Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100—and Beyond

by Roy M. Wallack

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1
THE CYCLING ANTI-AGING GAME PLAN

 

To stay young and injury-free at 40, 70, or 100, cycling’s not enough. You also have to strength-train, cross-train, and stretch.

September 2008,
Death Valley Inn, Death Valley, California

I’m lying face down on the massage table in an air-conditioned room after a 100-mile ride through the hottest place on Earth. This is Day 5 of the annual Specialized Bicycles ride to Interbike—a six-day bike trip from Specialized headquarters in Morgan Hill, California, 30 miles south of San Jose, to Las Vegas, Nevada, for the bike industry’s giant yearly trade show. The 670-mile route traversed the Central Valley, Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada, and today Death Valley. The route, which I’d never done before in a lifetime of touring, is a beautiful, challenging tour of California. For me, however, it’s more like a Tour de California—not a tour as I know it, but a race. Specialized executives, managers, and dealers, including some top age-group racers and company president Mike Sinyard, hunker down into pacelines the whole way, absolutely hammering.

It’s their way, their culture; they ride every day at the Specialized lunchtime ride and after work. By contrast, I only ride on the weekends and do other stuff—running, swimming, yoga, CrossFit—during the week. Since I hate riding in pacelines and like to shoot pictures, I usually finish a good hour or two after the peloton. Other slowpokes were picked up by the van on this day, but I kept pedaling in the 120-degree heat. I do lots of crazy endurance events and have no hang-ups about finishing in the back of the pack, as long as I finish. No surprise—I’m the last one into the massage room in Death Valley on this afternoon.

As I sprawl out on the table for my well-earned massage, the masseuse is astonished. “Wow, that’s amazing,” she says. “You can lay flat!”

“Huh?” I grunt. “What do you mean?”

“None of the other riders I’ve been working on this entire trip could do that,” she replies. “They can’t lay flat. Their backs and shoulders are sort of permanently hunched over—like crabs”

Crabs? Permanently hunched? That doesn’t sound good.

January 1998,
Los Angeles, California, my bathroom mirror

Startled, I freeze at the sight of something so unexpected, so scary, that every thought is suddenly dominated by one haunting image: the desperate, dying Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, shriveling into nothingness while screaming “I’m m-e-l-l-l-t-t-t-i-n-g!”

It’s my 41-year-old body. In the three months since I separated my shoulder at La Ruta de los Conquistadores—the crazy-hard, three-day, 200-mile Pacific-to-Atlantic mountain bike race across Costa Rica—it has morphed from “young” to “middle-aged.” Former squared pecs have become shadow-casting man-breasts. A once-flat stomach now drips over my belt. With no upper-body exercise—the swimming, rowing, racquetball, and push-ups that have preserved my old college wrestler’s physique—gravity has attacked. Daily Lifecycle-riding (all I can do) isn’t enough; my torso is reverting to its true self, like a butterfly going back to a caterpillar. It’s more than a blow to my vanity; it’s a visual warning: For lifelong fitness, cycling isn’t enough.

Fact: After age 35, flexibility naturally decreases, VO2 max shrinks, and muscle mass shrivels—even in a cyclist’s legs. Shoulders slump and posture corrodes. At any age, periods of inactivity cause a pronounced “detraining” effect. If you don’t fight back with almost-daily aerobics and regular weight lifting and stretching, you might become one of those superfit 72-year-old cyclists who falls and breaks a hip because you lack the quick reaction time you need to avoid a car that has cut you off. Add the risk of osteoporosis (see Chapter 9), and your plan to roll into the sunset might be done in a wheelchair.

That image in the mirror was a wake-up call. Ever since, I’ve been cross-training, stretching, working on my posture, and lifting weights for 45 minutes in the gym at least twice a week. It’s a hassle; you have to work harder to stay fit as you age. But it has paid off. Now pushing 60, I feel almost as fit as I was in my 20s. But I know I can’t stop if I want to keep riding to 100.

By the way, the guys at Specialized got a wake-up call about flexibility. A few years ago, Mike Sinyard put in a gym with daily yoga classes at his company and attends religiously.

