Getting fit – and staying fit – changes as we get older, but whether you’re an experienced cyclist or you’re just getting into riding, here’s how to get the most from your time in the saddle.
We know that the vast majority of road.cc readers aged over 50 aren’t going to race, but most of us want to maximise our fitness. We’re unlikely to spend endless hours religiously following a structured training plan but we want to be lean and healthy and hold our own on a group ride. Most of us have a competitive streak hiding inside, even if we just want to beat our mates up the biggest local climb or improve on last week’s time around a favourite loop.
What should we do to make the most of our riding as we get older while still enjoying it? We spoke to super-experienced coach Joe Beer to find out.
How hard should you ride? Most of us only have limited training time and can only grab a few hours on the bike every week – especially during the winter when days are shorter and some riding is likely to be on the indoor trainer – so high intensity will make up for a lack of duration, right? Joe Beer believes the exact opposite.
“Whether you look at [marathon runner] Kipchoge, relatively new papers on elite runners, particular triathletes or somebody from one of the pro cycling teams, the data shows that way over 80% of their week is easy. Okay, it might not be what other people call easy, but it is easy by their standards. You have to teach your body to stay in zone one.”
Joe isn’t referring to a zone one heart rate here; he’s talking about lactate zone one (LT1) – the lowest intensity at which there’s a sustained increase in blood lactate concentration above resting values, but we don’t need to get too technical about it.
“If you’re riding your bike with your mouth open and you puff and pant, you are riding too hard to call that ride steady or easy,” says Joe. “If you forget heart rate monitors and power meters, that means at the simplest level you should be able to close your mouth and breathe through your nose. This will keep you in the aerobic zone.
That’s going to come as a surprise to many people who think that digging deep is where it’s at. ‘No pain, no gain’ and all that.
“It can be frustrating and slow but there’s no way around this. People who train harder most of the time are sometimes going around in circles for years. They ask, ‘what am I doing wrong?’ I slow them down and they get fitter.
“You’ve got to train at your own level. Maybe you can go out and be competitive with your mates once or twice a week but you have to keep developing that base and the simplest way is to breathe through your nose just to double-check that you aren’t pushing yourself too hard.
“You have to put time in the bank. Everyone who has decided to do just HIIT [high-intensity interval training] three times a week has unfortunately found out the hard way that there is no get-fit-quick solution. If you have six hours of activity a week, say, nearly five of those hours are going to be easy.”
There’s still some room in there for higher-intensity riding, then? We can go out and hit it hard once in a while?
“When you’re not riding easy, it’s probably because the hills or your ego push you that little bit harder at times,” says Joe. “Somebody might think they need to be doing minute-on, minute-off intervals, but you need to have the base training to absorb that and be healthy enough to keep it going.
“Most of us like to push ourselves, but the evidence says that you need to slow yourself down to get fitter from the bottom up first. You can’t fake the speed camera of the human cell. It will catch you if you try to push too hard. So what do you do? You just ease off and take your time.
“All of this is true whatever your age, but as you get older, you can’t fudge it, particularly if you’ve not worked on your base much in the past. You have to be realistic about whether you can sustain what you’re doing for the weeks and months ahead. We need to be consistent, and that means we can’t just hammer ourselves and wait till we go pop.”
Phil Cavell also argued that most of us train too hard and need to back off in order to reach our fitness potential in an extract from his book, The Midlife Cyclist, that we published on road.cc a couple of years ago.
Anyone who has ever tried to gain fitness knows the importance of recovery. When you exercise, you work your body. After exercise, your body recovers and your fitness increases to its original level and then, if you get things right, it’ll adapt to a higher level of fitness. That’s essentially how training works, as long as you recover sufficiently to make those gains.
As we get older, though, our bodies tend to become less efficient at recovering. So how much recovery do we need?
“You need to judge your recovery according to your personal circumstances,” says Joe Beer. “Someone who is new to cycling is going to take longer to recover from a 90-minute ride than somebody who has done 90 minutes 500 times before in their life.
“Someone who goes out and does two hours quite hard on a Saturday morning, say, might take three days to recover. Somebody in that same group who has more base fitness might not need half the time. Their fitness might mean they’ve not had to work as hard on the ride – they’ve not had to burn as many matches – and they’ll recover quicker.”
How do we know when we’re good to go again? That’s the tricky bit.
“If you’re getting ill more than about twice each winter or losing motivation regularly, those are signs that you’re not recovering properly,” says Joe.
“If you don’t see your heart rate dropping over time for the same effort, your sleep getting better – or at least not getting worse – or your body responding positively in some way, the problem probably isn’t that you’re not training hard enough; it’s more likely that you’re going a little bit too hard too often and should therefore ease off.
“Let your body get used to consistency. How do you recover better? You get more consistent, but you don't get more consistent at the hard work; you get more consistent at the easy work.”
Most coaches agree that strength training becomes even more important as we get older, both to combat sarcopenia – the age-related loss of muscle mass and strength – and the loss of bone density. Cycling is great for many aspects of fitness but maintaining bone density isn’t among them, so you need to do something to put that straight.
“Once you hit your 50s, definitely in your 60s and 70s, you get this gradual lowering of muscle mass,” says Joe. “Most of us don’t do physical work; we don’t lift things often; we tap keyboards, and that isn’t putting much stress through the body, so we need to simulate some of that. Cyclists sometimes have very little upper body strength, especially as they get older, but it’s important for your holistic long-term lifestyle.”
We don’t all need to hit the gym three times a week and get ripped, though.
