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By: Zdenko Kahlina
The Ageless Cyclist
There was a time when being over the 50 meant ‘over the hill’, with one foot in the grave. But these days even at 60 cyclists are routinely knocking off more centuries with little or no attention to age.
Passion and Cycling
I still ride my bicycle and I am over 60 years old! Because of that I fill great! I often wonder whether the thrill cycling offers will ever leave me. Most likely it won’t. I hope it won’t! Anybody who rides knows the feeling – that sense of exhilaration and inner peace. But somewhere around age 50 we realized that our bodies have limits. We couldn’t ride as fast anymore, climb as powerfully and sprint as hard as we used to. We did start to develop aches and pains like stiff muscles and sore joints. Was it time to retire to the rocking chair, I asked myself? No! With proper exercise and recovery I realized that I could offset many of the effects of aging.
Biking has become a passion for many cyclists over 60. The need for glasses, slightly graying hair — or loss of it, and few more wrinkles is insignificant. The things that matter most, cardiovascular, lungs and circulatory, or possible issues with hips and joints, can be addressed easily enough by a doctor who can make recommendations for training or recreational riding.
A bicycle lets you know you’re alive. You feel a mountain grade like few others. Hills and valleys etch their memories into your thighs. Your lungs heave at a 10 percent grade, but delight in a downhill rolling free gravity ride. Your skin recognizes coolness in the early morning while it glistens with sweat in the afternoon when the temperatures climb into the 30s (Celsius).
On a bicycle, every kilometer means something to your emotions, heart, muscles and head. Describing what I call ‘pedaling bliss’ may be challenging: I flow with life rhythms in a fluid coalescence body, mind and spirit. The bicycle engages my energy forward toward exploration, expression and physical delight. When I pedal into the inner kingdom of Mother Nature such as a mountain river flowing out of a snowfield, a certain glee invades every cell in my body. When I reach the crest of a mountain pass, my muscles relax, then release when gravity becomes my motor. At that point, I feel a wondrous sense of flight.
Don’t let age slow you down
Cyclists who prefer to spend their weekends shredding the blacktop rather than puttering around in the garden or on a golf course have much to be happy about. It’s impossible to reverse the arrow of time, but consistent and intelligent cycling minimizes its effects, allowing the older cyclist to maintain or gain fitness as the years tick by.
Ask yourself: do you want to live a longer and happier life? Do you want to reduce the risk of dying in your 50s or 60s? Do you want to feel better every day? Than cycling and any other type of exercise is the answer for you. By using cycling and other exercises you can increase your longevity and improve your enjoyment of life!
At age 64, and counting, my advice to you all is to keep on riding. While I am no longer competing cycling is keeping me feeling younger and healthy. Longevity has as much to do with genetics as it does with lifestyle. It is important to keep in mind that it is not how long you live but how well you live. I try to avoid overdoing it and pay attention to the messages my body is giving me. The biggest obstacle to continued training is injury. At my age it becomes harder to recover from injuries. While our muscles can maintain their strength through training our ligaments, tendons and cartilage are not as resilient. Overuse injuries can occur if we are not careful.
The biggest problem I have found is that I sometimes forget my age and try to emulate the training regimen of younger athletes. Just following younger riders during the group rides and pushing me over the limit become an issue these days. That can and has lead to breakdowns and long recovery. It is a hard lesson to learn.
The older generation has realized there’s something addictive and healthful, both mentally and physically — about cycling. Statistics prove that cyclists who take up cycling in mid-life are more likely to stick with the sport longer than younger riders.
“How much decline in performance can I expect as the years tick by?” and “What (if anything) can I do to keep the cranks spinning as fast as possible?”
Age and the body
Let’s start with some brutal honesty: the fact is that as you age, you will experience a steady decline in your maximal exercise capacity. In addition, your capacity to recover rapidly from prolonged or hard bouts of training will also decline. The reason for this decline is primarily due to a combination of reduced muscle mass and decreased cardio-respiratory (heart, lung and circulatory) function. We know this to be true because over the years, numerous studies have shown that your biological/physical peak is usually reached between ages 20 and 35.
During early middle age, physical activity declines with a typical five-10kg accumulation of body fat – a decline that continues into old age. Your maximum heart rate declines as you age and (partly because of this fact) your maximum oxygen uptake capacity also declines by about one per cent per year (although this decline may be stemmed with regular training, as we shall see later). Your maximum oxygen uptake is crucial because ultimately all your muscular energy is derived by combining muscle fuel (fat, carbohydrate) with oxygen – the faster you can transport and use oxygen in the muscles, the faster and longer you’ll be able to keep pedalling!
The mass of fast-twitch muscle fibres (needed to produce power during high-intensity exercise) is greatest during your 30s, where studies have shown a decline in power of three per cent per annum with one per cent per annum every year thereafter for both men and women.
At first glance, this makes for depressing reading. However, there’s no reason to swap your cycling shoes for a pipe and slippers just yet because with the right approach and the appliance of some simple science, there’s every chance that you could not only maintain your cycling performance as you age but even increase it! And that’s because these age-induced declines invariably relate to your ‘maximum exercise capacity’ rather than your current fitness level.
