Our bodies change as we age and we have to modify training to be the best we can possibly be
The terms ‘old’ and ‘ageing’ are going to appear a lot in this article and these terms refer to that phase in your life when your physiological potential begins to decline because of the natural process of ageing.
The word ‘potential’ crops up also as many older riders underestimate their performance possibilities and some can achieve levels of fitness beyond their imaginations with proper training.
Don’t dismiss it as irrelevant if you haven’t reached this stage yet, because you will some day and it will come sooner than you think!
‘Veterans’ was the traditional title for us, suggesting a category of tired old warriors who just wouldn’t give up the fight when all in their right minds had packed it in by 35. Competitors in their 40s and beyond were seen as rather eccentric oddities at a time when vigorous exercise was viewed as risky for bodies getting frail and brittle with age. ‘Moderation’ was sensible!
Now, ‘Masters’ seems more politically correct and is used by the UCI. However, the shift in terminology also reflects a general change in attitude towards ageing, vigorous exercise and full participation in life.
There is also a growing realization in science and medicine that much of the physiological changes of what were considered ‘normal’ ageing are due to lack of vigorous exercise.
A 2017 World Economic Forum report, for example, acknowledged that older athletes are a ‘fascinating laboratory’ for studying potential in the older population and said that masters athletes enjoy a level of health and wellness that is the aim of the general population.
Nevertheless, change and decline in performance is inevitable and knowledge is key to reducing its effects and maximizing potential as we pass through the various ages of the Masters’ categories.
As a coach who works primarily with older riders I am keenly aware that many riders can, with age-appropriate training, reach levels of performance they never thought possible. It is highly rewarding to see this potential being unlocked.
With this in mind, this article outlines how preparation can be adjusted to suit our changing physiology. It provides guidelines on how to stay vigorous, fast and strong as we ride ‘through the ages’ and for as long as we are able to get up on a bike.
Key physiological components of ageing and performance
Our cycling performance is at its prime for just a 10-15 year window of our entire lifespan. This period begins in the late teens or early 20s and usually peaks around 30-35.
The bulk of research and coaching advice is applied to this narrow section of the cycling population but this isn’t always directly relevant once ageing begins to set in. This can be barely noticeable until 40 and, for a lucky few, doesn’t have a really significant impact until the mid-40s. Decline then continues at a fairly regular rate until about 75 when it accelerates somewhat.
The causes of this age decline are complex as numerous physiological components and systems begin to change in different ways. It is important, therefore, to realize that the body doesn’t decline or respond to training as a single system. Sprinters, for example, will notice a drop in performance much earlier than pure endurance riders because of the different aspects of physiology involved.
Adjusting training approaches is easier when riders have a basic understand of these processes and, with this in mind, I outline five key components of ageing and performance and the implications for our training as we get older.
- Vo2 Max (Maximal Aerobic Capacity)
Decline in Vo2 Max is regarded as the biggest cause of performance loss after 40 but is often neglected in training by older riders.
It refers to the maximum amount of oxygen the body can take in and deliver to muscles. In practical terms, exercising at Vo2Max means all-out, gut-bursting efforts of one to 5 minutes approximately. This is real ‘high intensity training’ and it hurts.
It is estimated that Vo2 Max declines between 10-20% per decade – a huge loss. Crucially, however, regular high intensity training greatly reduces this – by up to a half claim some researchers.
Training the Vo2 Max system also stimulates the production of key hormones such as testosterone. The loss of this is one of the key causes of performance decline. It also has a role in regulating the body’s sensitivity to insulin production which, in turn, helps maintain a good balance of enzymes (LPT primarily) that help prevent the buildup of belly fat.
In spite of its importance, many riders drift away from high intensity training as they get older, thus accelerating the effects of ageing. The ‘use it or lose it’ nature of Vo2 Max has a number of practical implications.
Firstly, it is speculated that athletes who lose Vo2 Max fitness for a number of years after 40 do not return to the same levels as their active peers if they start training properly again. Therefore, train you Vo2 Max system regularly through the ages.
Secondly, it is often recommended that cyclists knock off the high intensity efforts during the off-season. While breaks are necessary for all riders from time to time, it is advised that older riders should do some high intensity training throughout the year.
Thirdly, because recovery is slower as we get older, and because we need to be fresh to do proper high intensity sessions, we have to compromise on volume. The older we get the more important this becomes. I find this is really challenging for some riders who get anxious when I try to cut back their total volume of training.
Riders who specialize in endurance events also question the need to train at Vo2 Max at all: “Why should I train at the level when I don’t ride at this intensity in my events”? The answer to this becomes more clear when I examine two further key components of our physiology – ‘threshold’ and endurance.
