5 tips for cyclists over 50 to improve their fitness and performance
Updated: Jan 5
Cycling is one of the best forms of aerobic exercise we can do to improve health and longevity. A study published in the International Sports Journal in 2011 confirmed the suspicion that cycling can increase life expectancy. There is no better prescription for reducing inflammation, preventing chronic disease, decreasing the risk of diabetes, lowering blood pressure, decreasing body weight, and boosting cognition! After our mid-thirties, our fitness levels gradually decline, making it harder, if not impossible, to exercise and perform as we did before. I accept that our bodies change as we age, but I, am not ready to throw in the towel so quickly. There are proven strategies that can preserve our fitness, vigor, and health to maximize the quality of our lives and slow the natural aging progression. Like many of you I have enjoyed the health benefits of cycling and want to maintain my fitness for years to come! As a 61-year-old Cyclist, I embrace this new challenge to preserve fitness, maintain performance, and stay fit and fast as long as possible.
What is limiting our physical performance as we age?
By the time we hit 50, most of us have experienced a noticeable decline in our physical performance and how much longer it takes to recover after a hard ride. A long list of changes is going on in our bodies as we age. Three critical areas directly impact our cycling performance.
1. Lower Heart Rate Max/ Lower Vo2 Max = (Less available Oxygen)
2. Loss of Lean muscle/Muscle mass = (Less strength and sustained power)
3. Lower metabolism and Lower Testosterone = (More body fat and weight gain)
In other words, by the time we hit our 50s, we are already processing less oxygen to power our declining muscle mass while carrying additional body weight to slow us down! Not the combination you want to hear if you train, race, or ride with a younger crowd of cyclists. I have maintained a consistent training schedule for the last 15 years, yet I have lost noticeable muscle mass, an 11 BPM decrease in my max heart rate, a significant decrease in Vo2 max, 20 watts decrease in my 20-minute power, gained seven extra pounds. These are certainly not impressive trends but compared to non-active adults my age, these numbers are above average. It turns out that adults who do not exercise can lose up to 30% of their cardiovascular and muscle mass by age 65! So how do we fight this aging process longer so we can spend more years riding our bikes and being fit and healthy?
The good news is there are many examples of athletes well into their 50s, 60"s and 70's achieving epic results in various cycling events. Proof it can be done! So how are these athletes defying the aging process and still producing outstanding athletic results? What is their secret?
Some athletes have superior genes, while others have been riding for years and accumulated high-level fitness. After 50, we lose our fitness much faster, and it takes more mental and physical effort to get it back. So it comes down to the old saying "Use it or Lose it"! Here are five tips to help you stay healthier longer while boosting your cycling fitness and performance as you age.
1. Make Cycling your Routine! Consistency in life is everything. The same holds for maintaining your fitness on the bike. Take a moment and look back at your 2022 calendar and see how consistently you rode each week/month. Are there big gaps in your training? When did they occur? And how long? If so, try to improve your training consistency in the new year. Riding 100 miles in one day is an impressive accomplishment for any cyclist! However, if that is your only ride for the next two weeks, you will lose all the fitness gains and more by not exercising consistently. A better approach would be riding 20 miles five days a week to build your aerobic fitness, muscle adaptation, and increased fitness. You can not create sustained fitness in a day or week; you build it over time. There are no shortcuts! Easier said than done for many master-aged cyclists. I agree it is much harder to motivate ourselves to train consistently as we age. We may not be training year-round to prepare for those epic cycling events anymore, or we may not ride with our local groups as often or not at all. The good news is you don't need mega hours of training to stay fit and healthy! Set a goal to ride a certain amount of time or miles each week that works best for YOU! Don't get sidetracked comparing your miles to other riders. Ride within your current limits and build from there. Track your daily activity, so you can see your progress! Write your goals down and record your notes each day. Momentum is everything. The more you ride, the better you will feel; the better you feel, the more motivated you are to train. Training will become a manageable routine to keep you fit and happy for life. Remember, we all fight the effects of aging, so try to win that battle every day. Even if you only have time for a quick 20-minute spin, DO IT, it all adds up to a healthier YOU!
Suggested weekly Training: Ride at least 3-4 days/week for general fitness and 5-6 days/week if you have years of experience and/or training for races/events. That's about 3-8 hours of riding per week for most cyclists. Again, be smart and set realistic limits based on your fitness and daily schedule. Some cyclists may require longer or shorter training hours/per week based on their cycling goals, events, and training history.
