Turning 50 can be hard for a roadie — you start to slow down just a little and you don’t recover quite as quickly.
I remember when I turned 50 in 1999, almost 20 years ago. I rode some big events before then:
- 40 y.o. 1989 Won the first Furnace Creek 508 through Death Valley 508 miles & 30,000’ of climbing in 30H 54M.
- 43 y.o. 1992 Course record Boston-Montreal-Boston, 1200 km (750 miles) & 35,000’ in 52H 35M
- 44 y.o 1993 Furnace Creek 508, 1st place in 32H 22M, first two-time winner.
- 46 y.o. 1995 Paris-Brest-Paris 1200 km (750 miles) & 32,000’ of climbing 65H 55M
- 50 y.o. 1999 Paris-Brest Paris 81H 10M
My 1200K time increased by 50 percent from 52H 35M at age 43 to 81H 10M at age 50! Had I lost that much fitness? No, my reasons for riding had changed. Instead of riding for a fast time I rode to stay healthy and injury-free and to have fun with my friends.
This change in goals is typical of athletes as they turn 50. Don McGrath interviewed 50 people for his 50 Athletes Over 50. “Their most important goal typically changes from performance to wanting to be active for a long time. … They want to have good health, enjoy their sport and have fun with their athletic friends! They also work at being injury-free, since as we get older, recovery from injuries is slower.” I use the term athlete to describe all of us who exercise regularly at any level. This shift in purpose is one of the most important things as we age.
As we get chronologically older, physiological aging occurs in two ways:
- True aging – age-related changes that will happen to all of us inevitably.
- Pathological aging – a result of changes in the environment, genetic mutations, accidents or how we choose to live.
Physiological aging is not caused by any single factor but by an aggregate of causes. Fortunately, fitness helps to maintain peak performance and prevent premature aging.
As you age, changes take place in your cardiopulmonary, muscular, skeletal and nervous systems. These affect you as a roadie and your activities of daily living.
The cardiopulmonary system is composed of the heart, lungs, arteries and veins. As you age your aerobic capacity declines—how much oxygen you can deliver to your muscles. This is the result of:
- Cardiac output.Cardiac output is a function of heart rate and stroke volume, how much blood your heart pumps per beat. Maximum HR inevitably declines as you age. Exercising helps you sustain a reasonably high HR and slows the decrease in the elasticity of your heart, which is what reduces stroke volume.
- Pulmonary function.As you age you can’t breathe as deeply due to the decreased elasticity of the lungs, increased stiffness of the chest wall and weakening of the respiratory muscles. When exercising, you compensate by breathing more frequently.
- Circulation.Blood flow to the limbs at rest is reduced as you get older.
Through regular and consistent aerobic exercise you can significantly slow the aging process in the cardiovascular system, which will continue to deliver enough oxygenated blood to the muscles to support your exercise, whether you are cycling for health or cycling for performance!
The muscular system includes all of the skeletal muscles that move our bodies in different ways. As you age:
- Muscles atrophy.Because you place fewer demands on them, your muscles get smaller, which results in a loss of strength. You have two types of muscle fibers: slow-twitch, which fire slowly and have great endurance, and fast-twitch, which fire explosively when you need power. You lose more muscle mass in the fast-twitch fibers as you age because you tend not to do activities that require a lot of power. However, the rate of atrophy can be slowed with exercise, and most of it can even be reversed with resistance training!
- Enzymes for energy production decrease.In your body, different metabolic pathways produce energy, and the particular pathway(s) used at any given time depend on the fuel source and the intensity of activity. These pathways use enzymes to produce energy, and with aging the production of the different enzymes decreases; however, with exercise the enzymes available increase!
Through regular resistance exercise you keep your muscles from atrophying and keep your metabolic pathways functioning at a sufficient level. Thus, muscle strength isn’t a limiter to your exercise for health or for performance.
The skeletal system includes all of the bones in your body.
- Osteoporosis: Older bones constantly break down and your body makes new bone content. As you age, bone mass is lost faster than it is created. Osteoporosis is a progressive condition of lower bone mineral density resulting in thinner and more brittle bones. As a result you are more vulnerable to fractures, particularly of the wrist, hip and spine due to falling. As you get older the risk of osteoporosis increases, and women are more at risk than men. Race is also a factor: you’re at greatest risk of osteoporosis if you’re white or of Asian descent. Family history also increases the risk, as does frame size: if you’re small you have less bone mass to draw on as you age.
