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Midlife cycling performance: too late for speed?

In an extract from his new book, The Midlife Cyclist, Phil Cavell argues that most of us train too hard and need to back off in order to reach our fitness potential

We older and less fit midlife cyclists are, as a group, riding harder and faster, relative to our maximum, than the top-ranked professionals in the world. And we're holding down jobs and trying to be great parents and partners. 

Data from Dr Jon Baker, who was a coach with Team Dimension Data for four years, says that his amateur clients (that’s you and me) are closer to fatigue and nearer to being overtrained than the professionals who ride for a living and race nine months of the year all around the world! That statement was genuinely worthy of an exclamation mark. And underpinning this startling mismatch is a fundamental misunderstanding about how the human body works, and therefore improves. 

Many amateurs perpetually train and ride in what Dr Baker calls a ‘whirlwind of doom’ where an overestimation and obsession with an FTP (functional threshold power – the highest average power output you can sustain for an hour) means that we tend to set our training levels too high and, as a consequence, are training the wrong systems and incrementally embedding fatigue that we then struggle to shake off if we're older, because our hormonal responses are less responsive and dynamic — is this ringing any bells? 

Dr Dave Hulse (a consultant in sport and exercise medicine), Dr Baker, and elite coach Garth Fox all go out of their way to remind us that cycling (other than sprinting on a track) is fundamentally an endurance sport — and endurance is what we're best at compared to other animals. Recent studies have even suggested that the drive to efficiency and therefore endurance is what selectively drove us towards bipedalism. We may not be super-sprinters compared to other big mammals (I can’t think of a single one we can beat in a short burst), but we can go seriously long, which meant that we could subsistence hunt much larger prey than ourselves over multiple days. 

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But what constitutes endurance? Dr Baker says: “Endurance has to mean aerobic — which is determined by the strength and ability of the heart, and then the ability of the blood, to transport fuel to the muscles, and the muscles to then use that fuel.”

Aerobic, as we know, is a cipher for functioning within an oxidative state — using fatty acids and glucose as fuel with oxygen, which is metabolised in our muscle’s mitochondria to produce energy. It’s our long-burn, sustainable state. Our most important goal as endurance athletes surely has to be to increase our oxidative or aerobic performance window, to become better at producing more power but at the same time staying oxidative/aerobic. 

We need to become lean, long-burn machines and the only way to achieve this is to ride at this specific level — remember that we're highly adaptable creatures and our bodies will change and improve based on specific repeated stresses. 

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This is where power meters and heart rate monitors can help — if we make them truly our servants and not our masters. They can help us become more honest with ourselves about our own performance and how we feel. 

The best way to use a heart rate monitor or a power meter is as a bandwidth limiter. If you're oxidative all the way up to 135bpm or 160 watts, then that’s where the majority of your riding should be in order to improve as an endurance athlete. If you’re working at this level, then you’re the recipient of a cascade of positive physiological responses, including increasing the mitochondria in your muscles. 

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Every time you go above this level, you’re having to use enzymes to break down the excess lactate. Dr Baker's coach’s eye view: ‘If you feel good on an endurance ride, go longer, not harder. Going harder is risky. Going longer is safe. It’s the same with intervals — if you feel good, do an extra rep or two, but don’t increase the power.’

If you don’t have a power meter or a heart rate monitor, you can use the RPE (rate of perceived exertion), or Borg Scale. If you want to be a great endurance athlete, most of your training should be at a level where you can have a fairly normal conversation with the person next to you, or sing a whole verse of a song without stopping and gasping for breath. On a Borg Scale this would still be quite low — maybe 12 or 13, where 6 is lying on a bed reading a book and 20 is full effort. Cotswolds Sportive © Neil Taylor Media.JPG

You'll know if you’re ceasing to work aerobically (or, in an oxidative state) because you'll start panting or gasping if you try to sing out loud or tell anything more than a quick one-line joke. This is because when enough lactate has accumulated in your system, your brain will automatically preference breathing over talking, in an attempt to clear CO2 out of your system and bring you back into aerobic equilibrium. 

It's worth pointing out that recovery from endurance rides is also easier than recovery from intense interval sessions, where the fatigue tends to be embedded. deeper into our physiological and muscular-skeletal systems. As Dr Baker puts it: “The 'hours of power' approach tends to make you more tired as the quality of your sessions declines. Ergo, if you’re less tired, you tend to miss fewer training days, which has to be good because fundamentally endurance equals volume."

