Aging Athletes on the Kokopelli Trail

FullSizeRender 2I spent early October riding the Kokopelli Trail in Utah.

I enjoyed the trip more than I expected and want to share ideas to increase your athletic satisfaction as you move into, and beyond, middle age.

High performance is not about health, but long-term athletic satisfaction is most certainly correlated to health, strength and mobility.

As a cohort, our group of 40 to 60 year olds was the healthiest population that I have ever trained alongside. I am using health in a classical context – body, mind and spirit.

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Here in Boulder, I see many friends “age-down” their training partners, seeking younger and younger peers. Heck, we even race our kids as soon as they are fast enough to give us a push.

If you feel compelled to hang onto your youthful performances then be sure to try the opposite, at least some of the time. Age up your pals, teach children and be kind to beginners. Pay close attention to how this makes you feel.

As one of the the “youngsters” on the trip, I learned a lot from listening to the veteran athletes talk about their lives.

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Usually, a training camp involves a 5:30am alarm, wolfing down a breakfast, training all day, eating two massive dinners and sweating myself to sleep. Repeat for six to ten days.

Dropping into a guiding company that was celebrating 25 years of trips, I realized how little I knew about what (normal) people want.

On the first morning, the guides had a chuckle when I arrived in the lobby with my helmet, shoes and full riding kit. It was POURING rain and they gently broke it to me that we weren’t riding for a while.

2015-10-05 11.32.21This pattern, of gently breaking it to me, would continue for the week. Eventually, I capitulated and decided to (attempt to) be a model guest.

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I was surprised by the aspects of the trip that I enjoyed the most — the relaxed mornings and evenings.

I commented to a friend, “This trip is a good workout spread across a great day.”

2015-10-09 08.18.50Bottomless coffee and massive fruit salads in the mornings. As Wes-the-guide can attest, there is something truly satisfying about eating out of a mixing bowl.

FullSizeRender 3Casual dinners and beers around the campfire in the evenings. Our guides taking a well-earned break after a 13-hour day taking care of us.

FullSizeRender 5Stunning camping venues. Wine and cheese at a remote desert campsite.

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I should remember that the health, strength and mobility required to enjoy unique experiences in nature is FAR less than what’s required to train alongside high-performance athletes that are half my age.

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Old habits die hard.

I’m changing slowly.

Family Cycling

2015-09-04 08.22.00Here is the link to my last piece about cycling with babies and preschoolers – also the Endurance Corner article about Active Parents.

Roll forward 18 months and the kids are aged 7, 4 and 3. The four year old just transitioned from a strider and the three year old is comfortable on her strider as well as a three-wheeled scooter. I wouldn’t have expected some of the changes.

One of my rules-of-thumb is to consider selling anything that I don’t use for a year. So, I sold my racing bikes, race wheels, powermeters and Garmins. When I need a road bike, I rent a top-of the line model. Considering maintenance, upgrades and airline fees – a net savings of more than $1,000 annually for the family.

2015-09-10 16.03.31I spent $5,000 and bought a haul-a-day and a family tandem from Bike Friday. My main bike is a 29er and the 20-inch wheels on the Friday bikes were an adjustment. Disc brakes and front/rear flashing lights with both bikes. Flat pedals for me and shoe cages for my daughter on the tandem.
2015-08-27 18.41.29Most the cost (above) was in the tandem but it’s a game changer for exercising with my oldest. She loves it and we’re up to 20 mile rides. If I remove a second row seat in my Sienna then it fits inside my van and we did several trips this summer. Now that school is back in session, we use it as a commuter to/from her climbing.

When I got the cargo bike, I expected to be able to sell our second car (my Sienna van) as well as our double bike trailer. It’s not going to happen.

Turns out that the second car was useful, it’s now the sitter’s car. The adjustment to not having a car of my own left me a little grumpy. I went so far as to price out what a third car would cost the family. When I calculated the costs associated with a new car, a third car and my existing car… it got a whole lot easier to adjust my life. My effective savings are $5 per city-mile not driven. Human powered whenever possible and treat Uber like a free service.

The cargo bike gets the kids up high and in the air. They love it… when it’s warm. I have kept the trailer for cold and wet mornings, when I bundle up and take one for the team.

