Life is Not Fair, and Other Good News About Being an Athlete

This article by Scott Saifer, M.S. first appeared in ROAD Magazine in April of 2014.

“Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old by deserting their ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up interest wrinkles the soul. You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair.” ~ General Douglas MacArthur

This article may seem at first not to have a lot to do with bike racing. Be patient. We’ll get there.

Meet Jane

Jane (not her real name) is an active but plump woman in her 70s. She has many friends. Her job includes frequent international travel and long workdays when she is home.

Jane goes to the gym at least once per week, usually swims weekly if she is home, but not if she’s just had her hair “done”, does Pilates similarly often, and walks the neighborhood when the weather is nice. Jane says she is exercising as much as she can, given her work and social life.

Compared to her age cohort, Jane gets a lot of exercise, but she is by no means in great shape. She would like to lose weight and be more fit.

I told her about some research that looked at the effect of exercise habits on health and body weight. The researchers checked the BMI of thousands of people and asked them how much they exercised and about any health problems. The researchers found that people who consistently exercise ½ hour per day in appropriate ways can generally avoid diabetes, heart disease and the other ills that come with being sedentary, and they can maintain strength, balance and bone mass and generally be reasonably healthy, but on the average, they continue to gain weight.

The research further indicated that on the average, with or without dieting, people who exercised an hour per day got the health benefits of exercise and maintained weight rather than gaining or losing over the long term.

With or without dieting, only people who consistently exercise 90 minutes or more per day — or the weekly equivalent with longer and shorter days — actually lose weight and become lean in the long term.

Jane’s various exercises average out to less than an hour per day. I expected her to acknowledge that she wasn’t exercising enough to lose weight, maybe to thank me for explaining why she wasn’t seeing the changes she wanted, and then to ask about or ponder ways to increase her exercise time. That’s not what happened though. Remember I said she was a very busy with work and family commitments? About the research conclusion, she said, “That’s not fair!”

I was flabbergasted. It had never occurred to me that the amount of exercise required to reach fitness goals or maintain health would be subject to questions of fairness.

A Tale of Two Dads

Everyone can do a little more exercise than they are accustomed to, but not a huge amount more, at least not without some weeks or months to build up. However far or fast you ride routinely, you can, with effort, go a bit farther or a bit faster. Over time, assuming you are healthy and motivated, you can go a lot farther and a lot faster.

On the other hand, if you never challenge your current capacity, that capacity stagnates or shrinks. Doing more than you are accustomed to always requires effort. Continually avoid that effort and you eventually reach a point where the little bit you are doing is not enough to maintain health, and it becomes an effort even to continue a low level of activity. In extreme cases, if you exercise little enough, that little bit becomes about as much as you can do without a huge effort.

A close friend of mine was talking about his father, who’s health was deteriorating in his mid-80s. He expressed pride that his dad kept up walking 3 miles per day despitehis frailty. Then I ran into Fast Freddie Rodriguez at a Berkeley Bicycle Club meeting. He explained his view that cycling is a great sport because people of all ages can participate and enjoy it. He mentioned his early start as a junior racer, and his 80-year old dad who had recently completed a 50-mile ride.

At 2014 CX Nationals, the crowd cheered for Walter Axthelm and Frederic Schmid, the 80-84 National Cyclocross Champion and runner up, respectively, and the only entrants in their field. They rode hard, but were cheered as much for showing up and riding a course that was challenging for many younger riders simply to complete.

We have an intuitive sense that there is something wonderful about people in their 80s completing 50-mile rides, or showing up and riding multiple laps on a grueling CX course. We respect them for their hard work and well-deserved accomplishment. No one accomplishes such things without effort and the attitude that drives it. People who do the hard work deserve the accomplishment and the accolades.

Riding long or racing past 80 is a sign not just of recent hard work, but of years of good decisions, of doing what it takes to reach 80 with a body still capable of those feats, years of making the effort and taking the challenge to push one’s physical limits. We cheer that accomplishment because it is extraordinary.

For a person in the elite or early masters age groups, simply training enough to be able to cover the distance or complete the course is less extraordinary. Younger people have to do more than complete the ride to earn our respect because completing the ride is, for them, not extraordinary. Younger people have to finish near the front to get the same cheers that Walter and Frederic got for showing up. Is that fair?

