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

Training for Older Cyclists: Speed Without Suffering

Any older cyclist can get faster with the right training and recovery!

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 Faster 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

Three Ways for a Senior to Build a Faster Cruising Speed Without Pain

Ride a Little Faster than Normal
This seems obvious, but it's often neglected. The fundamental rule of training is that you need to ask your body to do more than it's used to doing and then allow it to recover. If you cruise at 12 mph on your endurance rides and do progressively longer endurance rides, then you'll be able to ride longer, but still at 12 mph. Similarly, if you just ride at 15 mph you'll never be able to cruise at 16 mph. This applies at any speed — if you don't ask your body to ride a little faster it won't.

Note that I said “a little faster.” If your endurance pace is 12 mph and you start mixing in some tempo riding at 13 or 14 mph then over time you'll increase your cruising speed to 13 mph. This won't happen over night. Or even over a month or two. Be patient.

Most amateur roadies ride at the same pace most of the time. The pros improve by varying the pace. So in addition to riding a little faster you also need to ride more slowly on some of your rides. Remember that Overload + Recovery = Improvement.

You can do this all by feel. Riding at an endurance pace you should be able to easily carry on a conversation talking in full sentences, even in full paragraphs. To build your cruising speed, ride a little faster at a tempo pace. You should still be able to talk in full sentences but won't be able to whistle.

If you currently do all of your riding at an endurance pace, then mix in a little tempo riding, about 10 to 20% of your total ride. Mix tempo riding into your endurance rides with steady endurance riding between tempo sections. If you already do some tempo riding then increase the amount 5 to 10% week by week.

You don't need a heart rate monitor, power meter or even speedometer to do this. Just listen to your body. Take advantage of simple opportunities like riding into a headwind, climbing hills or hustling to get home before the rain starts.

Pain Free Power
The most effective way to increase your power is not to ride hard. Why not? The harder you ride the more you overload your muscles so the more they adapt. However, the harder you ride, the more recovery you need both between hard efforts and between hard days. Because you need more recovery you can only handle less volume of hard riding so that the cumulative overload of your muscles is less than if you rode just slightly faster than a tempo pace. This is called riding in the “sweet spot.”

Riding in the sweet spot you should be able to talk in short phrases but not full sentences. If you're breathing rapidly and/or your legs are talking to you, you are riding too hard.

Start with a few small sweet spot efforts, e.g., 3 to 6 minutes, with recovery that's about half as long as the sweet spot effort, e.g., 1:30 to 3 minutes. Do 2 or 3 repeats and gradually build up to 5 to 6 repeats. When you can do 5 or 6 repeats, then increase the duration of the sweet spot efforts by 30 to 60 seconds and the recovery by 15 to 30 seconds.

Of course, you don't even need a watch! Just push a little harder on those hills and recover on the way down. One of my favorite games is “Chase John.” My buddy, also named John, gives me a head start. I ride at a tempo pace and he chases me in the sweet spot. Then he rides away and I chase him.

Remember: if it hurts, then you're riding too hard. Slow down into the sweet spot.

Increased Efficiency
Your muscles are composed of individual muscle fibers. When you push a pedal down your quads are contracting; however, each of the individual muscle fibers isn't contracting at the same time. If you can improve the coordination of the firing pattern you'll go faster without expending any more energy!

Here are two drills to help improve your pedaling efficiency.

Sprints. Because sprints demand maximum power your body learns to coordinate the firing pattern of individual muscle fibers. A sprint of 20- to 30-seconds is long enough to cause your body to adapt. Don't worry about your heart rate or power. Just put it in a big gear, e.g., a 53 x 15, and go hard. Add 2 or 3 sprints to your endurance ride with plenty of recovery between each sprint.

One-leg Pedaling: This is a great trainer workout when you don't have much time. Rest your right foot on something, e.g., a box.

  1. Pedal using just your left leg for about 30 seconds.
  2. Put your right foot on the pedal (don't bother to clip in) and pedal with both legs for about 30 seconds to recover.

Repeat this pattern several times and then switch legs. If you can easily do three 30-second repeats, then increase #1 the one-leg time and #2 the two-leg time by equal amounts, e.g., to one leg for 45 seconds and both legs for 45 seconds. Some riders attempt to do one-leg drills on the road. However, it's not safe! It's hard to ride a straight line doing the drill and if you're focused on your pedaling then your full attention isn't on traffic.

They All Work
Each of these three types of riding will increase your cruising speed without data and without fancy electronics. And they don't hurt except for the brief sprints. Because they all work you don't have to follow a strict regimen of progressively increasing one type of riding. Mix them up — the variety will keep you interested and motivated.

For more information see my eArticle Intensity Training 2016: How to Use Perceived Exertion, a Heart Rate Monitor or a Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness. The 39-page eArticle packed with current information, is available for only $4.99 ($4.24 for Premium Members after their 15% discount).

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

Intensity Training Using Perceived Exertion, a Heart Rate Monitor or Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness. 17 pages for $4.99

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