The Midlife Cyclist

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This is the title of an interesting book by Paul Cavell, about continuing to ride well and stay healthy as we grow older. Paul has the interesting perspective about being a professional bike fitter- riders, often pretty talented ones, go to him to have their bike setup tuned in just right for performance and comfort, and sometimes to work around injuries or other limitations. Many of his clients are getting up there in years. Paul is pretty convinced that doing the amount of exercise typically recommended for health, like 150 minutes a week, would be great for most people. But what about those of us who continue to want to “push the envelope” by challenging ourselves more. How can we do that and still have it contribute to good health?

Some of the advice is general enough for all aging athletes, while some is specific to cyclists. Cross-training by doing other sports that complements the muscles in cycling is highly recommended. It is pretty well known that cycling alone is not the best for maintaining bone density because it is done mostly seated. Weight training is a good supplement for this purpose, Paul is also a particular fan of stand-up paddling, because this works a lot of upper body and core muscles. He also recommends doing more cycling standing up. Pulling up on the bars while climbing standing up is a good spine loader. Interestingly, he also often recommends to clients to use flat pedals (not “clipping in”), part of the time, especially during rehab.

This brings a cycling myth he explodes: pulling up on the pedals as part of a good power stroke. I had first read about this in a book on cycling science about 15 years ago. Force transducers were placed on pedals by researchers, who could thereby measure the load on the pedals in all directions, through the full 360 degree pedal stroke. When they did this with elite professional cyclists, none of them were found to be pulling up on the pedals at any point in the stroke. When cyclists think they are doing so, they are really just taking up some of the weight of the “off leg”. While your right leg is pushing down on the pedal, for example, the weight of the left leg is resisting the motion, so by pulling up a bit on the left you reduce that. But there is no net upward pulling on the pedal.

This is important because cycling “lore”, and many coaches, emphasize pulling up. As Paul points out, this is using weak muscles like the hip flexors and the anterior tibialis of the shin, which can easily get overloaded and develop overuse injury. Think of running as an analogy, he argues, an activity humans clearly evolved to be proficient at. The bulk of the power comes from pushing muscles. The hip flexors don’t provide power, they just lift the leg and bring it forward for the next step. I learned of the importance of not emphasizing pulling the hard way, years ago. I was working to be a better climber on my Rans Rocket recumbent. On steep hills I would pull on the pedal with the off-leg to get more power. After doing this for a while, I had bad shin pain in my left leg, which did not go away with ice and rest. My doc diagnosed “anterior tibial periostitis”: the anterior tibialis is the muscle in your shin that flexes the foot up at the ankle. I had inflamed the bone where the tendon connects to the bone. Other people might strain the tendon from the same overuse. I now no longer tried pulling, but it took two years for the shin to heal completely.

On the subject of activities humans are evolved to be good at, Paul is convinced that cycling is not one of them! We are a species that evolved over millions of years, riding a contraption that was invented in the Victorian era, less than 150 years ago. Further, he mentions the incident where the UCI banned recumbents, and feels that they therefore largely froze the design of the bicycle in place. You hear this argument from recumbent advocates all the time, but this was interesting coming from someone who tunes the position of people on conventional cycles for a living. Since there is a valid argument that pedaling a bicycle is in some ways unnatural, it is important to do what we can to make it as healthy of an activity as possible, largely through achieving a good position. The problem is that the healthiest position on a conventional bike is often more upright, which is not the best position for performance. We may be able to get away with a more aggressive position with really low handlebars in our youth, but it becomes more problematic with age. He offers the interesting perspective that older athletes that want higher performance have to “earn” a more aggressive position, by doing flexibility and core training. An interesting example he gives is “earning” a lower handlebar position with core strength. If you can only hold a plank pose for less than 30 seconds, forget it, you need to be pretty upright. IF you work to where you can hold it for 60 seconds, you can lower the bars a bit. Work up to two minutes, and then you can think about a more aggressive position.

Another important topic in the book is avoiding negative cardiac repercussions of overtraining. This is an area where improved fitness does not always equate to better health, especially as we age, as I discussed here. Problems can include developing arrhythmias like AFIB and even cardiac scarring. We can help avoid these by not overdoing it. An interesting new factor I hadn’t heard of until Paul’s book is that this is much more common of a problem in aging male athletes than females. It is not yet totally known why this is so, but Paul several cardiologist friends. who are themselves master’s athletes or work with them, and gleans some good insights from them.

Bike fit, performance, and health- a tricky balance

The most detailed part of the book is on good bike fit and biomechanics while cycling for older athletes, which is Paul’s area of expertise. There are quite a few fascinating subtle nuances in this area.

Overall this book is both inspirational and has good tips, for aging athletes in general, and cyclists in particular.