Stronger Than Ever: Liv Athletes' Perspectives from Their 40s
At the top of their game and riding past athletes who could be half their age in the pro field, Serena Bishop Gordon, Crystal Anthony, and Sandra Walter are proving women can keep competing and keep winning on the bike into their 40s and beyond. Whether racing XC World Cups, gravel or endurance mountain bike races, pursuing Olympic dreams or ticking off QOMs on Strava, these three Liv Racing Collective athletes are inspiring role models. Read on to learn more about their training secrets, motivation, and passion for the sport.
What have been the most important factors contributing to your longevity in the sport?
Crystal: Adventure and connection have been the driving forces of my relationship with cycling. While I love competing, that competition was not the impetus for me to start riding. The success and failures on the racecourse can be a rollercoaster ride, so the internal motivation of cycling as a means to explore and to bond with others helps keep me grounded. Because I started competing later in life, I already had a teaching career and a home community in place. Having other facets of life to balance training and racing has also helped me stay fresh and hungry on the racecourse.
Serena: I love riding my bike, the people that come into my life as a result of riding and racing and being a part of a team and community. Goal setting and the process of each season keeps me coming back as well; the progression that comes with consistency and rhythm, year over year, is addictive and motivating. The questions – what can I do better, where can I improve, how can I refine my craft – keeps me coming back for more.
Sandra: I think the fact that I got into mountain biking well before I even considered racing is one of the reasons I've managed to stay motivated to race for such a long time. Mountain biking was a hobby first and I just love riding for the sake of riding. Plus, the racing scene has very much become my community; my friends and teammates on the competitive scene are people I just really love spending time with.
Crystal Anthony is an endurance and XC mountain bike, cyclocross and gravel racer. She has represented the US at the Cyclocross World Championships three times, has been on the podium twice at Marathon Mountain Bike National Championships, and was selected for the Lifetime Grand Prix series in 2022.
How, if at all, has your training changed over the years?
Crystal: I’ve definitely started to pay attention to more aspects of race preparation than just interval workouts and pedaling fitness! Strength training, mental preparation, balance and mobility exercises, nutrition, sleep and recovery have all become more intentional foci for my training.
Serena: With each passing year, I build on the work I have done the year before, so it’s not so much the training that has changed, but I put more energy and attention into the “other things” – the things that when you are young, and made of elastic, are less critical. Nutrition and fueling, recovery, the integration of strength training, and the practice of Feldenkrais, and prioritizing sleep; proactive actions that keep me feeling good, on and off the bike.
Sandra: I think one of the things about my training that has changed directly due to my age is the need for more recovery built into my program. I just don't recover as quickly now as I did in my 20's. Many things have changed in my training over time, but they're not age-related so much as they are a result of experience and learning. For example, when I first started training for mountain biking in the late 90's, almost all the training programs were based on what road racers did. Because the sport of mountain biking was so young, there was very little specific training for that discipline. My training has also adapted as the sport has changed; XC World Cups have changed from 2+ hour events to 1.5 hours and racecourses have become more technically demanding.
What have you learned over the years that you didn't know as a young athlete?
Crystal: There is a sense in which you have to learn the rules of training before you can break them! In other words, I had to learn how to push myself, how to create that constant pressure on the pedals to perform an interval. I had to learn the different effort levels of training zones, and know how to stick within those zones, and learn how to progress through phases of training. As I’ve gotten older, I just know myself better and am able to go off script more. If I’m getting mentally tired of set intervals, I might just go out and hunt some Strava segments. Maybe I have something on the plan for a workout, but I can tell my body isn’t ready for that or needs to do something different. I just know myself more now!
Serena: When I started racing, I didn’t know anything about nutrition, hydration or recovery. I would go for long rides with one bottle of water. I thought that made me tough. And even when I knew this was not the case I would do it anyway, because deep down it made me even tougher. In time I learned that no matter how hard or how much you train, if you don’t allow your body to recover and you don’t give it the fuel it needs, it will breakdown and run out of gas. With more and more female-specific athletic research being done, and with so many online coaching resources, we are better equipped than ever to be sure we are giving our bodies what they need to get the most out of our training.
