to help dial in your recovery needs.

      Don’t forget to sleep! This can be tricky as we age as our quality of sleep often decreases. Pay attention to your sleep hygiene and prioritize getting to bed early enough to get what you need. If you are concerned that you may not be getting the quality you need despite adequate time in bed, you might consider a wearable such as a Whoop or an Oura Ring. I have used mine to dial things in and find some of the unhealthy habits that were preventing the success that I wanted.

    4. Meditation and Yoga – Cyclists really need to become religious about this regardless of age, but as we get older, it becomes even more important. So many of the aches and pains that we get can be alleviated, reduced, or prevented by regular meditation and yoga practice. Find yourself a yoga instructor you love, a YouTube channel, subscription, etc. Whatever! Just do it!!!
    5. Supplements and Herbs – Please note: The FDA does not regulate supplements and herbs and so neither claims nor safety can be guaranteed. Again, I am not a doctor, but when I was doing my research, a couple of common supplements and herbs were commonly referenced, so I thought I would mention them below:
      • Fish Oil –supposed to help with inflammation as well as heart health.
      • Cinnamon – reputed to help with blood sugar control.
      • D3 – supposed to be good for mood as well as immune system health.
      • St John’s Wart – women commonly use this to help with perimenopausal hot flashes.
      • Chamomile – supposed to help with being able to sleep.
      • Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) – supposed to help with performance and recovery.
  1. Accept it, but fight like hell! We live in a day of modern medicine and technology. There are many things that one can do to fight aging, medically. Not all medical options are right for everyone, and you must be aware that some of the options may make it necessary to obtain a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) in order to race or may end your racing altogether. You will have to weigh that against the possible health benefits before you decide.
     

    1. Step one is to find a good medical professional – Not all doctors are created equal in this area. I have gone to multiple doctors over the last few years complaining of various age-related ailments. I remember pouring my heart out to my ob/gyn while vulnerably sitting unclothed on an exam table only to be told that I was getting old, it was normal and to get used to it. I was devastated! Who designed a system where you feel like crap for 40-50 years of your life? If you are told this, you don’t have to accept it. Find a different doctor. Get recommendations and keep trying until you find someone you like and addresses your needs.
    2. Write down and prioritize your concerns – Give your doctor a complete list of everything that is going on. They may be able to see a pattern that you hadn’t noticed and look at some medical conditions, other than aging, that you hadn’t considered. It is unlikely that any medical professional is going to be able to make you feel like you are 20 again. Choose a couple of your most concerning issues and have them address those first. Oftentimes, if they address those, the others get better as well.
    3. Communicate – make sure your doctor knows what your goals are. If you want to keep racing, make sure they know that. There are some treatments that are good for the average joe, but not for an athlete.
    4. Be persistent – Keep in communication with your doctor. If you feel like something isn’t right, keep pushing until you find an answer. Also, make sure you are persistent in doing what your doctor recommends and prescribes. It won’t do you any good if you are not doing it!

Also please note: There is a tendency to write off all the weird ailments that people suffer through as they age as normal signs of aging or of menopause. While this may be true, I would strongly recommend that you work with a good physician to track your health, your aging plan and make sure that whatever option you choose, you are as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

Some helpful resources that I found along the way during my research:

  • Roar by Stacy Simms
  • Fast After 50 by Joe Friel
  • Hormone Repair Manual by Lara Briden ND
  • Feisty Menopause podcasts
  • Play not, Pause Facebook group

 

 

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Hi,
    ….I’m coming up on my 80th birthday in a couple months. I won’t bore you with what I do on the bike since that doesn’t make what I think any more or less germane. I endorse your thoughts on nutrition and medical services. Remain in charge of your own body. I have also found that as the years roll on with the predictable deterioration in flexibility, endurance, strength, etc. the rider’s fit to the bike becomes correspondingly important. Over the years, I can’t say I’ve ever had a bad fit, but I have seen that some fitters are far more aware of and responsive to the progressive limitations of age than other fitters. I wouldn’t be doing what I do without my fitter. More to the point, I wouldn’t even be on the bike were it not for my fitter. Without a spot on fit (the challenge of which increases with age) it doesn’t matter what else I may have in my favor, I’ll never have enough of it to make up for a deficient fit.

  2. Hi Kelly, I’m reminded of an ecology principal from years ago.. 3 ways to respond to uncomfortable change (as articulated by my wife): Adapt, migrate or die. You spent a lot of effort in addressing the first. The second is rather temporary, and the third is very permanent. We all can choose…
    Cheers,
    Robert

  3. Disease’s become different. I’m fighting autoimmune. The medications I take have changed. Old crashes are affecting me. I find I’m having to go indoors to gym. I’m 75 and don’t want to quite.

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