“It is a mistake to think of physiological ageing as a linear progression, with the various elements of fitness declining in tandem with each other”
In this third installment of the ‘Going the Distance’ series we examine training and performance for older cyclists.
First Things First
Achieving high levels of performance involves intensity in training and older athletes are usually advised to consult their doctors in this regard. This is especially relevant to those who do not have a consistent history of high-intensity training and ‘late starters’ to the sport.
However, try to consult a doctor who is knowledgeable about these matters and who is supportive of your ambitions. Too often, the default position is to advise against both high volume and high intensity just because of assumptions and prejudices about ageing, and without any hard evidence for the advise.
In addition to the normal health assessment done by your doctor, he or she may also advise some kind of stress or ramp test, and/or an echocardiogram of the heart. This is something to be considered by all athletes and it may also provide you with assurance.
Again, if you do decide to do such a test, consider selecting a facility that deals with athletes rather than at-risk people. Some, who deal primarily with at-risk individuals referred by GPs, may not take you anywhere near your higher heart rate levels and take the default, cautious position with conservative advice, even where there is no evidence of abnormalities.
As an added bonus, facilities which deal with athletes may do other tests in conjunction which could be useful to yourself or your coach, such as lactate threshold and/or Vo2Max tests.
If you do go through these steps in consultation with your doctor and no obvious problem is found, should you still be worried about added risk?
If so, you might consider that the everyday risk of cycling on the road is probably infinitely greater than the risk from training intensity, provided you take a structured and sensible approach.
Training for Performance – Consistency and Planning
The core principles of training for older riders are essentially the same as for all riders, but with some significant differences which we will overview. However, it must be stressed that training and its results are highly individualistic, depending on the unique physiology and life-circumstances of each person. Therefore, how these principles are applied can vary greatly.
There are two key requirements for performance at all levels.
The first is consistently in training: fitness is built incrementally, layer-by-layer, over time. It is lost much more quickly than it is gained and consistency, maintained week-by-week, month-by-month and year-by-year, will gradually build and sustain fitness.
However, even consistency won’t lead to better performance unless it is based on the second key requirement – having a smart training plan based on sound principles.
By ‘smart training’ I mean maximising the effectiveness of the time you spend training, relative to your goals, and balancing that will all the other demands in your life. In other words, it is about getting the best result with the least input.
Too many just ‘train’, putting in the hours with no logical approach and thereby not optimising the time invested. Many of these riders hit an early plateau in performance.
Basic Structure and Sound Principles of a Training Plan
The basic structure of the plan should be based on the body’s great ability to respond to physical stresses by adapting itself accordingly.
Therefore, in very general terms, fitness comes about from stressing the body and then allowing it an opportunity to adapt to this stress. Hence, training can be seen as a cycle of stress and recovery.
Some, who train at very high intensity at particular periods, see it more as a process of destruction and repair. Others refer to it as a cycle of inflammation and re-growth. The perspective often depends on which cycling discipline is involved – the long-distance randonneur will see it a lot differently to the track sprinter, while the same basic principles apply.
However, this is not a random cycle of stress and recovery which might lead to better performance. Getting the balance right is a key element of the successful plan. Too little stress and no additional fitness results – typical of the person who trains the same way all the time. Too much stress, for too long a period, leads to fatigue, damage, illness and burnout.
Nowadays this type of structured planning is referred to as ‘periodization’ – developing a structured plan based on periods of stress and recovery that will produce your best condition at the times when most needed for key events.
One of the main changes that comes with age is less tolerance for the stress element of the periodization cycle and more time for quality recovery. One of the most difficult things to convince cyclists, particularly highly-motivated ones, is that ‘fitness’ happens during the resting period rather than during the ‘training’ cycle of the plan – i.e. that sometimes going for a nap can produce more fitness than going for a hard training session.
Therefore, the periodization dynamic needs to be adjusted with age, with more emphasis on the recovery aspect. Because this ‘smart recovery’ is so crucial for the older rider it will be the focus of a separate instalment later.
Training for Performance – Balancing the Physiological Systems
In addition to adjusting the stress-recovery aspect of the periodization plan, a second key element as we get older is the way in which the various physiological systems work in relation to each other.
‘Physiology’ and ‘fitness’ are made up of various components – for example, a ten-second sprint calls more heavily on one component than a does a ten-hour sportive.
Crucially, however, different aspects of the system age at different rates – it is a mistake to think of ‘physiological ageing’ as one linear progression, with the various fitness components declining in performance in tandem with each other.
Exercise physiology is highly complex, but we can boil it down to three basic systems for the purposes of this discussion. The following is an overview of each of these, how they change in different ways as we get older, and the implications of this for fitness and performance.
1. Aerobic Endurance / Exercise Economy (AE)
Aerobic endurance or exercise economy refers to slow, steady exercise over long periods of time. For the trained cyclists, it is sustained submaximal exercise – the effort at which you ‘can ride all day’. It is a basic building block of all endurance performance.
Aerobic endurance appears to change very little for older riders who have maintained a good fitness regime and prodigious aerobic endurance performance can last well into the 70s.
Training for aerobic endurance is relatively easy – long, steady, slow miles. It is especially important for the late starters, many of whom rush to the higher levels too quickly with the enthusiasm and exuberance that comes with a great, newly-found sport. All too often the result is quick burn-out or injury, and switch-off.