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Is this where old school training, my chaotic school (my basic philosophy was to ride my bike enough in the winter for adventure, fun and relaxation, to be able to race myself match fit-ish in the spring), and the new-data school intersect? We all seem to be saying the same thing. That to build yourself into a persistence (or endurance) hunter you need to train yourself to be a hyper-efficient aerobic machine, ruthless at scavenging sustainable fuel stores at as high-power outputs as possible. 

It isn’t a high FTP that will get you round a big day in the mountains, it’s a high-functioning aerobic system. If you've inadvertently trained the wrong system by going too deep and too hard, you'll be producing excess lactate and utilising precious glycogen stores too quickly, which in turn will make a fit-for-purpose refuelling strategy very difficult. 

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Dr Baker thinks that most amateur riders function at only 60 per cent of their theoretical aerobic (oxidative) capacity due to training incorrectly — mostly from riding too much at too high a level. You need to be a fast tortoise before you can become even a slow hare.

Both coach Fox and Dr Baker agree that the majority of riding should be steady-state to increase our oxidative capacity — as much as 80-90 per cent of our training load. We have to learn to be efficient before we can learn to be fast. But even as midlife cyclists we can gain a huge amount of benefit from the correct dose of intense interval training.

Controversially, I’m going to suggest a few midlife amendments to current training orthodoxy. The first is that we drop all the other strata of training, other than low intensity (LIT) and high intensity (HIT) training. We'll define LIT as anything below aerobic threshold, which coach Fox recommends could be as high as 70-80 per cent of maximum heart rate, but thinks is actually better executed at around 60-70 per cent of maximum. Dr Baker agrees with this and adds the context that ‘it's almost impossible to go too low’ for LIT or oxidative training, meaning that the most important principle to observe is that you must actually be oxidative, which you won't be if you go too high.

You could use a heart rate monitor and use a percentage of your highest recent recorded heart rate or you could use the RPE/Borg Scale and the ‘sing-a-verse’ methodology (which I prefer, incidentally). It’s important to note that riding in an oxidative state involves metabolising fatty acids as a fuel source, which could be important if you’re also trying to manage weight as well as gain fitness.

Anything above LIT, is by definition in our binary training model, HIT. If you're using the RPE/Borg Scale, LIT is anything below 14, HIT is 15-20. Both Dr Baker and coach Fox suggest no more than one or two sessions a week, and how you configure them can be the result of your own imagination. It could be hill repeats (not imaginative but can be effective) or Dr Baker’s suggestion: “There’s gold in 8-10-minute efforts in the 105-110 per cent of FTP range. The goal is to do lots of reps, say 4-6. If you hold power steady, then your heart rate won't quite hit your maximum. So you can rest up a bit, and repeat again.”

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Remember, Dr Baker is going out of his way to point out that if you feel good, you should not increase the intensity, meaning no more watts or a higher heart rate, but instead add in a rep or two. Going too deep or too hard will increase the required recovery time and may lead to fatigue. If you assume your real (not inflated) FTP is 250, then your hard sessions using the Dr Baker algorithm will be 250 x 105-110% x 4-6 (8-10 minute) reps. This means that you'll be working at between 262 and 275 watts during those 8-10 minute reps. This isn’t going bonkers and sending your systems haywire — it’s a controlled elevation of training stimulus. 

Coach Fox’s thoughts on the subject of sensible restraint are these: “The important aspect (and the part that amateur athletes have enormous difficulty in executing well) is that only about 10-20 per cent maximum of training time needs to be here. This can be done as one or two harder interval sessions per week, but not more as that just leads to plateauing sooner rather than later. It really should be no more complicated than that. In fact, I would hypothesise the opposite.”

2020 Specialized Diverge launch action  - 2.jpgDr Baker and coach Fox are united in the opinion that we amateurs — especially more time-constrained masters athletes, because we want to optimise our limited time — mostly train too hard when we should be working in an oxidative state and not incorporating too many intense interval sessions. Essentially, we're over-revving ourselves into aerobic inefficiency or, even worse, embedding fatigue in our bodies by riding too often, too close to threshold, and not leaving sufficient recovery time between training sessions. We’re not only burning the candle at both ends, we’re then taking a blow torch to it to make sure it’s dead. 

About the author: Phil Cavell

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Phil is co-founder of Cyclefit, a vastly experienced bike fitter, and a bike designer. Phil heads up the lecturing and teaching duties at Cyclefit.

2021 The Midlife Cyclist by Phil Cavell

The Midlife Cyclist is available now from Bloomsbury in paperback and Ebook formats.

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