Older, faster, stronger: how to adapt your training as you get older
Over 40 and distressed that your best cycling days are behind you? Don’t be. There are numerous proven training and fuelling techniques to ensure there are even swifter and longer rides ahead…
A hairline that’s no longer receding but receded; a back that’s cradled with fatty deposits; and a radio that only ever tunes into Ken Bruce and The Archers. Yes, the passing of time can be a cruel beast. But it doesn’t necessarily mean a plummet in cycling performance. Take American Pat Warner, who in 2022 set a new masters hour record of 51.013km at the ripe age of 52. And then there’s Alejandro Valverde, who continued to race with Movistar Team until he was 76 (well, 42). What age does mean is a tweaking of your training and nutrition strategies to eke out every last ounce of strength, stamina and speed from your slightly older body. Interest piqued? Well, read on to turn back the sands of time…
Revive your testosterone levels
The hormone testosterone is a one-stop cycling performance shop. Not only does it preserve and increase lean muscle mass, it’s also been linked to improved cognitive function; helping create red blood cells; greater bone density to prevent conditions like osteoporosis; and accelerated recovery from a tough bike ride. No wonder Lance Armstrong, Floyd Llandis, Michael Rasmussen et al. all included testosterone on their illegal ergogenic shopping list.
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Of course, men don’t need the needle to fill you with testosterone as plenty of it’s produced in the testicles and, to a much lesser degree, the ovaries in women. Or it is for a while. Then, from the age of around 30 years old, testosterone levels drop by 1% each year. It’s a key reason why sedentary folk lose at least 5% of their muscle mass each decade after they turn 30.
That age-related decline rides headfirst into cycling’s main downside: at high levels of endurance training, studies have shown a 20 to 40% drop in resting testosterone levels. Why isn’t fully understood but one theory is that it causes a reset in the hypothalamic-pituitary-testicular axis, which results in a new, lowered benchmark for circulating testosterone. A study undertaken at the 2011 Ironman World Championships in Hawaii highlighted this exercise-induced testosterone drop as out of 22 male athletes competing, only nine demonstrated serum testosterone concentrations that would be typically considered normal.
So, as you age you have a testosterone double-whammy. Human growth hormone, which signals to our cells to reproduce and grow, sees a similarly disappointing age-related decline, again decreasing by around 1% per year. It’s enough to make you hang up your wrinkled chamois…
Squat to victory
Thankfully, there is help at hand in the form of weight training. Unlike high levels of endurance training that is catabolic (decreases muscle mass), strength training is anabolic, meaning it raises testosterone levels and builds muscle. It’s why cyclists over 40 and certainly over 50 would benefit from a couple strength sessions each week. This might mean sacrificing a weekly ride or two but the benefits are unequivocal with studies showing aged athletes who weight train having higher testosterone levels, which ultimately leads to higher power output. Key is employing the major muscle groups as that’ll stimulate a greater testosterone release, so squats that work the quads and glutes, for instance.
In addition to strength training – or realistically instead of unless you have swathes of available time – it’s worth digging your pumps out and throwing running into the mix. Running’s a high-impact activity. At sprint levels, this has been associated with higher testosterone levels. But at any intensity, it’s been shown to improve bone density because of its weight-bearing nature. It’s one reason why running is becoming more popular in the professional peloton with Jumbo-Visma’s Primoz Roglic reportedly running every day before a Tour de France stage. Israel-Premier Tech’s Mike Woods is another running proponent, albeit perhaps that’s not surprising for a man who once ran for Canada and whose 1,500m PB is a staggering 3:39:37 (the world record is 3:26:00, set by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj back in 1998).
Just bear in mind that running is a bit of a brute on ligaments, tendons, muscles and joints that are used to the home comforts of pedalling, so take it easy on your return. Visit a run shop that’s carved a good reputation for its knowledgeable staff and ideally run as much off-road as you can, ideally on parks rather than rutted farm tracks. The surface is much kinder on your structure.