2015-09-04 08.11.37SAFETY – it turns out that I don’t enjoy riding on city roads with my kids on their own bikes! This shouldn’t have surprised me (but it did) because I was a nervous boyfriend when Monica and I would train together. The kids and I prefer bike paths, even if they double our travel time.

We didn’t go electric as I have the horsepower (just) to get a hundred extra pounds up the local hills. If you aren’t a strong cyclist then consider front-wheel power assist for the cargo bike.

Managing My Endurance Passion

G-BoraRecent media reports have linked “extreme” exercise to shortened lifespan (versus moderate exercisers). There is not an agreed definition of what constitutes extreme but, even at my current noncompetitive level of activity, I qualify.

My endurance pals have responded like Charlton Heston at an NRA rally.

If you want me to change then you can pry my fitbit from my cold, dead hands…

Ultradistance athletes are the true believers of endurance sport (links to classic book).

Many of us have replaced a previous passion, sometimes a negative addiction, with endurance sport.

Some of us are managing our “bad habits” via exercise.

All of us are terrified about the implications of change. Listen to our thoughts about anyone with a normal BMI.

Having watched friends revert to previous lifestyles, and having no desire to make a return myself (!), I thought I’d offer some practical ideas for managing our passion.

As always, I start by asking myself questions:

  • Where can things go wrong?
  • Is a multi-decade strategy to continually rip the legs of my aging competition wise?
  • What’s the minimum change required for maximum harm reduction?

Hands down, the worst thing that can happen to any aging athlete is losing the ability to train. Physically, strength losses are slow to return. Mentally, we are prone to depression via inactivity.

I’d be willing to compromise quite a bit to protect my ability to keep on trucking!

You are not going to get a lot of lifestyle modification by telling me that “strenuous” exercise isn’t good for me.

Not going to happen!

You see, I know how I was living without exercise in my life.

You might get me to change a little by pointing out the risk of:

  1. Dying via bike crash
  2. Orthopedic damage
  3. Concussion risk
  4. General malaise from soreness and fatigue

In fact, you didn’t have to bring it up. I see it all around me and have modified my lifestyle to take the above into account.

  • Highway riding avoidance
  • Adding front/rear lights for improved visibility
  • Rarely train in a group
  • No more bike racing
  • Main bike is full-suspension mountain bike

These small changes have improved my risk profile but I have ignored them when training for an event that required them, and when spending time with friends that could care less.

So, like any behavioral modification, my changes are only as sticky as my ability to choose wisely with peers and events.

I’ve written about low standard deviation training HERE and HERE.

Here’s what I’ve been doing:

  • Aim to train every AM and PM
  • Workout defined as leaving my house
  • Focus on frequency (AM/PM), not duration, not load
  • Wide variation in effort, from walking to max
  • Lots of hills
  • Don’t measure (other than a weekly weight check)

I end up with 11-14 doses per week and remain inside the “extreme” segment of recent physiological studies.

I’d estimate my current plan at 30% less hours, 60% less load and 90% less fatigue/soreness.

I exercise a lot, but less than I used to. I suspect the taper will continue as I age.

The small changes have improved my risk profile and increased the non-competitive benefits I receive from exercise (mood, motivation, creativity, sex drive).

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I don’t expect you to change…

…but this is an alternative that reduces the chance you might have to shut down your endurance passion

…or end up replacing it with a prior negative addiction!

In times of injury, stress, divorce, despair… I hope you will remember this article.

Exercise has been a very good friend to my family.

The Middle-Aged Athlete

ec_hatLast weekend, a bunch of my pals were in Hawaii for Ironman. Watching from a distance, Ironman is a reminder that the human body can do some incredible things. While the race is neat, what’s most impressive is the training load that the competitors put themselves through. The physical output, over many years, is impressive – sitting here, I can’t believe I was able to do it!

I’ve had success coaching men between 40 and 75 years old (as well as women from 40 to 55 years old). Interestingly, it’s the guys who are most prone to saying, “I wonder if I’m getting old.” Top amateur women just keep on rolling, about the only thing that slows them down is injury and illness.

On the other hand, guys get really tired. I like to joke with my wife that I get Man-Fatigue – like man flu – it’s a whole different level of fatigue from what she experiences.

