When it comes to pure speed and power, younger athletes usually beat out us older athletes, but that doesn’t mean they always come out on top. Many young cyclists don’t have the experience to put all that power to good use. I’m going to share with you a few of the lessons I’ve learned over my many years of riding that can give us older athletes the upper hand, even if our power output isn’t quite as high as the younger guys.
Old-Guy Lesson #1: Diversity Trumps Specialization
When you start talking with cyclists who have been riding for 20+ years, one common link that appears is they have athletic interests beyond the bike, or at least varied interests on two wheels. One of the beauties of cycling is that it can be a lifelong passion, and your longevity as a cyclist is enhanced by your participation in other sports. Even athletes who primarily ride benefit from riding a wide variety of bikes (road, MTB, ‘cross, etc.).
Old-Guy Lesson #2: Sleep Is the Best Ergogenic Aid
If my coaches and I could get young athletes to act like older ones, their performances on the bike would likely improve. Because their lives tend to be more settled (stable careers and families) old athletes often go to bed earlier than riders in their 20s, and those additional hours of sleep make a tremendous difference in the quality and rate of post-workout recovery. Coaches and athletes have long believed older athletes need more recovery time between hard efforts. From my work with middle-aged career-oriented cyclists, I disagree. In my experience, older athletes don’t necessarily need longer recovery periods between strenuous workouts, because their improved sleep habits (compared to younger athletes) provide any additional recovery they might need.
Old-Guy Lesson #3: Go Hard and Go Home
Younger athletes can get away with wasting energy, but older athletes can’t. And it’s not so much a difference in physiology as a difference in lifestyle. Experience, both athletic and career, has taught us older folk to be more efficient with our time. That means 60-minute rides with a short warmup, some hard intervals, a cool-down and you’re done (at least on weekdays). High-intensity, low-volume training, as described in detail in my book “The Time-Crunched Cyclist” is making its way into all disciplines of cycling right now because it’s really the only way to achieve high-performance fitness without losing your job, family, and house.
Old-Guy Lesson #4: Better Recovery is Free Training Progress
Youngsters can get away with wasting energy and neglecting recovery, but older athletes can’t. Partly due to the calming effect of maturity, they tend to be more open to focusing on recovery techniques, including sleep, nutrition, compression technology, and even footwear. All athletes would benefit by following their lead, even though it may cramp your style and late-night activities.
I’ve already talked about sleep, and the nutrition component of recovery has been written about extensively. But there are two new recovery tools that I’m seeing great results from in endurance athletes of all ages. The first is compression technology.
The idea is that compression around the legs improves recovery by assisting in the process of circulating blood and lymph fluids through fatigued muscles. Medical professionals have used compression for years, mainly to combat deep vein thrombosis (blood clots in veins deep within the lower leg) and varicose veins (veins with faulty valves that allow blood to pool in the veins). Their use in healthy populations – especially athletes – is relatively new, and there’s still a lot of research to be done to truly determine the impact on performance and recovery. I think it’s promising technology, and anecdotally the athletes I’ve tried it with say their legs feel fresher the next day when they use compression technology following hard efforts.
Old-Guy Lesson #5: Don’t Be an Idiot
If you find yourself in a particularly dicey spot in a criterium, road race, or mountain bike race, find a veteran rider’s wheel and stay there. Take advantage of a veteran’s 20 years of crashes and near-misses; our survival instincts have been honed the hard way. Many times you’ll have a choice between following the lead of a young and strong rider, or an older but slower one. Whether it’s avoiding crashes, getting into the right position to stay out of the wind, or deciding it’s time to put on a rain jacket, there’s a reason old guys make it to the finish line despite having lower power outputs and lower VO2max values than men and women half their ages.
Old-Guy Lesson #6: Training Is, in Fact, Cumulative
Compared to novices, it takes experienced riders less time to return to optimal fitness. Following 6 months off the bike, it will take a cyclist who has been riding for two years about 1.5 times as long to return to top fitness compared to a cyclist who had been riding consistently for 5 years or longer. And the longer you’re a cyclist, the greater this advantage becomes. That doesn’t mean experienced riders should strive to take 6 months off the bike, but it does mean that there’s benefit to continuing to ride consistently at some level – even if you’re performance has to decrease a notch for a season or two – compared to stopping completely.