How To Be An Athlete Forever

 

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.

Be Social!

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.

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

Comments 21

  1. I recently got a new bike computer, a Garmin 820. I keep finding new features and recently one found me. At the end of a recent one hour high intensity session (including a KOM for this 57 year old) it gave me a recommended recovery time of 40 hours. I ignored it and rode moderately hard 24 hours later. I could tell that was a mistake by the way I felt. In the future I will heed the advice of the device. Recovery is an intentional activity.

  2. Hi Chris, Could you be more specific about the parameters of short focused intervals for older athletes? How short and how focused (intense?) for 70+ athletes?
    I have “won” an entry to Leadville so that’s my next goal.

  3. I have rodes bikes with friends of mine that are extremely fit,but they are not healthy they are sick all the times,for me health is your greatest wealth so i choose health first,if fit comes great if not thats ok with me

  4. I had the privilege of seeing Chris crush AOTC, hanging with the lead group more than half way. I think he intends to give the age thing a run for it’s money!! Thanks for a great week Chris!!

  5. Hi Chris,
    I have a great CTS coach (Dave Forkner) though I’m only in it for the improvement every day, I love the coaching service and the push I get. This column was your best one yet. Keep writing.
    Thanks.
    Craig

  6. Great to read that you and Joe Friel are pretty much on the same wave length I’m trying to catch. Just finished his FAST AFTER 50 book which inspires to train harder everyday. I particular buy-into to learning new tricks piece. No better way to stay young than teach an old dog a new trick! Its life giving to be a newbie again. No better way to humble your ego than to step outside what you have been doing for the last 20 years and try anything new!! Tks Chris for providing motivation to age gracefully!

    glen

  7. I don’t think recovery necessarily differs as we age. Unfortunately we live in a training culture rather than a racing culture.

    Winter is for maintaining fitness and training, spring and summer are for racing. I’m a year older than Steve was and entering my 46th consecutive racing season. Never ridden at any level lower than Cat2 road or track since leaving juniors.

    I race a lot (84 races last year, some masters some 1/2) with most seasons between 60 and 110 races. Sometimes I win, sometimes get dropped, but when every event is just another race there is no pressure. So it is just race, recover over and over.

    If I ride between races it is usually about an hour around 100 rpm in nothing higher than a 66″ gear.

  8. As we age we begin to appreciate so much more of the process we enjoy around bicycle racing. We use our experience as an advantage. As a USA cycling coach I work to bring more older riders, many of the fairly new to the sport and understanding proper training is critical.

  9. Best and most inspiring article out of many great and inspiring articles.

    Since I have known Chris and CTS, I am younger every year. Thank you.

  10. I’d like to also encourage you to develop training plans or a book for older athletes. Maybe structure it by 5 or 10 year age group, e.g. 55-64, 65-69, 70-74. Joe Friel has one for everyone over 50 but that’s too broad a spectrum. Abilities and tolerances change rapidly from the mid to late 50s onward.

    1. Besides some adjustment for heartrates in ‘The Ultimate Ride’ I’ve not seen Chris advise what modifications those over 40 or 50 should incorporate into their training. I’d love to know. I’d buy that book for sure. C’mon Chris……

    2. See kindle book “Championship Road Racing for Cyclists” available at http://www.amazon.com It covers all age groups for starting out as a Junior, through the Senior and Elite years then on to Masters through the age ranges.

    3. Endorsing recommendation for training plans for older athletes. Fast over 50 is great but what about over 70?

      1. And over 60 as well. The mental challenge of dealing with slowing down, needing more rest, accumulating and more frequent injuries is a serious consideration. Very few of my running club pals from when I was in my 30’s are still doing much of anything. Keeping it interesting by biking, swimming and competing in Triathlons has helped keep me training hard.

  11. Chris- Thank you for your your newsletter, I appreciate your commitment, experience, and wisdom, some say experience, strength, and hope. Although not the focus of your message, Steve’s shining light seems to have positively affected many people. I never shook the mans hand, social media connected us which brought awareness to his need of support through suffering. Steves recent not long ago trial with a head injury seemed to have been put behind him ( I know only from afar social media connection), and new life continued with him as that trial seemingly passed. I believe there is power in prayer. For anyone suffering, there’s always new life in the light ahead if we choose to seek that light. I know suffering personally , I know new life; we all really do at some level, little victories they say. I believe, I know, you Chris know new life following suffering. I watched often through the unseen airwaves of communication, the chase of the yellow; what a story that is in our history. What an incredible drama we are all a part of. I just say the end does not have to be the end, I think not of death, but forever, eternal; forever, no beginning, no end.

    The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.

    Mose’s song I just now read, Deuteronomy 32 is beautiful in my heart.
    Verse 40:
    For I lift up my hand to heaven, and say, I live for ever.

    Rest peacefully Steve, and all those many before us, as your light continues to shine where you have traveled and upon those who were touched through you.

    Thanks for allowing me to stop by. I’ll be sure to drop an offering for Trudi, thank you for sharing that.

    3 John 1:2
    Beloved, I wish above all things that thou prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.

  12. This article has really helped me as I deal with some of my own personal health issues. I had been training for my first sprint triathalon at age 57 when I was hit with a case of diverticulitis due to an small impaled metal object in my colon. Slated for surgery in less than a month, I have been banned from my bike, running and swimming until at least 6 weeks post surgery. Initially I wanted to ignore the issue and press on training until I realized the consequences of doing so on my health.
    No matter how hard we as middle aged athletes train and keep ourselves well nourished and hydrated, rested and in shape something totally unforeseen can strike us in a moments notice and bring us to a screeching halt.
    Never ignore any symptoms, get checked, get fixed and then return. You can never put a price on your health.

    Thanks Chris for posting this for me it came as I just sat in a hotel with my wife in Melbourne Beach, Florida crying my eyes out in anger for this unforeseen setback.

  13. Perhaps CTS should consider training programs for the older cyclists?? Boomers are known to be more active than earlier generations, but what’s available to help us deal with our ‘different’ bodies…nutritionally, physically, and psychologically??
    ….Being an older woman athlete is especially frustrating…..an older working woman at that. We’ve talked about a week in Mammoth (California) —sort of a pop-up athlete renewal event….with yoga, instructors, cycling, hiking, and??? as well and food options available.

  14. I’m 42 and recently began cycling. It’s tough at times working through the aches and pains. Also, trying to balance everything and still working out. Thanks for the motivating article!

  15. What a great article to wake up to Chris! Thank You!! PS – I think it’s about time you got a fat bike 😉

  16. Great comments Chris. Steve Tilford was one of those guys I looked at in awe when I was a young teenager beginning to ride a bike. 35 years later I think I looked at him with more awe and respect as he continued to toe the line in very fast bike races and competed for top placings. No other cyclist I have ever known or read about has maintained that kind of desire to compete at such a high level or will their body to such extremes. Certainly in the history of American racing, Steve Tilford has had to have competed in more races than anybody else. His love for the bike and racing a bike defined who he became as a person, an outstanding character in the sport with a high level of integrity, tenacity and spice for life.

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