Unfortunately for many of us aging includes more time off the bike due to injury, illness, surgery, etc. Fortunately, the more years you’ve been riding the less fitness you’ll lose and the faster you’ll regain it. This is a two-part column. Part one is primarily about cycling and covers
- How you lose different types of fitness.
- What you can do now to slow these losses.
- What you should do to regain fitness.
Part two will cover non-cycling exercise including how to reverse atrophy of muscles.
Andy writes, “I’m a longtime reader of RBR. I am a 70-year-old long time road bike rider. Never competitive. I ride up to 100 miles a week in the good weather, and run also. Over the past couple of years I have slowed compared to the 60 year olds in the Sunday group. My Strava segment times are 5-10% longer than 4-5 years ago. Probably a loss of muscle mass.
“I am now undergoing cancer treatments for squamous cell cancer in my throat for the next couple of months. During treatment I can exercise as much as I want; however, this has already been very impactful on conditioning. I am still trying to run (11+ min pace instead of 9-10) and bike 10-20% off previous Strava segment times.
“The question: Your suggestions for a post treatment reconditioning program to try to recover back to baseline. Would like to do it outside, on the bike and track. Not the gym, although strength training may need to be a part.”
Coach Hughes, Andy, I’m very sorry you have cancer and hope the treatment is successful. You have thousands of miles in your legs and are still riding and running so your exercise prognosis is good.
I. How you lose fitness
Considerable research has been done on what happens if an athlete completely stops exercising because of illness, injury or other reasons. The points that follow describe what happens if someone stops working out completely. Fortunately, you are continuing to exercise — just less — and so you are losing fitness more slowly.
Residual fitness How many years you’ve been riding is the biggest factor in how slowly you lose fitness and how rapidly you can recover the lost fitness. This relates to my concept of Athletic Maturity and this column explains how to improve your Athletic Maturity.
VO2 max is your body’s capacity to take in and use oxygen. It begins to decline at about day 10 of no training and continues to decrease over time. In about two to four weeks of no training significant reductions in VO2 max begin to occur. This immediate decline is related to a decreased cardiac output and decreased blood volume.
Speed and high intensity workouts depend on your VO2 max. As this declines your capacity to transport oxygen makes it hard to recover and continue with hard intervals. The loss of fast twitch muscles also reduces your how hard you can ride.
Cardiorespiratory fitness is lost a little more slowly. Within about four to eight weeks of no training your body’s capacity to move blood to your muscles decreases. This happens in part because your blood volume decreases. The size of your heart muscle decreases and because it isn’t as strong it can’t pump as much blood per stroke. Because your heart can’t pump as much blood at submaximal intensities your heart rate is higher for a given workload.
Endurance and aerobic capacity At about 10 days you slowly start to lose endurance. At about 14 days the loss of endurance accelerates because of the decrease in mitochondrial density and enzyme activity in the cells in your slow twitch fibers. On an endurance ride much of your energy comes from fat and the decrease of mitochondria and enzymes reduces the amount of energy to your muscles.
Metabolism and muscle function are significantly impacted. For a given workload you are burning more carbs and less fat for energy. Muscle glycogen levels also drop, leaving less in the tank to draw from. Your lactate threshold goes down because lactate accumulates quicker and at a lower intensity (loss of buffering capacity).
Your endurance decreases because of these declines in cardiorespiratory, metabolism and muscle function.
Muscle atrophy happens more slowly and primarily affects the type II fast twitch muscle fibers. Fast twitch muscles provide power and slow twitch muscles provide endurance. (Fast twitch and slow twitch are the rates at which the muscle fibers contract, not your cadence.)
Loss of skills. There’s good news here. Once a skill is learned, it is never forgotten, especially if it is well learned.
To sum up:
- Rates of decline depend on how many years you’ve been cycling and how fit you were before you cut back on exercise.
- Power and capacity to ride hard start to decrease first.
- Endurance doesn’t decrease as fast.
- Muscle strength decreases slowly.
II. How to slow these losses
Fortunately, maintenance of fitness requires less exercise than the amount and intensity of exercise you need to do to increase fitness.
VO2 max is the rate at which the cardiovascular system delivers oxygen to your muscles. Your cardiovascular system is responsible for 70 to 85 percent of the limitation on VO2max. VO2 max increases with large volumes of training at low intensities, i.e., a conversational pace (Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) of 2 to 3 on a 10 point scale, 70 to 80% of Anaerobic Threshold (AT / LT), 55 to 75% of Functional Threshold Power (FTP).) Training at very high intensities (RPE 8+, 105%+ of AT, 105%+ FTP) for short intervals (1 to 5 minutes) also improves maximal aerobic power. Unless you’re a competitor in peak condition a modest decline in your VO2 max isn’t much of a problem and you can mitigate this with endurance riding.
