The midlife cyclist: How to cycle healthily after the age of 40

Phil Cavell, CEO of the London-based Cycle Fit bike-fitting studio talks to Rouleur about his new book

Phil Cavell is the CEO of the London-based bike fitting studio, Cycle Fit. As well as being an expert on the biomechanics of cycling, Phil has recently written 'The Midlife Cyclist', a book for the 40+-year-old cyclists who want to train hard, ride fast and stay healthy.

There are loads of cycling guides out there already. So why did you want to write this one?

I was in a unique position here at Cycle Fit. We see hundreds of midlife athletes every month and every year, and they're all trying to push their bodies even harder as they get into middle age. They come with a plethora of issues and problems, and we were in a unique position to triage what was going on: if they needed a physio, a surgeon, or an endocrinologist. Then, we ran two lecture series here at Cycle Fit called 'the midlife cyclist'. They were so successful and sold out in seconds. So there was an appetite for the subject, and I've been researching it for quite a long time. Before lockdown, I'd written quite a bit. Then lockdown came, and I had the notes, the research, and the interviews, so I just stuck my head down and wrote it.

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One of the interesting things that stuck out for me was that this generation of older athletes was in unknown territory. Because up until relatively recently in human history terms, human beings haven't exercised past the age of 40. That's a luxury that in previous generations we didn't have.

That's one of the founding pillars of the book, actually. If you think about our parents, they stopped doing anything active in their mid-20s when they had kids. They would do the occasional workout, but not any structured exercise. So if you look back at the 200.000 generations of bipeds, we are the first-ever generation trying to exercise moderately and peak for elite performance into middle age. It's never happened before, we're a crash test dummies generation.

Is it hard to work out whether exercising past 40 is good for you? Everyone assumes that within certain parameters, it is, but we don't actually know, do we?

This subject goes in layers, so let's deal with it in layers. Overall, yes, exercise is tremendously beneficial for you – tremendously. That's the overall, overarching message. But then, within that, it's more nuanced. If you exercise moderately into middle age and beyond, even into old age, it is unquestionably good for you: the cognitive benefits or cardiovascular benefits, the feel-good benefits, everything is positive. But to exercise moderately – and by that, I mean the kind of exercise that the people we know do – there are question marks. Now, probably when all this washes after longitudinal studies and I do the revision of this book in 20 years time, it will almost certainly be the case that that was good for you. That's my opinion, and I have no evidence of that right now. So the book is taking up the evidence that we do have, looking at all the research conducted, and then on every subject, making an informed judgment.Phil Cavell: author of The Midlife Cyclist

I know you shouldn't rely on anecdotes, but I'm sure you know, and many people I know who do bike racing at a more senior age – a significant number have problems with their heart or something develops with their heart. And that may be connected, or it may not be, but that is a worry, isn't it for a lot of people?

Yeah. And it's not a worry for a lot of people either. There are many groups out there. Some people are kind of just Peter Pan about it, they're like: I'm just going to keep knocking my head against this exercise wall until I fall over. Other people are slightly hypochondriac about it. And of course, those are two extremes. In the middle of the bell curve are people who are taking a sensible view of it. They are 55, maybe 60, and they're still seeking to exercise very, very hard: 1-14 hours a week, and go and do multistage events in the mountains. All of that, I think, is thoroughly laudable. This book says that's absolutely brilliant and if you really enjoy it, continue with that. However, let's just think about what you should be considering now and what steps you could put in place. So there's a knowledge gap. Many people out there have been told on one side that the exercise will kill you. And, on the other side, no, it's a panacea – go for it. And both those two extremes are just extremes. So the book seeks to inform people as well as enthuse them.

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One of the slightly depressing things about the book is that you detail exactly what goes wrong with your body and what stops working as you get older. And there's a sense that it's almost inevitable, isn't it?. You know, bits are going to stop working or slow down or not be as good.

 In the book, I frequently say that it's a fool's errand to try and make older people young. But it's enormously fun to try and make older people fast. That's fun. And it's very good for you, almost certainly. But trying to make you young, again, is ridiculous. I think that's the first little hurdle you've got to overcome. You can track some of this stuff, it's linear. For example, something like men's testosterone decline over the years from 30. It's a pretty predictable path, generally. Some of them are a bit more chaotic. But you're right to say there are trends here that can be mapped and have been mapped.

You talk to Nigel Stephens, a leading cardiologist and an extremely good masters racer in the book. And to paraphrase him, he broadly says that cycling, even at a high level, will give you improved heart and lung capacity at the risk of broken bones. But that's something that you have to weigh up yourself. Which, I guess, is a pretty good summary of it, isn't it?

Nigel is a friend, a client, and I'm a patient of his. So our relationship is quite multilayered. And he's in the book because one, he is a superb cardiologist and second, he's a superb cyclist. And thirdly, he comes out with the best pithy one-liners I've ever heard. The one you're alluding to, I think, is that we trade cardiovascular and cognitive protection for the occasional orthopaedic incident, which is just beautiful. The heart of the matter is that if you cycle hard or moderately, you're almost certainly going to be cognitively protected and have cardiovascular protection. But you are occasionally going to fall off and hurt something. That's the proposition.Alejandro Valverde, aged 41 and thriving in the pro peloton (Image: Getty)

If you're going to exercise immoderately after certain ages, is cycling worse or better for you than something like running or swimming, or are there different advantages?

I think the answer is counterintuitive. The better cyclist you want to be past 50, the more you probably have to drop cycling sessions out and put something else in to compensate. So you probably need to drop a cycling session now and put in a gym session, or a running session, or some other sport to work on bone density and muscle fibre loss. So it's a counterintuitive thing. The more you cycle and the more you seek cycling performance, the more you probably need to cast your net a bit wider in terms of activity base. 

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Hip surgeons and physios love cycling and always prescribe it because it's not traumatic on your body if your bike is set up properly. But actually, your body needs a bit of trauma. It needs a bit of micro tear to try and generate it to heal stronger. So cycling, in some senses, when you get to my age, is too kind. You need to do your base with cycling and then challenge your body a little bit differently.

Is there a difference between those who've exercised their whole life and those who come to retirement to take up cycling? Are there different challenges and different problems?

Yes, there is. Many of our clients came to cycling a bit late, from another sport they couldn't do anymore, or from being sedentary. If you are coming to cycling as a middle-aged person, and you've largely been sedentary for the last 30-40 years, this is when you should take a medically-based trajectory. On the other hand, if you're somebody who's always cycled hard or ran hard, and you're just seeking to preserve it, I do think it's a different stream. Neither one's necessarily riskier than the other. But I think the advice is different. If you've been sedentary for all these years, you don't know what your body is or how your body's going to react if you start challenging it quite hard. So rather than challenge it hard and then find out, why not find out and then challenge it hard. 

So Phil, what's the answer to your chapter heading: Will I die? 

Yes, you will. 

And cycling is not going to help that much?

No. Cycling will probably help you to push out that date. I think cycling and exercise is the best drug that the pharmaceutical industry has never invented, and it will preserve your lifespan almost certainly, yes. But it can't make you immortal, or me, sadly.

If there was one piece of advice you would give someone who wants to advance their cycling past the age of 40 or 50, what would it be?

It would say try and look at a broader basket of metrics other than just FTP, (functional threshold power). I would say enjoy your cycling, enjoy how you increase your performance: how you climb, how you descend, how pleased you feel on the bike, how much you enjoy cycling.

The Midlife Cyclist is available to purchase here

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