Ride On

My indoor racing season this year was, as you will have seen from the previous episodes of this blog, fairly short, and fairly fraught, although eventually not a lot less successful than my best hopes. After a full year away from the track owing to injury, I see now I made the big mistake of simply starting up again as if nothing had happened. This wasn’t much of a conscious thing – apart from putting key dates in my diary and tweaking my training, I’d never really thought through the process of making my return. It’s water under the bridge now, and I’m not going to bore you by rehearsing the thoughts I perhaps ought to have had, but didn’t. Suffice it to say that I am very aware now of the things I took for granted when I resumed racing.

One of those things is that, when you’re 64 years of age, racing hurts! As a sprinter, racing is, of course, 100% effort. That’s to be expected. By and large,  I’ve never encountered any such thing as a tactical sprint race -not even in heats and semifinals – so for me it is all 100% effort. When you break it down to its most basic, running at speed consists of constantly pounding the ground, rising into the air, and being sucked back down again by gravity. All those impacts jar the body, sending shockwaves from toe to tip. 

Something I read recently said that the only way to train-in proper running speed is to do all sprint training at 90%+ of full race speed. That also equates to getting on for giving it 90% effort, and receiving pretty much 100% impact, gravity being a pretty constant force. 

Now, my 64 year old body can only take so much 100% impact without complaining. As a younger athlete, I probably had the resilience and recovery powers to train at something like 90% of race speed, pretty much 100% of the time. Not now. Definitely not now. I think that “90%+” theory is flawed where most Masters athletes are concerned.

As a deliberate choice, therefore, I do quite a lot of “low impact” work in training, ostensibly to keep at bay the pain and repercussions from the jarring and rebound of running fast. I heard a great interview not long ago, with Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, in which she commented on the main difference between cycling and wheelchair racing, and running. The wheeled events, she said, are principally about overcoming inertia and friction, while running is nearly all about trying to escape from the forces of gravity. Having once spent a lot of time cycling, I can fully grasp the accuracy of that.

What this brought home to me was that there was at least a case for saying wheel-based training is fundamentally incompatible with training to run as a sprinter. Some say all training needs a high degree of what’s called “specificity” – a very high correlation between what is done in training and what needs to be done in competition, if it’s going to work. Thus, put simply, runners need to run, cyclists need to ride a bike, and sprinters need to sprint.

I don’t ride a bike on the road any more. I decided quite some time ago it’s just become too dangerous. Nevertheless, if you’re a regular here, you’ll know I am fond of working out on a spinning class bike at the gym. You’ll also perhaps have followed my adventures during my year away from the track, with a Wattbike. It’s still the best device I have ever used in training for helping achieve a high, and measurable power output that can be correlated to things like heart rate. At the risk of stating the very obvious, there are very obvious postural differences between running and riding a bike. Running is what I’d call a “whole body” activity, while cycling is heavily weighted to the lower body. And then it has a near-total absence of that painful pounding, and little or none of the impact related injuries that I was so keen to avoid. There’s no way of getting around some more fundamental physiological differences between the action of overcoming inertia/friction through cycling motion, and of trying to overcome gravity through running. Actually, the more I think about it, the greater those differences become!

I’ve just had a year when what had previously been something like a 70/30 ratio of running-type to cycling-type training became closer to 80/20 in favour of the cycling-type.  I’m pretty sure that the lower leg problems I has while running (and not even necessarily running at full speed) upon my return to the track in February were in good measure down to having failed to keep my legs properly accustomed to the jarring and rebound action necessary to sprint. However much aerobic and muscular fitness I accrued from the Wattbike work (and it was a lot), it was a necessary evil while my shoulder could not cope with the pendulum action of running, let alone the rapid arm driving motion of a sprinter. However, the Wattbike demanded my leg muscles work in a very different way to running. There’s a much slower and progressive transition, as just one example, from concentric to eccentric muscle activity and back again when cycling, when you compare the exercise to running, let alone running fast.

To be honest, I appreciated this was the case at the time, to a very great extent. I just wasn’t prepared to let the grass grow under my feet while injured, and I went for something that could force me to work hard, albeit differently, to maintain fitness. I just didn’t factor in the counter-effects there would be on an ageing body once the constraints on running were lifted and my sporting  life returned to normal.

Regrets? None at all. It’s all learning. Will I stop using the Wattbike etc? No way. Low impact work like that is something everyone should do as part of their normal routine. It beats being constantly plagued by lower leg injuries. The key seems to be getting the transition right, before exposing my legs to the rigours of competition.

I’m not finished with this train of thought yet. Probably another blog to come shortly, which will also bring you up to date on the up-side of the story, because, as I write this, I’m sitting at the top of the UK 100 metres rankings for my Masters age category! You see, whatever the shortcomings, I do seem to have found something that works, at least for me, and at least at the moment!

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3 Responses to “Ride On”

  1. Nikki Sansom Says:

    I too enjoy a bit of cross training to stay off my legs a bit. My training is changing as I get older. More rest, more steady sessions seem to allow me to keep consistent training. Great news on your 100m standing 👍🏼

  2. tomsprints Says:

    Thanks Nikki. In the follow up to this, I think I’ll look at the area of technique gains. I’ve improved my sprint start, and I’m trying always to remember to race right through the line. Simple stuff that can get forgotten as we older athletes just try to stay active!

  3. Never Too Late | Blog from a Faster Master Says:

    […] An older athlete rambles on…. « Ride On […]

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