- Key takeaway point: After 40, do regular high-intensity training for the rest of your life and compromise on volume if necessary.
- ‘Threshold’ (lactate or anaerobic threshold; functional threshold power/FTP)
Anaerobic threshold is commonly referred to in cycling circles as ‘threshold’ or FTP and it determines the maximum output we can maintain over an extended period. In basic terms, threshold is the point at which the body can no longer process increasing lactate in the muscles and performance declines.
The higher your threshold the faster you can go over longer periods and it is a major factor in endurance performance.
However, training at endurance pace is not the most effective way of stimulating your anaerobic threshold system: you need to do 10-20 minute intervals at a pace when talking is very difficult or impossible. This is at or near time-trial pace.
How Vo2 Max effects the threshold systems is also worth trying to understand. If your Vo2 Max is low it sets a false ceiling on your threshold potential and limits the effectiveness of hard training at threshold.
This is another reason for high intensity workouts and a correct combination of threshold and Vo2 Max training can transform many riders’ performance.
- Key takeaway point: your anaerobic threshold system determines which bunch or racing category you can survive in and training it properly slows its decline as you age.
- Aerobic endurance (exercise economy)
Aerobic endurance exercise is the basis of all endurance performance – long, steady miles at a comfortable conversation pace.
Our basic aerobic system declines much more slowly than Vo2Max or anaerobic threshold and older riders who have maintained a good fitness regime can produce impressive aerobic endurance performance well into their 70s.
Many older riders gravitate towards longer endurance events because of this.
Crucially, however, many do not understand that Vo2 Max and threshold levels of training contribute greatly to endurance, and with less time input. As a coach, persuading some riders to buy into this mindset can be difficult.
- Key takeaway point: steady endurance training is the cornerstone of performance but don’t judge your commitment as a cyclist just by how many hours a week you train – be prepared to compromise on volume to accommodate intensity
- Muscle mass and strength
Sarcopenia, the clinical term for muscle loss with ageing, can begin as early as 30 but kicks in for everybody after 40. It has a range of causes: reduced testosterone and other hormones, less synthesis of protein and reduced muscle mitochondrial enzyme activity. Resistance training is the key to slowing down these losses.
It goes without saying that more muscle equals better performance yet many older riders neglect this aspect of training.
Strength training for maintaining bone density is also important, especially for women. One study has suggested that two-thirds of Masters cyclists could be classified as osteopenic – a precursor stage to osteoporosis – and that the spine was most at risk.
Again, it is a ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ scenario and the key message is that, in order to retain as much muscle, bone density and related performance as possible, we have to prioritise load-bearing, strength-type training from our 40s.
You do need good advice and supervision if you are not experienced. Good technique is vital and you should focus on form rather than effort. Many find this difficult and rushing into strength workouts is a recipe for trouble.
Strength training has to be ‘periodized’ like all other aspects of your training: the frequency and effort will depend on your speciality, your goals and the rhythms of the cycling season. Riders in their 40s can normally do up to three sessions per week, while this might be reduced to 1 by the 60s and 70s.
- Key takeaway point: do regular strength training to maintain muscle mass and performance, but learning good technique is vital if you are not experienced.
[READ MORE – ‘A Solid Foundation’]
- Recovery and Repair
Training is a matter of overload and recovery. We stress the system and, in response, the body adapts to the added demands during rest.
Riders reaching 40 usually notice a decline in recovery before a decline in performance. The body doesn’t repair as well, meaning that it isn’t ready as quickly for the next quality hard session. This, in turn, means we can do less overall training.
Riders in their 30s are usually ready for hard training with one day’s rest after a hard event or training session. By the 60s this could be three days. This can be frustrating: at 62 I have the time and enthusiasm to train more but I know that doing so would end in grief. We cannot ignore our increased vulnerability to overtraining.
Factoring in recovery is the single biggest adjustment needed as we progress through the ages and this is further discussed in the following sections.
- Key takeaway point: as you get older and move through the ages you have to look on recovery as a central cornerstone of your training.
[READ MORE – ‘Judging Recovery and Readiness to Train’]
Other factors: lifestyle, nutrition, psychology, ‘maintenance’
There is a saying that cycling is a lifestyle choice, not just a sport. It means there is more than just training and competition involved if one is to be successful.
These other contextual factors are even more relevant to older riders because we get away with less. We notice this after a night out, for example, or when belly fat begins to accumulate where it didn’t before.
Nutritional challenges include more care with sugars and carbohydrate to avoid insulin spikes and the build-up of fat. Reduced protein synthesis means that we have to consciously consume additional protein, especially during heavy training.
Psychology and motivation may change in different ways. On the one hand, our interview with Dave La Grys illustrates the mind battles that some highly-motivated riders have to endure when the urge to train doesn’t moderate with the body’s changes. These riders need self-regulation or monitoring from a coach, or they can self-destruct.
