Coach Hughes: Climbing Training for Older Cyclists
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Intelligent Cycling Training—Senior Cyclists

Training for Older Cyclists: Improving Climbing

Any older cyclist can improve with specific training!

by Coach John Hughes

John Hughes is the author of Anti-Aging — 12 Ways to You Can Slow the Aging Process, of Distance Cycling and many articles on training, nutrition, psychology and medical issues for RoadBikeRider.com. More about Coach Hughes.
© John Hughes, All Rights Reserved

How to Become a Better Senior Climber.

Sandy, a senior RoadBikeRider reader asks, “Fred Matheny said that Ed Pavelka took second in his class at Mt. Washington at 6’4" and 190 lbs. I am 74 and I weigh 200 at 6’2". I finished way back last year and will do it again in 2018. How should I train for it? I have lots of mountains, e.g. Greylock is near. Thank you!”

First, Ed was 20-25 years younger than you are now, and was an elite senior cyclist, having set the senior (50 - 59) team Race Across AMerica record with Fred and others around that time. So I’m not sure other than his size being similar to yours if he really makes for a good point of comparison.

“Three years ago I finished second at Equinox (time lost in mists), then I won my class at Greylock in 67 minutes. In 2017 I was not last at Mt. Washington (14th from the end of the finishers), but I walked at least 10 times and my time was around 2’46". I was destroyed. Maybe overtrained — I did Greylock 22 times that year. And when I did Greylock two weeks after Washington, I was last 90+ minutes.

“Washington is August 18, 7.4 miles, 4700 feet climbing, 12% average grade with a 22% at the end. No flat portions at all. Greylock is around 9 miles with maybe 2700 feet climbing, some 19% parts but overall average 9%.

“I am the President of our local bike club — Cambridge Valley Cycling and ride a fair amount. Much of it is in taking care of newer and novice riders, so I get to loaf a little.

“I want to redeem myself on Washington in 2018. First I need to lose about 15 lbs. I’m working on it. I regeared my Felt to a 28 front with a 42 in the back. I just got a power meter and have been reading various writers on hill climbing, and am trying to lay out a 30-week plan to prepare myself.

“Any advice you might add would be very much appreciated. Men that were 80 left me behind so I know that the potential is there and I am willing to do the work. ”

Older Cyclist Training Program for Climbing.

Sandy, there’s hope! With the exception of a pro, who is at peak fitness for an event any rider can improve with the right training! The fundamental training principle is:

Overload + Recovery = Improvement

An important corollary is: Too much overload or insufficient recovery results in a decline in performance. Senior cyclists need more recovery.

For Mt. Washington and Greylock last year you’d done way too much riding by climbing Greylock 22 times and you hadn’t had enough recovery. Also, if you just do the same thing over and over again, i.e., climb it repeatedly you won’t get any better. Although it feels very hard you aren’t really overloading your body by asking it to do more than it is accustomed to doing.

In the Cyclist’s Training Bible Joe Friel writes, “An athlete should do the least amount of properly timed, specific training that brings about continual improvement. ”

Your best performance will come from doing:

  1. The right kinds of workouts
  2. At the right times
  3. In the right amounts
  4. To bring about continuing progress

How does this apply to you as an older cyclist? You should divide your season into four different phases doing right amounts of different workouts in each phase so that you get better. Starting next week February 4 - 10 you have 28 weeks to Mt. Washington. Here’s how you should use those weeks:

Base Training (12 weeks February 4 - April 28) Build your aerobic base. I’m very pleased that as a senior cyclist you’re giving back to the sport by leading club rides for newer riders. You should be riding with them at a conversational pace so that you can easily talk in full sentences, which is in training zones 2 and 3, 69 - 84% of Lactate Threshold (LT) or 56 - 90% of Functional Threshold Power (FTP). Because you have a power meter, use it because power is more accurate than heart rate. Your goal for Mt. Washington is less than two hours and hopefully significantly less than that! You need to do enough aerobic training so that you can ride in the middle of the aerobic range for a couple of hours without feeling much fatigue, but you don’t need to do long miles.

Senior cyclists in their 50s and beyond make better progress with less risk of overtraining if they alternate weeks with more and fewer miles as they ramp up for the season.

Break (1 week April 29 - May 5) Put your bike in the garage for a full physical and mental break before the power training.

