The “shoulder season” is when we older athletes repair our bodies. The main cycling season is over, but there won’t be enough snow to ski for a couple of months. I have badly deformed hammer toes on my right foot. Last winter they hurt from the pressure of my boot every one of the 80 days I cross country skied. I was 70 and determined to ski at least that many days. When I started riding in the spring, I cut a big hole in my cycling shoe so there was no pressure.
A week ago today I had surgery on my foot. The surgeon broke the hammer toes, removed a joint from each, straightened them, inserted pins to keep them straight and strapped my foot in a boot. Assuming recovery is normal, the pins will come out in six weeks. Until then I’m supposed to keep it elevated above my heart 24 x 7, except for meals and the bathroom. I’m writing this column over several days so I’m not sitting up too long at a time.
Many cyclists know they will be off the bike for two or more weeks for a family vacation, busy time at work, surgery, etc. What should you do?
I’ve had three serious accidents that required weeks of recovery in bed. This surgery was planned so I had time to prepare. I have a number of coaching books I’ve been meaning to read as well as a stack of mysteries to fill the time. I bought six weeks of staples at the grocery store: boxes of cereal, bread to freeze, meat, fish and poultry to freeze, canned goods, dried fruits, granola bars, chips and salsa, toilet paper and towels, etc. And the all important ice cream and coffee. I went to two different stores and each time filled two shopping carts. As we need them, my wife will buy more dinner items from the butcher and fresh fruits and vegetables.
I also used the time to prepare physically and psychologically.
Physiology of less training
A fundamental principle of training is use it or lose it. Anticipating time off the bike, what to do?
Considerable research has been done on what happens if an athlete completely stops exercising because of illness, injury or other reasons. One loses different types of fitness at different rates.
Residual fitness How many years you’ve been riding is the biggest factor in how slowly you lose fitness and how rapidly you can recover the lost fitness. This relates to my concept of athletic maturity. This column explains how you can assess your athletic maturity and the following column explains how to improve your athletic maturity. I’ve been wearing out cycling shorts for almost 50 years.
VO2 max is your body’s capacity to take in and use oxygen. It begins to decline at about day 10 of no training and continues to decrease over time. In about two to four weeks of no training significant reductions in VO2 max begin to occur. This immediate decline is related to a decreased cardiac output and decreased blood volume.
Cardiorespiratory fitness is lost a little more slowly. Within about four to eight weeks of no training your body’s capacity to move blood to your muscles decreases. This happens in part because your blood volume decreases. The size of your heart muscle decreases and because it isn’t as strong it can’t pump as much blood per stroke. Your max heart rate actually increases. Because your heart can’t pump as much blood at submaximal intensities your heart rate is higher for a given workload.
Speed and high intensity workouts depend on your VO2 max. As this declines your capacity to transport oxygen makes it hard to recover and continue with hard intervals. The loss of fast twitch muscles also reduces your how hard you can ride.
Endurance and aerobic capacity. At about 10 days you slowly start to lose endurance. At about 14 days the loss of endurance accelerates because of the decrease in mitochondrial density and enzyme activity in your slow twitch fibers.
Metabolism and muscle function are significantly impacted. For a given workload you are burning more carbs and less fat for energy. Muscle glycogen levels also drop, leaving less in the tank to draw from. Your lactate threshold goes down because lactate accumulates quicker and at a lower intensity (loss of buffering capacity).
Your endurance decreases because of these declines in cardiorespiratory, metabolism and muscle function.
Muscle strength and max power losses are very limited in the first two weeks. Even though your maximum strength and power are almost as great, you lose muscular endurance, i.e., you can’t apply a force repeatedly for many minutes or hours of continuous motion. Muscle mass and the number of Type II fast-twitch muscle fibers decreases. Fast-twitch muscles provide power and slow-twitch muscles provide endurance. (Fast-twitch and slow-twitch are the rates at which the muscle fibers contract, not your cadence.)
