High-Intensity Training: Why Ned Overend Is Still Fast

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In this excerpt from Joe Friel’s Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life, celebrated masters cyclist Ned Overend reveals his secret to staying fast as he nears age 60.

by Ned Overend

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I turned 59 in 2014, and I have maintained a high level of fitness since I first began endurance racing in the late 1970s. Training with an emphasis on high-intensity intervals has been my preferred method of preparing for events throughout my career, which includes racing mountain bikes, road bikes, cyclocross, and XTERRA triathlon. I made a few forays into long-distance events such as the Leadville 100 mountain bike race and the Ironman triathlon, but my preference is racing for 1 to 4 hours.

I embrace a higher-intensity/lower-volume regimen partly because I love to suffer but also because of the race results I’ve achieved with this philosophy. I have a short attention span for training rides. I like the excitement of pushing the pace both on the climbs and descents as opposed to riding at a slower pace for a longer ride. A long ride for me is about 3 hours, and I rarely do more than one a week.

Early in my career, I noticed that I was able to compete with and often beat riders who trained at much higher volumes, sometimes putting in 20 to 30 percent higher volumes than I did. I’m not saying that my peers should have been training differently, just that I could compete at the highest level while practicing my preferred method of relatively low volume. Racing with a high fitness level while training the way I prefer is a big motivator and the primary reason I have had longevity in endurance sports. As I get older, I need more time to recover, especially from longer rides. This need for recovery time combined with less time to train has made me emphasize intensity over volume even more.

Several studies have shown that although we all lose a certain percentage of our VO2max over time, maintaining a schedule of high-intensity training significantly cuts the rate of decline in VO2max.

The two key factors that make training with high intensity possible and beneficial for the aging athlete are proper recovery and the motivation needed to push yourself. Here’s how I manage these at age 59.

I’ve learned that by reducing volume, I’m more rested for high-intensity sessions, and by being rested, I can push myself harder during the intervals. Getting quality recovery by including massage, stretching, hydration, nutrition, and sleep enables me to build momentum in my fitness program.

For motivation, I find that a mix of joining group workouts and using the website Strava (http://www.strava.com) is effective in helping me to push my intensity to high levels. Whether it’s our local Durango, Colorado, Tuesday-night ”world championships” or the Specialized Bicycles lunch ride, whenever I ride in a group training situation, I’m motivated to push myself. I know a lot of riders avoid these group rides because their egos get hurt if they get dropped, but the best way to get better at group rides is to do them. Learn when to pull and when to sit in, and determine what strategy you need to stay on as long as possible. Suffering is less noticeable in a group dynamic; you don’t have as much focus on the pain of the effort when you are making sure that you hang on to the wheel in front of you. Jumping across gaps or working with other riders to maintain a gap becomes a type of shared group pain, and I find it helps me push harder than when I train alone.

Strava plays a big role in my specific high-intensity intervals. I have always pushed myself on certain segments in my training rides. If I am training for a power race, I do intervals on the flats and rollers. If there is race coming up with long climbs, I simulate that in my training. Now that Strava has become popular, course segments have start and finish lines, and I’m racing not only my own PR but also that of every other Strava. With the help of the Strava segments, I’ve learned how to pace myself, where to go hard, and where to conserve effort in order to reduce my time. It’s a great motivational tool.

I think the major reason I’ve been a successful endurance racer is that I’ve determined the right intensity-recovery ratio for me. It’s not static—it changes with my personal stress level, altitude, age, illness, injury, and more. I’m careful not to deceive myself by greedily overtraining because going hard has no value without proper recovery.

Fast After 50 is for every endurance athlete who wants to stay fast for years to come. For runners, cyclists, triathletes, swimmers, and cross-country skiers, getting older doesn’t have to mean getting slower. Drawing from the most current research on aging and sports performance, Joe Friel—America’s leading endurance sports coach—shows how athletes can race strong and stay healthy well past age 50.