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.