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How should I adapt my training as I get older?

In-depth
17 Mar 2020
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The expert: Ric Stern is a road racer, sports scientist and cycling and triathlon coach. For the past two years he has qualified for the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships, and has coached elite riders, Paralympians and beginners. Visit cyclecoach.com

Do you want the bad news first? The body starts to slow down as we go past about 35 years of age. Now that’s out of the way, the good news is that these changes are generally small, and will continue with modest declines in performance until you’re about 60. It’s bad news again after that.

Decreases in VO2 max and lactate threshold are the biggest issues because they limit human performance. And as your fitness decreases you expend less energy so you may start to gain weight.

You have to understand and accept that you’re unlikely to be as fit at 50 as you were at 20 (if you were training then, of course), so yes you should adapt your training. By how much is specific to the individual, but being aware of the physiological changes means you can counter them.

That might mean reducing your calorie intake on rest days, focussing on the right sessions and working on your strength. And if you didn’t train when you were younger you may find you’re actually fitter than you were in your twenties.

I’m 50, I’ve raced every year of my life since I was 14 and my training is geared towards maintaining or increasing lactate threshold and VO2 max.

Lactate threshold is the point at which your body produces enough lactic acid for the associated hormones and metabolites to cause your muscles to burn and you to slow down, and it’s similar to FTP – the maximum average speed you can maintain for around one hour. VO2 max is a measure of your body’s ability to use oxygen during exercise.

Hard FTP sessions of 10 to 20 minutes will maintain fitness, while VO2 max training tends to focus around short, intense efforts of at least three minutes, repeated several times.

These intervals are tough, and you should be wary of doing too much high-intensity work. I’d limit these sessions to one every 10 to 14 days, unless you’re really fit and can handle one a week.

Either way you need to recover fully, so may need two days off afterwards. Health may be declining and many people start developing heart disease, even if it’s undetectable at this stage.

I’d always recommend getting checked out by your GP, but even with a clean bill of health you’ll take longer to recover as you age.

That said, it is possible to still train regularly, and for many people to train almost as well as when they were younger. Diet plays a big role in this and you should prioritise quality carbohydrates and protein, with plenty of lean meat and fruit and veg to fuel up, help recovery and manage weight.

It helps that cycling is a low-impact sport, and I think you’re unlikely to suffer more injuries as a result of riding – although reaction times slow as we age so maybe by your seventies you might want to rein it in a bit on the descents.

You do see super-fast age-groupers, but as a rule it’s easier to maintain endurance than it is to maintain power and speed. Strength training can help, because once you pass 40 you start to lose the fast-twitch muscle fibres necessary for those explosive bursts of speed.

It’s also a mental battle. While you can maintain a high level of fitness if you stay healthy, you may not have the desire or ‘fight’ to train hard, push yourself and handle the pain that you had when you were younger.

Just remember that when we train we often flog ourselves and forget that cycling is supposed to be fun. You can still win races as an older athlete, and I still train seriously and race.

But I also have more days in the saddle that are more about enjoying the ride than smashing a PB.