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

Training for Older Cyclists: How To Train for Endurance

Any older cyclist can improve endurance with the right 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 Have More Endurance as a Senior Cyclist.

Joe, a senior RoadBikeRider reader asks, “I'm 78 and a lifelong rider. Four years ago farm dogs ran me down and as a result a fix of the femur requiring a pin. My goal after the recovery was to gain fitness and motivation to take on club rides and do a few metric rides. That has not happened and I have tried training plans, i.e. climbing, cross training and have not completed due to the boredom of indoor training. My motivation is lacking. Is there still a way to get faster with endurance?”

You are asking three common questions. I'll answer these in three related columns:

  1. How to get and stay motivated
  2. How to train for endurance
  3. How to train to get faster

Benefits of Endurance Training for Seniors.

Endurance riding increases your:
  1. Fuel economy — When you're riding you're burning a mix of fat and glucose for energy. Endurance riding shifts the mix to more fat and less glucose. (This doesn't mean you'll lose weight faster because you're burning more fat. Weight loss results from burning more calories from any source than you're consuming.)
  2. Size of the fuel tank — Every rider has plenty of body fat for even a long endurance ride. However, your body can only store about 1,800 calories of glucose as glycogen in the liver and muscles. You can exhaust your glycogen stores during several hours of hard riding or 3 - 4 hours of endurance riding. Through endurance riding you can increase your ability to store glycogen by 20 to 50%!
  3. Air intake — Burning both fat and glucose takes oxygen and endurance riding improves your respiratory system.
  4. Size of the fuel pump — Endurance riding increases the amount of blood that's pumped every time your heart beats.
  5. Number of cylinders in your engine — The mitochondria are the subcellular structures in your muscles where aerobic energy is produced. Endurance riding increases the number of mitochondria in your muscles, which increases the muscles endurance.
  6. Timing of the engine — Your engine has different muscles (the quads, hamstrings, glutes, etc.) and each muscle is composed of many muscle fibers. Endurance riding improves the coordination of the firing of the individual muscle fibers.
  7. Size of radiator — The blood flow to skin.
Note that I'm stressing endurance riding at a conversational pace. Riding harder doesn' increase your endurance, although it does have other performance benefits.

As a Senior How to Increase Your Endurance.

You can get the above benefits by doing the specific endurance riding. If you ride either too hard or to easily you don't improve your endurance. Here are the key principles:
  • Level of Effort — You get these benefits by riding at a conversational pace. If you hammer for a couple of hours with the club on the weekend it's not endurance riding. You're demanding that your body produce sustained power, not endurance.
  • How long? — Any ride of about an hour or more at a conversational pace is an endurance ride.
  • Overload. — To improve your endurance you need to do longer rides than you are used to doing.
  • How much Overload. — You can safely increase the length of your long rides by about 10 - 15% per week. For example, if your weekend ride is 20 miles you could increase to 22 - 23 miles next week and then 25 miles or so the week after.
  • Recovery. — You get stronger during recovery, not during the endurance rides. You should only do two or three challenging (longer or harder) rides a week. The other days should be recovery days.
  • Active or Passive Recovery. — If you've been riding for several years, then going for short, very easy rides will speed your recovery. However, if you've not been riding much, then stay off the bike on your recovery days.
  • Consistency. — To improve your fitness you need to exercise at least four days a week including both endurance and recovery rides. If you've been riding for several years you probably can handle five or six days a week of riding. If you've not been riding much, then start with four days a week.
  • Ramping. — You build fitness progressively. You need to increase the workload from week to week to continue the overload-and-recovery pattern. Four rules of thumb:
    • Increase weekly volume by 5 - 15%.
    • Long ride is no more than 50% of total weekly volume
    • Increase monthly volume by 10 - 25%.
    • Ramp up to long rides to 65 - 75% of the duration of your planned event, e.g., 65 - 75K if you're preparing for a 100K or 65 - 75 miles if you're preparing for a century or 135 - 150 km for a 200-km brevet.

Three Month Plan to Build a Senior's Endurance

Research shows that if you stick with something for three months it becomes a habit. This simple three-month plan to build endurance follows the above principles. You can adapt the plan to your riding by adjusting the length of the rides.

WeekLong Ride #1Long Ride #2Recovery RidesTotal Miles
#110 mi.7 mi.2 x 5 mi.27 mi.
#2862 x 4 22
#31292 x 6 33
#4972 x 5 26
#514102 x 6 36
#6003 x 5 15
#71062 x 6 28
#817102 x 7 41
#9862 x 5 24
#1020122 x 7 20
#11752 x 4 46
#1225132 x 6 50
Notes:
  • Joe does two long rides a week, which builds endurance faster than just one somewhat longer ride per week.
  • The longest weekly ride is always less than half of the total weekly miles.
  • Rather than linear increases week by week, both the length of the rides and the total weekly miles follow an alternating pattern of longer and shorter rides. Every other week is an easier recovery week. This alternating pattern works better with senior riders age 50, 60 and beyond.
  • Similarly, the total weekly miles increase every other week.
  • The distances the longer rides and the total weekly miles only increase 10 - 20% every two weeks.
  • Week 6 is a full recovery week before Joe continues building up his riding.
  • After week 12 Joe has a choice of:
    1. Continuing to increase proportionally the distances of each ride, especially the longest ride building up to a long ride of 100K, or
    2. Keeping the longest ride at 25 - 30 miles and building up the other rides to a higher weekly volume of 60+ miles per week.

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

Examples of Older 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 Senior Cyclists

Endurance Training and Riding 3-article bundle of 48 pages for $13.50 (10% savings)

  1. How to train for bike rides from 100 to 750 miles.
  2. Nutrition for 100K and Beyond: What to eat during training and events.
  3. Mastering the Long Ride: How to ride for a successful event.

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