There’s good news and bad news about riding your bike a lot, which the aforementioned stories are meant to illustrate. The good news is that you can stay really, really fit, developing a cardiovascular system that remains far “younger” than your chronological age. The bad news is that the unusual, seated, non-weight-bearing position you take on a bike can exacerbate the normal deterioration of aging, leaving you with a bent-over posture, poor overall flexibility, no lateral agility, thinning bones, poor performance in bed, and shriveling muscle mass.

If you want to use your bike to stay young and ride to 100 and beyond, your strategy must maximize the good and minimize the bad. And that means you’ll have to do a lot more than ride your bike.

Let’s talk about the good news first: There are a lot of “old” people out there riding bikes, quite impressively.

On the aforementioned ride to Vegas in 2008, Specialized president Mike Sinyard was 62, easily hanging on in the middle of the pack, and he’s still doing it as I write this six years later. In 2013, Tinker Juarez, two-time US Olympian and member of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, won his fifth 24-Hour Solo national championship; he was 52. Senior Games champion Don Wildman, 81, who kicked my butt mountain biking a couple of years ago (see Chapter 10), keeps up with serious athletes half his age; he’s competed on two Race Across America teams in the past few years. John Howard, three-time Olympian and 1981 Ironman Triathlon winner, told me in late 2013 that he is as fast at 66 as he was a decade earlier, when I interviewed him for the first edition of this book.

“I have to work darn hard—and I might have lost a little snap, my explosive sprint,” admits Howard. “But I am not slower. I can hang with hard-core unemployables in their 30s and 40s in a 70-mile race. It is fast. We’re topping 30 mph on the flats.”

You might be thinking that guys like Howard, Tinker, and Wild Man are freaks, but they aren’t alone. Today, thousands of people over 40 are proving that high-level fitness is no longer merely the province of the young, and that longevity isn’t simply based on lucky chromosomes. For the most part, the path to a long, fit life seems simple: You can stay amazingly fast at an “old” age—if you push it. Keep training—and training hard. This rule is not cycling-specific, but a baseline for anyone trying to stay young.

Researchers are finding that years of hard training in aerobic and strength activities can keep you young. They’ve discovered that the old rule of thumb—that we annually lose 1 percent per year in aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and muscular strength after age 30 or 35—only applies to the sedentary; active people who maintain high training levels can cut the decline by half, or two-thirds, or more.

“What we thought was aging was really just inactivity,” said athletics-and-aging researcher Joel M. Stager, PhD, professor of kinesiology and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Indiana University, in a 2004 New York Times article.1

For average folk like me, who learn how to train better over the years, cycling is a true fountain of youth, as you can actually get faster. Today, at 58, I am actually faster on the bike than I was 20 years ago, a textbook example of the motivating effect of youthful mediocrity: We mediocre types can actually improve as we age, whereas the greats, with rare exceptions, such as Tinker Juarez and John Howard, can only get worse. That principle applies even more to non-athletes who get into cycling and other endurance sports later in life. Gerd Rosenblatt, University of California at Berkeley professor emeritus (see Chapter 10) and California Triple Crown Hall of Famer, never rode a bike seriously or did a century ride until age 67, or a double century until age 70. For the next seven years, until he crashed and broke a hip, he racked up 38 doubles and kept getting faster.

Does this mean that if you keep working out, you’ll stay 25 forever? That if you just keep doing it—if you stay off the couch and keep riding, keep running, keep skating, doing Zumba, and whatever else makes you feel fit and healthy, and don’t stop—blowing through 100 will be as easy as blowing out the candles on a birthday cake? That it all comes down to “use it or lose it”?

To a point. When you move, a host of good things happen that slow and delay the age-related deterioration of your body and brain, from enhanced circulation, hormone production, and calorie burn to all the basic cellular functions. And because cycling is far easier on your body than, say, running, a cyclist can tolerate year after year of hard training without injury far more easily than runners, who often end up with destroyed knee and hip joints. Cycling’s so easy on the joints that it’s often the preferred rehab for injuries from other sports. And it’s so fun and exciting, unlike lap swimming, that it motivates you to get out there. Those facts alone are a big reason why it’s such a great longevity sport—if you can minimize its bad aspects.

That’s a big if. Every sport has gaps in its fitness benefits, due to the particular repetitive motion of the sport. Running’s impact can wreck your knees; tennis’s swing can wreck your elbows. The bad news is that cycling is not only deficient in many areas, but that those areas exacerbate the same deterioration that is linked to aging: declining VO2 max, postural integrity, bone density, sexual function, and muscle mass.

