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Discovering cycling in your 40s - how to unlock the talents you never knew you had

Everything you need to know when you discover – or rediscover – cycling. How to avoid injuries and get into the best shape of your life

It’s never too late to get into cycling, to have fun and get fit, but there are some things to bear in mind if you are just picking up the sport at 40+ without much fitness or riding experience. Here’s the best approach for both improving your fitness and avoiding injury as you get addicted to the in-the-saddle way of life.

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For this expert advice, we spoke to ABCC Level 3 accredited cycle coach Steve Harrop of Skyhook Coaching Services and Physiotherapist Dan Boyd of Complete Physio.

If you are 40+ and you’ve already racked up some miles in the saddle, check out our guide over here for maintaining and maximising your fitness as you approach middle age. There's advice on which areas of your fitness are in decline and are really worth targeting.

Protect your hips

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“The statistics for hip impingements and unfortunately hip arthritis start to creep up quite considerably over the age of 40,” Dan notes. “It’s important to have some awareness of conditioning and you should also make sure that your hip angle is not going below 90 degrees on your pedal stroke.”

For this your saddle height needs to be correct, Dan explains. “In the bottom dead centre position, when you put your foot down at the bottom of the pedal stroke, your knee at that position should be at about 140 degrees.

“You use your quads, hamstrings and glutes pretty much at the most efficient point at that position and it also prevents your hip from coming up too high.

As well as your bike position, some stretching also helps.

“If I could scream and shout, or just recommend one exercise everybody should do it’s to stretch your hip flexors, especially exercises that target your psoas and tensor fascia latae (TFL),” Dan says.

“We all sit down too much in modern life. We are meant to be standing up and moving around a lot more than we are actually doing. That’s true of everybody, pretty much. Stretching your hip flexors and making sure they’re not too tight is really important.”

Here’s a video demonstrating the kneeling hip flexor stretch Dan recommends holding for 30 seconds.

Increase things gradually

“Progression is key,” says Dan. “When people are taking up any sport, including cycling, for the first time, it’s easy to do too much too soon.”

It’s important to up the volume gradually. Steve recommends: “Increase things by no more than 10% each week. That could be distance or time in the saddle. This a general rule of thumb that’s used to limit people overdoing it too soon.”

“Consecutive days in the beginning are also really tough so I’d recommend switching between hard days and recovery rides to start with.”

Condition your body for riding

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Susceptibility to injury increases as you age, and this is why Dan recommends building up your time in the saddle gradually.

Alongside hip issues, Dan notes the most common injuries are:

Ilio-tibial band (ITB) friction syndrome

“The reason is because of the amount of repetitive knee flexion you do and if you haven’t done much cycling before you are just not conditioned for it. Doing too much too soon usually causes lateral knee pain.”

Shoulder neck pain

“In the bike position you hold your head upwards and forwards, and this can quite quickly cause tight shoulders and you’ll end up returning from a ride feeling quite sore. This is generally a positioning issue, but conditioning and core stability work are also important. We’re not used to being in that position, especially for a long time.”

Working on conditioning your body and developing your core stability is worthwhile to ensure you enjoy riding your bike for longer.

What’s good to hear is that every time you ride you will already be doing some good, as long as you increase the length and duration of your rides gradually…

“The muscle that stabilises you on the bike is the transabdominal,” Dan says. “Anytime you are perched on a saddle it gets working; the more time you spend in the saddle, the more core stability you develop”.

Conditioning comes along with endurance on the bike, Dan notes. “As well as building up time on the bike, it’s best practice to complement this with core stability exercises off the bike.”

Dan recommends doing 15 reps of the following exercises. Click on the exercise for a demonstration video:

Dan adds: “The last one is a tough one but so good for your stability and form on the bike.”

Dial your bike position

While there are positional set-up changes you can make to your bike after you’ve bought it, as well as components you can swap out, if you’re lacking flexibility it’s best to go for a frame with more relaxed endurance geometry rather than a thoroughbred race bike.

> Check out our guide to buying your first road bike over here.

Endurance geometry puts you into a more upright, less extended or aggressive position, which can be a lot more comfortable for you to hold. It’ll also be a more stable position which can help you feel more in control when tackling corners and descents.