2. Lactate Threshold (LT)
Lactate threshold (Anaerobic Threshold; Functional Threshold Power) refers to the maximum effort you can maintain over an extended period (usually measured over one hour). It is the point at which the body can no longer process accumulating lactate in the muscles and performance declines.
The higher your ‘threshold’ the faster you can go over longer periods. It is, therefore, a major factor in endurance performance.
However, training to improve lactate threshold is relatively hard and it is a point at which some older riders, conditioned to be cautious about intensity, can begin to back off. This is a mistake for those wishing to maintain performance – it is often the point at which ‘ageing’ is accelerated in performance terms.
Lactate threshold does decrease somewhat with age but less so if trained consistently. Crucially, however, LT does not appear to change hugely when measured relative to the percentage of Vo2Max – the third component we are discussing.
3. Vo2 Max (Maximal Aerobic Capacity)
Vo2Max measures how much oxygen the body uses at a maximum effort for a number of minutes. In cycling ‘Vo2Max efforts’ generally mean all-out, gut-bursting efforts of between a few seconds and a few minutes. This is real ‘high intensity training’.
Of the three elements discussed here, Vo2Max declines most rapidly as we get older. This occurs at about 1% per year after the age of 35-40 in sedentary people but, if good-quality Vo2Max training is maintained, that decline can be reduced by up to a half or two-thirds (the figure is not linear with age, varies between research reports, and there are a number of variables).
In other words, like muscle mass and bone density discussed in the previous instalment, you ‘use it or lose it’ as you get older. In addition, like resistance training, high intensity training has many other beneficial benefits including the release of anabolic hormones such as testosterone.
Crucially, in addition, we mentioned above that the decline in Lactate Threshold is dependent on the decline in Vo2Max – in other words, the decline in LT, relative to Vo2Max, is not very significant.
Therefore, decrease in performance ‘at threshold’ may be caused more by the decline in the Vo2Max element of the system than by the decline in the LT aspect of the system.
Tying the three components of the physiological system together:
– high levels of both Lactate Threshold and Vo2Max fitness are dependent, in the first instance, on a good foundation of Aerobic Endurance/Exercise Economy fitness.
– performance at Lactate Threshold decreases with age in older endurance cyclists, but can increase relative to Vo2Mmax while Exercise Economy is maintained. Therefore, ‘threshold ceiling’ is determined by Vo2Max, which is that element of the system which declines most rapidly with age unless trained.
– and, levels of Vo2Max are dependent on high intensity training.
This is a crucial paradox for older riders who want performance because high-intensity training is usually the first to go. It is often discouraged with age. It also hurts a lot and the hurt-cost is just not worth the performance gain for some.
Vo2Max and Periodization
The crucial role of Vo2Max has another important implication for the older rider in relation to the periodization of the training plan discussed above.
High-intensity training is usually not prescribed until the approach of the racing season in traditional periodization plans. In fact, some coaches have an almost religious-like antipathy for high-intensity training during the off-season.
Older riders, however, must remember the ‘use it or lose it’ principal – if you don’t use it for six months of the year, the loss due to ageing is accelerated during that time.
Can this ageing loss be regained with Vo2Max training later in the year? The research jury is out on this, but the answer is likely not. The clear implication is that, in contrast to standard training plans, older riders who are aiming for reduction of the ageing process and optimum performance should consider maintaining some Vo2Max training right through the year.
Clearly, this would need to be carefully judged and balanced within the overall periodization plan.
Some older riders, who have trained and competed consistently throughout their lives, just gradually adjust their training routines to the gradual physiological changes they notice and do so very successfully. In other words, their periodization – balancing their stress and recovery during the course of the year – has been gradually adjusted with experience.
For most, however, developing a smart periodization plan for their unique physiology, age, goals and life-circumstances is very challenging. It can be a time-consuming and laborious task, and some find the lack of a plan an additional stress in life – ‘what am I going to do on the bike today’? Some can manage it well but many find the support of a knowledgeable and experiences friend or coach to be the best solution.
Therefore, the first key lesson is to have a smart training plan, suitable to your age, physiology, goals and life-circumstances. In addition, this should include greater focus on the recovery and adaptation periods. For older athletes, like all athletes, training for performance is a delicate balancing act – finding that best routine for your unique goals, physique and circumstance.
In addition to structured planning we need to have an element of intensity. As we get older the tendency is to decrease intensity, while the opposite is necessary to maintain optimum performance and slow the ageing effect.
Similar to the discussion on the maintenance of muscle mass and bone density in the previous instalment, the body needs to be regularly overloaded to reduce the effect of the ageing process and to maintain performance. We are losing it while we are not using it.
The second key lesson, therefore, is to incorporate high-intensity training into the plan, over a longer period of the year than is normally suggested.
Nevertheless, caution is necessary. Training at intensity brings risks for all athletes and these risks become elevated with age. Nobody should launch into high intensity training without careful build-up and proper planning. It has a catabolic or breaking-down effect – too much, and at the wrong time, will lead to more harm than good.
On the flip side, it is key to both performance and delay in the biological ageing process. Structure and planning is key for this.
As a welcome bonus, high intensity training, with the right dose and frequency, is a marvelous stimulant for endorphin hormones – it makes you feel good!