Episode #62 – How Ageing Affects Your Cycling Performance (and What to Do About It)

Episode #62 – How Ageing Affects Your Cycling Performance (and What to Do About It)

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It’s one of those things that you may dread talking about because it represents the slow downward spiral to death. Yes that’s a bit drastic, but I’m going to explore the slowdown of your performance as you get on a bit. And offer 7 ways to slow down your loss of performance.

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The great thing about cycling is that you can essentially do it forever – well not forever ever, but longer than football, soccer, and MMA. So that’s the first bit of good news. If you want to continue riding until you drop dead – you can!

Before I go any further, I want to clarify that I know of two distinct groups of Semi-Pros. Those that have been riding for a long time, and those that have taken up cycling later on in life, say after 30, 40 or later.

The main difference between the two is their outlook, or expectation about their future performances. The first group strives to maintain or even improve upon the performance they achieved at younger ages, while the second group strive to achieve new benchmarks. Especially, if they didn’t train regularly earlier in their life. They will likely become more fit later in life than they had ever been, and may also actually notice shorter recovery times as they gain fitness. Either way though, at some point declines in athletic performance are inevitable with ageing.

Another element is that – unless you’re a certain rider that won a certain race in Spain or your local hard man that has no family and plenty of time to train, and recover or you’re just a freak – than the averages I talk about in this episode, will more than not apply to you….

What Happens to Your Cycling Performance with Age?

Cycling performance begins to decline by about .5% per year beginning at age 35. The decline in aerobic capacity continues at a fairly predictable and gradual pace with a couple of bumps along the way.

There was a study from Boise State University a year later in 2009 called “Masters Athletes: An Analysis of Running, Swimming and Cycling Performance by Age and Gender” by Ransdell. Which does a good job on focussing on people within a competitive cohort (athletes).

It looked at pure performance decline over age. It highlights that we can expect to slow down significantly some time in our 50s and experience the greatest negative rates of change in our 70s and beyond.

Performance reducing physical changes include: lower levels of testosterone, lost muscle mass, increased risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis, an increased tendency for acid-base imbalance further contributing to bone and muscle loss, a greater propensity for weight gain, lost soft tissue elasticity with an increased likelihood of injury, reduced enzyme activity, less tolerance for heat, and reductions in maximum heart rate and VO2 max.

According to Tanaka and Seals V02 Max plays a large factor, but it’s not the only reason. Quoting from their article Endurance exercise performance in Masters athletes: age-associated changes and underlying physiological mechanisms published on January 1, 2008 in the The Journal of Physiology, 586, 55-63.

“The available data indicate that decreases in  are the most clear and consistent contributor to these declines in performance. Reductions in the lactate threshold also may contribute, whereas submaximal exercise economy is preserved with ageing in endurance athletes. …The decreases in endurance exercise performance and  with ageing in endurance exercise-trained athletes are associated most closely with reductions in exercise training intensity and volume, probably as a consequence of changes in a number of physical and behavioural factors (e.g. increased prevalence of injuries, and reductions in energy, time and motivation to train).”

This says to me, that while there will be inevitable reductions in fitness, which is gradual for a trained athlete, there are other factors we can control – if we really want to.

What about other factors such as the body’s ability to recover after training and racing? Much like Vo2 Max it also changes with age. We all know that recovery is integral to the training process; it just seems to take a lot longer as we get older.

Think about it like this:

In your twenties you might be able to do five or six hard workouts a week and race back-to-back days without any trouble.

In your thirties this may change to three or four hard workouts a week and it was more difficult to race back-to-back days.

In your forties, two or three hard workouts a week might be more than enough, and racing back-to-back days might be a bit of a challenge.

In your fifties, one or two hard workouts a week might be enough and recovering from a race took can take a week.

Why are these changes taking place?

This reduction recovery and its physiological causes are not fully understood.

According to Fell & Williams, in a 2008 article in The Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, one of the most plausible explanations is that aging muscles are more susceptible to exercise-induced muscle damage and have slower adaptation and repair.

Cycling training like all physical training involves creating muscle break-down, recovery, then train again. While the physiological processes in younger and older muscles parallel each other with regard to training, subtle changes in the processes within the older muscles lead to increases in recovery time.

This process is associated with numerous physiological and metabolic factors that contribute to greater damage in the ageing muscle and a decrease in muscle repair and recovery, ultimately leading to a slower adaptation response to training and increased recovery time. From a training standpoint, progressive increases in recovery time can lead to delays in further training and ultimately limit fitness gains.

The literature on ageing, fitness and recovery is not perfect though. Fell and Williams, in their review, identify various factors that confound the conclusions of ageing and recovery studies. For example, many studies are performed on sedentary individuals, or “recreationally active.” Further, studies often employ exercises that may not translate to cycling training or racing.

What Can be Done to Slow Ageing Affects on Performance?