On the other hand, Chris Carmichael has speculated from research that we are willing to put up with less pain from top-end training as we age. It isn’t that we are not prepared to suffer – we are a bit more selective about it. I find this type of rider to be more motivated when they know the purpose of each hard sessions and have output targets to hit in time or watts.
There is also what I refer to a ‘maintenance’ sessions: stretching, foam rolling and rubbing out of muscle knots and tight points. Some seem to get away without any but most need it to keep the body supple and injury free – I need two good sessions a week when training hard.
Lifelong athletes usually have established all these good habits as routine. Others are less prepared to compromise – they want to enjoy more of the good things in life.
Modifying training patterns through the ages
The core principles of training for older riders are essentially the same as for all athletes: consistency, progressive overload and recovery and periodization through the year to match key goals.
The key in developing a plan for high-performance training is to apply the maximum sustainable training load, to balance this effective recovery, and then to progressively increase the load as fitness develops.
It is, essentially, balancing a load/recovery cycle which, for older riders should have emphasis on:
- More high-intensity training
- Incorporating resistance training
- More recovery
We can design, or ‘periodize’, this load/recovery cycle in a host of ways as we work through the different training periods towards a key goal: weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual.
For example, in a ‘build’ phase of training in early spring the weekly load/recovery period might differ between the ages as follows:
|Example of modified weekly training routine with fewer hard days and more rest with ageing|
|Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 4||Day 5||Day 6||Day 7|
The monthly block must be similarly changed. The classic monthly arrangement for riders in their prime phase is three or four weeks of hard training followed by a recovery period of five days to a week. However, the recovery periods need to be more frequent by the 50s.
The best training pattern may not use 7-day ‘weeks’ or 4-week ‘month’ at all – you simply design the routine for what works best. For example, the noted coach and writer, Joe Friel, advocates a ‘nine-day week’ for older riders to take account of the need for two days’ recovery after hard sessions.
I find that two of these ‘weeks’, followed by a five-day recovery period (a 23-day ‘month’), makes a very effective block for riders from their late 50s.
|Example of modified training ‘month’ from the late 50s|
|Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 4||Day 5||Day 6||Day 7||Day 8||Day 9|
Being the best we can be
As I pointed out at the outset, we are in our athletic prime for a relatively small period of our lives, so why should our ambitions and expectations be limited to that? We can try to be the best we can be at any age.
Our two biggest limiting factors are knowledge and attitude. I hope this information helps you to explore the outlet limits of your true potential and to be the best that you can be as you continue to ride ‘through the ages’.
Cycling through the ages with Dave Le Grys, world class cyclist and coach
Commonly known as ‘Legro’ in cycling circles, Dave Le Grys has been there, done it all and continues to do so at the age of 62. He began cycling at 12 and has amassed a huge range of experience and accomplishments in the intervening 50 years.
Dave represented Great Britain at the Olympics and World Championships, was multiple national champion on the track and set the British absolute speed record behind a pace car with faring at 110 mph. He won an amazing 25 World Masters titles and isn’t finished yet – Dave is currently preparing for the World Masters track championships in October having faced off a range of medical problems including open heart surgery and a major back operation.
He was deeply involved in coaching and served as national track coach for the British Cycling Federation. He also has much non-cycling experience including five marathons with a best time of 2.36.
He now runs a coaching business (www.legroscycling.com) and works with a wider range of older cyclists. Dave spoke to Cycling Weekly about his experience of the ‘cycling ages’, both as a competitor and coach.
Tom Daly: What was your reaction when you hit your 40s?
Dave Le Grys: I did notice change after 40 but I didn’t adapt very well. It was a type of mid-life crisis and I was in denial to a certain extent. I still felt like I was in my 20s and tried to train through it.
TD: What are your main coaching approaches with clients in their 40s?
DLG: The first thing to emphasize is that training his highly dependent on context for everyone and at all ages: genetics, experience, lifestyle, etc. There is no ‘one size fits all’. Getting riders to take more recovery is the biggest challenge. The stubborn ones cause me grief – they don’t accept it.
TD: Moving on to your 50s, how did things change for you?
DLG: The first real signs of ageing kicked in and I struggled. It was partly ego – I had a constant battle with my brain because I noticed that the body was really starting to slow down but my enthusiasm wasn’t. I had to go through a process of acceptance as I realized that I was more than a half of a century old.
TD: What are your main coaching approaches for your clients in their 50s?
DLG: They definitely have to compromise on the volume to prioritize intensity and recovery. For example, it might be recovery every third day instead of fourth or fifth in the 40s. It’s a case of ‘less is more’ – some guys have a real problem with rest and overtraining is a real risk. The have to really start listening to the body and take note of what it’s telling them.
