This is the first line of Mother’s Little Helper written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1966 when they were 23 — they’re now 76. Mother’s Little Helper is Meprobamate a tranquilizer and in the song the mother keeps taking more and more until she overdoses. Then on August 20, 2019 the Stones wrapped up a three-year tour. Getting old hasn’t slowed them down too much!
What to do when your body starts to wear out?
RoadBikeRider reader Stan wrote, “How can I keep riding after my body starts to wear out? I’m 73 and have done pretty well until this year, but now my spine is showing the wear and tear of having lived an active life also. And for the first time, back pain is starting to limit how long I can ride. I’m in physical therapy now and have an appointment scheduled with a neurosurgeon and may be having part of a herniated disc chiseled away, which hopefully will extend my riding life by a few more years. But I also recall at least two other surgeries I’ve had elsewhere on my body precisely so that I could keep riding.”
As we age our aerobic capacity declines, our muscles atrophy and other physical changes take place even if we don’t get injured. Fortunately we can slow and even reverse the rates of decline by continuing (or resuming) different types of exercise.
Stan is asking about something a little different. He’s concerned about not just gradual loss of physical fitness but the actual wearing out of body parts, wearing out as the result of an active lifestyle.
I am not medical professional. What follows are suggestions about what to discuss with a medical professional.
Some problems are potentially life threatening and require surgery. Post-surgery they don’t need to be the end of your riding.
- Heart replacement. Tony who had had a heart transplant several years ago contacted me last fall. He’d been medically cleared to start training within some limits. I started coaching him and was careful to stay well below the limits. By carefully monitoring his training and recovery we were able to gradually increase his riding so that he could participate in a week-long training camp.
- Open heart surgery. I coached a Rob 72-year-old rider who had open heart surgery in October 2018. He was in excellent shape before the surgery. His goal was to ride a week-long tour the summer of 2019. When he contacted me he was excelling in cardiac rehab and ready to move to cycling-specific training. After consulting with his cardiologist and the cardiac rehab lab I started coaching Rob. In training he rode fewer miles than before but each workout had a specific purpose. His initial workouts increased his endurance until he was fit enough that he could do a one-day ride comparable to a single day on the tour. Next we workout on power so he could do all the climbing. Finally he peaked with back-to-back rides comparable to the tour.
- Physical therapy. If a problem isn’t life-threatening then physical therapy is the way to start. A physical therapist can among other things:
- Assess what’s causing the problem, e.g., poor posture.
- Recommend compensating exercises, e.g., strengthening the core.
- Recommend changes to reduce the pain, e.g., changing the bike fit.
Physical therapy is always the preferred treatment but if that doesn’t satisfactory resolve the issue then surgery may be appropriate.
- Joint replacement. I have a friend in his 70s. Eliot had a hip replaced and after rehab is doing multi-hour events without any problems. Maggie in her 60s had a shoulder placement and after rehab is a multi-sport competitive athlete.
- Very fit first. Before surgery each of these individuals was very fit. Rob had been riding 6-7,000 miles a year. Maggie built up to 100 push-ups the week before surgery. I have very bad hammer toes and when they are fixed surgically I’ll be sitting around for six weeks with my foot in the air. I’m working out as much as possible before the surgery.
You should consult a medical professional about any significant issue!
Neither your nor your doctor can control completely what happens with your body; however, you are fully in control of your riding.
- More recovery. Probably the biggest change as we age is the need for more recovery. Sufficient recovery helps to prevent or reduce the incidence of chronic injuries. How many days of recovery you need depends on how fit you are now and on your age. The fitter you are now the fewer recovery days a week you need. The older you are the more recovery days you need each week. To be sure you are getting sufficient recovery, you should start every ride feeling fresh and you should finish every ride feeling like you could have done more.
- Make each ride count. If riding aggravates a problem then ride less. This sounds simple; however, riders often think the road to success is more miles. Like Rob each ride should have a specific purpose.
- Consistency. As we age, we lose fitness faster and it takes longer to regain fitness. When trying to regain fitness, it’s easy to do too much too fast. Exercising year-round can counter this.
- Variety. Staying active in various ways instead of just riding helps to avoid repetitive use injuries. I often have clients walk on active recovery days instead of riding.
- Supplemental exercise is more important. My client Joe had chronic knee pain. After talking with Joe I suspected his knee pain was similar to mine. I suggested he try an exercise I learned in physical therapy that helped me by strengthening the muscles around my knee. Short-arc quad extensions helped Joe and are illustrated on my website. Jim Langley describes a different exercise. For many people low back pain is the result of the spine not being in alignment due to a weak core. Core strengthening exercises are illustrated on my website. Consult your doctor or physical therapist to see if supplementary exercise can help you.
