Going the Distance – Introduction

“With appropriate training, the physiological impact of ageing can be hugely reduced and older cyclists can achieve levels of performance beyond their imaginations”

The numbers of older people becoming involved in cycling is a phenomenon in many parts of the world. The trend in Ireland is similar – the recent upsurge in cycling is largely made up of older riders.

Cycling is also the preferred option for those moving on from other sports and wishing to remain active and competitive. As a result of these trends, mass participation events like Sportives, Grand Fondos and the l’Etape du Tour are dominated by older riders and some of these events have a strong quasi-competitive element.

The numbers of older riders involved in pure competition hasn’t increased proportionately in Ireland yet. In places like the USA and Australia, however, the ‘Masters’ categories are often the biggest fields and highly competitive. Competitors in their 70s don’t raise an eyelid. The World Master’s Cycling Federation Championships now attracts over 3,000 older competitors to Austria every summer.

Also in line with these trends, Cycling Ireland introduced Masters Categories at National Championship level in all disciplines in 2015, with separate over-40, over-50 and over-60 Championship events. This gives older riders fresh opportunities, motivation, and a chance to re-evaluate their goals.

Given these trends, it seems timely to present this series of articles on ‘Going the Distance’.


Getting Older – The Bad News and the Good News

We know the bad news. All aspects of performance deteriorate gradually after a certain age – strength, speed, endurance, power, etc. So, let’s not dwell in this too much, even though we will be looking at each of these in more detail in further installments.

The good news is much more palatable, and there is a lot of it – too much, in fact, to go into here in detail. The main message is that the decline in performance results as much from reduced activity as it does from the natural ageing process.

In other words, with appropriate training, the physiological impact of ageing can be hugely reduced and older cyclists can achieve levels of performance beyond their imaginations.

A great amount of research has been done on older athletes in recent years. There are still gaps in our knowledge, but this research, along with smart training and the wisdom gained from the increasing number of cyclists participating into their 70s, has led to huge gains in the performance of older riders.

An extreme example is the Frenchman Robert Marchand who, earlier this year, broke his own over-100 Hour Record at the age of 102 (now standing at 26.92 Kms). While we all can’t aspire to this kind of competitive longevity, the average competitive cyclist can maintain very high levels of performance by applying the key training ingredients. For example, over-60s time-trialists who have maintained good training routines can routinely race at over 40kph. Most of the winning times in the first Modern Olympics in 1896 have now been bettered by over-70 athletes. The Veteran’s cycling category in Ireland, originally put in place for riders who were ‘over the hill’, became dominated by elite Category A1 racers.

So, across the full spectrum of older athletes, horizons just keep expanding, performances keep improving and the bar is raised higher and higher. There are numerous other aspects to the ‘good news’ which we are all aware of: health – both physical and mental, better cognitive functioning, challenge, competition, fun, excitement, and friendship, to name but a few.


What is ‘Old’?

When we talk about the ‘Older Cyclist’, what do we mean by ‘old’?

Well, the answer is, ‘it depends’. The different physiological systems do not decline at the same rate and individuals can vary greatly. Track sprinters, for example, may notice a drop in performance from their late 30s while pure endurance riders can maintain their particular fitness for more than a decade longer. Road-racers lie somewhere in between – most will need to make changes to training patterns from their early 40s but are not significantly disadvantaged until their mid or late 40s.

In very general terms, assuming that you train right, performance drops by approximately 1% per year from the mid-40s to the mid-60s, and accelerates somewhat after that.

However, ‘age’ is relative. In a Masters competition with age-related bands, nobody is at a large age disadvantage. In the Cycling Ireland ranking system, older road-racers are graded by ability just like everybody else, irrespective of age.


The Limitations?

If cycling and competition is such a good thing for older riders, why do the numbers participating drop proportionate to age, particularly towards 50 and after?

There are a number of reasons, with physical attrition being an obvious one. Injuries and ill-health can take their toll. Motivation and the competitive instinct can also decline, and some become just too busy with family and career. The lack of age-appropriate competition can also be de-motivating.

Some are also put off by over-cautious advice on health and injury risks. For example, middle-aged and older people are given stern warnings to consult their physician before engaging in vigorous exercise. Yet, they are not warned to do the same if they don’t take up vigorous exercise, which carries a much bigger risk.

However, the biggest limitation seems to be attitude. For example, there is an assumption that racers ‘will retire’, normally from their mid-30s – some to join the 80% of over-50 Irish people who are obese or overweight. Along with this attitude, some people believe that older cyclists just shouldn’t race – in the same way they believed in the past that women or people with disabilities shouldn’t race.

Overcoming the attitude barrier, both within ourselves and from others, is the biggest step to more participation, competition, and greater achievement.


The Possibilities

Given the right attitudes and conditions, there are a host of possibilities and goals for vigorous and competitive activity for older cyclists.

However, this does come with a strong caveat: the older we get the more we need to be well informed, well prepared, and to adjust training appropriately.

The older physiological system responds differently to the stresses of training and doing things the same old way won’t work that well.

We get away with less as we get older. Poor habits will have a more pronounced detrimental effect. More attention is needed to off-the-bike aspects of training and lifestyle, and we may have to re-learn these habits if they were neglected in the past.

These changes and approaches, however, all lead to a more healthy, interesting and enjoyable lifestyle.

With this in mind, further installments of this series on ‘Going the Distance’ will examine the following issues:

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