Because of these issues, keeping “young” as a cyclist must involve more than time in the saddle. It involves a time-consuming, carefully balanced strategy that supports, protects, and replenishes those systems and structures of the body that deteriorate with age and neglect. “By your mid-30s, most people still look young, but are already experiencing the Big Three of aging: deteriorating lean muscle mass, worsening posture, and crumbling joints,” physical therapist Robert Forster told me one day at his Santa Monica office, which is the unofficial meeting hall for West L.A.’s broken-down cyclists, triathletes, adventure racers, and gym rats. “Age-related decline hits sooner than you think.”

Way sooner. Robert Wiswell, PhD, associate professor and expert on aging and exercise at the University of Southern California’s Department of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, told me that the typical man starts experiencing osteoarthritic changes (loss of smoothness) in his joints by his 20s, loses half a pound of muscle per year by the age of 35, and has been shrinking in height since he was 18 years old due to postural changes.

“The bad news is that you can’t stop the decline,” said Wiswell. “The good news is that you can slow it down and get injured less by thinking long-term.”

A long-term anti-aging workout plan is part physical therapy and part cutting-edge exercise research. It is heavy on weights, hard aerobic workouts, stretching/flexibility drills, and recovery. Initially, it would baby your knees and shoulders with a lengthy, joint-lubricating warm-up. Next, it would keep your heart strong and your VO2 max (ability to process oxygen) high, with hard efforts in your cycling and other aerobic activities at least a couple of times a week, and active recovery or cross-training in between. Finally, you hit the weight room twice a week, avoiding extreme range-of-motion exercises to protect connective tissue, building up vulnerable and neglected muscle groups, and then hammering your muscles with heavy weights and a blistering pace. The result: You revive flagging fast-twitch muscle fibers, snap a slumping spine to attention, expand your capillary and oxygen-processing network, and flood your bloodstream with youth-maintaining hormones. The workouts use jumping jacks, stretches, and the same weight machines and free weights you know and love, but require you to think—to protect your body with restraint and discipline before pushing it. No more winging it. All workouts fit into a logical, never-ending plan.

“Of course, it takes a lot more time to do all this stuff—time a lot of people with active social and work lives don’t have,” said Wiswell. “On the other hand, don’t wait until you’re 45 or 50 to integrate some of these elements. By then, you may have already done irreparable damage to your body and will be functionally much older than you ought to be.”

In other words, if you want to ride a century when you turn a century, start now. Here’s a guide on how to maintain and protect the five main problem areas of aging: VO2 max (the body’s maximum ability to take in and use oxygen), strength, joint integrity, flexibility, and posture.

PROBLEM 1: DECLINING VO2 MAX/AEROBIC FITNESS

Solution: Train frequently and rigorously, lift weights, cross-train, and integrate cycling into normal life activities.

Fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who died at age 96 in 2011, wasn’t a cyclist. He was better known for chair push-ups and swimming handcuffed across San Francisco Bay on his birthday, not cycling. But the overriding message he promoted since the Depression remains the same and applies to anyone seeking longevity and fitness. “Don’t stop working out,” he told anyone who’d listen. “Inactivity kills your body.”

It’s a fact: The more you do nothing, the more you fall apart.

Past age 30 or 35, the heart and the other elements that contribute to VO2 max start slipping about 1 percent a year in sedentary people. The muscles’ oxygen-processing ability slips as muscle mass shrinks, the blood-carrying capillaries become less numerous, and mitochondria, the tiny intracellular engines that convert glycogen and fat into energy, become less numerous and powerful. The aging heart is socked two ways: declining maximum heart rate (its highest possible beats per minute, or bpm) and declining maximum stroke volume (the amount of blood in one pump of the heart). The result is a monstrous double whammy: A reduced volume of blood is pumped to shrinking muscles that are less capable of transporting oxygen, nutrients, and lymphatic waste products. The effect: You produce less energy than before, so you can’t ride as fast or as long—or recover as quickly. If you want to slow or even reverse the VO2 max decline, think of Jack. Jack up the intensity, lift weights, and don’t stop, ever. Also, eat better. Natural foods and supplements (no sugar, refined grains, or processed food) mop up free radical and hormonal damage much better than processed ones, allowing better recovery and performance. Here are some details:

Solution 1a: Keep training—hard.