- Bike changes. I had breakfast with my friend 75-year-old friend Dan who told me he’d starting riding again but he was cheating – he had an eBike. That’s not cheating I said. I started with racing bike and then put on a bigger cluster. And then an MTB derailleur and an even bigger cluster. And then triple chain rings. I’m considering an eBike. And at some point I’ll get a trike. Another friend Joan (age 82) had back surgery and rides a bike with a long enough stem that she can sit almost upright. A third friend, Andy (age 65), swears by Italian racing bikes. Now riding hurts a lot so he quit riding instead of changing equipment. His loss.
- Look forward not back. Have you ever thought, well, I used to be able to … ? True, but that doesn’t help you now. Reprogram your mind to think about what you can do now and will do this year and beyond.
- Flexible goals. If a physical problem impacts your riding change your goal(s). To commemorate her 75th year Elizabeth Wicks had a goal of riding 75 days of at least 75 miles. She developed a painful crotch – not just a saddle sore – which wasn’t diagnosed and resolved for over a month. Because of the lost days on the bike she couldn’t do her 75 days of 75 miles so she switched to riding 7,500 miles that year.
- Don’t accept limiters. My friend Tim has cancer that is held at bay through a drug regimen. Tim and his wife Judy love to ski. Each winter they travel from the Midwest to the mountains of Colorado where I live to ski.
- Suck it up … If won’t aggravate permanently. Because of my bad hammer toes, to relieve the pressure I have holes cut in the top of my right cycling shoe, my every day shoes and even my slippers. I love cross-country skiing but didn’t want to cut a hole in my ski boots! So I lived with the pain to ski 76 days last winter to celebrate my 71st year.
- Important caveat. As long as they don’t make your condition worse, not accepting limiters and sucking it up are probably okay.
You can still improve. As you age you aren’t doomed to an inevitable downward slide. Unless you are a super-fit international athlete there’s room for improvement! The keys are doing the right kind(s) of training and getting sufficient recovery. I wrote a column last fall about my plans for improvement. Here are Five Ways to Improve that don’t involve more miles.
Experiment of one. We’re each an experiment of one. The above are general suggestions, which may not apply to you.
Anti-Aging. I designed and wrote my eBook Anti-Aging 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process to help you slow and even reverse your physical decline by increasing your aerobic capacity, doing intensity training, building and maintain muscle strength and power, increasing your flexibility, working on your balance and reducing bone loss. Anti-Aging incorporates the latest research and most of it is new material not published in my previous eArticles on cycling past 50, 60 and beyond. Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is your comprehensive guide to continuing to ride well into your 80s and even your 90s. The 106-page eBook is $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 over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
Will Haltiwanger says
I am 72 and have had Hammer Toes for a long time. Assumed it was just how things were until it occurred to me to try to exercise my toes. I began just trying to curl my toes down and dig into the rug. It was hard because I had no muscle strength for that movement. Now I will simply work them in my shoes as I sit typing this. My hammer toes are cured without surgery. My wife is doing an exercise where she picks up marbles with her toes and has significantly improved her hammer toes.
I believe that hammer toes are largely a result of wearing shoes. We no longer exercise our toes like our evolutionary ancestors so the muscles atrophy and hammer toes are the result.
Greg Weaver says
What is recovery?
No riding, easy spin, short distance, time or intervals?
I read often about needing more “recovery”, but not sure what that is exactly.
I’m 67 and an active cyclist, both mtb and road. Still trying to get better, even after a full hip replacement, and making progress.
Like your articles btw.
John Lye says
In my experience, recovery is whatever it takes. Your body is your body, and it’s the one you have to live with. And things will change. I am 77. The month I turned 70 I rode three hilly centuries in four weeks; those days are gone, although metric centuries are still fine. I am on the trainer these days because of Covid, riding Rouvy rides, and even every other day is too much unless I am careful (easier to hammer it on a trainer, I find). For me not getting on the bike at all on my rest days is best. It might well be quite different for someone else. Good luck, keep notes, and keep on riding!
Coach, I like your intro today. I am a Stone’s fan and right in their age group at a 74.
I just had a TKR on my right knee May 14. I tried to set myself up for success by being in as good of shape as I could going into surgery. The second thing I did that helped going into surgery was that I didn’t go so long on the deteriorating knee joint that it caused other problems for me.
Another thought about Anti Aging is, do things that bring you joy. Look at a slow runners face and posture and then look a brisk walkers face and posture. Is there any sign of joy in going so dam slow?
And this one, maybe not a technical suggestion: if you are not having fun lower your expectations. Quote from Jerry “Bergie” Berg
Bob Krzewinski says
Getting older and things hurt? Consider a recumbent which offer no wrist, seat, back or neck pain. A fair amount of high performance models available too.
