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Can cyclists outride ageing?

Stu Bowers
12 Jan 2017

With the right approach, we don’t need to swap our carbon soles for chequered slippers just yet

Nothing invites a cliche quite like getting older.

Age is just a number; it’s all in the mind; you’re only as old as you feel… the list goes on.

But while we’d be foolish not to acknowledge that our physiology will alter as the years tick past, the good news is the extent and rate of the decline is much more in our control than we might think.

The even better news is that cycling is a great choice for an ageing body.

Inspiration

Let’s start with some encouragement. Next time you feel like using your passing years as an excuse, here are some examples of sporting achievements by individuals who might be considered well past their prime.

Haile Gebrselassie ran a mindboggling 2h 03min 59sec marathon (a new world record at the time) aged 35 and continued to win international races into his forties.

Chris Horner made history by winning the Vuelta a Espana in 2013 not far short of his 42nd birthday, while German pro Jens Voigt broke the world Hour record aged 43. 

Further along the age spectrum, Canadian Ed Whitlock became the oldest person to break three hours for the marathon, aged 73, then ran a record-breaking 3h 56min 34sec aged 85.

And then there's 105-year-old Robert Marchand, who added to his two previous over-100s Hour records by riding over 22km earlier this month and create a new over-105s age group.

Both Marchand and Whitlock's diminishing achievements over time show that we need to be mindful of our limits where age is concerned, but the fact that they're setting records in the first place is prrof that age doesn't have to hold you back. 

The caveat is everyone is different, which makes putting precise numbers on the likely degradation of endurance performance a complex task.

‘Many of the studies into physiological decline with age are fairly anecdotal, and where they have collected data it’s often based on different athletes across age ranges, which is less specific than a longitudinal study of the same athletes over time,’ says Andy Blow, physiologist at the Porsche Human Performance Laboratory and founder of Precision Hydration.

‘But there’s a fairly obvious reason for that. The data isn’t really available yet. In cycling, power data has only been prevalent in the past 15 years or so, and even then in the early years it was mostly confined to pros, so realistically we only have a decade of learning to go by.’

Body matters

It’s generally accepted we reach our physical peak somewhere between 25 and 35. That’s an imprecise guideline, but does suggest that if you’re encroaching on 40 the opportunities for sporting prowess may have passed.

Turning 40 myself this year, I was keen to use the fact I could now race in the veterans category as the impetus to return to racing after a six-year hiatus.

Science would have me believe this will be an uphill battle. My cardiac output (volume of blood my heart pumps each minute) will be lower, with a subsequent drop in my arteriovenus oxygen difference (how much oxygen my body is capable of removing from the blood circulating my body), together with a drop in my maximal heart rate.

My VO2 max will be significantly down too (roughly a 10% drop per decade, it seems), my body will be less able to clear lactic acid and the maximal force my muscles are capable of producing will reduce due to a probable shift in the distribution of muscle fibre types.

In plain English, it means my muscles and cardiovascular system are not going to work as efficiently as they used to, even if I could supply them with sufficient oxygen, which inevitably I can’t. The result is a lot less horsepower to shove the pedals around with.

Empirically there’s also the likelihood of some weight gain, generally struggling to recover from training bouts and a dip in motivation simply from a reduction in the available time to train as the daily juggle of family and work commitments continues to get in the way.

What's the point?

Apparently, then, I’m screwed. Should I even be bothering at all? 

Well, of course I should. The number of health gains associated with carrying on training and cycling will far outweigh the bad, plus it might just be possible with some disciplined specific training to reduce, or even offset completely, the likely declines in certain areas. With that in mind I set to it.

‘I would stress strength and power-based training are far more important to the ageing athlete for maintaining performance,’ says Blow.

‘Quality over quantity really matters for older athletes. Best practice is to train smarter – stick to high-intensity interval sessions and perhaps some gym work.

‘That will bring the best rewards to stave off power degradation, rather than loads of steady miles. Just be sure to allow time to fully recover in between.’ 

Beyond spending time in the pain cave, Blow also suggests that stretching to work on flexibility and range of movement may also be a good use of my time, even if it won’t actually make me faster.

‘In terms of performance I suspect there’s little benefit, but maintaining flexibility in the lower back and hips will allow you to ride a bike more comfortably and maintain the range of movement, which could possibly prevent injury.’

