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Act your age: Adapting your training as you get older

Michael Donlevy
17 Nov 2019

As your riding career progresses, your training should adapt too. But getting older doesn’t have to mean getting weaker

Age is just a number. Unfortunately, unless you have managed to devise a time machine, that number is always creeping upwards. But does that mean you should change the way you train to stay in shape as you get older? And if so, to what degree?

Let’s establish that you are a high-mileage cyclist who is already super-fit by normal standards. Whatever your age, you should have nothing to worry about.

‘If someone asks me how to adjust their training as they get older I have a one-word answer: don’t,’ says ABBC senior coach Ian Goodhew.

‘Cyclists who have stayed fit through the decades and who have never been seriously ill or had a bad injury can be fitter in their fifties than non-cyclists are in their twenties.

‘Cycling defies age. “Age is just a number” is a cliché, but it’s true. If we’re talking about people who have never sat on a bike, though, it can be a different matter.’

Depending on your fitness levels, you may have to adapt your training and nutrition as the years creep by, but it’s not as simple as saying, ‘I’m in my forties now so I’m going to train like this.’

Everyone is different, and if you are already a well-oiled cycling machine you will enjoy health benefits as you age that others can only dream of.

Cycling won’t make you live forever, but it can help you defy the ageing process. Here’s how to approach your training…

How to train as you age: The decades

In your twenties

First, the bad news: you will probably have to work until you are 70 and you won’t enjoy the same low house prices and generous pensions your parents and grandparents did. But that’s about all there is for bad news.

Humans reach their physical peak between the ages of 20 and 35. That’s quite a broad age range, but even if you’re not very good at maths you will notice that it encompasses the whole of your twenties.

As well as being stronger, your body is more flexible, quicker to recover and less prone to injury. Look after it in your twenties and it will serve you well for decades.

‘Cycling is the number one endurance sport because, unlike running, it’s non-ballistic,’ says Goodhew.

‘Cyclists don’t get shin splints and are less prone to injury. You can’t apply standard medical thinking to cyclists who have stayed fit and healthy.’

The temptation can be simply to bang out the miles while you’re young and fit, but that may not work if you’re serious about competing.

‘It depends on what type of rider you are,’ says lead presenter at the Global Cycling Network and former pro Dan Lloyd.

‘If you have no ambitions to race or compete, I’d say to just go out and enjoy riding. Go hard when you feel like it, go easy if you don’t.

Structured training

‘However, if you want to compete, get good results and get the most out of your body, there is no substitute for structured training – if you “just ride” and “get the miles in”, you’ll never reach your full potential.

‘That becomes even more relevant if you find that you have less time to ride as you get older.’

Yet having a structured training plan isn’t only a good idea for racers. ‘You’re laying the foundations for the rest of your life,’ says Adam Carey, nutritionist and CEO of Corperformance.

‘In your twenties you feel as if you’re invincible, and that you don’t need to make plans for training or nutrition. That isn’t true. Your lean muscle mass is in its peak in your mid-twenties.

It can start to drift by 10-15% from the ages of 30-60, but if you ride regularly the rate of decline is not as great as if you do nothing.

After 60 lean muscle mass falls precipitously if you haven’t exercised. In your twenties you are preparing your body now for a long and healthy life, so you can still get out of a chair and lift a kettle when you’re 80.’

In your thirties

Given that you are – whether you like it or not – closer to middle age than you are to your teens, now is a good time to bust some myths and clear away some of the preconceptions you may have had about fitness.

‘The idea that your maximum pulse is 220 minus your age is wrong,’ says Goodhew. ‘And the Body Mass Index is very flawed.

‘To me they’re like astrology. The more cycling you do, the further away you move from standard medical norms.

‘I had to stop cycling for a while in my late thirties because I had a viral infection that knocked me out. When I went to the GP and told him I was riding an 80-mile road race and felt off-colour, he looked at me as if I was mad.

'He couldn’t grasp the concept at all.’

Lloyd agrees that, at this age, it’s not your body that’s likely to give up first. ‘I certainly think that the limiter to success when you reach your mid-to-late thirties, or even forties, is your head and your willingness to train and race with 100% commitment.

‘Cycling isn’t an easy sport, and if a slight lack of desire creeps in it makes it hard to get out, and stay out when the weather is bad.