> Your complete guide to buying a second-hand bike

You’ll enjoy riding a lot more, and perform better, if you have a comfy set-up, and it’ll also prevent injury.

If you’re looking to make your existing bike setup more comfortable, here’s our guide with simple tweaks including tips related to saddles, handlebars, brake reach, cleat positioning, and more.

It can still be difficult to get all of these working in harmony for a setup that is comfortable for you. Seeking out professional help from a bike fitter can be a worthwhile investment, especially as you get older.

Your ligaments and joints start to decondition past 30 so you’re more likely to have problems that last for longer.

> Should you get a bike fit? The 9 pitfalls to avoid

Switch to easier gearing

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It’s important to make sure the gearing you’ve got is also appropriate. Some bikes don’t come specced with gearing that's suitable for your local terrain and your fitness level.

“Inappropriate gearing is going to affect your knees as well as your confidence,” Steve says. “If you have to get off your bike and push it up a hill, that doesn’t feel great. But it’s not necessarily down to your fitness level, you may find you are able to get up it if you have easier gears.”

Even if you do not live in a hugely hilly area such as the Peak District or Lake District, most areas of the UK have plenty of climbs and sometimes steep ones.

> 10 top tips to get faster up hills

A compact crankset is 50/34t – the outer chainring has 50 teeth and the inner chainring has 34 teeth – and is specced on most road bikes these days. More race-focused road bikes might have a semi-compact 52/36t crankset or even a 53/39t, but that's increasingly uncommon. The cassette that most Shimano sponsored pros use is an 11-28t 11-speed cassette, and these are fairly commonly specced on the road bikes we buy.

A 34x28 bottom gear isn’t particularly low; you might well be better off with an 11-32t cassette for a bottom gear which is much more friendly. You do get larger jumps between some of the gears with an 11-32t cassette, so there is a bit of a trade-off there. But unless you’re very particular about the cadence you turn, you shouldn’t have an issue with 11-32t for just general riding and you’ll be grateful whenever the road ramps up.

> Beginner’s guide: understanding gearing

Then when you do have the right setup, remember to use your gears fully and avoid grinding up a climb in a big gear as this can put unwanted stress through your knees.

Work on your riding skills as well as fitness

HOY bikes - checking the cornering

As you gradually up the intensity and duration as your body conditions itself to the riding motion and position, it’s a great time to devote some of your energy and concentration to your technical riding skills.

By developing your riding skills, you’ll not only go faster but you’ll stay safer and be in control.

First, there’s the terrain to tackle. Here are our guides on:

Then there’s also the weather conditions to deal with, check out these guides:

Invest in some clipless pedals and cycling shoes. Two bolt shoes are a good choice to begin with, and they are also used in gravel riding as the shoes have extra tread.

If you want to maximise your performance on the road then you might want to progress to larger three-bolt cleats that sit proud of your sole – but beware that they're not so good for walking in.

Learn the best technique for clipping in and out in our video 'how' to over here.

How to fit and remove cleats step 02

With all these skills, start by focusing on your technique during recovery or endurance rides at slower speeds and then as you improve transfer this experience to higher speeds.

Set yourself a goal even if it’s not an event or race

“Having an end goal in mind, with steps along the way so you can see you’re making progress, is really important,” Steve says. It can keep you focused and it’s very encouraging to be able to see the improvements you’re making.

“It might be to get up a local hill in five minutes instead of 10 minutes, or to improve your time around a 20-mile local loop— it can be anything.

“If you know what you’re aiming for, you’ll know when you’ve got there.”

Steve recommends breaking your goal down. “Sometimes a journey can be quite mind blowing when you’re right at the beginning but by breaking it down into small manageable steps you can tick parts off. Yes, I’ve achieved that, and that helps with motivation.”

It’s also important that the goal itself is realistic as well as the timeframe.

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Training platforms such as Strava have features in place to help you set goals to stay on track with your fitness and to challenge yourself. You can set weekly or annual goals for distance or number of hours in the saddle, as well as more specific targets for sections of road, which Strava calls segments. These can be uphill, flat or even downhill sections, and the distances of these vary too.   