Old hands

To add to my plan, I need some advice from the old pros who have experience of racing hard into their later years.

My first call is to Sean Yates, who retired from racing aged 36, ending a successful career as both an Olympian and Tour de France stage winner.

He continued to compete, and win, on the domestic national racing circuit, collecting the national 50-mile time-trial title at the age of 45. 

‘I think my peak was around my early thirties, but I didn’t have any specific problems in my latter years really,’ he says.

‘I noticed the ability to go deep got harder as I got older, but endurance seemed easier to come by. Recovery was the biggest change. You definitely need to pay more attention to that to train and race to your full potential.

‘When you’re young it’s not a problem to have a night out and go out on your bike or go to work the next day, but when you’re 50 it takes you a week to get over a big night out.

‘It’s hard to quantify this, and hard to accept when you’ve been used to training non-stop.’ 

Still on top

Nick Craig, another former pro rider and Olympian on both the road and mountain bike, accrued several national mountain bike and cyclocross titles over an illustrious elite career.

And he hasn’t stopped yet. He won both the veterans British national mountain bike series title and National Championships this season, aged 47. 

He says, ‘I was waiting for all the usual things people say will happen – you won’t be able to do what you used to, you’ll put on weight, you’ll need more recovery time, etc, etc – but they never really happened.

‘I think the thing was, I never stopped. A lot of people say you need to ride short and fast as you get older. I chose to ignore the norms and just carried on riding.

‘I actually started doing more longer races, and started coming up with results that were sometimes better than what I’d got in the past.’

Similar to Yates, Craig cites his early to mid-thirties as his best years on the bike: ‘I think 31 to 36 was good for me. My health and strength and ability all seemed to line up during that period.

‘I can’t really tell you if I’ve lost power compared to then because I don’t train like that. I write nothing down, I follow no training plan. I’m 47 now, and I would say it was about three years ago when I really started to notice a significant decline in my ability to recover.

Recovery

‘Around that time my eldest son was racing as a GB-level junior. He was 17 and I was training with him occasionally. The most obvious difference was the ability to train day after day. By the third day I was done.’

Jens Voigt is someone who needs little introduction, as one of the most decorated pro racers of his generation. He was known for being an ‘engine’ in the bunch and only retired from WorldTour racing aged 43.

I ask him if there was a time in his career when he could tell age was catching up with him.

‘It was at the Tour de France in 2010, when Andy Schleck won, my last year with [team manager] Bjarne Riis. I was 39 years old.

‘Bjarne said to me at the start of a crucial stage, “Jens, we want you in the break. We want you up the front, and later in the mountains we’ll make you wait for Andy and you can help him.”

It took all my experience, my guts, every trick I knew and all my stamina to make that break that day. I was like, “Damn, that was so hard.” I never remembered it being that hard before.

‘If someone asked me to be in the break before, I would be like, “Yeah, sure, of course I’ll be there”. But that race I really knew I was feeling it – I was missing something.

Age comes knocking

‘Not much, maybe just 2%, but I knew my age was really knocking on my door now. Banging on my door, in fact.

‘I could still reach a very good level of performance, but I couldn’t hold it for such a long time.

‘There was also a moment in Liège-Bastogne-Liège when the order came through to go to the front and drive really hard to force a split. I had to go to the team car and say, “I’m not strong enough. I can’t ride fast enough. I can make maybe 3km or 5km at that speed, but not for 30km at that speed.

‘That’s very painful for a rider to admit that, in my case, after 30 years of racing, they cannot do what they used to.

‘The other thing I was very aware of was descending. Later in my career I have to admit I was getting a little bit soft. Every year I got a little more nervous, braking a little earlier, being more and more careful.

‘I’ve had 11 broken bones, and I know there has to be a life after cycling. I don’t want to get out of cycling as a cripple, you know, with stiff shoulders and hips. My priorities changed. I have a great life to go back to after racing. I have a wife and six children.’

No hiding from the facts

Yates, Craig and Voigt all performed at a very high level despite being well into their fifth decade. This goes against the results of a study by Balmer et al., published in the Journal Of Sports Science, which assessed age related changes in indoor 10-mile time-trial performance. 