‘Likewise, when you’re racing it’s a dangerous sport, and most people think more about the consequences of crashing at 60kmh when they’re that bit older.’ 

In your forties

Life begins at 40, so the saying goes, but your body might not agree. Once you reach this decade, people who don’t train or maintain physical activity will gain up to 10kg of body fat – and that weight gain is likely to continue into your dotage if you don’t do anything about it.

Studies have shown that anaerobic (or explosive) performance declines as we age – research in Australia, for example, found peak power fell by an average of 8.1% per decade while anaerobic capacity fell at an almost identical rate.

Don’t panic, though – peak aerobic power was found to barely change with age. What you shouldn’t do is simply accept that you are losing power and plod along.

‘If you’ve been riding for a long time – more than 10 years – intensity becomes even more important,’ says Lloyd. ‘For experienced riders, it’s rarely a case of not having enough endurance.

‘In fact you can often turn into a “diesel engine”. It’s way more important to keep the hard and fast training in regularly to maintain top-end power.

‘The story would be different, though, if you’ve just got into the sport in your forties and don’t have a long history in endurance sport.’

‘Fitness is such an individual thing,’ says Goodhew. ‘Someone who’s 35 and has never ridden will be very different to someone who’s 45 and has ridden their entire life.

‘Jens Voigt was still riding Grand Tours in his forties. Medical theory would say, “Don’t do it.” He’s an extreme example but actually there are lots of them.

‘If you go to a time-trial this weekend, 80-90% of the competitors will be over 30. League of Veteran Racing Cyclists [LVRC] races with ex-pros are not soft races, and there are guys in their fifties and sixties who are still incredibly fit.

‘Age-based training is great in theory, but cycling has proved it wrong.’

Your body composition is likely to be changing, however. ‘I train people aged 40 who do the same things as when they were 20 – a bit of sport, a few beers and a curry on a Friday night,’ says Carey.

‘But whereas when they were 20 they had broad shoulders and a small waist, now they have smaller shoulders and a bigger waist – and a bigger waist is the biggest danger to your health.’

‘I’ve definitely noticed increased difficulty keeping the weight off,’ says Andrew Soppitt, a  doctor now aged 50 who took up cycling aged 38 and has represented GB in age-group triathlons.

‘If it goes on it’s harder to lose. The problem is that if you diet you lose muscle, which can be self-defeating. You need to keep up protein intake, even if you reduce calorie consumption.’

Is reducing calories the answer? Carey says it’s not as simple as that. ‘Calorie reduction is often accompanied by the loss of lean body mass.

‘As you get older the motor burning your fuel gets smaller. You can reduce calories but you must also manage your glucose levels so you don’t turn into a fat-creating machine and eat adequate, but not excessive, protein.’

‘Everyone’s different, and the rate at which you lose lean body mass depends on many factors including your age, fitness, diet and genetic predisposition. The best advice here is to seek out a coach who can help devise a nutrition plan that will work for you.

In your fifties

You can defy ageing (to a point) by staying on your bike. The age-related decline in maximum heart rate is lower in athletes than their sedentary counterparts, and if you train regularly in your fifties you will continue to enjoy the same relative benefits as you would over layabouts when you’re in your twenties.

A slight decline in strength, endurance and recovery times can actually have a beneficial effect on your training. You’re more likely to think about your regime, rather than simply pedal for hours on end because you can, and take a more scientific approach.

‘If someone comes to me and asks me to draw up a training plan, my first question isn’t, “How old are you?”’ says Goodhew. ‘I ask how much you ride, and what’s your lifestyle like?

‘I ask about family and jobs, because how much time you have to devote to training is far more important than your age.’

The decline in strength, power and flexibility means it’s essential to add strength exercises into your training plan on days off the bike.

‘You’re not looking to become Arnold Schwarzenegger, but exercises such as pull-ups, leg squats and lunges – with dumbbells or a manageable barbell – can help delay muscle wastage.

‘Many cyclists have a relatively weak upper body,’ says Carey. ‘A lot of them avoid strength training because they don’t want to bulk up, and there’s an element of wisdom in that.

Get over yourself

‘But really, if you still think that at 40, you want to get over yourself. Half of your muscle mass is above the waist, so you can have strong legs at 60 but if you have no core strength you’ll have problems with your lower back, shoulders and arms. Training at 50 like you trained at 20 is unwise.’