2. Add some Intensity
There are countless articles, papers, and podcasts discussing the pros and cons of high-intensity training. The current debate is about how much intensity you need and is too much intensity unhealthy. I like to consider the minimum amount you need to achieve a measurable benefit. All cyclists 50+ will generally benefit from high-intensity training to improve their fitness and performance. Studies have shown that high intensity aids in building our anaerobic capacity, increasing our sustained power, boosting our V02 Max, and increasing our threshold levels. The good news is we can measure these gains with a power meter and heart rate monitor. High-intensity training will help you sprint faster, recover quicker, climb better, and ride longer on the bike. It is a game-changer if you want to enhance your overall cycling fitness even if you don't compete. Most cyclists spend the majority of their time riding below their aerobic threshold limits. This is required to build endurance by increasing mitochondria, promoting slow twitch muscle adaptation, improving aerobic capacity, and enhancing your cycling economy. It also helps improve mood and concentration too!
So, how does intensity training help improve my cycling?
Let's say you ride comfortably at 17 mph for most of your solo outdoor rides. You introduce intensity by increasing your power, bumping your speed up to 19mph, and holding that effort for 3-5 minutes, rest, and repeat 1-3 times. Next week you maintain that same 19mph speed but now extend the duration to 8-10 and 20 minutes the week after. After a few weeks of interval training and recovery, your body will adapt to this higher level of sustained effort. This will allow you to ride your normal 17mph pace at a lower heart rate with less effort. That's what increasing fitness feels like. I realize this is oversimplifying things; remember, training above your threshold builds your aerobic capacity, sustained power, and fitness. The key is gradually adding more stress/intensity from week to week and properly recovering to allow your body to adapt and grow stronger.
Interval training programs are the most effective methods for performing intensity workouts. Interval training alternates short bursts of sustained effort (power) followed by rest periods at regular intervals. For example, 3 minutes @ 250 watts with 1-minute recovery @ 100 watts x 5 sets. These workouts are mostly done on indoor trainers to maintain a constant power effort. The intensity and duration of these interval workouts will vary based on your fitness level, riding experience, and targeted cycling events and races. A rider who wants to build their sprinting power may focus on shorter 30-second to 1-minute interval workouts with short rest periods.
In contrast, cyclists training for their first-century ride may do longer interval workouts that last 30-40 minutes to build more sustainable power. The key is to select the interval workouts that fit your cycling and fitness goals. It is all about focused and purposeful training to help promote a higher level of fitness. TrainerRoad is a popular online cycling training system that helps cyclists create training programs with the proper mix of endurance and intensity training for you.
Motivation! Intensity work is hard and requires motivation, focus, and consistency to produce results. It is not normally fun doing interval workouts on the indoor trainer yourself in your basement in the middle of the winter. However, the results are worth the pain and discomfort. Even a small dose of intensity work each week will go a long way to preserving your fitness over the years! Here are some of my favorite ways to help keep focused and motivated to complete these strenuous efforts year-round.
First, try joining a local riding group. Group rides can provide all the intensity you want and more. Make sure you find a group that closely matches your fitness. Most rides will provide stretches that will push your limits. Chasing others is a great way to gain fitness. Second, pick out a few of your favorite Strava KOM sections, shoot for a time goal, and give it your all. Third, map out your Time Trial course and challenge your best time each month. Finally, try an indoor Zwift race if you are stuck inside this winter and compete with others in the virtual world of cycling.
The common theme in all of these sessions is to challenge yourself. If you feel a bit anxious before these workouts or races, that's a good sign your mind and body are focused and ready to go! Mix things up, have fun, push your limits and celebrate your commitment and results every time! All you need is 1 -2 intensity workouts per week, separated by 2-3 days of rest and/or easy riding. You will FEEL the difference on the road or in the virtual world!