Using 40 male participants aged 25-63 years, it concluded an age-related decline in average power output of around 24 watts (7%) per decade, and a drop in heart rate of seven beats per minute (3.9%), and reduced cadence of three revolutions per minute (3.1%) over the same time frame. Interestingly, though, the study also showed relative exercise intensity wasn’t affected by age.

That’s to say, riders were still able to ride at the same percentage of their respective power and heart rate maximums, just the ceiling values had dropped. Of course, that’s only one study and, as Blow pointed out earlier, without any true longitudinal data it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions. 

A look through actual age-related 25-mile TT records (selecting the middle of each decade after 40 as the data point) reveals a further insight.

Aged 44, the fastest time is 47min 08sec; at 54 it’s gone up to 49min 18sec; by 65 it’s increased to 51min 52sec; and by 75 it’s 56min 08sec. The record at 85 years is 1h 03min 02sec.

That means across four decades these record times fell by roughly 35%, around 8.5% per decade, which is fairly close to the conclusion of the Balmer study.

Highest ever

And what about me? As I progress through my training plan of interval sessions and painful 20-minute all-out threshold tests, I notice an improvement in my functional threshold power at each re-test.

To my amazement, the final threshold score is 364W, surpassing my previous best of 357W, achieved aged 29. The result is both surprising and encouraging, yet I do notice that my recovery is significantly slower after training.

Back-to-back training days are out. Looking after myself becomes a priority in order to not feel constantly run down or pick up an illness. 

I have to train smarter, but second place in the mountain bike national championships proves age is no barrier. The fact that 47-year-old Nick Craig beat me only cements this point. 

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Old age record breakers

• Aged 105, Frenchman Robert Marchand made news headlines earlier this month by riding 22.5km in an hour, setting a benchmark in the newly created over-105s age group. This after breaking the centenarian Hour record in 2014 when he rode 26.9km as a sprightly 102-year-old. His lab data from tests immediately prior to that attempt showed a maximal heart rate of 157bpm and a VO2 max of 38ml/min/kg. 

• The oldest Tour De France finisher was Henri Paret, who was aged 50 when he finished the 1904 event, with an overall distance of 2,428km.

• Sister Madonna Buder is the oldest finisher of an Ironman triathlon under the 17-hour cut-off. Known as ‘The Iron Nun’, she has completed 45 Ironman events, and at age 84 she completed the 4km swim, 180km bike and 42km run in 16h 32min.

• Mountaineer Yuichiro Miura is the oldest person to summit Everest, aged 80. This was in fact the third time he has summited in his lifetime, all of which were achieved after he had turned 70.

• Fauja Singh is the oldest marathon finisher on record. He ran the London marathon in a record-breaking time of 6h 07min 13sec aged 93.

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Older and wiser - top tips from ageing experts

• ‘First and foremost you need to enjoy what you’re doing. It’s the best form of motivation.’ Sean Yates, British ex-pro and Tour de France yellow jersey wearer

• ‘Quality over quantity – it sounds like a cliche but it’s so important as you get older. The high end of your performance range is what will decline most so you need to keep that up.’ Andy Blow, physiologist at the Porsche Human Performance Laboratory 

• ‘Accept where you’re at. You’re not going to measure up to your 20-year-old self, so accept it and don’t beat yourself up about
it. Set new goals and levels to ride at that will be motivating.’ Nick Craig, national mountain bike and cyclocross champion

• ‘Have self belief beyond reason. Don’t let the naysayers talk you down. You can make it happen.’ Jens Voigt, former WorldTour pro

• ‘You’re much better off only letting your weight fluctuate by a couple of kilos. If you can be disciplined to do that then you aren’t making life so hard for yourself. Getting weight off is so much harder as you get older.’ Sean Yates

• ‘When you’re young there’s a lingering optimism that your best performances are still ahead of you, but as an older athlete
there’s a tipping point where you need to accept that this is no longer the case. You need to be comfortable with that and adjust your goals accordingly. It can still be gratifying.’ Andy Blow 

• ‘No shortcuts. Let me say it again… No shortcuts! They will come around and bite you in the ass. It’s so tempting to look for easy ways out, or ways to cut corners, but it’s quite simple – you have to put in the work.’ Jens Voigt

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