Message read on www.cyclingforums.com: “I’m 40, started riding almost 3 years ago, and always finish in the top 5–10 percent of any event I ride in regardless of age. I attack every hill and pass a lot of younger riders regularly. On flats I can hold my own and can sprint up into the 32- to 39-mph range. Since I’m older and closer to death I take every ride seriously. I train like there’s no tomorrow. How many 23-years-olds can say the same? —Rickw2, Arlington, Texas.

Rickw2 is doing the right thing. Hard workouts can limit your deterioration to half the rate of the average person. Or more.

Numerous studies of runners and swimmers (there are few of cyclists) have found that older athletes who maintain vigorous endurance training experience a VO2 max decrease of 0.05 percent per year—half that experienced by sedentary adults. That’s an average; some see almost no ill effects of age at all. A landmark 1987 study by Dr. Michael Pollock, director of the Center for Exercise Science at the University of Florida, studied two dozen Masters champion athletes in several sports in 1971 and 1981. His findings: The VO2 max levels of hard trainers barely declined at all in a decade (just 1.7 percent), but the results for those who slacked off in intensity declined an average of 12.5 percent. Low-intensity training did not increase capillary density.2

A study in Swim magazine that tracked Masters swimmers over a 15-year period reported similar results: The onset of VO2 max decline was delayed from age 25 to the mid-30s, deterioration was almost “imperceptible” into the swimmers’ 40s, and it didn’t reach 1 percent per year until they hit their early 70s. Non-athletes lost 25 percent of their physical capacity by age 50, and 50 percent by age 75, but competitive age-groupers who swam an hour a day declined only 3.5 percent by age 50, and 19.1 percent by age 75. “Another way to look at it,” said study author Phil Whitten, PhD, “is that a 70-year-old competitive swimmer will have the strength and vitality of a ‘normal’ 45-year-old.” The key, he said, is to never let yourself get out of condition.

Question: Why the decline at all? Why can’t you maintain the same VO2 max with hard training? Answer: Unfortunately, training apparently has no effect on one factor: the decrease in maximum heart rate. However, the other factors—declines in heart-stroke volume, density of capillaries and mitochondria, and even the production of creatine phosphate (an organic compound in muscle fibers that provides them with a quick source of energy when they need to move fast), can be reversed quickly with high-intensity exercise, with levels eventually potentially matching those of similarly trained younger athletes.

Bottom line: In theory, an older adult who trains at the same volume and intensity as a younger adult should be capable of very similar performances. Only the natural decrease in heart rate and consequential reduction in VO2 max stands in the way of letting you stop time in its tracks.

Solution 1b: Lift weights.

Strength training boosts more than your strength, reflexes, and vanity. Bigger muscles expand your aerobic engine by processing more oxygen. Studies have proven that strength training builds up VO2 max by increasing the density of capillaries and mitochondrial enzyme activity. See the next section (“Problem 2: Deteriorating Muscle Mass”) for the strength benefits of weight lifting and the ideal lifting strategy.

Solution 1c: Cross-train like crazy.

Daily high-intensity riding is hard on any body—young or old, if you somehow have the time to do it. More likely, you don’t—and fitness fades fast. If you skip several days in a row, a “de-training” effect starts to set in; skip three weeks, and your hard-won aerobic fitness is largely lost. By twelve weeks, you begin to lose musculoskeletal resiliency—the strength of your joints. By six months, so much joint strength, muscle tone and strength, and aerobic capacity is lost that you’re back to being as unfit as someone who’s been sedentary for years. The point: Avoid long periods of inactivity—whether caused by busy lives, bad weather, and injuries—at all costs.

The easiest way to keep active is by broadening your athletic portfolio. Mix in running, swimming, rowing, the elliptical machine, jumping rope, salsa aerobics, VersaClimbing, or aerobic dance. Try the Trikke, the radical three-wheeled sensation that delivers a total full-body aerobic workout (I did the 2004 Long Beach Marathon on one in 2 hours, 13 minutes). Water-run in the pool with a flotation waist belt and resistance boots. Play your nephew one-on-one in basketball and win on pure hustle. If it gets your heart rate up and keeps it there for a while, it qualifies as cross-training.