While we’re on the muscle-mass theme, there’s research suggesting that older athletes will better maintain or even increase muscle mass by eating more protein. Studies determine the following as the ideal: 0.4g protein per kilogram of bodyweight four or five times a day; additional one to two servings of dairy (glass of milk, low-fat yoghurt…) or nuts and grains with each meal; and even 40g casein protein before bed to maximise overnight synthesis rates. Good sources of protein are organic chicken and fish, eggs and tofu.
For women going through the menopause, it’s also advised that you should consume plenty of dairy foods to avoid the onset of osteoporosis, which can be stimulated by the hormonal changes through the menopause.
Another nutritional strategy that could benefit the older cyclist is the use of creatine. In a 2015 study by protein guru Stuart Phillips, Phillips suggests the recommended creatine dosing strategies for older adults would be to consume 5g of creatine with some carbohydrate paired with a progressive resistance-training programme.
In the same study, Phillips also highlighted how omega-3s “could render skeletal muscle more sensitive to the anabolic effects of resistance exercise and feeding”, resulting in improved muscle protein synthesis and better maintenance of muscle mass. He references further research where older women on fish oil following the same resistance programme as the non-fishy group showed greater improvements in strength, albeit Phillips also stressed that more research is required before a definitive conclusion that a daily supplement of fish oil will arrest the age-related dip in muscle mass. Still, as omega-3 fats have been shown by numerous studies to help prevent heart disease and stroke, its proven benefits are arguably much greater than cycle performance
Glucosamine should potentially be on your radar, too. Studies aren’t conclusive but we’ve certainly heard anecdotally from older riders that it helps ease the creaks and stiffness as your joints stiffen by applying a touch of structural lubrication. Again, follow the daily recommendations and it won’t do any harm.
As you age there’s also a tendency for acid-base imbalance, meaning blood-plasma pH deviates from the normal range of 7.35-7.45. That can further contribute to bone and muscle loss, which is why it’s a good idea to increase consumption of alkaline foods like many vegetables.
Recover like a professional
However, arguably the greatest impact on riding like Valverde well into your 50s, 60s and even 70s is what you do in-between rides, namely your recovery. Older athletes generally take longer to recover between rides, meaning a post-ride carb-protein shake is a must. Tart cherry supplementation is something seen at most WorldTour teams’ dinner tables, while beetroot is another morsel known to help with muscle damage. You can try compression socks, though you’ll enjoy greater superior powers of recovery from massage, which will push out toxins, stretch your muscles and ease fatigue.
Supplement regular massage with foam rolling. Many of you will be using these already, or have been advised to do so but they’re now gathering dust with your Peloton. But for those new to the world of foam-based recovery, these rollers are tubes of plastic covered with foam, which are usually smooth though some models feature ruffled areas.
On the face of it, foam rollers couldn’t be simpler. You place the roller beneath the specific area, apply bodyweight on the roller and, well, roll. But the key is that you elicit the right pressure. Too light and the result will be akin to stroking your leg; too hard and you could make the situation worse. That’s why it’s worth asking your masseuse to show you how to use them properly as it’s hard to know what’s the optimum pressure to apply.
Your greatest recovery tool, however, is sleep. Research suggests that ageing athletes will benefit more from extensive sleep than when they were younger. The usuals of banishing smartphones from the bedroom, no afternoon caffeine and avoiding alcohol all help, but (sweeping generalisation coming) with many older riders having more time on their hands thanks to retirement and/or the kids leaving the nest, napping becomes a very real prospect that will accelerate recovery.
Naps have been used by such esteemed figures as Albert Einstein and Napoleon. It’s because napping’s been shown to restore alertness, enhance performance and reduce mistakes. A study at NASA on military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness by 100%.
It’s been shown that if you can nap for long enough – again, around 40 minutes – you release those hormones like testosterone and growth hormone that help to repair and build muscle, but even shorter naps of 20 minutes are beneficial to restore alertness for an evening ride. The good news with these shorter naps is that you don’t even need to fall asleep. Just letting your mind wander, relax and you’ll still enjoy rejuvenation benefits.
So, there you have it, with a few simple tweaks to your training and diet, the 50-year-old you will soon be leaving the 20-year-old you in your wake. Just remember to manage those testosterone levels, squat a couple times a week, up your protein and sleep for England. Allez, allez…