Through weight-bearing exercise you stimulate your body to produce more bone mass.
The nervous system includes the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS).
- Brain shrinks.The CNS is made up of your brain and the brain stem, the vital link between your brain and the spinal cord. Your brain starts to shrink in your 30s, and its weight can decrease by about 10 percent by the time you are 90.
- Slower nerves.The PNS includes the nerve receptors throughout the body that send messages to the brain and from the brain to the individual motor units that fire in your muscles telling them to contract. As you age it takes longer for signals to travel in both directions on the nerve pathways.
- Slower reaction time.Your reaction time slows, too, as a result the loss of individual muscle motor units and slower conductance of nerve signals, and may be exacerbated by the atrophy of fast-twitch fibers. You can’t sprint as fast and, more importantly; you don’t react as quickly if your foot encounters something unexpected. As a result, you may fall.
If you continue to exercise, you can slow the aging of your nervous system, which will be adequate to support your exercise program and activities of daily living for decades to come!
Pathological Changes with Aging
In addition to the normal aging processes, which can be slowed but not stopped through a healthy, active lifestyle, you are also at risk from many diseases. Fortunately, the risk associated with numerous diseases can be significantly reduced or eliminated entirely through exercise. Exercise can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems, stroke, diabetes, weight gain (contributing factors to the preceding), bone density loss, and Alzheimer’s!
According to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, as you get older your risk of heart disease increases and your family history contributes to the risk. Women generally have lower risk; however, after menopause their risk increases, too. You can’t control these risk factors. To reduce your risk of heart disease the Mayo Clinic recommends 30 to 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise most days of the week. Although moderate exercise helps, they recommend increasing the frequency, duration and/or intensity of your exercise to get greater protective benefit.
Type 2 diabetes, also known as adult onset diabetes, is a chronic condition that affects the way your body metabolizes glucose (sugar). The condition develops when either the pancreas stops producing enough insulin or the body becomes resistant to insulin. The risk increases as you get older and also increases with a family history of diabetes. Although you can’t control these factors, you can control your weight and physical inactivity, which seem to be contributing factors.
The Mayo Clinic recommends exercise to reduce the risk of diabetes by helping you to lose weight, lowering your blood sugar and boosting your sensitivity to insulin, which helps to keep your blood sugar within a normal range.
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of your brain is cut off, depriving your brain of oxygen and nutrients. Your risk increases as you get older and also is higher if you have a family history of stroke or heart attack. You can’t control these; however, the Mayo Clinic recommends aerobic exercise, which can lower your blood pressure, increase your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or good) cholesterol, and improve the overall health of your blood vessels and heart. It also helps you lose weight, control diabetes and reduce stress.
Being overweight is a risk factor for each of the above. Each decade past the age of 30, your basal metabolism slows by 2 percent. If you weigh 150 lbs. at age 50 and make no changes in diet and exercise then by age 60 your weight will increase to three lbs. And another three lbs. by age 70!
This is the most common form of dementia. As you get older the risk increases. Scientists are still researching the risk factors and have found no definitive lifestyle factor. The same factors that contribute to the risk of heart disease may be important to developing Alzheimer’s: lack of exercise, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and poorly controlled diabetes. A stimulating job, frequent social interaction and challenging leisure activities such as puzzles also appear to defer the onset.
Next week I’ll continue with Training in Your 50s.
My Cycling Past 50 Bundle includes:
- Healthy Cycling Past 50 – what happens as we age and how to incorporate cycling and other exercise activities into our daily lives to stay healthy and active for many years.
- Healthy Nutrition Past 50 – what to eat and drink to support both a healthy lifestyle and continuing performance.
- Performance Cycling Past 50 – how to train to achieve more specific cycling goals given the physiological changes of aging.
- Off-Season Conditioning Past 50 – how best to work on your off-season conditioning given the physiological changes of aging.
The 90-page Cycling Past 50 Bundle is $15.96, a 20 percent savings off the full price of all four articles. Premium Members save 32 percent from the cost of purchasing all 4 articles individually when they use their coupon code.
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Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.