Don’t let ageing myths put a limit on your potential. Dan Henchy explores how many older riders can, and do, keep getting faster
As an article by Hirofumi Tanaka and Douglas Seals in The Journal of Physiology put it back in 2008: “Declines in athletic performance are inevitable with age.” No one’s going to say cycling will make us immortal, but we certainly can continue enjoying the sport we love well into old age.
What are the facts of ageing and athletic performance? Let’s go through just what happens to our bodies as we age and the effects it has on our performance.
Firstly, what evidence is there that performance declines? Don’t worry, it’s not all bad news. The average age of the winner of the Tour de France is 27.7 years, but the oldest winner was Firmin Lambot, who won in 1922 aged 36.
There are a handful of professional riders still mixing it in their 40s, and perhaps the shining beacon of professional cyclists defying the ageing process is Frenchwoman Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli, who won her 10th French TT title in 2011 at the age of 52, to add to her 15 French road championships.
With world titles in road, time trial and track events, and a silver medal in the MTB race to go with her four Olympic medals, she has a longer palmarès than any other pro we can find in the archives. However, athletes like Longo-Ciprelli are few and far between, and it’s fair to say that top-level cyclists reach a peak in physical performance some time between the age of 25 and 35.
It’s important to draw a distinction between performance decline in athletes who have been training and competing at the top level for many years, and amateur athletes or weekend warriors who came into the sport later or who haven’t spent as long training to their maximum potential.
When we talk about decline in performance in the ageing athlete, what we really mean is a decline in the performance potential. Unless you’ve been training hard for in excess of five years, the chances are that you will be nowhere near that limit; there’s every chance you can continue to improve well past the age where research dictates you should be slowing down.
For the amateur athlete, those peak years for performance — ages 22-35 — often fall at a time in life when starting a family or developing a career take precedence over the strive for cycling excellence. Many find that the later years offer up more time and the financial freedom to give sporting goals more attention, and these factors may offset age-related losses in performance.
To minimise the effects of ageing, it’s useful to understand some of the changes in the different systems of the body that bring about a drop in performance.
An endurance physiologist would define endurance performance as three factors:
1. Aerobic capacity, which is the highest rate of aerobic energy productions your body can produce as measured by VO2 max.
2. The fraction of that maximum you can sustain (as defined by ‘thresholds’).
3. Efficiency, which dictates how much power you produce for the size of your engine, as defined by the first two factors.
Stopping the rot
Research suggests that much of the decline in endurance performance associated with ageing can be attributed to a reduction in top-end aerobic performance — in other words a decrease in VO2 max.
Many of you will be familiar with the adage ‘220 minus your age’ for calculating max heart rate. While this is of limited value for calculating your individual max heart rate, since many people don’t conform to this rule of thumb, it does encapsulate another observation of the ageing athlete: maximum heart rate declines as we age.
Additionally, stroke volume (the quantity of blood pumped for each contraction of the heart) shows a similar decline. Both of these factors combine to give a reduction in cardiac output, going some way to explaining the drop in VO2 max.
It has been suggested that VO2 max declines by 10 per cent per decade after the age of around 35, but the evidence is contradictory in this regard. One of the main drawbacks to this research is the difficulty in accounting for the training practices of the athletes studied. Many of the studies that claim this 10 per cent per decade reduction are carried out with sedentary individuals.
A little too simple
Similarly, there is a wealth of research on high-level athletes, many of whom reduce their training volume at the end of their career. Less well studied are those individuals who come to sport later in life or return after a break.
It’s clear that the blanket rule of a 10 per cent decline per decade in VO2 max is a little simplistic. What is clear from the research is that this decline is minimised, or even removed, in athletes who continue to train as they age.
Besides, ageing tends not to have such negative effects on parameters such as lactate threshold or cycling efficiency — one reason why many athletes migrate to events of longer duration as they get older.
As the length of the performance increases, the relative importance of VO2 max decreases and the other two factors become far more crucial to success. This raises another point when discussing declining athletic performance. We need to be very careful in drawing a distinction between a 4km track pursuit and a 240km sportive — both can be described as endurance events, but each has very different demands.