TD: What is your perspective now that you are in your 60s?
DLG: Passing 60 was another big turning point. You just can’t ignore it – you can’t jump out of bed in the morning like you used to and things start to creak. Things also began to break down for me as past traumas like crashes began to take their toll. You feel more vulnerable and you have to be very careful about how you look after yourself in every way.
TD: How do you help clients manage these changes and still remain on top of their game?
DLG: Training for performance takes a different perspective – everything has to be carefully planned and processed. You can train hard every other day at most and sometimes three days recovery are needed after competition or really hard sessions.
TD: You are a good way off 70 but you do coach riders in this category – what do you emphasize?
DLG: My coaching is very hands-on with riders who want to train properly and maintain high-level performance at this age. There is even more of a risk of things going wrong and injury needs to be avoided. The careful execution of key training sessions is important – you can’t rush into things and won’t get away with a slapdash approach to hard training.
TD: What advice to ‘newcomers’ and ‘returners’ (riders who have taken a long break and return to competition in their masters years?
DLG: Be patient and don’t expect good legs for at least a year. Certainly, train and race but view it all as preparation for your second season.
TD: Dave, there are a lot of other aspects to preparation for performance: strength, flexibility, nutrition, general lifestyle, motivation and such like. What do you advise on these?
DLG: Strength is very important but, like everything, is context dependent. A lot depends on how much strength-work clients have done in the past. On the one hand, it has to be toned down if they have been doing a lot. On the other hand I have mixed feelings about older people going to the gym if they have little experience – they can damage themselves seriously! In very general terms I recommend three times a week for the 40s, twice for 50s and once when over 60
Older riders need to keep stretching. Cycling leads to tight hamstrings and lower back, which can lead to back problems eventually. Eating a good diet sounds too obvious but lifestyle can get in the way too. Also as you age sometimes you cannot get enough of the proper nutrition through a normal diet and I use a range of good quality supplements and a high-brand micro-protein for recovery.
Lifestyle is a tricky one. Life is a little different for the older generation. Most enjoy a nice glass of wine or two and eating out, which is perfectly acceptable if managed carefully . A strict diet, training smart and going to bed early is the way to go for any athlete, young or old. But you have to strike up a balance for what works for you.
TD: Dave, you have done it all – why bother with it at 62?
DLG: Back in the day people were thinking about a nursing home at 62. Nowadays we are thinking about climbing mountains, going on training camps, racing, getting out there and getting fit. There is a good reason for getting out of bed in the morning.
TD: Thanks Dave.
It’s never too late: profile of a late achiever
Seán Hargan rides with Phoenix Cycling Club in Belfast and began competing in cycling at 51. In 2015, at 64, he rode the Ulster 100-mile time-trial in 3’52” and became Irish over 60-champion at road, time-trial and hill-climb in 2016. He told Cycling Weekly his story:
When I was younger I played Gaelic football and then I took up running when it became the craze way back in the day. I ran a few marathons – my best was 2’47”. Then I moved on to triathlon when that became popular.
I switched to cycling completely when I was 51 because of injuries. I mainly do time-trials and a wee bit of road racing for the fitness.
I used to have no structure to my training. I just kept going and going and didn’t take rest days. You slow down a bit all right but your head doesn’t tell you that.
Then I got a coach and he put a structure to it. He gives me more quality than distance and plenty of rest days. He keeps a tab on me and tells me what I should be eating. I do strength training and pilates three times a week also.
The advice I would give to anyone thinking of taking up racing when they are older is to get a coach and do quality rather than the long useless miles.
More caution is needed about our health as we get older, especially with high-intensity training. There is also mounting evidence that large volumes of endurance exercise, sustained over many decades, can contribute to atrial fibrillation (AF) and related cardiac problems.
Don’t ignore any signs: If your heart rate monitor ‘goes off the scale’, for example, don’t put it down to a technical anomaly unless you confirm normal levels by a pulse test.
It is wise, therefore, to consider medical screening. However, do consult with a physician who has experience with older athletes. In my own case, I went for screening at 57 and the consultant cardiologist, in the initial consultation before the tests, advised me to give up high intensity exercise because of my age and the fact that my father had had a heart attack (I did point out that he was a heavy smoker, overweight and never exercised).
However, as I read a lot of original research I had the confidence to question the basis of his advice and quickly realized that he didn’t know much about the physiology of older athletes. I ignored his ‘expert’ opinion when the tests didn’t show anything abnormal.
I repeated the tests at 62 with a cardiologist who is experienced with athletes and he had no difficulty with I continuing my training regime.
Thanks for reading and get in touch please if you have any queries.