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 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.