“You can use simple weights at home and do bodyweight work,” says Joe. “As a cyclist, your legs are probably strong, although they may still need additional strength work. I just have a 40/50kg barbell around the house. I might have a spare 20 minutes to do some strength work. Resistance training should be dovetailed in when you've got a bit of time – not instead of going outdoors and riding when it’s sunny.
“Rather than going hard on the bike, this is the time when you should make the effort because you want to stimulate the muscle for short periods, make it feel stronger and keep it there. If you’re not already doing strength work, then even the tiniest bit of lifting some dumbbells will make a difference. Build up over time.
“Most people aren’t especially session-focused when they’re exercising to be fit and not fat, but strength work does stimulate the metabolism and will help avoid overuse injuries.”
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to strength training. A mesomorph – a person who is naturally muscular – might not need to do as much as an ectomorph – someone who carries little muscle. When it comes to muscle as you age, though, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.
If you’re looking for strength training ideas, you’re in luck. We have a feature and video that’s perfect for you…
Okay, so you’re working on stamina on the bike and strength through resistance training; what about suppleness? That can often head south if we neglect stretching as we get older.
“It's not that you have to be a gymnast or contortionist; you’ve just got to combat inflexibility,” says Joe. “If you're into cardio and riding your bike, you might not want to set time aside for flexibility work – you might not naturally move towards it – but you should because you don't want to be inflexible and then find you’ve injured yourself by pushing a part of your body constantly in one range of movement.
“Working on your flexibility might also help you keep up with your mate on the bike in a year or five years’ time because you’re not going to be the one who can barely bend their back or reach their rear pocket for food.
There are tangible benefits to the cyclist in setting space aside for stretching, then. How do we go about it? We have a (very old) Yoga for Cyclists series that you can follow here on road.cc.
“You can find plenty of things like Pilates and yoga to follow on YouTube,” says Joe. “If you don’t like doing that, get a mate to come along to a Pilates class with you because you have to enjoy it or you won’t be doing it for long.
“People really gain from things like Pilates. Get in that class and tell me in six months that you’ve not benefited from it. The competitive part of you might think that it’s not worth it, that you need to get in another night ride or interval set, but we’re all very good at working to our strengths.
“Chances are that you’re not doing much suppleness work because it’s not your chosen thing, so add some in and make yourself more of a rounded athlete. If you want to be totally holistic, go and see somebody for massage and a chiropractor to get the balance absolutely right.”
Ah, diet! There’s so much information out there, some of it contradictory. Okay, we all know that necking fast food and loads of alcohol isn’t going to do anyone much good, but what guidelines should we follow to stay in shape and maximise our bike fitness as we age?
“I think everyone realises as they get older that little things start to make a big impact,” says Joe. “If you overeat certain foods or have a diet that’s not very balanced, you can’t just ride it off, so you need to develop good habits. Yes, you burn calories by cycling, but they can quickly be ingested if all you do is eat cake and drink beer. That might sound like a wonderful lifestyle but you’re not going to be as lean as you want to be, and you’re not going to recover as well as you could.”
“Most people who are overweight are probably just eating the wrong foods. There’s great research that says overprocessed foods can change your brain. You can’t ride them off; you’ll get fatter and, unfortunately, you’ll get more addicted to them and find it really difficult to eat clean.”
Eating clean? What does that mean in practice?
“You don't have to be a monk. You can eat cake… but not more than, you know, oats or whatever! It's a difficult balancing act not to be too serious about all of this and, at the same time, to eat healthily. There’s a case for listening to your body and eating foods that work for you. We need to be as varied as possible and cutting out entire food groups probably isn’t good for us.
“You can do a very simple kind of self-science. If I eat it and feel good, that’s probably not a bad food for me. If I eat it and feel tired or lacking energy, or if I start eating and just have to finish the entire loaf of bread or the complete tub of Ben and Jerry’s, that’s not good. This isn't about your head, it’s about the actual chemical reactions that are going on.
“You can do your own little experiments. Do things work for you or do they make you tired and gain weight?
“Try a certain breakfast and see how you feel 90 minutes later. Are you ready for riding or tired and want more of what you just ate? Be sure not to confuse your brain with a ton of caffeine. Just eat foods and see if they feel unnoticed or whether they spark fatigue or a more-ish pig-out frenzy.”
You might be fine with water on short rides, but you’ll need to fuel longer stints in the saddle.
“Most of us aren’t super-high-level professional athletes who need to be chugging 100-120g of carbohydrate an hour, but you do need to look at things that help provide energy on longer rides,” says Joe.
“You might not want glucose drinks and prefer bananas, dried fruit, and nuts. That’s fine. That’ll work. For most rides below 90 minutes, a snack or meal two hours before should suffice. Beyond two hours, its all about trickle-feeding foods that give us energy and keep us mentally focused.”
There’s loads to think about when it comes to fitness as we age, so it becomes a matter of getting the balance right.
“You’ve got three pillars to your fitness: strength, suppleness and stamina,” says Joe. “Get a piece of paper and list what you do, your weaknesses, and the habits you need to improve.
“You’re probably riding already for stamina. You might be doing it a little bit too hard, but you're probably doing that. If you’re not doing anything for suppleness, start there and put some time in – once a week, say.
“Then add strength work. It can be at home or in the gym, but make sure it’s something you’ll carry on doing – you can’t do a free month at the gym and think that’s going to be it.
“Finally, think about stamina-based work, but don’t try to cut corners by going out and riding ever faster. We know that doesn’t work. Just enjoy riding. If you enjoy it, you'll come back for more.”
Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now over 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.