I read an interesting article by Ironman legend Mark Allen recently suggesting that for endurance athletes, being competitive past 40 is no longer just an option but an expectation. One of the main reasons he cites is the modern understanding and importance given to recovery, claiming that previous training concepts often resulted in a burn-out in athletes by their mid thirties, if not earlier. Without this in-built fail mechanism he suggests that the deterioration of performance with age is far less that we had previously thought, and that otherwise the limiting factor is our expectations and belief.
There's a large and growing community of athletes in their 40s and 50s still remaining at, or near, the top of their game. Another legend, 6-times Ironman world champion Natascha Badmann won Ironman South Africa in 2012 at the age of 45. Mountain bike legend Ned Overend is still fully competitive at the ripe old age of 58, and in another recent article he hits on some similar nerves in analysis of his longevity.
As both of these articles allude, the mental burn-out is often more decisive than the physical. Without the passion to remain in the sport you won't stay with it long enough to discover that your body is still capable.
The off-season then - that annual break from our normal training routine - is much more crucial to our our ability to stay motivated than many of us are willing to admit. It is also crucial that you not only let your body rest, but that you involve your mind in other interests and let go of the obsessions for a while.
The pros, and those that are racing for a specific period during the year, will arrive at a point for a natural break at the end of the racing season. When it's your job it's an easy choice and usually cause for celebration, there's also a pressing need for you to get back on your bike after a few weeks hanging out in the pub. For those without a clear start and end to the season it can be hard to make the decision when to take time off. I think also there's a fear that we'll somehow lose momentum with our drop in fitness and maybe become less motivated to come back at all.
One way or another my off seasons usually end up being decided by outside influences. I'm now in the throes of coming back from an enforced rest - caused by an injury, surgery, and subsequent recovery period. I can't remember when was the last time I took 3 weeks completely off the bike. Probably the last time I was injured!
Anyway, I was definitely suffering from a temporary mental burnout even as I wound down my training before the surgery. There's a fine line between a discipline and a rut, and when you have to force yourself to get out and do the miles because you don't want to lose fitness, I think it's time for a premeditated loss of fitness.
Even as I lay in hospital I was trying to figure ways of getting back to at least minimal training earlier. In the end my body wouldn't let me (I've learned to listen to it!), so it was a clear 3-week break before I could get back on the bike at all. By the time I did, I was really looking forward to having a really methodical and slow build up to where my fitness was before the injury - and then beyond!
It's been a great mental rejuvenation; letting go of my fitness, enjoying having the opportunity - and energy - to do other things, and then planning my comeback! I'm now enjoying actually going slowly on the bike, even using the bike lanes instead of the roads, allowing fat guys in sandals to overtake me (good ego therapy!), and relishing the actual feeling of riding a bike.
Another outcome is the resolve to keep my running, swimming and weights/core routines going. Most of the time all I want to do is just get out and ride, but overall body conditioning is a crucial key to keeping strong and avoiding injuries, so you have to introduce a healthy discipline of cross-training and off-the-bike workouts in the off-season, and be vigilant not to let them go once the mileage and intensity starts ramping up.
I'll take another 3 weeks of moderate but gradually increasing distance and intensity, prioritizing the off-bike stuff, before I take a few days off and then start my base training. I'm aiming to eschew the usual linear periodisation this time in favour of what is sometimes referred to as "reverse periodisation". Quite apart from the use of this concept to great effect in the sport nowadays, I think this will work well for me; as an aging athlete one needs to keep the intensity higher than the young things who develop muscle strength from lighter activity - and lose it far less quickly. Just putting in the base miles no longer makes any sense.
However, the available training manuals don't offer any ready-made training plans for this approach so I'm using my accumulated experience and designing the whole plan myself - which takes some energy in planning and constant reevaluation - and as always I'm using my body as a test lab. I love it!
Base training therefore will not have the typical increase in volume as a priority, and will include three key intensity focuses: 1) Force, 2) Speed (cadence/sprints), and 3) Threshold. I'll be documenting my progress here for those interested, so by all means join me on this journey, and if you have anything to comment or add, even better.
First step is done. Batteries recharged. Now the fun begins!
Great article on reverse periodisation by Nick Grantham