By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
Anyone who has made it to their 40s and 50s (masters), or 60 and 70s (grand masters) knows we can’t get away with some of the things we did in our 20s. All-nighters, whether for work or play, are harder to bounce back from. A few too many drinks lead to a bigger headache than it used to. When it comes to training and racing, a few forceful sneezes were enough stimulus to develop abdominal muscles in your 20s, but it takes a lot more than that now. These days, training and nutrition don’t need to be complicated, but there are key mistakes masters and grand masters should avoid.
Mistake: Missing Training
Starting in your 40s and really ramping up in your 50s and 60s, you’re fighting an increasingly uphill battle to build and maintain maximum aerobic capacity. VO2max gradually starts declining in your 40s, but it is important to remember that VO2max is just your performance ceiling. Even as the ceiling starts to come down, there’s still plenty of room for your fitness to increase.
Inactivity, however, is the real villain. Masters have a harder time than young athletes recouping fitness lost during prolonged periods of reduced activity that lead to detraining. This difficulty increases for grand masters. Consistency is king, if you can manage it with your schedule. If you can’t, be thankful it is easier to retain fitness than to gain (or regain) it. If you know you have a period coming up when training time will be limited, the science of detraining shows you can cut your weekly hours by up to 50% – as long as you keep the intensity in the remaining hours – and retain up to 90% of your current fitness.
Mistake: Too Little Intensity
Athletes of all ages and ability levels can respond positively to training stress, but no two people respond exactly the same way. One of the challenges masters and grand masters face is that more input (training stress) is needed to elicit the desired output (improved performance) than when they were younger. In your 20s, even a whiff of training stress was enough to make you faster. But, depending on how long you’ve been riding, you reached the point of diminishing returns many years ago. There’s still progress to be made, but you have to generate a bigger training stimulus in order to reap a smaller percentage increase in performance.
The mistake masters cyclists – and even more so grand masters – make is to gravitate to the middle when it comes to intensity. If you’re riding tempo or sweetspot intensity all day, every ride, you’re likely to develop greater time to exhaustion at that pace, but not greater speed or power. Whether you call it polarized training, 80/20, or HIIT, incorporating high-intensity intervals is necessary for older athletes looking to retain or improve peak power output. Riding more hours will reinforce your aerobic endurance – which is a good thing – but intervals will make you faster.
Mistake: Not Lifting Heavy Things
Loss of muscle mass is one of the big underlying factors for diminishing VO2max and declining strength as athletes progress into their 50s and 60s and beyond. For many adults, a good portion of the loss is simply due to reduced lifestyle- and work-related activity. You’re not working in the yard, moving furniture or lifting kids as much. At work you’re behind a desk more than you used to be. All of this is compounded by the gradual and natural reduction in the production of human growth hormone, as well as other hormonal changes, that make it more of a challenge to build and maintain muscle mass.
Strength training should be considered a good idea for endurance athletes over 40 and mandatory over 50. It’s not about whether it will directly make you a faster cyclist; it’s about preserving functional capacity so you are a more capable athlete and adult. The most effective version of strength training for endurance athletes is to lift heavier weights for low to moderate repetitions (6-10 reps) as opposed to lighter weights for higher repetitions (15+ reps). Your priority is high force production, not using resistance exercise as a cardiovascular or muscular endurance workout.
Mistake: Too Little Protein
We used to say, “If the fire is hot enough, anything will burn.” And when it comes to the white-hot metabolism of a 23-year-old elite cyclist that is reasonably true. As athletes get older, some of the physiological processes that drive adaptation get less efficient. Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is one of them (read more on this). Athletes have elevated muscle protein synthesis rates because you are constantly remodeling muscle in response to exercise. After 50 and into your 60s and beyond, athletes benefit from increasing protein intake because your body is not as efficient at utilizing ingested protein for MPS.
You don’t need to go overboard; you just want to be conscious to include protein in roughly 40-gram servings throughout the day and before bed (as opposed to in one or two massive protein servings) to a total of 1.8-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. This is slightly higher than the 1.4-1.8 g/kg/day generally recommended for endurance athletes.
Mistake: Too Little Sleep
When you’re fighting an uphill battle to create and retain positive physiological adaptations, you want to leverage advantages wherever you can. Sleep is a huge opportunity for masters and grand masters because that’s when your natural human growth hormone production is highest. Optimizing your sleep by adding hours and taking steps to reduce sleep disturbances (make the room cool, dark, and quiet) will help increase the effectiveness of everything mentioned above.
Masters and Grand Masters make up the bulk of the athletes who work with CTS Coaches. One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned over the past 21 years is that the positive effects of great training, recovery, and nutrition behaviors have the potential to mitigate or even outweigh the gradual decline in maximum performance capacity. For the vast majority of athletes – at any age – there is still room for improvement.