That isn’t an excuse to take it easy, but rest and recovery does also become more important as you age.

‘I need more rest time and less frequent intense sessions. But the intense sessions need to be just as intense,’ says Soppitt.

‘If I’m not feeling right or have a niggle on a particular day I skip the session. I know from experience of gaps in training – sometimes months – that, on the back of years of aerobic fitness, it all comes back.

‘Interestingly there is evidence that about half of the population may be genetically programmed to respond well to training and the other half can train and train but don't improve much. I’m lucky and I respond to training.’

If you’re a competitive type, you’ll also need to consider what sort of race is best for you. Given what we have learned about aerobic fitness – that it can stay relatively stable while anaerobic fitness declines – you may be better off with longer distances.

It sounds counterintuitive, but you will be at less of a disadvantage than in shorter, more explosive events against young whippersnappers.

But ultimately, the big reasons we ride are for enjoyment and to be healthier. ‘When you’re 20, you should picture how you want to be at 30, 40 or 50,’ says Carey.

‘It’s like seeing a financial advisor. If you start putting away £10 a week when you’re 20 you’ll have a decent pot of cash by the time you’re 60.’

And it’s never too late to start saving.

Holding back the years

Here’s what you can expect from your body through the decades

20s

• Your body is at its peak in each of the 10 key facets of fitness: endurance, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, body composition and anaerobic capacity. Enjoy it.

• Don’t use that as an excuse to ignore your body. Doing the groundwork now can help you keep fit in the future.

• If you’re serious about racing, ensure you train properly rather than simply riding for hours. Your body is best suited to high-intensity sessions, but relatively less well suited to extended aerobic training than it is when you’re older. 

30s

• If you train regularly, your metabolism still slows by 2-3% per decade from the age of 30 onwards (more if you don’t train). Counter this by reducing your calorie intake on rest days.

• Most people’s bodies will start to lose the fast-twitch muscle fibres necessary for explosive bursts of speed, but you can counter this by doing resistance training in the gym.

• Don’t neglect recovery. Although you are not as injury prone as older riders, you are not as bulletproof as you were in your twenties. Quality rest is as important as miles on the bike.

40s

• You could gain up to 10kg of body fat in your forties. Reduce your calorie intake if you notice weight staying on.

• Peak power and anaerobic capacity fall at around 8% per decade – but peak aerobic power stays steady, so you’re better suited to riding longer distances at a lower intensity than you are to shorter, high-intensity efforts.

In training, however, intense sessions are even more important. Just ensure you rest properly afterwards.

• Do strength training. Load-bearing exercises will help strengthen your core, back and legs, improve stability and delay muscle wastage.

50s

• Strength training becomes even more important. Include hills in a big gear as part of your riding as this is a simple way of doing it on the bike.

• Yoga and pilates can also help you to maintain balance and keep you supple, making you less prone to aches and pains.

• Don’t be afraid to use supplements: glucosamine supplements can help the knees, while fish oil supplements help joints and flexibility.

• Work on your technique. Increasing cadence (aim for above 80rpm) reduces the risk of injury and helps maintain the nervous system.

 

Age shall not wither them

Meet the oldest winners in cycling history

(Image: welloffside.com)

Firmin Lambot, Belgium

Oldest Tour de France winner

Belgian cyclist Lambot became – and remains – the oldest winner of the Tour when he took his second victory in 1922, aged 36 years and four months.

Although he had six stage wins to his name in previous races, he also became the first man to win the General Classification without taking a single victory in the race. 

Kristin Armstrong, USA

Oldest Olympic time-trial champion

Having beaten Emma Pooley to Olympic gold in 2008, Armstrong retired a year later and started a family – only to change her mind in 2011 with a view to defending her title at the London games. She did just that, 10 days before her 39th birthday.

Chris Horner, USA

Oldest Vuelta a Espana winner

There is hope for us all. In 2013, Horner became the oldest winner of a Grand Tour stage at the age of 41 years and 307 days.

Seven days later he broke his own record by winning stage 10 and reclaiming the red jersey, which he held for the next 13 days, all the way to Madrid. The victory also made him the oldest winner of any Grand Tour.

Take that, Lambot.

• For information on how the Wattbike Atom can help you achieve your training goals, visit wattbike.com/gb

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