There are many reasons our athletic performance deteriorates with added years, and while we can’t do anything about aging, there are things we can do to mitigate our inevitable decline.
One thing that happens to us after age 45 is we lose fitness every year, and at some point, that rate of loss accelerates. I’ve read varying statements that say that after 45 we lose approximately 1% of our strength and aerobic fitness per year. Knowing that, I’m surprised that I can even walk. Our maximum ability to use oxygen (called VO2max) declines, and for cyclists, that’s the main reason we ride slower as we age. But there are other reasons we slow down, and through training and discipline we can minimize or delay our decline.
I had my most successful racing season at the advanced age of 56 in 2002. What I did to improve my cycling conditioning was I trained progressively harder every year from age 40 on. I fully expected to be as fast when I got into my 60s, but a chronically bad back became my undoing, and I had to stop racing in 2007. So, if you don’t have any physical limitations due to injury, there are things you can do to maintain or even increase fitness that you may not be doing, or that you may not even be thinking about.
As we age, we have a tendency to want to become more sedentary. We lose that childlike quality of enjoying riding a bike for fun. We tend to ride less often, only when it’s nice out, and for shorter distances. We invent creative excuses. Keep up this trend, and before you know it, your cycling will be limited to sitting on your couch watching cycling videos. Force yourself to get out on the bike. Once you’ve ridden a few miles, you’ll always realize it was the right choice. When’s the last time you got home from a bike ride and said to yourself, “Gee, I wish I hadn’t just gone for that ride!” Most of us track our miles, and it’s pretty easy to see that fewer miles also means a slower average speed and lower heart rate average. And deteriorating fitness. We all need to fight complacency. Analyze your cycling stats, and it’s pretty easy to see why you’re slowing down; fewer miles, less intensity, lower heart rate, etc.
Encourage yourself to ride by adhering to a riding schedule. Find a buddy of the same or better ability as you to ride with. Ride with a group. If you ride with other people, you’ll have more fun, go faster, and ride longer.
One thing missing from the riding style of many older riders is intensity. We tend to plod along at the same speed for 30-40 miles without working our heart, lungs, and legs nearly enough. We find ourselves slogging through day after day of 13 mph rides.
I’ve mentioned this before, but do sprints. Do hill repeats. Do 1-mile time trials. If you can’t stand doing structured intervals, then do random jumps. The Swedes call it “fartlek.” (I love that word, but I’ve learned from experience that it is unwise to ask a stranger if they’d like to do some fartlek with you.) In addition to making you stronger, intensity generates endorphins, which can be euphoric, and they’re legal, although they may not be legal in Utah. I’ll have to check…
Another disadvantage of aging is we have a tendency to gain weight. Our metabolism slows down, but our appetite doesn’t. Dragging around an extra 20-30 lbs. can be enervating and disillusioning. Because diets don’t work in the long term, honestly figure out what you’re eating too much of and cut it out, for good. (A past article of mine dealt with weight control, and it goes into it in detail. It may still be on the Red Rock road racing blog.) And not to be Captain Obvious, but the more you ride, the more calories you burn and the more weight you lose. Six hours of moderate-to-tempo riding during a week will burn around 3,500 calories, or one pound. Eat better, ride more, and you can lose a pound a week. I know some “diet experts” who claim you should never weigh yourself, and, no surprise, those people are all overweight. Weigh yourself at the same time every day, and make sure you’re hydrated so you don’t congratulate yourself for five lbs. of lost water weight. If you weigh yourself daily, you can make micro adjustments to your diet to lose a pound or two, and you won’t be shocked by an unexpected seven lb. gain.
Use your electronics to monitor your riding. Cycling computers, power meters, and Strava offer a wealth of data from each of our rides. Use that information to analyze your efforts and see what you could have done better. Know where the Strava segments are on the rides and try to best your Personal Records. That takes intensity!
Another depressing bonus of aging is we tend to rack up more physical ailments; some temporary, and some permanent. It’s best to watch for physical abnormalities, and see an appropriate doctor. As with your car, get things fixed when they break. As with an older vehicle, as we age we tend to need bodywork, we have higher emissions, and sometimes we leak fluids…
Make sure you go in for your annual physical. (I have an “annual physical” every four years or so, and I need to change that.) Stay on top of your health, have the usual tests, and see if you can have a stress test. It’s best to catch a heart issue on a doctor’s treadmill than out on the Southern Parkway.
Have goals on the bike, whether it be a certain number of miles per week, a cycling event, a high average speed, etc. You will maintain your fitness better if you can increase your miles and intensity rather than doing fewer miles each year and at a slower pace.
Many of us are slower now than we “used to was,” and aging is certainly a big part of that. But eating right, riding more, riding with others, and adding intensity to your rides will help you to maintain or even increase your fitness. My goal is to ride until I’m 100 years old, and when I finally die, please prop me up on my bike!
Written by Paul Scarpelli
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