Studies like this don’t help us to understand exactly why we need more recovery as we age. The good news is that it’s possible to retain some shred of athletic ability, and dignity, as the years add up.

There are certain things we can do – and I have a list of 7 of them.

1. Listen to your body.

If you feel worn out, tired and cannot put out the workload that you expect while training you probably need more recovery time. Tracking your daily HRV can be a way to quantify this. This is a matter of understanding your own body, but remember you do not have to be fully recovered to train again.

2. Follow a structured training plan.

A structured training plan allows for consistency and a gradual volume and intensity build up week-to-week and month-to-month. Overall you’re looking for no more than a 5-10% gain in volume or intensity each week.

Another benefit is following the classic 3 weeks on, 1 week off microcycle. Which will force you to take a break.

3. Workout intensity.

There are only three elements of training for a given sport that can be manipulated to produce fitness: workout duration, workout intensity and workout frequency. As we age there is a tendency to increase duration at the expense of intensity. Workouts become longer and slower as weekly volume becomes the focus of training. The ageing athlete needs to do just the opposite if he or she is to perform at a high level despite the aging process. Workouts above 80% intensity factor (just below and above anaerobic/lactate threshold) with an emphasis on muscular endurance, anaerobic endurance and sprint power should be the basis of their training two or three times each week – not lots of long, slow distance. This change typically results in shorter training sessions but higher weekly average intensity. Such change stimulates testosterone release and helps to maintain muscle mass.

4. Get adequate rest and sleep.

Younger athletes can make many mistakes in training and still perform at a high level. Ageing athletes can’t. This is certainly true when it comes to recovery. As we get older adequate sleep is especially important. Sleep regularity, quantity and quality are necessary to allow the body to cope with this stress for it’s during sleep that the body releases testosterone. Ageing athletes must be very careful not to compromise sleep in order to fit more activities into their daily lives. The standard I use to determine if an athlete is getting enough sleep is this: If you have to use an alarm clock to wake up in the morning then you didn’t get enough sleep. Go to bed earlier.

Anecdotally do you find you need less sleep as you get older? I am finding I can gt away with an hour less sleep a night than I used to. Not sure where this fits in but it might mean I could get more bang for my buck if I went back to my old sleep habits.

5. Nutrition and hydration.

Nutrition is an area that if you don’t get it right now – you will suffer later on. Once your body accumulates bad shit in your gut – yes that’s an official definition – it takes time to repair or turn back the mess. Your tolerance for poor nutrition gets less and less and you age. Go back and check out the Nutrition month podcasts I did in July for a closer look at nutrition for performance.

6. Strength training.

Move weight, lift weights. It’s one of the best ways the ageing athlete can build bone density while also stimulating testosterone release to maintain muscle mass. The use of heavy loads with traditional strength training is what is needed to accomplish these goals. Such training should include loading the legs which requires a great deal of planning so as not to impact sport-specific training in the build period. Such training should be done frequently and regularly but vary with the season. Apparently, you can rebuild bone and muscle despite how old you are.

7. Mobility and stability work.

As the ageing process plays out, years of wear and tear are revealed through injury and muscular imbalance. Mobility and stability work will help to address these issues, and maintain a good base that all other activities can benefit from. Remember the focus is on range of motion, and movements rather than muscles.

Because once flexibility and range of motion start to go, so does the ability to performance at your possible best. You can also utilise massage or a foam roller for myofascial release to help maintain muscle balance and aid in muscle recovery.


Wrapping up here, I believe the biggest mental hurdle will come from those of you that have been training and racing for a long time – you’ve ridden or raced through a peak period and are on the decline, and can’t replicate the numbers or intensity from your earlier years.

While everyone that has picked up the sport later on in life should be able to make gains, and see improvement moving forward.

My advice is to the first group is that I think there’s something to be said about being unrealistic at times, and this may be one of them. There will always be anomalies, so just keep moving forward. Set new goals and reach for them with as much enthusiasm as you have while at your best.

Only good can come from staying in the sport and being healthy and happy – if you have to drop down a grade to get that winning feeling and keep your motivation – do it! It’s only your pride that is standing in the way of you get the most out of your cycling.

Overall though moving forward it’s important to remember the scale between health and performance. And while I have nothing to back this up, my feeling is that spending time on health or maintenance activities becomes just as important, and things like Health Checks become vital.

Older usually means more susceptible to illness and disease. So if you are seriously thinking of stepping up your training sessions and want to challenge yourself to ride harder and faster, then you must seek medical advice beforehand. Go and see your doctor and talk to him about your intention to train hard.

Once you have seen your doctor and he has given you the thumbs-up, it will also provide the final confirmation and confidence boost that you need to take the plunge and saddle up.

I’ll leave with this quote from Joe Friel – “You are old when age becomes your excuse.”




Photo Credit: thelearningcurvedotca on Flickr


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