In cosmology, physicists refer to the ‘arrow of time’ because time only flows one way – ie forwards and not backwards.
Here on earth this means that unfortunately, we all get older rather than younger as time passes, and with those advancing years comes an inevitable decline in physical performance.
For cyclists who prefer Radio 2 to Radio 1, this raises a number of questions such as: “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.
Use it and win it
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.
However, new research indicates that older cyclists have even more reason to be cheerful because a very recent Australian study suggests that age-related performance decline may be far less of a problem than we first believed, especially when it comes to aerobic (endurance) performance.
A group of 173 highly trained Masters (age 30+) cyclists were tested for maximal cycling performance to track any age-related changes in performance. These tests included a 10-second power test to measure peak anaerobic power, a longer 30-second test to measure anaerobic capacity, and an extended, incremental test to volitional fatigue to determine peak aerobic power.
As expected, there were significant declines in anaerobic performance with ageing; peak power declined at an average rate of 8.1 per cent per decade while anaerobic capacity declined at a very similar rate of 8.0 per cent per decade. Fascinatingly, however, peak aerobic power barely changed with age.
Although the research measured a slight decline of 1.8 per cent per decade, this decline was so small as to be insignificant. This bodes well, especially if you’re prepared to switch to longer distances (where aerobic power is more important) as you get older.
However, it also suggests that for older cyclists seeking to maintain performance at a given distance, intense anaerobic training (eg intervals) becomes ever more important as the years pass.
Don’t slow down
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 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 miles’ 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.
Flavio Zappi [above]
Case study: Flavio Zappi
“Try to spot the difference with my helmet and glasses on!”
Italian rider Flavio Zappi wore the green jersey at the Giro d’Italia during his professional cycling career and at 50 years old is still putting the young guns to shame out on his local roads. Now running a thriving cafe in Oxford that bears his name and launching the Zappi’s Gran Fondo, he tells us why increasing years shouldn’t hold you back on the bike.
He claims that, with his helmet and glasses on, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between him and a rider in his 20s. “As you get older your recovery takes longer, therefore you need a more detailed strategy. For example, massages and specific nutrition after training.
“Older means fatter, so a quality diet is very important, plus massages and antioxidants are key to performance. You must learn to listen to your body and recognise when you need extra rest.
“What changes have I seen to my physique now I am 50? Well, I’m fatter and have less power. Your body is becoming less efficient and takes longer to get ready for action.
However, training is training – you need to seed well if you want a good harvest! Training must be very constant – you cannot give up and start again like when you are young as ‘again’ will take so much longer to achieve.
“As you get older, more power work – with hill reps of two-three minutes climbing full gas, five or six times once a week – will help you maintain your top end. Use big gears for power and out of the saddle efforts for core and back strength.
“When I have my helmet and my glasses on I feel like the rest [of the youngsters] and you will struggle to see the difference – I always feel good when I perform!
“At the moment my fitness is at 70 per cent as I like to start to peak in a couple of months from now.
“Training is four days a week with three-four hours average on each ride, mainly steady with work on my threshold and climbing thrown in. Later I’ll start working on my top end with short intervals plus sprints and power work on the hills.
This year I have a few sportives planned and my Gran Fondo in late August. Before that in June and July I’ll compete in some E/1/2 races in England.
“To riders making excuses saying ‘I’m slowing down with age’ I’d say put the helmet and glasses on, get in front at the mirror and spot the difference! Joking apart, less power does not mean necessarily less speed. Work on your endurance, be aerodynamic and let your experience guide you to make sure you never run out of fuel. “And finally, a good slim-down is paramount!”
Ralph Carter [above]
Case study: Ralph Carter
“In order to perform, you’ve got to have the desire”
Ralph Carter is 52 this week, has teenage children, two jobs as a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry and is a first-category racer. He’s currently the national champion in the 50-54 track sprint and was fifth in the World Masters points race. He explains how desire to perform is a huge part of managing to fit in the right training.
“I train early in the morning on the turbo throughout winter and I follow the Time Crunched Cyclist training programmes by Chris Carmichael. You’ve got to be really specific when you’re stretched for time, I don’t do any junk miles and I carefully target specific races. I train for between six and 10 hours a week.
“I came into cycling in 2007 when a friend said, ‘Let’s do the Etape.’ I didn’t know what it was about, I hated the Etape and I sold my bike. I then missed it, bought a new bike, got a power meter, started to train properly in 2008 and began racing in 2009.
“In my first fourth-cat races, I got dropped in the first few minutes and then I got training properly. When I moved up to third cat I thought I’d made it! I later discovered at a track weekend that the velodrome was what I really wanted to do.
“I got my first-cat licence last year and this year I want to get into shape for the Track Worlds [UCI World Masters], I’d be very happy with a podium place in the points race. “There is a lot more separate masters racing now, with a dedicated points system, which is really opening up the racing and gives older riders something to really go for.
“I race differently in that if I had a big stack and can’t do my job I’m stuffed! So I think as over 50s we race with some self-preservation. That said, I don’t think it’s any less aggressive – perhaps more canny, but at Hillingdon for example we’ll only average maybe 1-2mph slower than the E/1/2 category. It’s about conservation in the pack and spotting the breaks.
“I’m a doctor and I do keep up on the science of cycling-related nutrition and performance. London Dynamo have some excellent guest speakers so I listen to their advice as well as reading up.
“Anyone over 50 and complaining they’re too old should just get on with it! I think you have to acknowledge that if you can’t compete with the youngsters you’re perhaps not putting in the right training. It’s a mind thing.
I think it can be broken down to one third fitness, one third skill and a third of desire. If you don’t have that racing desire then don’t put yourself up for the racing – just enjoy your riding.
“I train with a power meter and I’ve learned when to back off and listen to my body. I believe in the numbers.”
To more you train the less you lose
Physical decline: age or inactivity?
A study published last year on five-time Tour de France winner and Olympic champion Miguel Indurain suggests declining performance has more to do with inactivity than age.
During his racing years, Indurain could deliver seven litres of oxygen around his body per minute, compared to three-four litres for a non-racer, while his maximum oxygen uptake capacity was reputed to be around 88ml/kg/min.
When tested at the age of 46, Indurain’s weight had gone up 12kg to 92kg and his maximum oxygen transport capacity had fallen to 5.3 litres per minute. Meanwhile, his maximum oxygen uptake capacity had also declined to 57.4ml/kg/min. The magnitude of this decline is far greater than that observed in studies on ordinary cyclists who continue to train as they get older and points to inactivity rather than simple ageing per se as the factor.