aging athlete

4 Training Myths for Cyclists 50 and Older

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By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS

I will reach my 60th birthday in 2020, and many of you and many of the people I ride with are within 10 years older or younger than I am. CTS Coaches work with athletes in their 70s and 80s, including Fred Schmid, who recently won the 2019 USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championship in the Men 85-89 category. All the same, I frequently hear senior cyclists repeating training myths that hold them back. And in some cases, it’s not that they are doing something wrong in their training, but that their beliefs have narrowed their vision of what a cyclist over 50 can do.

When I recently looked back at my Strava and TrainingPeaks data for all of 2019, it showed I rode and hiked 7572 miles, and spent 568 hours exercising (mostly riding) over 319 activities (days I commuted sometimes counted for 3 rides in a day…). Granted, riding is a big part of my job and I have nearly 50 years of cumulative mileage and experience on the bike, but a lot of the athletes who come with me on the longest and toughest CTS Camps and Bucket List Events are 50 or older and ride similar hours per year. The 50+ and 60+ age groups at gran fondos, gravel races, and masters road races are often some of the bigger fields of the day.

The generation that is now 50-70 years old is headed into uncharted territory, to some extent. There’s a lot of research on aging, and even on the consequences of being active vs. being sedentary as we age, but previous generations didn’t participate in nearly as much organized and lifelong exercise. The “Greatest Generation” was very active in terms of activities of daily living and led less sedentary careers, but a relatively low number of people ran, cycled, rowed, lifted weights, or exercised specifically to gain cardiovascular fitness well into their 50s and beyond.

The specific myths below all stem from a primary misconception that getting older means growing frail. That the body inevitably wears out and breaks down. That we’re fragile and should only do easy to moderate activities so we don’t over-exert ourselves, get hurt, or accelerate the degenerative effects of wear and tear. We are not frail, nor fragile. There are consequences of growing older that affect athletic performance, for sure, but senior athletes – particularly those with years of exercise experience behind them – can do more than most people expect.

If the following myths about exercise and aging are holding you back, it’s time to change your viewpoint and get back to a high-performance mindset.

Myth #1: All performance markers get worse after 50

This is a matter of perspective and your starting point. Your maximum aerobic capacity (VO2 max) will incrementally diminish, and you will gradually lose muscle mass (sarcopenia). Stroke volume (the volume of blood pumped per heartbeat) decreases. Compared to a sedentary person, these declines happen more slowly for athletes. Use it or lose it.

Use it or lose it are not the only options, however. The body does not stop adapting to training load as you get older. Stress a physiological system and it will still adapt and grow stronger. Older athletes can often improve VO2 max because they still have room to improve. You can gain muscle with focused training and sufficient nutritional support (enough calories, more protein). But the biggest place you can improve is your power at lactate threshold, as a percentage of your VO2 max. Even if your VO2 max declines 1-2% year over year, you may be able to improve your maximum sustainable power by 5-8%. Unless you are already as fast as you could possibly be, you have room to improve before being limited by the small declines in maximum performance capacity.

Myth #2: Older athlete can’t sprint

Older athletes can’t sprint because they don’t sprint, not because the body is incapable of producing the power. For athletes over 50, what I often see is a loss of training specificity, or perhaps more accurately, an increase in training specifically for endurance. The low-cadence, high-torque work gets forgotten. The repeated high-intensity intervals get dropped. The leg speed drills are tossed aside. We ride at a moderate tempo with a moderate cadence, and maybe throw in some lactate threshold work.

If you train it you can do it, whether that’s a snappy, high-power sprint or a ripping time trial. Bring back the specificity and your body will adapt accordingly.

Myth #3: Older athletes can’t handle high training loads

The amount of training stress a person can tolerate is based on many factors, and this myth is more about ramping up training stress too quickly than it is about the training workload an athlete can handle. As coaches, what we often see is a senior athlete who has to step away from or dramatically diminish training for a significant portion of the year (2+ months). Their fitness drops, but they try to jump back into training right where they left off, and it’s too much too soon. Athletes who are more consistent, which ironically are often the 60+ athletes in retirement, can maintain or increase training workloads.

You can handle a lot of workload. You have to be smart about it and pay close attention to recovery, but don’t limit your goals because you think you’re too old for the workload.

Myth #4: Older athletes can’t recover between big back-to-back days

Senior athletes tell me all the time that they don’t recover as fast as they used to. That they used to be able to do a big ride and feel better after one day of rest, and now it takes two days or more. I feel it, too, and it is true that hard workouts can take more out of us as senior athletes (bigger recovery hole to fill), and that our abilities to repair tissues and adapt to stress are slower than before. So, how do senior athletes survive and thrive during multi-day cycling tours and Bucket List events like the Golden State Epic?