3. Rest your mind and body more often. As cyclists, we often believe the more miles and hours we train, the fitter we will be. As I have aged, I have learned that adding too many intensity days or hours without proper rest usually ends in burnout, injuries, sickness, and loss of fitness and motivation. Intensity workouts, races, and/or competitive group rides stress the entire mind and body. The question is, how much recovery do we need? That depends on the stress of your training, the duration of the stress, and the type of stress you put on your body. For most riders over 50, I believe at least one or two days off the bike per week is healthy for both mind and body. One of the most popular training routines for cyclists is to take Mondays and Fridays off the bike and use Tuesdays and Saturdays as hard and long endurance days. Again, experience riders will be able to absorb higher levels of physical stress and recover quicker than a rider just starting. The secret is mastering the balance between strenuous training and cellular repair. Ideally, you want to promote sufficient recovery time for muscle adaptation and fitness growth. This can be a delicate dance that is part science and art. Get it wrong, and you will most likely feel worn out, unmotivated, and lose fitness. Get the balance right, and you will enjoy consistent performance gains and more training days on your bike!
Identifying your limitations and sticking to a weekly training load that you can manage without overdoing it is important. That simply means going hard on your scheduled hard days and going easy on your easy days. If you are consistently tired, sore, and not motivated going into your hard training days, you may want to adjust your training schedule to add more recovery days. If you feel like you can't do the workout, SKIP IT and REST! Your body will thank you later. A cycling coach can be a great resource to help determine your fitness level and the types of workouts, and the proper recovery required to build your peak fitness.
4. More Strength Training as we age! FACT: Core muscle tissue begins to deteriorate as early as our mid-30s! Over time, without regular strength training, muscle fibers shrink and become less flexible. Since the core muscles are the main support for our spine, when they are weak, it affects our ability to train as consistently as we want, which limits our fitness ceiling and makes us more susceptible to injuries and loss of mobility as we age.
I am guilty of not doing enough weight and resistance training as I should! I could get away with that in my 40s, but not my 60s! I have spent many years working on my aerobic fitness now is the time to work on the whole body. I am adding more walking and hiking weight-bearing activities to improve my balance, bone density, and core strength. I am going to the gym more often and improving my muscle mass to help maintain my power on the bike and enhance my ability to burn more fat. Riding alone won't maintain our fitness as much as we want! We must add resistance training as part of our typical routine year-round. Improving your core, body, legs, hips, and back are key to building and maintaining cycling fitness. Dr. Wyan Westcott, Author of the book "Strength Training past 50," says, "...it is essential for men and women over 50 to engage in regular resistance exercise because the rate of muscle loss nearly doubles after the fifth decade of life". I have provided a link to Dr.Westcott's website, the 13 benefits of strength training for people over 50. This is a great resource to explain why we all need strength training and how it can help us live longer and healthier lives.
Find a strength training plan that works best for your schedule and fitness level, and start slow. If you belong to a fitness center or gym, you might hire a coach to help get you started. Aim for 1-3 days a week for strength training with higher frequency during the winter off-season months. Below is a helpful list of the top 10 strength exercises that benefit cyclists to get you started. Click here for ,happeninghappeninghhhh 10 Exercises.
It is never too late to get stronger for life.
5. Healthy nutrition and lifestyle off the bike! When we were younger, we could get away with having a poor diet, late-night snacks, lack of sleep, partying on the weekends, and still riding as much as we wanted. Riding more miles will no longer help shed pounds like it used to. Like many other cyclists, I have had to make healthier lifestyle changes for my aging body. I started eating healthier foods and paying attention to what and when I was eating. I began to restrict the amount of time I ate daily. I fast 12 -13 hours each day and try to limit the amount of simple sugar, processed food, and alcohol. Every one of these alterations was a lifestyle choice I had to change to promote better health and longevity. These subtle lifestyle changes have allowed me to maintain my fitness level, lower my body weight by 15 pounds, and decrease my blood pressure, heart rate, and glucose levels. I still eat bad food, have a beer or two and enjoy sweets occasionally, but in moderation. Most of all, I feel and perform better!
There are several dietary options to meet everybody's lifestyle. There is the low-carb, high-protein, vegan, Mediterranean diet, Intermittent fasting, Keto diet, and so on. Each of these diets has its pros and cons. They have a shared focus on eating right and promoting health and longevity. I am far from a dietary expert, but I believe the popular diets are suitable for most of us! Research the best diet for you and lean towards eating healthier foods. Here is an excellent dietary resource from Training Peaks to help you manage your Cycling Nutrition for peak performance!
Thanks for reading!
Ride strong and stay healthy and fit for life!
Learn more about author Mike Stensrud in
Note: Always check with your doctor before starting a training program, especially if you are beginning to train for the first time or after a long layoff or returning from illness! Everybody is different and should have health clearance from their doctor before they begin a physical training schedule. Be safe on the roads and be healthy for life!