Older Gen-X and Baby Boomer cyclists of any age face many of the same challenges younger cyclists face when it comes to performing at your best in the coming year. However, these challenges come with special twists and nuances for cyclists in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Whether you’re just starting out or have been cyclist for decades, here’s an aging cyclist’s guide to creating your best season yet.
Recent data from USA Cycling and Trainingpeaks corroborates the trends CTS Coaches have seen developing over the past decade: the largest age groups in competitive and non-competitive road, gravel, cyclocross, and mountain bike events are 45 years old and older. Even the field sizes in the 60+ age groups are growing, meaning new people are discovering cycling later in life and that experienced cyclists are staying in the sport. The competition level in these age groups is also increasing.
If you’re a Gen X or Baby Boomer cyclist looking to improve your performance or be more competitive in your age group this season, here’s what the CTS Coaches recommend:
Commit Events to Your Calendar
Putting events on your calendar early in the year helps create the roadmap for your season. For aging athletes, spacing and frequency are the important parts of this roadmap. Scheduling too many events leaves too little time for recovery and event-specific training between them. Aim for a maximum of 3-4 events you’ll train specifically for and taper into. Separate these by around 6-8 weeks if possible, or schedule two of them in relatively close together (2 weeks) so you can prepare for both within one peaking process.
Give yourself lots of preparation time
Time is the greatest gift you can give yourself. The earlier you start training for any goal or event, the more gradually you can build toward peak fitness. Extending the training runway reduces injury risk by minimizing the speed at which you must ramp up training volume or intensity. More time also means you can absorb training setbacks – illness, unexpected work travel, higher-than-normal lifestyle stress – without getting derailed. Cramming for the exam is a bad idea at any age, but it’s even more risky for older athletes.
Diversify your activities
Older athletes should reduce sport specialization and increase generalized fitness because your general fitness allows you to continue training for your sport. In our experience, off-bike injuries from activities of daily living lead to more skipped cycling workouts than accidents or injuries from cycling. Athletes with the greatest sport-specific training compliance are those who diversify their activities. In particular, they incorporate weight-bearing exercises (hiking, running, tennis, etc.) and activities that stress their upper body muscles (strength training, cross-country skiing).
Eat more carbohydrate on the bike
Workout quality is important for athletes of all ages, but aging athletes are fighting an uphill battle to counter the gradual losses of maximum aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and muscle mass (sarcopenia). Consuming 40-60 grams of carbohydrate during rides lasting more than 60 minutes can help minimize the drop in power output during interval workouts or long endurance rides. You can get more out of the same number of weekly training hours with higher normalized power outputs and kilojoule counts. For athletes preparing for long gravel races, endurance mountain bike events, and gran fondos, consider training your gut to process between 60-90 grams of carbohydrate per hour.
Eat more protein off the bike
Daily protein intake recommendations for aging athletes are within the same ranges as for younger athletes – they’re just at the upper end of the athlete range. In other words, younger athletes engaged in high-volume and/or high-intensity training should consume about 1.5-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. Cyclists over 50 should consumer 1.5 g/kg/d when training at a moderate volume or intensity and increase this 1.8-2.0 during intense training periods. Aim to consume protein in multiple 25-40 gram servings throughout the day. Read more about protein recommendations here.
Work with a coach
Aging athletes are often more mentally resilient than athletes in their 20s, but not as physically resilient. You just can’t absorb and plow through the mistakes and anomalies as well as you could when you were younger. That’s where coaching shows its real value. When things start to go wrong, an experienced coach can guide you through the turbulence. Sure, we’re biased because we’re coaches, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong. Sign up for a free coaching consultation here.
Invest in your sleep
Sleep is the number one best recovery and training aid for athletes. The best thing you can do for your performance is to invest in your sleep. After years of burning the candle at both ends, many high performers are conditioned to wake early and stay up late. Now is the time to break that conditioning to increase the duration and quality of your sleep. You can read more about improving sleep hygiene here.
What about wearable sleep trackers? They can be useful for getting a general picture of your sleep habits over time, but don’t get drawn into the minutiae. Many athletes have their best workouts or competitive results on the same day their sleep tracker says they shouldn’t.
Update your bike fit
Many cyclists over 50 have adapted to cycling positions that were established 10-plus years ago. And if you are not experiencing pain, it’s tempting to stick with what works. The problem is, many cyclists have adapted to the pain, too. Two of our most experienced bike fitters and coaches – Renee Eastman and Reid Beloni – recommend bike fits for senior athletes once every year or two. This is especially important with the trend toward multi-discipline cycling. As your focus shifts from road to gravel or gravel to mountain bike, and you incorporate more indoor cycling, your bike fit priorities change, too.
Start a mobility practice
Pedaling is a highly repetitive movement within a strict range of motion. On top of that, the normal forward cycling position leads shortening of anterior muscles in the hips, chest, and shoulders. To get more out of a strength training program (see below), adjust to a powerful cycling position (see above), and participate in diverse activities off the bike (see earlier in the list), you need to proactively work on keeping your joints mobile. If you are not already doing so, consider a daily yoga, pilates, and/or stretching practice.
Address nagging injuries
In 2022, CTS Founder and Chief Endurance Officer Chris Carmichael had hip and knee replacement surgeries. During his recoveries (read more on his hip replacement recovery and knee replacement recovery), he noted that he underestimated how severely his knee and hip pain had impaired his performance. The detriments progressed slowly over decades, to the point he barely perceived the changes. And then the pain escalated very quickly, leading to surgeries. Many aging athletes carry long-term injuries they never completely treated, or that you know you’ll eventually need to deal with. Surgeries are intimidating and come with risks. However, the most common regret we hear from athletes afterward is that they waited as long as they did. The sooner you restore full (or improved) function, the better you can hold on to your fitness and performance in the face of advancing age.
Stop drinking alcohol
Consuming alcohol – in any amount – has no positive impact on your training or recovery. Despite the longstanding traditions that link alcohol with athletics, recent articles in Bicycling, Runner’s World, and Outside have come around to what we’ve been saying for years. From a training perspective, alcohol disturbs your sleep and hinders recovery. From a health perspective, it increases your risks for cancer and cardiovascular disease. Being fit offers some protection from cancer and cardiovascular disease, but exercise and alcohol do not completely cancel each other out.
Lift heavy weights
I’ve saved the best for last. Year-round strength training is critically important for aging cyclists. Strength training enhances the effectiveness and impact of many activities in the list above. It slows or counters the gradual loss of muscle mass as you age. Heavy strength training also supports bone mineral density, which can be a problem for cyclists after decades of non-weightbearing activity. And although strength training can help improve power output on the bike, longevity and durability are generally higher priorities when we incorporate weight training into older cyclists’ training programs.