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Better with age: Armstrong and Neben still dominating

Age. It’s something we constantly talk about when describing professional cyclists. Whether we’re watching an up-and-coming star take their first win, commenting on an athlete’s progression to maturity in the sport, or jesting about a racer reaching the end of their career at the ripe old age of 35, cycling is obsessed with age.

So when two U.S. pro women broke the age barrier in a single season, we couldn’t help but take notice. At 42, Kristin Armstrong claimed her third consecutive time trial Olympic gold in Rio. Then, Amber Neben, 41, won her second world time trial title in Doha. In a sport that regularly chews up and spits out riders before they’re 30, these two seasoned athletes have cracked the age code. So what makes these women so fast when they’re “supposed” to be retired by now?

First and foremost, let’s get one thing clear: No matter what empirical physiological explanations exist, or which mental training or recovery tricks they’re using, both Armstrong and Neben’s successes are due to the fact that they are two of the best that have ever competed, particularly in the race against the clock. They are some of the most competitive, focused, and disciplined cyclists on the circuit, male or female. And while most of us blame our aging bodies for declines in performance, both athletes are capitalizing on their experience, using it to their advantage to outride their younger competition.

With hundreds of time trial races under their belts, both racers are masters at selecting the right equipment, perfecting their warm-ups, and knowing exactly where and when to push on a specific course, or when to hold back and conserve. Their years of experience also play a role in physiology and economics of movement, explains Joel Friel, best-selling author and coach. “The longer you’ve been seriously training in your sport, the more economical you are likely to have become,” he writes in his book “Fast after 50.” This means athletes become more efficient over time, especially when it comes to utilizing oxygen. But then, why do we eventually get slower as we get older?

There’s been much debate and scores of scientific studies dedicated to understanding the decline of athletic performance with age. Experts are still trying to understand much of the science. But a study from the University of Bourgogne in France found that cyclists show fewer declines in performance with aging than other sports like running or swimming. So while swimmer Dara Torres might be the extreme exception in her sport, winning a silver medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the Beijing Olympics (as well as two others in relay events) at the age of 41, Armstrong and Neben might not be the anomaly we think they are.

To stay competitive, however, changes in training, racing, and recovery are necessary. Armstrong drastically reduced the number and duration of road races she competed at in recent years. “My focus on time trial is sort of similar to someone focusing on marathon running,” she said. “I get to pick three or four really big time trials a year. I can’t focus on any more nine-day stage races.”

This slimmer race schedule allowed for more focus on time trialing but also provided more recovery time between races and big training blocks. Coach and physiologist Trevor Connor, VeloNews’s coaching and training expert, explains that athletes have to be more careful about recovery as they get older. “I find our bodies can still tolerate the work and stress but are less forgiving. Ignore a knee pain, and you’ll pay for it. Push burnout and you won’t rebound the same way,” he says. A sports science study from Australian researchers supports this idea. They found that older athletes’ muscles are more susceptible to damage from intense exercise, have a slower repair process, and the muscles’ adaptation response isn’t as effective as it is in younger athletes.

But racing isn’t just about physiology and perfecting the rest and recovery component. In fact, many coaches and athletes will argue that successful racing has more to do with the racer’s mental ability to suffer than his or her physical capacity. “I hurt so bad out there,” Armstrong explains about racing time trials. “When my coach keeps on telling me to go deeper and deeper, I have to keep on telling myself that I can go deeper, and that this is a result I have to live with.” Suffering and knowing how to keep pushing when their body is screaming at them to stop is something top professionals like Armstrong and Neben are experts at. That comes through experience.

Connor argues older riders can suffer better than their younger competitors. “I find masters can tolerate more pain and handle more abuse,” he said. “At 41 I used to take WorldTour rider Chad Haga out for periodic rides and absolutely crack him. He could kill me over 10 minutes, but I could always out-suffer him.”

But Connor also believes that there is a finite lifespan for the suffering one accumulates while racing. He says that most people can only tolerate 10 to 15 years of the dedication, travel, abuse, crashing, and fatigue before they need to move on. Both Armstrong and Neben came to the sport of cycling later in life, each racing their first professional season around the age of 27.

“If you start in your teens, you’re likely going to get tired of the sport before you hit your 40s.” Connor explains. “So if [Armstrong and Neben] entered the sport later in life, their ‘shelf life’ started later and they can go into their 40s.” And into their 40s they have gone, with dominance.

Both racers have been through their fair share of injuries, crashes, and days on the road. They may not have much shelf life left (or maybe they’ll continue proving us wrong) but they’ve pushed the boundaries of what the cycling world thought was possible.

Sources:

R. Lepers, F. Sultana, T. Bernard, C. Hausswirth, and J. Brisswalter, “Age-Related Changes in Triathlon Performances,” International Journal of Sports Medicine 31 (4) (2010): 251-256

J. Fell, P. Reaburn, and G.J. Harrison, “Altered Perception and Report of Fatigue and Recovery in Veteran Athletes,” Journal of Sports Medicine and Physiological Fitness 48 (2) (2008): 272-277.

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