As with many other areas of our lives, senior athletes have to work smarter instead of harder. Chances are, your recovery habits during your younger years had a lot of room for improvement. You could have recovered better and adapted more. That’s what you need to do now. Sleep, nutrition, and hydration are the pillars of recovery. When my athletes and I do 500+ miles in 6 days, the focus is just: eat, sleep, ride, repeat. Even in your everyday life, do the work to enhance your recovery habits around sleeping, eating, and staying hydrated. You will see a significant improvement in your ability to recover from day to day.

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Comments 24

  1. Great article and thanks Cris. I am a 77 yrs.old cyclist. Raced bikes since i was 19 yrs.old, crits, road and track. So been in cycling for well over 50 yrs. Would pretty much say i have seen a lot and experienced a lot pertaining to racing and training. Things change dramatically over the years. #1 i would say is nutrition, then equipment, clothing, training methods and just about everything. So many people over the years told me to slow down, You are getting old. Yes i slowed up a bit but i am still strong at my age compare to even some riders 20 yrs. younger. I pay attention to my body and adapt as i go along. This past 2019 my total mileage was 7565 miles and i could have done more. I can easily ride 100 miles at a good average and i does lots of climbing, over 400,000. ft. with gradient up to 20%. I ride 3 to 4 times per week. I take daily naps when i feel like and i sleep at least 8 hrs. each night. Watch my diet, lot of fruits and try to stay well hydrated. I have never use a HRM or a power meter. I feel my body and i know when i am in the red on a really steep climb so i sometimes back off and in a couple minutes i am good to go. My resting HR is 48 BPM. When i ride i always choose a gear which i can feel, not a high cadence rider as i use the gear resistance to help maintain my strength. I do not lift weights but i do core exercises and i do chin ups on a bar i have install in my door frame at home. Over the years i develop my own training methods. to suit my body type. Each of us is different so we need to be smart about our training and learn as we go along. Just my two cents. Ride safe everyone.

  2. Very inspiring article. I have found vast improvements are happening with organized, coached training. However, I think one of the biggest and quickest losses we confront while aging is the loss of flexibility!
    Yoga addresses all those little balance and micro-control muscles that are the first to go. I have added 3 yoga workouts a week to my Cardio (cycling) & strength training (i hate lifting, its awful). Yoga makes a huge difference in my performance and recovery as well as in my general well being.
    Granted, no one wants to see ‘old men’ doing yoga, its NOT pretty. Never-the-less, one of the best things I can do and, if I had to choose, the last exercise I would give up! Try it! I use an app in the privacy of my own home and it is amazing!!

  3. Thanks for the article, it is time to dispel incorrect beliefs. As part of your article points out, everything we choose and do is cumulative and impacts our health, strength and performance, and specific to you as an individual. One point about all this is diet, specifically processed versus non-processed, organic versus non-organic. We are really starting to realize that the source of the food is very important, the ground it grows in or the food source of the animal protein.

    One thing that coach Craig (2004 US Paralympic Coach), you have to do everything perfectly to do your best. Now I understand to mean for me, eat a organic plant based diet and you will recover faster, injuries heal quicker, and your performance will improve over your previous diet preferences. Coach Craig was a CTS coach, CTS has valuable and great information.

    Cheers and ride hard-even at 64.

    1. Dave:
      Thanks for the comments…once correction, Craig Griffin is still a CTS Coach. He came back to CTS in the Fall of 2019 and we are excited to have him back!
      Chris Carmichael

  4. Well said.

    I turned 60 this year and that has not stopped me setting all time power PBs including holding 347W (4.96W/kg) for 20 minutes.

  5. Great article. I’ll be 66 next month. I was just thinking that there are not enough articles on cyclists in there 50’s and beyond.
    Most folks I ride with are often 10-25 years younger.
    Mentally I have a hard time reconciling that I’m older and not the same rider I was in my 50’s.
    Just started into gravel riding and entered steamboat springs, so anything you can offer in future articles would be appreciated.

  6. Tks Chris for inspiring the silver backs and helping us achieve what’s possible. Turning 60 this year. In 2019 I did 3600 mile on my bikes–lifetime PR, 500 miles running and over 85 miles swimming. While I like to race and do bucket list events, its really about a better quality of life as I age. I was more fit at 55 than when I was 45. I am shooting to be fitter at 65 than 55 (documented on Stava) and god willing and Jeana’s help (CTS coach shout out) I hope to be fitter at 75 than 65. Not sure about the next decade but I am looking forward to the years yet to come. #ctsatlete

  7. Thanks so much for this validating article! I wish everyone would read it and live it! I’ll be 61 next month and I CHOOSE to “ Shatter The Concept Of Aging and Age Energetically, One Mile At A Time!” I’ve ridden thousands of miles this year and run hundreds, having just taken up running and triathlons last year! Your articles are so helpful!