You see, your VO2 max isn’t particular about which aerobic activities you do to develop it. Cross-training helps your body tolerate hard workouts, and it can’t be beat for convenience. Two straight days of hard cycling is tough on your body, and one day of hard cycling followed by a hard swim session lets your legs recover while it works your upper body, but both blast your heart and lungs. Going on a business trip? Running shoes and swim goggles tuck into a suitcase. Tweak your knee on the bike? Kayak for a couple of days. Can’t ride due to early nightfall or a January blizzard? Snowshoe or cross-country ski. Mixing up different activities—including road cycling and mountain biking—keeps you motivated, breaks up your routine, and helps maintain wintertime fitness. As Ned Overend proved in his long, successful career (see interview on page 103), other sports not only don’t hurt cycling, but provide variety that keeps you from getting bored with it.

Cross-training shouldn’t be seen simply as a welcome off-season break from the saddle, to be set aside when springtime rolls around. Because it works all the muscles of the body rather than just a specific group, cross-training yields a smaller chance of chronic injury over the long term than any one single sport. And in the big picture, cross-training makes you fitter, enhancing VO2 max by developing the oxygen-processing ability in all the muscles of your body, not just the ones in your legs.

“The definition of fitness is that it takes less effort for your body to do the same amount of work,” said Dr. Herman Falsetti, an Irvine, California, cardiologist and consultant to the 1984 Olympic cycling team. “And if your body is fit all over—not just one part of it—your body’s work goes that much easier.”

Solution 1d: Integrate cycling into work and family time.

If playing with the kids, spending time with your spouse, and a thousand other things eat into your riding time, get creative. Do errands on your bike. Commute to work. Ride to family get-togethers. Buy a trailer, a Trail-a-Bike, or a kid-friendly tandem to combine babysitting and riding. With these items fairly cheap (I bought a Raleigh Companion tandem for $700—what some triathletes will pay for a wheel), you are shortchanging yourself without them.

PROBLEM 2: DETERIORATING MUSCLE MASS

Solution: Pump weights fast and heavy. Then recover.

Weight lifting is underutilized by cyclists, and even scorned by some. “My legs get plenty of work already,” some say. “Bulky arms and a big chest will hurt me on the hills,” say others. But from a pure health and longevity point of view, big, strong muscles are more functional and safer than smaller, weaker ones. They help aerobic performance by increasing your oxygen-processing capacity and provide the strength to push through headwinds and up hills. Which is why it is mildly upsetting to discover that muscle mass, like VO2 max, also disappears at an average rate of 1 percent a year beginning in your 30s. And why it is downright scary to find, as researchers from Johns Hopkins and Boston universities did in 2002, that power naturally falls off far faster than strength as you age.3

The rapid drop-off in power is a big deal. It can cost you your life.

That’s because power is defined as the ability to use your strength quickly—to respond to changing situations fast. Power gives you that instant reaction, the ability to make the microsecond adjustments that often mean the difference between success and failure—avoiding a fallen tree branch on a backcountry road; jumping a rock on a 30-mph downhill; swerving out of the way of cars that suddenly turn in front of you. Power is a key to survival.

Trainers have known for years that explosive weight training is necessary to keep pro athletes at the top of their game. Michael Jordan observed a rigorous explosive lifting program after age 30, as do many of this era’s older pro athletes. What we didn’t know until recently is that this power training is vital for average folks who want to maintain their speed and power—especially as they age. In other words, there is a very good argument for all of us to be weight training like professional athletes—especially after age 30 or 35.

A 40-year-old racquetball player, for example, might still be able to bench 250 pounds like he did a decade ago, but because his power is down 5 percent, he might lack the instant acceleration that allows him to retrieve that shot in the dead corner he used to get to. Further along the age continuum, the power loss accelerates. A 50-year-old man may still be able to climb the same hills on his mountain bike about as fast as he did 20 years earlier, but wipes out more on the descents, because his slower-reacting muscles can’t avoid obstacles as quickly. A 75-year-old man might still give you an iron-grip handshake, since his strength still may be 80 percent of what it was decades earlier. But since his power is down by 50 percent, he might just lose his balance when he gets up from a table, falling and breaking his hip.

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