One of the more well-known age-related changes is a loss of muscle mass, and in particular a reduction in the type-2 (fast-twitch) muscle fibres. Does this explain the reduction in athletic performance with advancing age?
While this is perhaps the most well established physiological change, by digging a little deeper the waters begin to become murky. Firstly, sprint exercise performance — in events that are more anaerobic in nature (less reliant on oxygen) — has been shown to decline at a slower rate than endurance performance.
This is slightly curious, given that you would expect a loss of fast-twitch muscle fibres to affect sprint events to a greater extent. Another complication is the suggestion that this loss of muscle mass is minimal in those who continue to train.
While it does seem clear that a reduction in cycling performance as you age is inevitable, a closer look at the research reveals that your training practices can have a significant impact on this process.
The key is to acknowledge that physiology does change with advancing years but that much of this change can be negated by tailoring your training accordingly — rather than using age as an excuse to slow down!
Train your age
With a reduction in VO2 max as we age identified as one of the key reasons behind declining performance, it is vital to include some top-end training to maintain this fitness. Intervals of 2-5min in length will provide an effective training stimulus.
Another possible ageing issue is the loss of type-2 fast-twitch muscle fibres. A weekly (or twice weekly) strength training session will minimise or negate this decline. In a cycling-specific context, spending all your training time on two wheels offers no load-bearing exercise. A loss of bone density is also a risk as you get older, so some training in the weights room at the gym can minimise the chances of developing conditions such as osteoporosis.
Speak to any cyclist who has experience of the changes in their cycling as they age and you can almost guarantee that the first thing they mention is the struggle to recover from training and racing. The best advice from athletes who have successfully maintained performance as they age is the need to train ‘smarter’ rather than harder. Recognise what the key sessions are for improving or maintaining your fitness and protecting these above all else. While it might have been have been easy to plan in your youth, there’s no place for junk miles or wasted efforts in the training plan of a masters cyclist.
Choose your event
If your top-end aerobic fitness is declining but your sub-max fitness is more stable as you age, consider a switch to longer events to give yourself a better chance of competing with the youngsters. Alternatively, veteran racing is more popular than ever, so you can simply choose to level the playing field by only competing within your age group. Sportive and time-challenge events often include age-graded results, so although your performance may decline in absolute terms, it’s still possible to improve relative to your peers.
Middle-age spread strikes many — and excess weight is a cyclist’s worst enemy. It might have been possible to let your hair down in the off-season when you were younger, knowing that you could easily lose the winter weight once the season began in earnest, but over time this becomes more and more difficult. There is, however no reason not to stay at a healthy weight; it is simply a question of consistency becoming much more important as we age.
Five dynamic exercises for cyclists (video)
Pros getting with age
US rider Chris Horner made cycling history in 2013, when he became the oldest ever winner of the Vuelta a España. Horner was 41 years, 10 months and 24 days — five years older than the Tour de France’s most senior champion, Firmin Lambot, who triumphed in the 1922 edition aged 36. Horner’s other big victories came in the twilight of his career: he also won the tours of the Basque Country and California in his late 30s, having triumphed on just four occasions in his first 10 seasons after turning professional in 1997.
Fittingly for a rider whose career seemed to be a fight against time, German Jens Voigt bowed out last September by breaking the Hour Record in Switzerland. The popular German turned 43 a day before the event in which he rode the since-surpassed benchmark of 51.115km. Voigt’s most successful years came in the mid-2000s (his last Tour de France stage victory came shortly before his 35th birthday), but that didn’t stop him from winning a USA Pro Cycling Challenge stage in August 2012, aged 41, following a 125km solo breakaway.
Raleigh-GAC’s Andy Hawdon finished the recent Tour de Yorkshire — not bad for a 39-year-old who still has a regular job. The electrical engineer by day joined the British squad for 2015, having shown he can combine his career with his cycling in recent years: a regular top-10 finisher in the Elite Circuit Series events, Hawdon finished 12th in last year’s Beaumont Trophy one-day race.
A former mountain biker, Hawdon only started racing on the road in 2008. “I did it for fun at first, and to see if I liked it,” he said. “I started to take it more seriously from around 2011, once I had become an elite rider and I’d had a few decent results.”