The older you get, the faster you go…
There’s an entire class of people who don’t get much attention in books and articles on cycling: the older ones! With the honourable exception of Joe Friel, who wrote Fast After Fifty (reviewed here by Alpine Cols), and Dr. Stacy Sims, whose book ROAR stands out for her focus on the female athlete, there’s not much in print that specifically addresses the needs of people aged 50, 60 and beyond.
Published training advice is written with a specific profile in mind. Unfortunately, apart from generalities such as “riding a sportive” or “becoming a better climber”, the authors rarely explain what type of cyclist they are referring to. Nor do they explain how their advice should change if you don’t fit the profile, with the result that a lot of people end up doing training sessions that may even be detrimental to their performance
The fact is that as your body ages you need to train differently, and not necessarily the way you think!
In this post I’m going to address very specifically the training needs of the older athlete. By this I mean someone who is probably past (or even well past) the age of 50, but more importantly is starting to feel the effects of ageing.
Age-group world records
Let’s take a look first at what is possible. Several studies have analysed the world record performances of age-grouped men and women in endurance disciplines such as the 40km time-trial. Joe Friel summarises much of this research in his book Fast After Fifty. As expected, even the very best age-group athletes slow down as they get older, but at first the decrease is remarkably limited. For men, the world record times across a range of endurance disciplines only increase by about 5% at the age of 50. The increase in times is slow-but-steady from 50 to about 75, from which point the slowdown accelerates markedly. For women, the pattern of decreasing performance is similar, but advanced by about 5-10 years. According to Dr. Sims, this is because the biggest body composition changes in women happen in the 3-4 years before menopause.
Remember, these performance data concern world record-holders, who we can safely assume to be focused on training to be the very best they can be. The situation is probably less good for the rest of us. But certainly not hopeless! The champions show us that, if we train correctly, we can limit to a minimum the decline in our performance from 40 on through our 50’s to our 60’s. And for people who have come to cycling late, it is even possible to continue improving and log personal bests into your 60’s!
What is happening in your body?
In order to understand why you should make changes in your training, it’s helpful to understand exactly what’s going on in your body. In both men and women, as we get older, there are three major changes taking place:
- we lose lean muscle mass,
- we lose our ability to use oxygen at maximum capacity (VO2max)
- it takes us longer to recover
Two other major changes affect both sexes, but women more than men, due to hormonal changes during menopause:
- an increase in sub-cutaneous and visceral fat
- a decrease in bone density
Taken together, these changes can have a large negative impact on your performance. Older athletes must therefore focus specifically on slowing down these long-term changes in your body.
In other words: Use it or lose it!
Training strategy: what to do differently
Your training strategy should address all five changes in parallel, bearing in mind that maintaining muscle mass and strength becomes more and more important the older you get. If the recommendations below would result in significant differences in your training approach, you should introduce them gradually over a period of time, in order to give your body time to adapt. Take the long term view: incremental progress is always more sustainable than sudden change.
There’s absolutely no alternative: to avoid losing lean muscle mass you will have to include regular and frequent strength & conditioning sessions in your training. This means off-the-bike work in the gym, including heavy resistance training and plyometrics, combined with Yoga or Pilates for flexibility and mobility. You should be doing two sessions per week at the very least.
If this is new to you, it is essential to get expert help, start slow and build over time. Learn the correct movement patterns and be consistent; don’t expect overnight results. While you should see some improvements after three months, it will take six months to a year for the benefits to really become apparent. For more, read my recent blog on strength and conditioning for cyclists: At the risk of making myself unpopular…
On the bike, the older you get the more you should work on strength endurance, i.e. intervals performed at high torque/low cadence.
To slow your declining VO2max, you need to do less of the long, slow aerobic work and more anaerobic work. In practical terms this means doing at least two HIIT sessions per week. You can still follow a polarised training plan, but make sure you do enough at the high intensity end.
The most effective intervals are short, with even shorter rest periods, repeated multiple times. A good example is Tabata-type intervals such as 20”/10”, 30”/15” or 40”/20”, with three or four blocks of 10-15 intervals each. The prescription is to do them as hard as possible while hitting the same power from beginning to end. You can thus accumulate as much as 20 minutes of work around or even above your VO2max power.
Specifically for men, Dr. Sims recommends doing your HIIT sessions in the early morning, when your diurnal levels of testosterone are at their highest.
In addition to these sessions, you should work on maintaining your neuromuscular ability by including sprints in your long endurance rides. Keep the sprints short, intense and limited in number.
The older you are, the longer your body will take to recover. Bearing in mind that training breaks you down and you only get stronger during recovery, it is essential to find the right balance between the two. For many people over 50, this means moving to a 3-week cycle of two weeks on, one week off. Once past 75, however, it may be better to keep the training load more constant, dropping the notion of weekly cycles, and recover within the week as you feel necessary.