Loss of skills. There’s good news here. Once a skill is learned, it is never forgotten, especially if it is well learned.
To sum up:
- Rates of decline depend on how many years you’ve been cycling and how fit you are before you take a break from exercising.
- Power and capacity to ride hard start to decrease first.
- Endurance doesn’t decrease as fast.
- Muscle strength decreases slowly.
How I prepared
VO2 max. Increases in VO2 max result from large volumes of training at low intensities over long periods of time and from training at very high intensities for short intervals of one to five minutes. I hate intervals but I love mountain biking, which was a natural way to do very high intensity workouts. However, because I don’t compete a modest decline in my VO2 max isn’t much of a problem.
Endurance. Endurance comes from some combination of how long your rides are and how frequently you ride, i.e., total volume. Although I had a lot to prepare I made a point of throwing my leg over the top tube almost every day for at least an hour a day. Once a week I enjoyed a multi-hour ride with my buddy and at least once a week rode for hours on my own. Here’s a column on how to do endurance training correctly.
Power. Although I don’t mind a modest decline in my VO2 max, I don’t want to lose much sustained power. I live in the Rockies and use sustained power climbing on the bike in the summer and on cross-country skis in the winter. As we age, muscle mass decreases on average approximately 3–8% per decade after the age of 30, and the rate of decline is even higher after the age of 60. I’m already at risk of losing muscle mass and six weeks off the bike will only worsen that. In addition to my weekly MTB high intensity rides and multi-hour endurance rides I did several on-the-bike power workouts a week. The roads in my neighborhood are very hilly and I can easily do 30 – 60 minute rides with lots of hard but not flat out climbing. A couple of mornings a week I rolled the MTB out of the garage (my roads are gravel) and pushed the pace. I climbed hard enough that I could only say a few words at a time but wasn’t going anaerobic.
Here’s a column I wrote on 6 Kinds of Intensity: Which One is Best for You?
Leg strength. My right foot is non-weight bearing for the six weeks so I can only use one leg to stand up. In preparation I did single leg squats while brushing my teeth.
Upper body strength. I’m using a four-leg walker rather than crutches because it’s safer. I don’t want to risk falling and injuring myself so I can’t ski. I move the walker forward about a foot, extend my right leg foot off the floor, lift my body weight up with my arms, step forward with my left leg and repeat. I’m doing the equivalent of a dip in the gym with each step so to get ready I worked on arm strength. Getting around with the walker is also hard aerobic exercise.
Recovery. I knew that recovery from the surgery would be taxing both physically and mentally. The last couple of weeks before the surgery I tapered just like I would for a big cycling event.
One day at a time. The thought of six weeks of not exercising bums me out, so I don’t think about six weeks. I just think about today: use the walker to get coffee and a bagel and come back to bed, sit up to write this column and rest again, “walk” to the dining room to have lunch and back to bed for a nap, read a chapter about sports psychology in How Badly Do You Want It, get to the dining room for dinner, lie on the couch in the TV room with my foot up, watch an old bike race on YouTube, galump to bed, read a mystery and fall asleep. Mission accomplished.
Have a purpose. Although frustrating and boring the six weeks aren’t all wasted time. I have the books on coaching to read as well as books on classical music and specific CDs to listen to with the books.
Long view. Although I try not to think about six weeks recovery, I do think about the upcoming ski season. My toes won’t hurt with every stride and my balance will be better. Because of all the preparatory work I did I’ll be ready to get on the snow as soon as the surgeon gives me permission.
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process starts by explaining the physiology of aging and the different ways your body ages. The book then discusses the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations for total body fitness: aerobics, strength, balance, flexibility and strong bones.
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Anti-Aging includes an annual plan to put together all of the aspects of aging well: cardiorespiratory exercise, intensity training, strength workouts, weight-bearing exercise, stretching and balance. The book concludes with a chapter on motivation.
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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.