Sandra: As a young athlete, I just wasn't as disciplined as I am now. I didn't see it at the time, but each skipped workout made a difference (even though I told myself that missing one training session didn't matter). I think it also took me a long time to recognize that you can't just do the same thing over and over every year and expect to improve. The sport evolves constantly, and the body requires new training stressors to make gains.
Sandra Walter races the UCI World Cup XCC and XCO circuit (and also marathon XC, XC stage races and cyclocross) who has represented Canada 13 times at the World Championships and has won 14 Canadian National Championship medals.
Are there any aspects of training and racing that have become more of a priority as you've gotten older? Less of a priority?
Crystal: Rest and recovery have definitely become more of a priority. Not just days off from riding or other training, but times for psychological rest and down time built into my lifestyle. When I was younger, I used to pack every day with work, training, travel, and other commitments. There were no moments for breath or margins for error! Now I value times of hard work and effort, but also times for peace and stillness.
Serena: My team and my community have become more important; my motivation to be part of something larger than myself and giving back to a sport that has given me so much has taken a higher priority as I have gotten older. My ability to inspire and be inspired have moved to the forefront. Racing fast is really fun but standing on the podium only lasts for a moment. When you can encourage and inspire a young athlete; that feeling lasts a lifetime.
Sandra: I think I've made things simpler as I've gotten more experienced in terms of racing and training. Back in the day, I made everything so complicated and thought that made me better. For example, when I was younger, I would only warm up for races on a stationary trainer – no matter how much complication or stress it added to my race. Having to haul a heavy trainer in my luggage was challenging and if I wasn't able to fly with it, I'd have to ask around for one when I arrived, which was stressful. I wasn't a confident enough athlete to just adapt my warmup on the road. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve taught myself to do my warmup without a trainer and become more adaptable and confident in my own judgement to adjust my warmup on the fly.
Serena Bishop Gordon is a professional XC and marathon mountain bike, gravel and cyclocross racer who has medaled at the US Marathlon MTB Nationals, is a two-time Cape Epic finisher, and has multiple UCI cyclocross wins to her name.
What are you better at now than when you were younger? Are there any things that are harder now than when you were younger?
Crystal: Fitting training and racing into a meaningful and rewarding lifestyle has been a lifelong process. At times, there have been either/or decisions: either teach or race, either train or have a relationship. Now I have ways to pursue my dreams while also being able to give back through my work as a coach and through different clinics and articles and social media. Having a supportive boyfriend and an amazingly bike-friendly community in Bentonville, AR make living this lifestyle much more harmonious.
Serena: Developing and learning new skills is “different” than it used to be. My self-preservation instinct is stronger, and I don’t take risks as freely as I once did; but every coin has two sides. I have developed a mental strength over time allowing me to challenge myself in new ways by taking time to ask for help, learn the fundamentals and execute a new skill with confidence and good form.
Sandra: I think I'm way better at focusing now. I used to need music to amp me up for a hard interval session, during my race warm up or to occupy me on long rides. Now I don't need any outside stimulation. I can just conjure up the intensity when I need it, I can get in the right mindset for my intervals, and I think my training quality has improved drastically as a result. I can ride for 8 hours by myself and not need music or a podcast to entertain me. I can just pedal and watch the world around me pass by and be with my thoughts.
As women we are fortunate to have many role models of other females excelling in cycling later in life: Who has inspired you as an older female athlete and why?
Crystal: Katerina Nash is an incredible athlete not only because she is still at the very top of the sport in her 40s, but because she also can perform at that top level in so many disciplines. Yes, she’s amazingly talented and gifted. But to be able to compete for that long across so many disciplines shows incredible self-awareness and poise.
Serena: Katerina Nash has inspired me since I began racing. Not only is she an incredible athlete, she is also amazing role model and kind human. I have gotten to know Kat over the years and am forever amazed by not only her athletic accomplishments, but her ability to lift up others around her and inspire women to push the limits of what they think is possible.
Sandra: I was fortunate to have so many great Canadian female riders to look up to as I was coming up through the ranks and I'm proud of that legacy. Alison Sydor's discipline and accomplishments always inspired me. She wasn't flashy, she just did the work and totally crushed it.