The recovery period should include only light exercise, combined with low-intensity flexibility and mobility training. Do not do any plyometrics, resistance training or HIIT. Cycling should be at easy pace only. Get as much high-quality sleep as possible.
One of the best indicators of recovery is your Heart Rate Variability (HRV). If you start the habit of measuring this every day on waking up, you will soon be able to identify periods when your body is ready to take on extra training load and when it would be more advisable to extend the recovery period. A word of warning however: the optical sensors in wearable trackers are unreliable. For valid results you need good data, which is best obtained from a top-quality Bluetooth enabled heart strap.
There are two ways to limit the increase in visceral and sub-cutaneous fat: through increasing your metabolism and through adapting your diet. Heavy resistance training, plyometrics and HIIT all have the effect of increasing your metabolism, so this provides a further reason to include them in your training.
Nutrition or diet is a highly sensitive issue for many people and dogmatic views abound. Be aware that as an athlete (this term applies to anyone motivated by their performance who trains for several hours a week) your nutritional needs are different to those of the general population, so dietary advice is also different. Some things to bear in mind:
- You probably need to increase your intake of protein, to support your efforts to maintain lean muscle mass.
- You should fuel your sport with adequate levels of carbohydrate.
- Do not be tempted by the ketogenic (or other fad) diets. The ketogenic diet can be beneficial for sedentary, obese and diabetic men, but it has been conclusively shown to be detrimental to athletic performance (in cycling and in Olympic speed-walking).
- Do not be tempted by intermittent fasting. This has been shown to increase cortisol, which in turn promotes fat storage, the exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve. It is not compatible with serious endurance training.
Vary your total food intake to match your training load: eat more during periods of heavy training (especially protein); eat less during recovery weeks (again, be careful to maintain protein intake).
Eat the widest possible variety of fresh, seasonal foods, ideally bio or locally produced, and ideally prepared and cooked at home. Avoid processed, industrial foods and especially anything containing refined sugar.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, it is vitally important to pay attention to your protein intake. The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook by Anita Bean is a great source of information for how to fuel your sport without animal protein.
5. Bone density
The only proven way to increase bone density is to increase the stress on your bones, encouraging them to respond. Any weight-bearing moderate-impact exercise will achieve this, but sadly cycling will not. Heavy resistance training is an excellent choice, perhaps combined with walking, running or any sport that involves some running.
If you are primarily a cyclist and you can’t or don’t wish to run, the best choice is heavy resistance training. This has the double benefit of increasing your muscular strength and metabolism while also improving your bone density and strength. As noted above, seek expert advice before starting to lift heavy weights, and master the movement patterns before attempting to push your limits.
Especially for the ladies…
As Emmanuelle (Alpine Cols coach and co-founder) keeps reminding us, women are not the same as men. Although the basic principles outlined above apply to women as well, we turn again to Dr. Sims for some important nuances.
We have already mentioned the first, which is that change sets in 3-4 years before the start of menopause. This means you need to act sooner than men of the same age.
To slow the loss of muscle and bone density, it’s essential to do more heavy resistance training and plyometrics (off the bike) and HIIT (on the bike). You may be worried that resistance training will bulk you up and make you put on weight. This is very unlikely. The goal is not body-building, but slowing down age-related atrophy of lean muscle mass. All these activities have the added benefit of increasing your metabolism and thus reducing fat.
As a woman, you may suffer from more joint pain due to increased inflammation caused by the drop in oestrogen, so it’s important to work on joint mobility and to warm up very well before strenuous exercise. Women respond less well than men to increasing load, so if you find yourself suffering from excessive DOMS (stiffness and pain in the muscles) you should use lower loads.
Don’t be tempted by calorie restriction and intermittent fasting. There are significant differences in the way men and women respond to these (men respond better) and most of the research advocating dietary approaches to weight loss has been carried out on sedentary people and thus does not apply to the athletic population. Unfortunately, in athletic women, the results of calorie restricted diets and fasting are nearly always negative, stimulating a stress response which leads to the opposite of what was intended.
Finally, stay away from the ketogenic diet, which as well as being detrimental to cycling performance leads in older athletic women to thyroid suppression, increased cortisol, fat gain and fatty liver disease.
Let’s do it!
The message here is fundamentally optimistic: you can still be competitive against people half your age at a stage in life when most others have their feet up in front of the television. Doing so, however, requires focusing your training on slowing down the inevitable changes that are taking place in your body. Of these, maintaining your lean muscle mass and VO2max are the most important.
Start planning more time in the gym, build in more of those HIIT sessions you love so much, and enjoy!