Monday, February 10, 2014

Double the training used to work. Now I'm not so sure. Or don't let age slow you down!

OK, so it 'used' to work. When I was 25 or so, anyway. Even when I was 35. But it started to go awry when I turned 42 or so. I'd always been relatively sensible in terms of avoiding over-training, making sure I ate right, or close anyway, and getting a bit of sleep. But the rules of thumb seemed to be breaking down. One moment all was well and consecutive 100km races on a weekend were fine, the next... not so good.

My rules of thumb? Number one, given a healthy diet and enough rest, is to train three times the distance of any given race per week, averaged over at least one month, preferably 3. After 3, back off, recover and build up again (preferably to a higher level). So if you want to race 100km, train at least 300km per week, average. That gives you base miles, basically. Build on that with specificity. I do have other rules of thumb but that's the main one.

Anyway, it worked for me until I was about 42 or so, but the signs of a problem were there from about 35, if I'd cared to look. I'd injure more easily. I couldn't mix-and-match sports as well as I used to (I was becoming highly cycling-specific but not entirely by choice!). And I was getting sick (mostly colds, mouth ulcers etc; irritants rather than 'show-stoppers') too often. And then it all went pear-shaped from my late 40s onwards. Now some of us will be luckier than others - some even less lucky than me - but my body reacted to aging by randomly mutating, as it were. It may have been stress-related, or environmental exposure to something I didn't even see. And it sent me on a medical-merry-go-round that hasn't ended.

But I persisted with training and racing, even if my racing suffered somewhat and became less frequent (I also had a young family, so was time-poor.) And that continued activity may have helped me fend off stage 2 of my medical maladies. Good aerobic fitness may well have protected me from the worst of my genetic (and perhaps dietary) failings. Which is to say that my heart attack at age 56 (whilst training, of course) was less severe than it may have been. And after 6 days off the bike I was back on - the trainer, anyway. A month or so later I am back on the road, feeling good - if a bit tentative.

What struck me down was high blood pressure, genetics and perhaps a love of dairy products. One coronary artery was significantly clogged and (since this was a new experience to me) I didn't recognise all of the early signs. Sure, I was 'treating' the high blood pressure with training (it works, up to a point, too). And I was still strong - still setting and re-setting Strava KOMs for example - but I became exhausted far too easily. There was no 'pain' as such, just lethargy and a feeling that I should 'go easy' today. Almost every day. At the time I put it down to all of the other medical issues I have collected (as you do) as well as "getting older". But when these new, sudden pains came I recognised immediately that although I had never experienced exactly this crushing sensation before, or the pain in both arms, I knew what the problem was: the heart. And I realised also that I had come 'close' to a similar feeling at the sharp end of a long sprint after a hard crit, several times. But unlike previous occasions I remained breathless and in pain, and it didn't go away. Not when I slowed down, nor even when I stopped.

Being both stupid and a cyclist (the 2 go hand-in-hand) I rode home with the pain, if rather slowly. I ran through some alternative options and even saw an ambulance and thought about flagging it down. I also remembered I had a mobile phone, my wife could pick me up in the car. Then again, I thought, maybe this is just an adverse reaction to the usual prescription medication I took this morning and it'll get better. Maybe I can just ride through this?

Oh yeah, and I live on a hill. My GPS data tells me it was the slowest I had ever ridden that hill, too. But I still wasn't the slowest. (Yes, I checked in Strava to be sure.) Although I knew with 90% certainty it was a heart attack I still wondered how I could ride home, uphill, whilst having an attack. Is that possible? And since I was averaging 200km/week I wondered how it was even possible that this could be happening at all. But it was.

The best part of 5 days in hospital and 3 stents have 'fixed' the clogged artery, now I just have to rebuild and get confident again. It takes time. So today's lesson? Don't think it can't happen. Cyclists - even long-time obsessively daily trainers like me - can have heart attacks. So be alert and react quickly and appropriately (like, stop riding and get medical help). Don't hesitate.

And yes, that daily training probably minimised the damage as well as fended off the day of the eventual heart attack itself. But listen to your body; if you aren't getting the training effect you used to get - and you are even going backwards - don't double the miles, instead take a rest or even have a chat with a doctor. It may just be over-training, lack of rest - or even an early warning sign of something far, far worse!

Some stats and other nonsense. And more.