What follows isn’t for my pals, who are still crushing it. Keep doing what you love for as long as it makes sense. I miss those days, and you will too! It’s for the rest of you – particularly, if you were a top athlete in your 20s and 30s.

When it comes to aging, I hear this a lot…

  • Age is just a number
  • You’re only old when your age is an excuse
  • 40 is the new 30

These sayings are linked to the first phase of aging – holding on against the natural progression of time. I’m more fond of saying, “this is what 45 looks like and it’s not so bad!”

In my peer group, characterized by exceptional will, a few can extend the “holding on” phase into their 50s and, extremely rarely, their 60s. You can find examples of these special humans (!) on the Big Island each October. I know a few and they are amazing people.

What lies hidden is the psychological, and physical cost, from living an unnatural life. When we put ourselves together in a peer group, that consists of much younger 1%’ers, we’re left wondering… what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be like XXXX? Am I getting old?

I used to think that I’d be hanging on. Now, I’m not so sure. At first, I thought it was my kids making me tired but there seems to be something deeper at work. Time will tell. Maybe I’ll get a second wind in my 50s! 🙂

When I catch myself thinking that a return to my 20s/30s will improve my life – I say…

  • It’s amazing how much exercise I was able to do
  • I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to compete at a high level

Wonder and gratitude are effective antidotes to mourning the past.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is I get an excellent mood response from small doses of exercise. I have to remind myself of this A LOT so I don’t fry myself.

With exercise, generosity, novelty…happiness links better to frequency than intensity, or dosage.

How do you know if you’re holding on too tight?

  • Ask the people closest to you
  • Pay attention to frequent orthopedic injury
  • Pay attention to frequent depression, or anger

If you aspire to performances that were extreme when you were 10-25 years younger then be sure to spend time with people your own age, as you age.

Trying to be the 1% of the 1% can lead to a rough ride as the years roll on.

Choose wisely.

It Wasn’t Good For Me

gnomeA number of my pals triathlon’ed from Vancouver to Calgary over the last two weeks. They did the journey as part of something called Epic Camp and I highly recommend Scott Molina’s blog about the trip. I’ve been chuckling along as the crew drill themselves daily across the Canadian Rockies.

In reading Molina’s diary of their adventure, I’ve been feeling three emotions…

Joy that Scott is able to keep on trucking. The guy’s 54 years old and he’s still able to love training at the edge of human endurance. Epic Camp is about the mental component of performance and Scott personifies joy from suffering.

Continuing amazement at what people can accomplish. It’s tempting to put ultra-athletes into a separate category as genetic freaks. The reality is most ultra-athletes are fairly normal physically. The differences arise in their capacity to embrace obsession and the way they experience fatigue & suffering.

Finally, I experience a deep sense of gratitude for my life in Boulder. When I was living my life of extreme athletic performance, I couldn’t see the cost of my status quo.

By the way, lots of people talk about the health risks of extreme exercise. I think that you are right but you’re missing the point. See the camp for what it is… a binge. I’ve always enjoyed a good binge. It’s something I need to watch. Also, so long as you don’t go banana’s with the running, the main short-term risk (to your kidneys) is limited.

Scott knows, and shares, the requirements for athletic success. He’s far more open than any other triathlon writer, myself included.

What’s yet to be published is the total reality of seeking our ultimate triathlon potential. Outside of triathlon, Sam Fussell gave it a shot with bodybuilding. His book, Muscle, is an entertaining account of the life of a full-time amateur (AKA a life similar to most tri-pros). Leaving the extreme drug use to one side, the parallels with my life are many.

I’ve often wanted to write the “whole truth” about my life. I’m most open with the non-racing spouses of my training pals. They know enough about my world to be entertained but aren’t so invested that I challenge their identities with my observations.

I looked deeper into my motivation and saw a desire to protect my children from my near misses. However, my children’s obsession is certainly going to be different than my own and they will resent being told what to do by their, ultimately, sixty-something father.

Here’s where Sam’s book comes into it’s own. The hero in Sam’s book is his mom. She keeps the lines of communication open, accepts Sam for who he his and frees him to change his mind on his own timetable.

As we ascend to the top, we can lose the goodness of our youth. It’s no accident that the highest-achievers had very difficult childhoods. It’s a rare person that becomes more kind under extreme stress – at Epic Camp, Bevan James Eyles is the best example that comes to mind. He was always part of the solution. The rest of us acted like wolves, or hyenas.

