The Mature Athlete and The Vicious Circle
by Steve Smales, Lifelong Cyclist & Multi-discipline Racer
by Steve Smales, Lifelong Cyclist & Multi-discipline Racer
I’ve been thinking about this lots over the last five years. In fact I’ve been thinking about it more of late. Last week, I closed my laptop for the last time as a sergeant in the police service. The last thirty years has been great; but in a landscape of ever reduced funding, the challenges of modern policing and modern expectations, things were getting increasingly fraught. Relentless emails a day for the last ten years and the the stresses and strains of first line management of a crime intelligence team, with the consequential out of hours calls has taken its toll. I find myself increasingly worrying about my elderly parents. The financial squeeze of the the last decade has also needed to be managed, through the after effects of an expensive and protracted divorce. My grown up son has joined the British Army, with the domestic and situational concerns this brings. Supporting my partner though the roller coaster of the menopause… the realisation and diagnosis that I suffer from profound seasonal effective disorder hasn’t helped either. A slow build of adult responsibilities, self awareness and general life grind.
Over the last thirty years I’ve raced and trained consistently. From consistent top ten finishes in the CTT British Best All-Rounder competition, through Cyclocross and MTB Cross Country. Twenty to thirty starts a year on average. Under normal circumstances, I love my sport and I drive home just as euphorically happy after turning myself inside out to hang onto a group in a cross race, as I did to score the occasional win against the watch fifteen years ago.
But things are changing – I’m still six-feet-three, twelve stones. Just like I was in nineteen ninety, but now I need to choose bib shorts carefully, as I’ve lost muscle mass. Slack Lycra is a crime. I’ve got wrinkles above my kneecaps. Not good.
Now I find that doing those tempo training rides at ‘X’ watts is just as it was, but reacting to those changes is an effort that needs ‘two times X watts’ and seems like climbing Everest nowadays. I ride with my left elbow slightly out after a heavy crash about ten years ago. I carry a few scars… not just the ones that reappear with a suntan, but those that a busy fifty-something picks up off the bike – usually at three pm on a Friday via Outlook.
Having the opportunity to step back, to think where I am now as an athlete; it’s clear that I need to re-evaluate and to re-focus. Maybe my relationship with the bike has changed over those latter years of managing the burden of life responsibility. The bike has become as much of a tool to cope with life, as it is something I enjoy.
Stress, cortisol, food, dopamine, adrenaline, endorphin, alcohol, sleep and their product, performance have all unwittingly become key ingredients to the equation of how I lead my life. Combined, they’re stealthy, powerful and interdependent.
Stress causes cortisol, which affects both the mental relationship and bodies reaction with food. It does weird things with insulin and blood sugar and body fat. It makes me eat. It alters my relationship with sugar. Eating food makes me feel guilty. I exercise to stop feeling guilty. Exercise creates endorphins, dopamine and adrenaline. It manages my guilt of food. It makes me feel I justify eating more and having a glass of wine… maybe three.
Alcohol affects sleep.
Sleep affects work and life performance. Possibly athletic performance too. Poor work, life and athletic performance causes stress. See above – and so the circle is complete.
So how does this play out?
“Home from work… I’m stressed and I’ve hit that vending machine twice today.”
“I need to ride my bike… it’s not a proper session if I don’t hit the thousand calories on the Garmin. I won’t bother with that core session my older withered bag of bones really needed. That doesn’t burn calories.”
“It’s OK to have that extra wine with dinner, it’s been a tough day. Maybe a little whisky before bed. I’ll have some sweet stuff after dinner, maybe some more wine, and some more sweet stuff – sleep was awful last night… ”
“I had an awful day at work yesterday. My memory wasn’t great… I was tired and out of my depth.”
“I need a good hard ride to clear my head… ”
I’m not a doctor, counsellor, psychologist or mental health person. It does however, strike me that many really committed middle-aged athletes may be caught in a vicious circle of stress-alcohol-food-exercise-sleep that has crept up on them over a number of years. You note that I mention exercise in the last sentence.
I didn’t use the word ‘training’. I’m increasingly thinking I’ve been exercising under a cover of training for the last few years. I’m not wholly sure that I’ve got order of the circle quite right; from a personal perspective, the alcohol-food thing often becomes muddled. I’ve found myself eating ‘drinking chocolate’ powder at eleven pm, as cortisol and alcohol has been running a mock with my insulin, judgement and discipline.
Breaking the circle is hard. I’ve not really achieved it yet. For me, the initial reaction is that removing alcohol from my diet is the most easily achieved and probably key… but thinking about it, it doesn’t necessarily have to be so for everyone. Break the circle anywhere and hopefully the rest might drop into place.
In 2021, COVID permitting, I hope to ride three MTB stage races. July’s Transalp is going to be a tough gig. The clue’s in the race name. Seven consecutive days of alpine racing, Five hundred kilometres with eighteen thousand metres of ascent. You might think that reason enough to break that circle. If I can hit eleven and a half stone and have good legs I’m sure pick up a few places when the trails go up. That’s not the motivation. It’s the will to get thing’s in order, the will to be in control of myself and the my last few chapters of my love affair with competing, as I edge towards that bus pass.
I imagine I’m probably not alone here – I hope to open up a debate and awareness around this topic and welcome any comments.