> 8 things you didn’t know about Strava — advanced features for exploring and performance analysis

Strava also has a personal heatmap feature that visually displays the roads you have ridden before. You can see how many roads you’ve conquered and can use the map to discover and explore even more areas.

Don’t underfuel on riding days

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It’s quite easy to get distracted by the ride and forget to eat or drink anything. It’s important to get into the habit of fuelling from the start so it becomes second nature when riding.

> Reviews of energy and recovery bars

If you’re picking up cycling for losing weight, Steve stresses that it’s still really important to stay fuelled and hydrated when cycling.

“If you’re looking to optimise weight and shrug off some kilos, my advice is that you diet on the days you’re not training or riding.

“You need to fuel the training—having sufficient carbohydrates before and during, and protein afterwards—for optimal benefits.

“The last thing you want to be doing is having hypoglycaemic episodes or bonking on the way home.”

> Lose weight cycling: find out why intense efforts are better

You’ll still gradually lose weight by exercising as your base metabolic rate increases, so don’t underfuel on riding days.

Recover hard

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“It’s key to make sure you’re giving your body sufficient time to recover between exertions,” Steve says. “As you get older it just takes the body that little bit longer to come back post-exercise.”

This means that your recovery days should be very easy. “If you’re doing a recovery ride it should short, and intensity-wise it should only be a little bit more than sitting in front of the TV,” Steve advises.

As a result of muscle loss as you get older, it’s also even more important to make sure you’re absorbing sufficient protein post-ride.

Added to this, Steve recommends using a foam roller to stretch out the muscles after the stresses you’ve put them through during training.

“I’ve noticed this helps particularly with older riders as the muscles aren’t quite as elastic as they were when you’re younger, and so using a foam roller can really help you feel fresh to ride again sooner.”

For more tips check out our guide for maximising your recovery here.

Enjoy...

Most importantly of all, have a blast. It’s never too late to have fun while getting fit.

If you’re looking for more guidance as well as some mates to explore the countryside with, try finding a local group or club. There’ll be café stops for coffee and cake nomming mid- or post-ride, and other riders will be happy to share advice.

En Route - Cake

In the meantime, lots of road.cc readers discovered - or rediscovered - cycling in your 40s and here’s what you wish you’d known when you started…

Sam3 says: “ wish I had known earlier about the value of investing in good quality equipment. [It] makes the hobby more fun, less hassle, and eases your path to getting fitter.”

Nigel Garrage says: “Just have some fun and try out loads of different routes.”

hawkinspeter says: “I wish I'd discovered bib shorts/tights earlier as they're so much more comfortable than non-bib [waist] ones and you don't get a cold gap if your top rides up a bit.”

TheBillder says: “Finding a good group or club really helps and it's not as intimidating as you might think in the slow group.”

brooksby says: “Cycling on the road is really not that scary!”

andystow says: “The biggest thing I wish I'd realised earlier is how easy and fast it can become. I'd hear some guys I knew talking at the pub on Fridays about a planned 20 or 25-mile ride on Saturday, and I just didn't think that was something I'd be able to do. Now I know that's well under two hours.”

Jigzy99 says: “My advice is not to scrimp on kit – for you or the bike. Buy good quality tyres, bib shorts, shoes, jacket and helmet.”

BobGently says: “Local clubs are a font of advice and encouragement. I can't recommend them highly enough to new riders. When the sky is grey and there's the prospect of a lie-in, it can be hard to motivate yourself, but a commitment to join the crew for a ride helps to keep the motivation going.”

Inicholson says: “Buy a bike from a proper LBS [local bike shop], not a chain [and] get it serviced regularly (by a proper LBS or mechanic, not a chain)."

Find the rest here.

Anna has been hooked on bikes ever since her youthful beginnings at Hillingdon Cycle Circuit. As an avid road and track racer, she reached the heady heights of a ProCyclingStats profile before leaving for university. Having now completed an MA in Multimedia Journalism, she’s hoping to add some (more successful) results. Although her greatest wish is for the broader acceptance of wearing funky cycling socks over the top of leg warmers.

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