What helps everyone is encouragement to hold onto a piece of goodness and stay open when the little voice says, “this isn’t good for you.”

…and while I have no idea who is doing the talking… I know that following that voice has led me to a wonderful life.

Lex

Hidden Hazards – for aging athletes

Ron KonaBecause the big money lies in helping sick folks, athlete health is likely to remain a poorly understood niche. Here are three hazards that most people miss.

Lifestyle & Nutrition Stress

As an elite athlete, my blood markers would indicate kidney stress. I coached a kidney doc and did a consult to rule out kidney disease. Where we ended up was acknowledging the stress of the athletic lifestyle:

  • High calorie diet
  • High protein diet
  • High sugar diet
  • Constant muscle breakdown

Now, there are many ways that my athletic lifestyle reduces stress (body composition, blood pressure). However, a high-performance lifestyle increases stress, when compared to an active lifestyle.

From 2001 to 2008, I was “fast” but I carried around an immune system that was chronically suppressed.

Around 2010, I cut my training in half, and my blood markers went from good to outstanding.

My kidney function cleared up, my immune system strengthened and my HDL/LDL cholesterol improved. (82/84 mg/dL).

I put this out there because I had a fear that I would “lose everything” if I backed off.

The reality => Moderation improved my health and my marriage.

Passing Out & Crashing

I’ve been exercising daily for ~20 years and it’s the best investment I’ve made.

If you want to slow the aging process:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Don’t smoke
  • Take it easy on the booze
  • Eat real food
  • Move daily

The flip side of being a long-term exerciser is I can go a long, long way on nothing. It’s a trait that can get an older athlete into trouble.

When tired, depleted or “open” from exercise, my blood pressure can dip suddenly. So far, I have never passed out but I’ve felt lightheaded on many occasions.

Passing out is a serious medical condition – Part One and Part Two on the Athlete’s Heart Blog will tell you more.

If you share my profile then be aware that falls and crashes are different as we age. A key part of aging well is avoiding the strength and muscle losses that come from extended breaks.

I have changed my approach to improve my risk profile.

The Scalpel of Eternal Youth

Here’s how I categorize WEEKLY run mileage:

  • 20 miles = “not running”
  • 30 miles = “light week”
  • 40 miles = “basic maintenance”
  • 50 miles = “good week”
  • 60 miles = “enough to run a decent marathon”
  • 75 miles or more = “stretch week”

Follow this running protocol long enough and you’re likely to deal with orthopedic issues.

The most effective treatment for chronic injury is lifestyle modification.

Your orthopedic surgeon makes NO money from this truth!

A surprising thing about middle age => moderation turned out of be healthy and enjoyable.

Who Knew?

More on Bike Trailers

independence_with_lex

Had some follow up questions on my Endurance Corner Article – Active Parents.

What’s the best trailer?

I use a double trailer as it lets me cram two preschoolers inside for a trip to school.

Double Trailer

When I’m going on a longer ride, I take one kid at a time and can fit in everything I need to keep her comfortable.

Independence

 

On my longest trailer ride (5 hrs total time), we climbed to 12,000 ft and she had lunch, blanket, iPad, pillow and headphones in with her. In the end, she ate a snack, played a little music on speaker and enjoyed the view.

Any tips to get started?

  • Keep it short – I started with 20 minutes and have found that under an hour is best
  • Keep it fun
  • Always be willing to stop – they settle eventually
  • Remember your passengers are in the shade and not riding – lots of clothing and blankets
  • If you are a keen cyclist then the high-end trailers are well worth the money

What bike is best?

I use a full suspension 29er mountain bike.

I have a triple front chain ring and a ton of gears.

Without the trailer, I can get up most everything in Colorado with my middle chain ring. So the smallest ring is for climbing steep stuff with the trailer and when I’m above tree line.

Don’t use a high-end road bike with thin walled tubes – there is additional torque that runs through the system that can ruin your frame.

If you’re doing a long mountain descent then the disc brakes are essential to control speed and avoid overheating the braking system.

I’m mainly on pavement but we will do some hard packed dirt occasionally.

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Overall, the trailer is an excellent workout. I can blast myself with a 30-45 minute climb and be home in under an hour.