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Intelligent Cycling Training—Senior Cycling

Training for Older Cyclists

Seniors' bodies peak when you are in our 20s and then start to decline. The key to maintaining vigor is to ride frequently and intensely.

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

Effects of Aging on Our Bodies
Our bodies peak when we are in our 20s and then start to decline. Although the rate of decline may be less in active people, overall we slow down. The changes include:

  • The amount of oxygen the heart can deliver to the working muscles declines due to a reduced maximum heart rate and decreased stroke volume, the amount that the heart pumps with each stroke.
  • We lose muscle mass. Fast twitch fibers (recruited for heavy workouts like climbing) are lost faster than slow twitch fibers, because we rarely use the former in daily activities. We also lose muscle flexibility and range of motion. Fortunately, the remaining muscles’ ability to process oxygen and deliver power is unchanged.
  • Due to reduced elasticity of the lung’s tissues and increased resistance in the airways, maximal expiratory ventilation declines with age.
  • Lactic acid, produced by anaerobic riding, is not dissipated as rapidly in older individuals and hard efforts are more difficult to maintain.
  • Older riders are less tolerant of heat extremes and sweat less in hot, dry conditions.
  • The older cyclist produces more urine during exercise, meaning reduced blood volume and more time off the bike.
  • Aging weakens the immune system and older riders may be more susceptible to colds and overtraining.

Although some decline is inevitable, studies comparing active and inactive individuals suggest that much of the slowing with age is a result of individual decisions. About half of the performance decline is due to inactivity and one-quarter is the result of less intensity during training. Thus, the key to maintaining vigor is to ride frequently and intensely. For example, one study of active racers showed that 40 km time trial times declined an average of only 20 seconds per year after age 35. (Friel, J., Cycling Past 50, Champaign, IL, 1998, pp. 4-17)

Training the Aging Body
These principles should guide an older rider’s training:

Train Consistently: As noted above, in older adults, the components of fitness decline during periods of inactivity. So, you can’t afford much down time. You need to be active throughout the year.

Rest Frequently: According to Friel “the most important pieces of the training puzzle for the serious past-50 rider are rest and recovery.” (Friel p. 133) Getting adequate rest may be a problem for many cyclists. The body only produces the human growth hormone (HGH) necessary for muscle repair and growth during sleep. As you age, the production of HGH diminishes. Riders training seriously should sleep at least eight hours every night, and perhaps add a cat nap if nighttime sleep is insufficient.

Recover Fully: Allowing adequate time between challenging rides is also important. Unless there is a specific training purpose (e.g., simulating a tour), allow 48 to 72 hours of recovery between challenging rides. At most do three hard rides a week: an endurance ride (you can talk easily), a tempo ride (you can still talk but can’t whistle), and an intensity ride (how intense depends on your goals). The other four days are active recovery or rest.

Either every other week or every fourth week should be an easier recovery week with less volume than the preceding week. Also included complete one-week breaks.

Workout Moderately: Ride enough to improve, but not more. The objective of training is maximum improvement, not maximum fatigue.

Exercise Frequently: Studies show that if you already have high aerobic fitness, riding four days a week is sufficient to maintain that fitness; however, if you are trying to improve, riding five to six days a week yields the fastest improvement. (Friel, p 34-35)

Work on Your Limiters: Older athletes are generally very busy; you don’t have time to waste in training. You need to spend your limited time working on your specific weaknesses.

Ride Intensely: According to Friel, the single most important variable is how hard you ride. The greatest improvements in aerobic capacity come from riding intensely. (Friel, p. 35-36)

  • How to train by varying the intensity Intensity

Eat Moderately: As you age your metabolism slows down so you use fewer calories just in the activities of daily living. People who remain sedentary put on fat as they age. Even active individuals tend to put on body fat.

Practice Skills: As you age and physiological changes take place, you need to ride smarter. For example, eat 2 - 300 calories every hour so you don't bonk and drink just enough to satisfy your thirst. As you fatigue, you revert to habits. During your training rides build the habits that you will need during events.

Manage Stress: Overtraining is the result of the total stresses that a cyclist is subject to: family needs, work pressures and career expectations are often high. Training seriously is just the final component that may produce overload and breakdown.

Don’t Just Ride: As noted above, with age and inactivity, you lose muscle mass and flexibility. Include in your program weight-bearing activities, general strength and core exercises and stretching.

Taper Effectively: Adequate rest is important during training and becomes critical prior to the event, so that the athlete arrives at the start fresh and ready to ride. Friel notes that, once a rider has achieved the desired level of fitness, decreases in weekly mileage and/or number of rides per week won’t lead to a loss of performance. But a decrease in intensity will lead to decline in performance. (Friel pp. 79-80)

Originally printed in UltraCycling

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 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