I’ve been thinking a lot about longevity this week, probably because of the sudden passing of iconic American cyclist Steve Tilford. I met Tilly when we were juniors, raced with him on several US National Team trips, and was his teammate on the Wheaties Schwinn team. Long after most of my generation of pros hung up our wheels or moved on to less competitive forms of cycling, Steve kept racing – and winning – elite races in just about every cycling discipline. His multigenerational relevance was exemplified in the outpouring of tributes, which came from pros who raced in the 1970’s, young pros just out of the U23 ranks, and riders of all ages in between.
On Wednesday when I initially saw reports Steve had died, I thought there had to be some mistake. It always seemed like at the end of the world, Keith Richards would turn out the lights and ride off into oblivion with Steve Tilford. I don’t have a great Tilford story to share, but the events of this week have me thinking about longevity. Tilly was an athlete to the very end, so I’ll use this opportunity to share my advice on how we can all continue being athletes all the way to the end.
Always Be Exercising
You don’t have to always be racing or always be involved in structured training, but at some level always be riding. There’s a physiological basis for this idea as well as a behavioral one. It’s well accepted that VO2 max gradually declines with increasing age, but athletes who don’t significantly detrain from their peak performance levels are able to maintain a higher VO2 max for much longer, and the eventual decline is proceeds at a lower rate. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a high-performance athlete after a period away from high-performance sport, but it may partly explain why – in their 50’s – cyclists like Steve Tilford, Tinker Juarez, and Ned Overend have been able to win against elite athletes half their age.
Behaviorally, the premise behind ‘always be riding’ relates to consistently carving time out of your schedule for cycling so you don’t just fill that time with some sedentary task. You can even modify the idea to ‘always be exercising’ and change your sport focus; the important thing is that exercise continues to be a consistent priority in your lifestyle.
This applies to longevity for athletes in and across all sports. Make friends through sport. Cycling has introduced me to people I would never have crossed paths with any other way. CEOs, artists, politicians, garbage men, chefs… you name it. Go to the group rides. Participate in charity events, centuries, and gran fondos, and talk to people! Engage in the community and culture of your sport, because there will likely be a time when priorities outside of sport threaten to pull you away completely. When exercise, training, and/or competition are your only connections to your sport it is actually easier to drop out than when you would be walking away from relationships and friends.
Try New Things
If you told me 10 years ago that one day I would own a Niner gravel bike (I just got a new carbon RLT RDO!) and love spending hours on Forest Service roads and singletrack on a drop bar bike, I would have laughed at you. Same goes with fat bikes, though I don’t personally have one. Regardless of whether you are a runner, cyclist, triathlete, or swimmer, there are so many variations and disciplines within endurance sports that you can shift your focus to a new aspect of your sport and reinvigorate your passion. If you’re feeling stuck or bored with what you’re doing, don’t quit. Just change.
Train Hard, Rest Hard
The longer you are involved in endurance sports and the older you get, the more polarized your training should become. It’s that grey area in the middle that sucks the life out of your training; the somewhat-challenging workouts that make you tired and necessitate more recovery time but don’t apply enough stimulus to improve fitness. Older athletes and time-crunched athletes (and especially older time-crunched athletes) benefit most from short, focused interval training a few times a week and lots of purposeful rest. When it comes to the endurance component of your training, save it for blocks of endurance-focused training instead of mashing interval and endurance training into the same schedule.
Take Care of Yourself
Steve Tilford had nine lives and lived them all. The stories of his resilience are legendary, and he had the scars to prove it. Endurance sports may be gentler on the body than contact sports, but over the long haul you still get banged up. Young athletes bounce back quickly, but injuries take more of a toll as you get older. Hopefully age also brings greater means and better health insurance, but you still have to be willing to use them! Stop being stubborn about injuries; they won’t just go away on their own anymore. Invest in bike fit, physical therapy, massage therapy, and go to the doctor when you need to!
It’s not just your physical well being you need to take care of, either. To continue as a lifelong athlete it is important to address sleep problems. Insomnia, restlessness, and disturbed sleep are not conducive to an active lifestyle, career success, or overall health. Similarly, take care of your mental health. Exercise can have a powerful positive affect on dealing with stress, depression, and other psychological issues, but especially as athletes move through the phases of adulthood it can take more than a workout to work through what you’re dealing with. If an activity you have been passionate about for years and have devoted thousands of hours to suddenly loses its appeal, you could just need a break, but I think it’s also wise to at least consider the notion there may be a psychological component that is worth investigating.
Lest you believe I have it all figured out, I have at times struggled with more than one of the aforementioned tips for staying engaged in sport forever. I have struggled with motivation. I have ignored injuries only to see them get worse. I have neglected sleep and recovery in the pursuit of “having it all”. Being a lifelong athlete comes with triumphs and setbacks, highs and lows. But my commitment to being a lifelong athlete has never let me down, and I intend to be an athlete all the way to the end.
Click here to contribute to the Trudi Rebsamen Condolences Fund to support Steve Tilford’s partner, Trudi.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS