Peaking on time is an art. So much so that there are software packages devoted to writing an annual plan geared towards hitting ideal form on just the right day.
But what about the bigger picture: when in the overall story of a rider’s life is their performance potential at its very greatest? And can we hold on to some of the recipe for success into later life?
“Peak form is usually in the late 20s and early 30s,” says former commonwealth games medallist and coach, Julia Shaw. This is inline with the current average Tour de France winner, aged 28.5.
“Within endurance cycling, there are cases of people carrying on at top level into their early 40s, though they’re in the minority,” Shaw adds.
Examples include Frenchwoman Jeanie Longo-Cuprelli, who won her 10th French time trial title in 2011, aged 52, and Chris Horner who stood on the top step at the end of the 2013 Vuelta a España aged 41. Plus Shaw herself, who clinched a Commonwealth Games medal when she was 45.
Why do riders peak when they do?
The perfect storm that signals peak form comes when an athlete has built up a high level of training history, before the ravages of age set in.
A reduction in V02 max, the efficiency with which the body delivers oxygen to hungry muscles, and a lower maximum heart rate are two symptoms of an ageing body.
“A rider at peak form will generally have high V02 max, and probably high fuel economy as well – so that their anaerobic threshold is a high percentage of their V02 max and they can sustain it. This is more relevant to endurance athletes.
“From the age of 30, V02 max drops in the region of 10 per cent a decade. If you continue to train hard you can reduce that to more like 5 per cent per decade, after the age of 30,” Shaw says.
Sprinters peak a little younger, because the components relevant to top performance in the power focused discipline decline earlier.
“Sprinters have the problem of decreasing muscle mass. Human growth hormone is lower and testosterone is lower in men, which has an impact on muscle size. Sprinters use more fast twitch muscle fibres than endurance riders, and research indicates that slow twitch muscle fibres decline comparatively less in number with age.”
“So whilst you do see some outstanding athletes in endurance in their 40s, that’s less common for sprinters,” Shaw confirms.
Can riders perform past their peak?
It wasn’t until she was 45 that Shaw, who now coaches at Shaw Cycle Coaching, went to her first Commonwealth Games, clinching a bronze medal. She came to competitive cycling in her 30s.
“From lab testing, I know my V02 max into my 40s was good but wasn’t outstanding. I could make up for it by having fantastic economy after years of endurance training. I had become so efficient I was using less energy, less oxygen, to ride at a given pace,” Shaw says.
There’s several reasons that endurance riders may be able to hold on to form as they surpass what should be the performance peak.
“Although V02 max might be starting to go down, riders in later life benefit from other things: possibly increased muscle strength, cardiac output and stroke volume [amount of blood pumped by each beat] may be better.”
“The volume [you’ve accumulated later in life] naturally makes you more efficient and economical. Things like pedal technique come in to it, if you’ve got a nice smooth pedal stroke it’s part of the process of becoming economical,” Shaw says.
Older athletes also have more experience behind them, they may be better at knowing their limits, pacing, and in many cases may train more intelligently thanks to an ever increasing knowledge bank.
Of course, all of the stats and theory we have around the optimum age for performance looks at the athlete’s ceiling of potential. If you came to cycling later in life, or didn’t train as effectively when your body was at its peak, numbers could still go upwards as your age increases.
How to stay faster, for longer
Riders who have already reached the physiological downward slope can keep themselves strong by adjusting their training, and nutrition.
Train your V02 max
Training needs to be focused on maintaining a high V02 max. This training zone is 110-120 per cent of Functional Threshold Power, and intervals are usually three to five minutes, with equal recovery – often amounting to around 20 minutes in total.
To get the most out of these sessions, your hard needs to be genuinely hard, and your easy notably easy. One option is polarised training, which means binning off the more mediocre zones.
“You need to adapt your training as you get older. There’s good and fairly recent research to say that poliarised training is particularly good for older athletes, partly because their V02 max is declining, so they need to really focus on keeping that as high as possible and polarised training means the hard days can be exaggerated.”
“Also recovery is slower as you age, so being very careful with your easy rides can help.”
“I still think there’s a place for sweet spot as well some threshold sessions, alongside VO2 max sessions. The balance between these three would shift depending on ones target race distance and time of year, with the total amounting to around 10 per cent.”
As you age, your body needs longer to recover. To cater for this, Shaw recommends adjusting the traditional ‘three week build, one week recovery’ pattern that is so widely used.
“Older athletes should put more emphasis on recovery, with definite rest days. I often change the training periodisation pattern to a two week build with one week easier, to help with recovery and management of training load. Or in some cases if possible, a 10 day cycle instead of a seven day cycle,” she says.
“You also start to lose elasticity in soft tissues, so things like stretching, pilates and yoga, or using the foam roller, are good to incorporate if you can.”
Get in the gym
With muscle mass on the decrease, some resistance work is key.
“It’s important to prioritise strength training more and it seems like less reps, heavy weights are a good way to do it. Heavy weights are better from a hormone production point of view and also for bone health, which is another big factor worth bearing in mind,” says Shaw.
“Ideally, try and incorporate it all year round, anything from one to three sessions a week. If you can’t find the time to get to the gym, things like strength training on the bike with big gear specific intervals can help maintain muscle.”
People talk about ‘middle aged spread’, and metabolism does slow down as you age, but weight gain is still a product of an energy surplus. To avoid it, you need to avoid taking in more calories than you burn.
Periodised nutrition, the idea of talking on more carbs ahead of high intensity sessions where you’ll burn through them, and less on low intensity recovery days, is a popular approach amongst experts.
“I think if you’re older you can take on board some of those lessons – have phases of low carb and high carb in line with your training, so you can hopefully maintain your muscle mass and not put on the fat that you’re fighting against when you’re older.”
“Make sure you get enough protein, 1.5-2g/kg of body weight, spaced out through the day. And reduce your carbohydrates, particularly on days where the training is lighter or rest days.”
Choose your goals
Sprinting and high power prowess declines quicker than endurance capability. Therefore, if you want to be competitive against all ages, it’s likely that longer and more steady state disciplines will suit you more as you age.
“If you were trying to do the very best you could do against all ages it would make sense to go up the distances, as you can make the most of things that aren’t declining as quickly, such as economy,” Shaw says.
However, it depends what you’re getting out of riding – with many age group and masters events available, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy competing against your peers.
Making the most of peak form whilst you have it…
Perhaps you’ve not yet reached the peak, and the ceiling of your capabilities is still going up?
For you, it’s all about getting the most out of your training. Whilst the benefits of high intensity training have been heavily applauded in recent years, there’s merit in respecting the traditional approach of building a base before adding a layer of speed work on top.
“It seems to me like a lot of people are in a real rush these days. If you want to get the best out of yourself, you have to be a bit patient and consistent. You can do a load of high intensity intervals training [HIIT] and get results fast, but it takes time to build endurance up. HIIT is the icing on the cake,” Shaw says.