It may not be fair that younger racers have to finish in the top ten to earn applause, but it certainly motivates lots of them to ride their bikes and try to get super fit.

Old But Not Incapacitated

We all get older, but that doesn’t mean we have to become incapacitated. I have supervised riders everywhere from teenagers to septuagenarians coming back from nasty injuries and illnesses. Is it fair that they had do deal with pain, disease, broken bones or head trauma? The ones who prosper don’t ask that question. They ask what they need to do to get back on and get up to speed. Then they do it.

I’ve also met a lot people who say they don’t exercise any more because of a back or knee problem not half so bad as the ones others have gotten past.

Riders under 60 years old or so don’t lose capacity due to the passage of years, but may lose it due to lost hope. Riders over about 60 do inevitably gradually lose potential, but unless they are trained to their potential already, they can be stronger next year than they are now. So long as a rider believes that training is worthwhile and improvement is possible, most can keep improving.

Even very serious injuries won’t stop a rider with a great attitude. Think about people who race with prosthetic legs or one arm. Think about blind athletes or people who tour or compete on hand-cycles, or who come back to ride competitively after cancer or heart disease, or, like one of my clients, both.

If you’d like to see most of the excuses you’ve ever heard knocked out in about one minute, check out this classic Warhawk Matt Scott Nike No Excuses Commercial.  Be sure to watch to the end. If you want some wonderfully inspiring images of older athletes, check out the book Growing Old is not for Sissies by Etta Clark.

I don’t want to hear about fairness and busy schedules. If you aren’t reaching your fitness and athletic goals, you aren’t training enough or aren’t training well, or are making some other error or are sick. If you are not placing high enough to earn some applause, what are you going to do about it?

If you are healthy, training and eating well, getting plenty of sleep and still not performing in races, you are most likely are limited by skills or tactics. In that case you want to talk with an experienced bike-racing coach, or maybe read “Reading the Race” by Jamie Smith with anecdotes by Chris Horner. It’s funny and extremely informative.

Am I being harsh in dismissing complaints about fairness? I don’t think so. I think I’m just delivering the news, and I think it’s good news.

Don’t take any of this to suggest that I am not sympathetic to the plight of people with families and tough jobs. I’m very sympathetic. I’m one of them. Those issues make it much harder to do enough training to stay healthy or win races, but my sympathy is not going to make anyone faster or stave off any infirmity. I’m also sympathetic to people with incurable degenerative diseases and the fact that they are going to lose capacity no matter how great their attitude or their exercise plans.

The Good News

Whether your goal is living a long and healthy life or placing in bike races, you have to eat well and exercise regularly. If you prefer TV and beer to being outdoors, that prescription may sound like a punishment, but I promise that if you start exercising enough to get fit, it becomes fun, is a great way to make friends and feels just plain awesome.

Research shows that people who routinely eat sugary and fatty foods don’t get much if any pleasure from fruits and vegetables, but that people who routinely eat healthy and avoid junk get as much or more pleasure from healthy foods as junk-food junkies get from their poisons of choice. It’s frightening, but for long-term junk-eaters, the recovery of the ability to enjoy healthy food can take several months.

Life May Really Be Fair

My dictionary defines an athlete as a person who strives for a prize. If we make a long and healthy life our goal, we can all be athletes. You may or may not ever win a bike race, but the pursuit of racing success is challenging and fun and a source or myriad satisfactions.

If you want to live a long and healthy life and are willing to ride your bike and eat great food, chances are good that you can reach your goals. If you want to be a competitive bike racer, the requirements are similar. There will be occasional pains and setbacks, but so long as you maintain your focus and positive attitude, you’ll get past them. What could be fairer than that?

Life isn’t just fair. It’s awesome.


 Scott Saifer, M.S. works with athletes of all levels and ages but particularly enjoys encouraging and guiding older athletes and those coming back from serious injuries or illnesses. To inquire about working with Scott or any of the coaches of Wenzel Coaching, please call 503-233-4346 or click here>>>

One comment on “Life is Not Fair, and Other Good News About Being an Athlete
  1. Joe Cursey says:

    I was one of Scott’s initial clients seems like a day ago, I was in my mid fifties, now seventy six still appreciating the disciplines passed on. I must be nuts but would like to take on Leadville 100, the training is what makes it worthwhile!