Following a racing career that has spanned three decades and delivered countless titles, you could excuse Ned Overend for waking up today and deciding to once and for all slow down. That won’t happen. In the last year alone, the spry 56-year-old, Durango, Colorado, resident has scored wins in events as diverse as the NORBA Mountain Bike Nationals, UCI World Cups, X-Terra World Championships, the Mt. Washington Hill Climb, the Durangoto- Silverton road race, and the World Cyclocross Championships. Given that the bulk of Ned’s professional career has been spent on a mountain bike, his name might not ring a bell with the more road-oriented among you, but it is worth noting that he competed in the World Road Race Championships in 1986 when they were held in Colorado Springs. In fact, it was only after the dubious actions of USA Cycling operatives who tried to prevent him from competing in the Worlds that he decided to give the then-infant sport of mountain biking a try.
The result was one of historic proportions: six NORBA National cross-country titles, numerous UCI World Cup wins, and, undoubtedly the biggest feather in his cap, a win at the inaugural UCI Mountain Bike World Championships held in his hometown of Durango, Colorado, in 1990. The race he had that day against a young Swiss upstart by the name of Thomas Frischknecht was one for the record books that could just as easily have been filed under the chapter “Young Versus Old” as it could “American Versus Euro.” For nearly three hours the two competitors battled back and forth, their respective talents on display on the steepest pitch of the course, where “Frishy” would adapt a cyclocross, shouldering style versus Ned’s in-the-saddle pedal-grind approach. It was epic!
PRESENT DAY NED
For race watchers who have been witness to the arc of Ned’s racing career, it’s odd to think that as far back as that historical day in Durango was, even then he was considered the “old guy” among all the riders. And yet here he is today, still regularly competing against and beating riders half his age. How does he do it? We sat down with Ned to find out what he does differently now compared to when he was just a “kid,” in his mid-30s.
RBA: How has your training protocol changed over the years?
Ned: It’s changed, but at no point did it change all of a sudden. I’ve always been pretty good at devising my training and recovery ratio. I know all the top guys do, but I don’t use any power meters because I just don’t feel the need for that kind of structure. I do plenty of interval training, but it’s not based on watts.
I never trained with a lot of volume when I was racing full-time. Guys like John Tomac would, but it didn’t work for me. Just last week I did about 8000 feet of climbing in a single day on my road bike. I wanted to get back out the next day for more, but I felt tired, so instead I went out and did a lighter ride on my mountain bike. And that’s what’s key for all athletes, knowing when to listen to their body and allowing it proper time to recover.
RBA: What about you, physically speaking?
Ned: As I’ve gotten older, I would say that the most noticeable difference in my body has been a decrease in flexibility. And especially on a mountain bike, being flexible is really important. I think the less flexible you are, the easier it is to get injured. So for anyone who plans to ride for a long time, I would definitely encourage them to maintain good flexibility through active stretching and yoga. The more flexible you can be, the more consistent you can be in your workouts. One thing I now do differently than before is work out in a gym year round. I’ll do some light workouts, then go for a 15-minute run in the hills. The gym is also where I will get most of my stretching in—although I will try to get some casual stretching in throughout the day.
RBA: Has your diet changed much over the years?
Ned: I’ve pretty much weighed about 140 pounds for my whole career. In the old days I would gain up to 10 pounds over the winter, but not anymore. Although my metabolism hasn’t slowed down, like most pro athletes, I watch what I eat. Most people understand that being a competitive cyclist is really a lifestyle choice that you have to embrace if you want good results. Although some people say vitamins and supplements don’t have much of an impact, I do use them quite a bit. I buy this stuff called Primal Nutrition that works for me, and I also use Omega-3 and Vitamin D. When you travel as much as I do and spend about 100 nights a year in a hotel, it’s nice to have an insurance policy to rely on, and that’s what the vitamins are for me.
RBA: You’ve been sponsored by Specialized since 1988; what impact does your R&D role have on your racing?
Ned: Well, for sure I do feel like I need to go fast to be able to give them credible feedback. They’ve been developing a new carbon Crux bike, so over the winter I did a lot of ’cross racing. And having to do that helped keep me motivated in terms of training and being competitive. I also like cyclocross, because it brings a different style of racing and training to my program. Last year I was testing a single-speed and won the Single-Speed Nationals. That was another work-related experience that widened my view on how muscle groups work differently with different types of bikes.
RBA: So, with all that in mind, what’s your best advice for cyclists over the age of 50?
Ned: There is no fountain of youth out there, but the thing that comes closest is in your mind. If you listen to what everybody says, that you can’t be competitive at an older age, well, you probably won’t be. There’s no doubt that your training has to be smarter, but you can’t keep telling yourself that you’re 44, 56 or 68 years old, because soon enough it becomes an excuse.