Bicycling and the aging heart

On Mt Baldy Road, I knew something was wrong. I had bicycled up the grade for about half an hour, pushing hard, with my heart rate monitor reading about 154 beats per minute. By keeping the rate no higher than that, I had learned, I could keep climbing for quite a while. A few years earlier, that practical limit was 161, but now that I am 78 years old, 154 had seemed reasonable enough.

Until I stopped to watch some guys who had set up for a filming episode. The moment I dismounted I felt light headed, almost dizzy, but leaning on my handlebars I recovered in a few seconds. Since it was time to coast back down to the city (Claremont, CA), I didn’t think about it, not very much, any way. During the next few days, while riding a week of PacTour’s Desert Camp, I felt fine, no recurrences.

A couple of times since then, I have experienced similar symptoms when doing hard climbs on Skyline Drive in Portland’s West Hills, but when they showed up a few days ago on a day-long, fast for me (19 mph) ride on easy roads in the Willamette Valley, I decided that the time had come to see what my doctor thinks about it.

He’s twenty years younger than I, able to do yoga routines on the examination room floor. More important, he is a cyclist, refers to the rigors of Prune Hill east of Vancouver (our town on the Columbia’s north bank), knows all about Skyline Drive, and has told me in previous visits that my capabilities are those of men considerably younger than I.

“It’s physiological,” he told me, after listening to my recitation and then my heart and lungs, “the normal response to the fact that your heart can’t beat as fast as it used to.” He gave me a brief, simple explanation of how the heart gets its own blood supply (in the moment of rest in each beat) and the lessened elasticity of the blood vessels, especially in my legs. He reminded me of the old formula for estimating maximum heart rate (220 less age in years), which for me works out to 142—and I’ve been registering 150 to 160 when doing steep grades. (Click here for a more complicated explanation by the National Institute on Aging.)

He offered two recommendations: wear a hydration pack because you drink more when the water’s on your back than when you have to reach down to a bottle on the bike, and ride at a pace that keeps your heart rate lower.

The backpack water supply is easy enough; I wore one all of the time when we lived in Arizona where the sun gets hot and good rides are out in the desert with no shade. From now on, I’ll wear it on long rides and hill climbs, even in the cool, damp Pacific Northwest.

It also means lower gears. My Co-Motion’s 30 by 27 is no longer low enough. I’ll check with the guys at the bike shop, but I might as well plan for the long haul and install a cassette with a 34-tooth large sprocket. And carry a camera for heart-induced rest stops disguised as photo opportunities.

Two more things to do: keep telling myself that even on group rides with PacTour, there’s no mountain grade too steep to walk, and remember, as PacTour’s Lon Haldeman told me the other day, as we talked about this year’s Grand Canyon Tour, “It’s OK to ride sag once in a while.”

4 Responses to Bicycling and the aging heart

  1. I think I would still have a hard time keeping up with you on those hills!

  2. Hi Danny. Since you are blessed with youth and a healthy, out-doors life style, a little training would quickly make up for any difference that might exist right now. Thanks for your comment. Thanks, too, for your blog with thoughtful comments and beautiful photography.

  3. Bob Cornwall says:

    I drove up Mt. Baldy Road once — it’s crookeder than anything and straight up. I commend you for something I couldn’t imagine trying!!

  4. Steep it is, but I turned back before the tunnel. On the other side, the grade gets worse and the air is thinner. Maybe when I get my lower gearing I could manage that part of the road, all of the way to Mt.Baldy Village. But maybe not, and I may never try to find out.

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