RBR Reader Will writes, “I am 70 and ride for recreation and health. I normally only ride 10 miles or so five days a week. I have found that if I include some intensity work I can take tours with 40 to 50 mile rides without suffering. Recently when I put out high effort I sometimes get a strong pain in my lower abdomen. This goes away in a couple of minutes of easy riding. Any thoughts?”
Before diagnosing any problem one should be sure one has all the relevant facts. Over the next 12 days I asked Will a series of questions. Here’s what I learned:
- Do you warm up before you do intensity?
“Yes, I typically ride easy for 20 minutes first?”
- Where exactly is the pain?
“The pain is very specific, low down and near the center (pit of my stomach). I notice that I have more somewhat random pains as I have passed 70, perhaps this is just one of those, but it has happened more than once.”
- Are you doing one hard effort or several?
“Varies. Our neighborhood loop contains one half-mile long bike lane and I often try to ride hard for as long as I feel comfortable. Sometimes I do another one or two lesser efforts.”
- How long are your hard efforts?
“Usually one minute or less.”
- When you do several efforts how much recovery between hard efforts? “Four to five minutes.”
- How hard are you going when you do intensity?
“Very hard but not as hard as possible and gasping for air.”
- How soon into a hard effort does the pain start?
“45 seconds to 1 minute. So far it doesn’t happen every time.”
- On a 1 to 10 scale how painful is it? 1 is barely noticeable. 10 is the worst pain imaginable.
“7-8, I can tolerate it, but definitely would not continue riding hard.”
- Are you using a heart rate monitor?
“No, I don’t use anything but a basic computer and body feedback.”
- Is there any correlation between when the pain happens and what you’ve eaten or drunk in the hour or two preceding the ride?
“I have not noticed a correlation with the pain and eating or drinking. I am not eating or drinking a lot right beforehand.”
- “For history. We used to ride on an army base, but it is much more restrictive and we have switched to riding around neighborhoods on hybrids (Salsa Fargo and Trek 720). When riding the fort on road bikes we would ride 20-30 miles and I would do efforts on small hills. Would go until I couldn’t spin, then stand, then gear down. One wrinkle, I shattered my left femur in 2010 falling on sticky asphalt and have a Ti ball in one hip. It slowed me down for a while and ended my tennis habit, but I feel normal on the bike now.
- “It has not recurred since I wrote you, but I have been off the bike hiking Mount LeConte in the Smokies for a bit.”
- A few days later, “I just did one pretty hard interval of 0.4 miles followed by two shorter ones with a few minutes in between. Pain in legs and lungs, but nothing in my abdomen. Guess I am just turning into a hypochondriac. Perhaps attended four funerals in the last three weeks is part of that.”
Don’t ignore pain.
At our age (I’m 69) it’s smart not to ignore any pain. Men tend to be more stoic. Abdominal pain may be a symptom of a heart attack. It may also be a side stich, exercise-related transient abdominal pain (ETAP), a sharp stabbing pain under the ribcage. You should see your doctor just to be sure it’s not related to a cardiac event. If it’s ETAP and otherwise you are healthy it’s not a problem.
What should you do?
Don’t ride as hard. Efforts this hard aren’t the best way to improve your fitness for touring. Intensity workouts are like prescription medicine. The correct medicine taken in the right dose at the right time will make you better. But if it’s the wrong medicine and / or the wrong dose it won’t help and might make you worse. You should do longer, less intense hard efforts.
What is the best intensity workout for endurance?
Many recreational and endurance riders assume that intensity training is only for riders who like to hammer. The appropriate intensity workout can benefit all riders with the possible exception of commuters.
You like to do tours with days of 40 to 50 mile without suffering. On an endurance ride you want enough power to maintain your desired cruising speed, to climb hills and to ride into the wind. Sweet Spot efforts are the optimal way to improve your power. The Sweet Spot balances how hard your efforts are with the need for recovery between efforts to produce the most total overload on your muscles.
You ride by perceived exertion – so do I. When you are riding in the Sweet Spot you can talk in short phrases but not short sentences. On a 10 point scale this is an RPE of 4-5.
Start with multiple short efforts. Try two or three efforts of three to four minutes each. The recovery time between the hard efforts is half as long as the hard efforts. If you struggle to do two efforts of three minutes then try two or three efforts of two minutes. If you can do three efforts of four minutes with two minutes recovery between each then increase the length of your hard efforts and recovery or increase the number of repeats. Don’t increase both the duration and the number of repeats at the same time — that risks injury and overtraining.
You should always finish an intensity workout feeling like you could have done one more hard effort.
At age 70, you should always give yourself at least two easy days between hard days. You want to be fully recovered so that you get the most benefit out of your hard days.
My 41-page eArticle Intensity Training: Using RPE, a HRM or Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness is only $4.99.
My 107-page eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process includes chapters on training principles, how to gauge intensity, how to do intensity workouts and different types of intensity workouts for different benefits. Anti-Aging is only $14.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.