So, unless you’re already training at your absolute peak capacity and have already reached your maximum possible fitness level, which is unlikely, the chances are that with the right amount and types of training, you can steadily win back more cycling fitness than time conspires to take away from you. In short, you could be faster next year than this year!
There’s more good news because studies have also shown that the age-related decline in maximum heart rate is less in athletes than non-athletes and that older people who train vigorously are likely to experience the same relative benefits as their younger contemporaries.
In addition, other factors can work in your favour. For instance, with a few years of training experience under the belt, older cyclists are more likely to train ‘intelligently’ – adopting a more scientific approach using a structured and focused training programme (rather than simply bashing out the miles) and employing nutritional strategies to maximise performance and recovery.
Older cyclists also tend to be better at understanding their own responses to training, and adapting a training programme to suit their body rather than blindly following a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Making better use of what you’ve got can take you a long, long way in the quest to maintain or even improve your cycling performance as the years tick by.
Fast versus Slow-Twitch
The mass of fast-twitch muscle fibers needed to produce power is greatest during your 30s. Studies have shown a decline in power of at least one per cent per year for both men and women. But there’s a trade off — slow-twitch muscles, the kind that give you endurance, are more plentiful at 50 or even later. The demographic of long-distance riders is continuing to favor older riders because of this distinction.
What to Expect
It’s not wise to blast off the line like you were racing. Warming up the first few miles is important. Everyone is different, and you should know by now what it takes for your body to respond. If not, experiment with warms ups to find your own regimen. Simple stretching might be enough, or a slow cruise for the first mile or two might be what you’re looking for.
At some point during a ride, you’ll likely feel your lungs and heart find a balance. It might be between 25-to-30 km/h, give or take. Serious cyclists call it the anaerobic balance. When you feel it, stick with it for a comfortable cruising speed.
Recovery from a long ride might not be as fast as it was when you were 25. Pushing yourself to the limit breaks down muscle fibers. When the muscles grow back, they’re bigger and stronger. After you’re 50 or 60 years old, muscles don’t mend as fast, but they do mend, only slower.
Mood and Hormones
It’s not uncommon during middle-age, to feel down in the dumps, less amorous, or you simply can’t sleep. If you have any of these maladies you’re probably not a cyclist. Cycling affects estrogen and testosterone levels. It’s one thing to say that cycling is a cure-all for these simple health problems, but knocking off a few miles or more each day or as often as you can, is an aid to health issues, and when you feel good, and look good, you feel more attractive.
It is important not to slow down. Older cyclists tend to understand their own responses to training, rather than just blindly knocking out the kilometers, or following a “one size fit’s all,” training program. If you’re not into training, but instead prefer a more recreational approach, older cyclists are still more likely to listen to what their body is telling them, because it speaks louder — especially in the morning.
Older cyclists who prefer to spend their weekends shredding up the tarmac rather than pottering around garden centres have much to be happy about. You can’t reverse the arrow of time, but consistent and intelligent training can minimise its effects, allowing you to maintain or even gain cycling fitness as the years tick by!
Keep up as the years go by – How to stay fast
If you’re an older cyclist seeking to maintain/maximise your performance, here are some practical suggestions:
- Always train intelligently: swap the ‘junk kilometers’ for targeted sessions that are focused on developing specific aspects of your performance.
- Listen to your body and be prepared to be flexible when following a training plan.
- Allow for longer recovery periods after particularly hard or prolonged training sessions.
- Pay careful attention to the content of your meals, ensuring that you consume high-quality carbohydrates with some quick-releasing protein soon after every training session to maximise your recovery and minimise muscle damage.
- Remember that strength, power and flexibility decline disproportionately with advancing years; incorporate some strength and power training (eg interval training) into your weekly routine and be prepared to increase this to maintain performance at shorter distances.
- When choosing competitive events, remember that as the years tick by, the longer the distance, the less proportionately disadvantaged you’ll be by those extra years!
Fatigue and recovery in older cyclists
While peak performance does decline somewhat with increasing age, it’s the slower recovery after hard training sessions that many older cyclists seem to notice first and some Australian research seems to provide hard evidence for this phenomenon.
Eighteen well trained cyclists (nine ‘veterans’, average age 45, and nine ‘young’ cyclists, average age 24) performed three consecutive days of high-intensity 30-minute cycling time trials intended to induce fatigue, leading to decreased performance. Each day, before, during, and after each time trial, the cyclists’ perceptions of muscle soreness, fatigue, and recovery were all recorded. The good news was that there was no change in time trial performance over the three days for either group.
The bad news was that muscle soreness and perceived recovery changed significantly (for the worse) over the three days in the veteran group, but not in the young group.
Most importantly, don’t let age slow you down. Get out there, have fun, and enjoy your bike! And in the meantime, hurry spring! It’s way too cold outside right now.
Hope to see you on the road. Have a good season!
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