    1. Thanks for replying Jana it’s inspiring! I assume you are female by your name. It’s great to see a 50+ (and even better a 60+) female on here. I’m 57 & although I ride with a big group in a big city I don’t see many other women over 50 riding. Your running must be doing a good job of keeping your bones strong, something it seems us women have more issues with than the guys. Hats off to you!

  8. Awesome… getting excited. Nobody’s around riding much in rural Ga in late 60’s , but I used to get passed all the time By 70-80+ riders,,, Now there is a young whipper snapper, in early sixties who is tearing it up! Thanks for the Myth buster article!

  9. I’m 84 years old and still riding, but it is now inside because of a balance issure that caused a crash in 1918 and broke my humurase. I ride five days a week 60+ min. a day. In the past I raced in the senior Olympics and have 8 records in Michigan and 2 National.

  10. Super article – thank you. I am 78. Rode over 1000km in 2019 season. Planning on over 3000km for 2020. Have my road bike on an indoor trainer in the studio to help keep fit for start of season. I intend to enter 4 or 5 events this year: gran fondos and charity rides. Also going to attempt a few bike-packing trips. So good to read this article and know there are many in their 70’s and even 80’s still in the game. This article is much needed motivation; one of our biggest challenges as we age. As the article points out, and we all know, training smart is so important, including rest, diet and hydration. cheers to all from Southern Ontario, Canada.

  11. Just turned 50 and I feel that the one noticeable thing is every meal needs to count it seems, either towards recovery or energy stores for tomorrow.
    More specifically, I listen to my body even more now and when i get it right i feel amazing. If I don’t, well, I can tell immediately on the bike. Rotating between low-inflammatory foods for recovery with plantbased protein, and higer carb foods for fuel is the simplest way i can put it. My smoothies have become a sort of science project on their own.

    Love the training plans and blogs and really appreciate all the great info Chris.

  12. At 76 and 35 years of avid road riding I have adapted to age by doing what I feel my body and other obligation allow me to do. Frankly I have cut back in many areas and still feel I have maxed out my fitness with consistent shorter efforts.

  13. I am 60 years old and I worry about my heart rate being too high my last 5K my average heart rate was 173 I felt really good I noticed at one point my heart rate was 177 even though I felt fine I made myself slow down I guess I just worry about my heart exploding anybody else have that issue my resting heart rate is around 45And I’m in pretty good shape than a few extra pounds

    1. I’m 73 and my max HR is 175. Resting is 48. I can sustain 65 milers at around 155-160 if I choose. I have reached 174 on extreme hills and my body was naturally bringing me to nearly a stop at the crest prior to recovering so I think these things are natural assuming you have a healthy cardiac system, clear arteries, and do regular high intensity work. The speed of recovery after intervals is a good indicator of fitness. I make sure my Dr. (who is sports conscious) knows my activity levels and approves. I also did a cardiac calcium scan and my score was 0 – very happy about that.

    2. I gave up my heart rate monitor about 2 months ago at the advice of another cyclist. I had stopped on a group ride because my heart rate seemed unusually high. After 2 months of riding without a heart rate monitor I can say I enjoy cycling more and have had no issues.

      Give it a try!

      P.S. my cardiologist saw no issues.

    3. Everyone’s different. see a cardio if you have specific concerns. I turn 55 this month, just started riding about 5 yrs ago and have done 5,000+ outdoor road miles each of the past 3 yrs. my resting HR is mid 60’s and max is 204; I routinely maintain 175+ bpm for more than an hour during “spirited” group rides and occasional crits.

  14. Good article and very applicable to all healthy older athletes. What limits me in some aspects of training and recovery is a medical condition which wasn’t the case when I was younger. A restrictive (tight) aortic valve has me changing my workouts in ways that accommodate some limitations yet give me maximum training benefit. Lets say I agree in
    principle with the article’s content but add a few of my own training particulars. There are no restrictions to my lifestyle in all other aspects. I’m sure there are others out there with similar stories.

  15. I am 64. Over the last 10 years i have felt its taken more effort to maintain speed and strength. Part of this i think may be mental? Its takes time and commitment to stay with the “fast group”. How has your mental stamina fared over time?

    1. Firstly Thank you for these articles- they are inspirational.

      I have an ideal situation at age 72.
      My son an avid cyclist lives next door and we ride early mornings. He is very strong and I try to draft off him as often as possible.

      Of course he knows I won’t be able to sprint with him always- but the more effort I put in allows me to get stronger.

      At age 71 I was riding faster than ever- now I have to concentrate on this year.
      I look forward to the challenge.

      I do include 2 visits to the gym each week when possible.

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