Marc Gellman says
Regarding you initial comment, ” Mother’s Little Helper is Meprobamate’. Many sites on the internet state that the drug in question is variously assumed to be meprobamate (Miltown) or diazepam (Valium). What is neglected is that the lyrics refer to a “little yellow pill”. Just to clarify the confusion, during the period that the song was released Valium was available as a yellow pill and Miltown was sold as a scored white pill.
I use this song during lectures I give at the University of Miami on the influence drugs have on music during the 1960’s.
Marc Gellman, Ph.D. Research Professor of Psychology, University of Miami
Classes I teach include Drugs and Behavior (PSY 320) and lecture in the interdisciplinary course Decade of the 60’s, on the Psychedelic 60’s.
Dave Minden says
I agree with the tone of some comments: you may be able to fix what ails you and ‘get younger’ as you age. Herniated disc 20 years ago started me doing yoga. Now each day I ‘fix’ myself = back, feet, knees, etc. – because I know how to do so. The hammer toes fix above is new to me – but I’m going to try it as I have them! Our medical arts and styles of living don’t tell us these fixes, perhaps with the exception of physical therapy, which can be overly specific and not ‘lifestyle oriented.’
As both a motorcyclist and a bicyclist at 77 I like to use the old saying. “You don’t quit riding because you get old, you get old because you quit riding”. The Italian Super Moto is my adrenaline bike and the Giant modified Cross bike is my endorphins bike. I have zero jock genes and have never been “fit” even in childhood but I want to remain as active as reasonably long as possible and whatever you want to do, you must do. Besides, riding is always great fun and never gets old for me. Personally, I would think long and hard before I had back surgery and I would exhaust all other options first including Yoga which bores me silly or a recumbent which I found as much fun as a Harley. Good luck, make it happen.
Doug (Madison, WI) Kirk says
What is recovery? If my memory is correct Fred Matheny once wrote “on recovery day, your grandmother should pass you going uphill.”
Aging….The ULTIMATE Endurance Sport.
Roy Bloomfield says
“…you should start every ride feeling fresh and you should finish every ride feeling like you could have done more…”
I respectfully disagree with this statement. I’m 66, and unless it’s a recovery ride, I still try to leave it all out on the pavement…peaks and valleys!
Roy Bloomfield says
(I meant I disagree with the second part of the statement “you should finish every ride feeling like you could have done more”…)
“Consult your doctor or physical therapist to see if supplementary exercise can help you.”
Sorry no. This article is missing the single most important thing that everyone should do at any age and especially when getting older.
That is strength training which is means making your ENTIRE body work against a resistance of some sort,
You should not ask your doctor if it is OK, If they know what they are talking about they will say of course, the US medical authorities advice is clear, people should do 2 x strength workouts per week as well as cardio. Of the two strength is probably the most important in terms of countering the effects of aging.
So just do it following the correct sequence, what I call the “strength triangle”
1. Mobilise – spend time to get all your joints moving freely through the normal range of motion without pain
2 Stabilise – develop your core and learn how to breathe and brace so that your body can handle increased load
3 – Resistance – this simply adds load to the normal range of movement thereby strengthening ALL parts of the body.
Seek help from a strength coach if you think it necessary, though there is plenty on the web.
Cycling by itself does not do all of the above 3 for the entire body and indeed can be damaging if it is the only form of exercise you undertake.
For anyone who moans to the above saying “I’m, too old for that” I say try it. I did and feel decades younger. Knees that were damaged in my 20s and that I thought were shot are now pain free and have a wider range of motion than at any time of my life.
George J Strate says
I’m pushing 84. My ride is a Cannondale Supersix Evo Hi-Mod Black. Compact Crankset 50/34 11/28..
I live in Vail Co. Yesterday I rode from my house to the top of Vail Pass and back. 10 years ago I had low back surgery that resulted in some compromise of my left leg. I’m 5’11” and weigh 157 lbs. Living in Vail most rides require some climbing.
Here is my secret. At my age I’m forced to ride with younger riders. I don’t think about my age. I just keep busting my butt to keep up. Been doing this year in and year out. It Works.
EDUARDO BAQUERO says
I am 73 and have been riding for many years, 8 months ago had TKR left knee, fortunately, it all well very well and I am fully recovered, but still doing phisical therapy on my own. I agree with your suggestion to alternate workouts doing different exercises, last January i purchsed a rowing machine which is totally noninpact and you use legs (knees), mid core and upper muscles, 30, 45 min to 1 hour workout is plenty, so now I am cycling 2-3 hours every other day and rowing in between, I am feeling great, totally pain free and as you said, every ride i finish like I could do more and only need few hours of recovery time.