Power Training (7 weeks May 6 - June 23). Because you are increasing the intensity cut back on your endurance riding so that your miles per week are fewer than at the end of your base phase. An endurance ride of one to two hours on the weekend is enough to maintain your endurance. Once a week do a Sweet Spot power workout. The Sweet Spot is hard enough that a rider can still talk in short phrases, not gasping for air. It’s the top of zone 3 and the bottom of zone 4, 93 - 97% of LT or 88 - 94% of FTP. You could go harder; however, you’d require significantly more recovery. It’s called the Sweet Spot because it balances level of intensity and recovery for the optimal total overload. After warming up, your Sweet Spot main set should be a mix of SS and EZ efforts, with the SS efforts about twice as long as the EZ efforts. Start with 3 - 6 repeats of [3 - 4 minutes SS and 1:30 - 2 minutes EZ]. Again alternate harder and easier weeks. The harder weeks (#1, 3, 5 and 7) increase either the number of repeats or the duration of the repeats. You don’t have to do intervals. Pavelka never did — he just rode hard on the hills.

Break (1 week June 24 - 30) Put your bike in the garage for a full physical and mental break before peaking.

Peaking (5 weeks July 1 - August 4) Now you want to train specifically on Mt. Washington even though it’s a 4 - 5 hour drive. The first week climb the first ¼ of Mt. Washington at the pace and power level you plan to race it. The second week just do easy recovery rides at home and one short hill climb of not more than 30 minutes. The third week, climb the first ½ of Mt. Washington at race pace. The fourth week do easy recovery rides at home and a short hill climb. From your partial climbs of Mt. Washington you should have determined how fast you can climb it on race day. The fifth week test this by racing up Mt. Washington.

Taper (2 weeks August 5 - 18) You can’t get any fitter in the last two weeks, you can only wear yourself out. The first week do a short Sweet Spot workout and a short climb. The week of Mt. Washington just do a couple of easy recovery rides.

Gauging Progress. When you can in the spring, race up Greylock. Then about every month, not more frequently, race up it again to gauge your progress.

After you conquer Mt. Washington your racing season is over. As a senior cyclist you don’t have time to recover for Greylock.

Anti-Aging — 12 Ways to You Can Slow the Aging Process. 106 pages for $14.99 from RoadBikeRider.com

Examples of Senior Cyclists

Elizabeth Wicks broke the senior women’s age 65 to 69 record at Calvin’s 12-Hour Challenge in 2013 and the W70-74 record in 2014. I coached Wicks. Here is her 2013 training program.

Peter Lekisch was the first 60-year-old rider to finish the solo Race Across AMerica in 2001 in 12 days 20 hours 50 minutes. I had the pleasure of coaching Peter. Here is his training program.

More Information for Seniors

Cycling Past 50. A 4-article bundle of 98 pages for older cyclists for just $15.96, a 20% discount from RoadBikeRider.com. The bundle includes:

  1. Healthy Cycling Past 50. What happens as you age and how to incorporate cycling and other exercise activities into your daily life to stay healthy and active for many years. Includes three balanced exercise programs for older cyclists.
  2. Off-Season Conditioning Past 50. How to best work on your off-season conditioning given the physiological changes of growing older. Includes two 12-week programs for older cyclists.
  3. Healthy Nutrition Past 50. What an older cyclist should eat and drink to support both a healthy lifestyle and continuing performance.
  4. Performance Cycling Past 50. How older cyclists can train to achieve more specific cycling goals given the physiological changes of aging.

Cycling Past 60. A 2-article bundle of 47 pages for senior cyclists for just $8.98, a 10% discount from RoadBikeRider.com. The bundle includes:

  1. Cycling Past 60, Part 1: For Health. If a senior exercises correctly, you can slow the effects of aging; if you exercise incorrectly, you can speed up aging. Includes three well-balanced exercise programs for senior cyclists.
  2. Cycling Past 60, Part 2: For Recreation. Builds on the information in Part 1 and uses the concept of “Athletic Maturity” to design six more rigorous programs for more athletically mature seniors.

Cycling Past 50, 60 and Beyond. A 3-article bundle of 100 pages for seniors for just $13.50, a 20% discount from RoadBikeRider.com. The bundle includes:

  1. Fit for Life. The article shows how you can exercise in different ways to be fitter for life as a senior and have fun. It provides a variety of exercise options available to you to strengthen your body's functions that keep you alive and help to keep you fit for life, including the aerobic, skeletal, muscular, neural, core and balance systems.
  2. Peak Fitness The article contains four specific programs for seniors to improve fitness in one or more of the following ways: Improved Endurance, More Power, Faster Speed and / or Higher Aerobic Capacity (VO2 max.)
  3. Training with Intensity. The article describes five progressively harder levels of training for seniors and gives 3 to 5 examples each of structured and unstructured workouts for each level of training, a total of almost 40 workouts.

Other articles by Coach Hughes