Intensity. Whether you are a health and fitness rider, a competitor or somewhere in between you’re losing power off the bike. To mitigate this you should do some harder riding. Harder riding ranges from riding a hilly route to intense intervals. You can still ride hard just do less. For example, if your regular 50-mile ride includes five tough hills do a 30-mile ride with three tough hills.
If you do intervals, back off on the number and or intensity. If a hard workout for you is 30 cumulative minutes around your anaerobic threshold (AT), then cut back to 20 total minutes around your AT. Or you could continue to ride hard for 30 minutes but stay below your AT.
Endurance. By continuing endurance rides you can slow down the decrease in stroke volume, how much blood your heart pumps per beat. Endurance riding also helps to maintain the metabolism in your slow-twitch muscles fibers that burns fat and spares muscle glycogen stores.
You can reduce endurance riding in several different ways:
- Shorter rides, e.g., a 40-mile weekend ride instead of a 50-miler.
- Less frequent riding. A rule of thumb is that three days of riding are the minimum to maintain fitness.
- Reduce your total weekly volume, the product of numbers one and two.
- Primarily reduce (not eliminate) intensity. Either reduce the amount of intensity workouts or don’t go quite as hard.
- Also reduce endurance riding but less than you reduce intensity.
III. Regaining fitness
If you try to remedy all of the above losses at the same time you’re risking overtraining and injury. The way to come back is to set priorities.
Power and ability to ride hard. This is the type of fitness you’ve been losing most rapidly so this is the priority for regaining fitness. Improving your capacity to ride faster and climb better means doing some form of intensity training. This does not mean “no pain, no gain.” If you’ve been riding at an endurance pace where you could very easily carry on a conversation with a friend just pick up the pace a little to a tempo pace so you can still talk comfortably but can’t whistle. If you’ve been riding at a tempo pace then speed up a little more so you can still talk in short phrases but not full sentences.
As you increase your intensity at the same time decrease your total volume to reduce the risk of overtraining and getting sick or injured. If you’ve been riding five hours a week cut back to four hours with some of the time at increased intensity. How much is “some of the time”? Enough that you feel tired but could do a bit more. Don’t ride to exhaustion.
I wrote this column on why increasing intensity is good for all road cyclists.
As you increase the intensity also increase the quality of your recovery. I wrote this column on 9 recovery tips for older riders.
Endurance. After you’ve increased your speed and climbing to whatever level you want to ride at, then build back up your endurance. As you ramp back up your endurance dial back the quantity of the intensity you’ve been doing. Again, you’re avoiding overtraining. At this point you’re maintaining your speed and power, not trying to improve them. You can increase your endurance by riding more miles per week or doing more miles on your long rides. Don’t try to do both at the same time.
Whether you should increase the total weekly volume or the duration of your long rides depends on the kind of riding you enjoy. If you’re an endurance rider and enjoy metric centuries and longer then increase the length of your big rides without increasing the duration of your other rides. On the other hand if you’re a recreational rider and enjoy being out on your bike but don’t aspire to longer rides, then increase the duration of several of your weekly rides. I wrote this column on How to do endurance training correctly.
Be patient. Gradually increase your workouts so you get fitter week by week. You don’t want to fall into overtraining, from which it’ll take many weeks to recover. Two rules of thumb:
- Week to week. Because of your years of riding you can probably safely increase your weekly volume by 10 -15%. A relatively new rider or a rider who has reduced riding volume by more than about 25% should increase weekly volume by 5 – 10% is safer.
- Month to month. You can probably safely increase your monthly volume by 10-25%. The same principles apply. If you’re a relatively new roadie then ramp up at the slower rate. If you’ve worn out many pairs of shorts then you could ramp up faster.
Listen to your mind and body. These are two best ways to tell if you’re doing too much:
- Performance decreases. You’ve already built back up to your normal riding speeds but then can’t sustain these speeds. We all have an off day; however, if this persists for several days then you’ve been asking your body to do too much. This is difficult. Because you’re not riding as well it’s natural to think you need to train more / harder. It’s counter intuitive to train less; however, this is the right way to go.
- Motivation decreases. Because you’ve been riding less you’ll be excited to get back on the bike. If you stay excited that’s terrific. Some days you may get up and not want to ride. If this becomes a pattern then you’ve probably been doing too much.
To sum up:
- Work first on speed / power at your personal level.
- Work second on the kind of endurance you enjoy: longer rides or more riding in general.
- As you increase the amount of intensity reduce your total riding. As you increase your endurance riding then cut back (but don’t stop) you’re harder workouts.
- Recover more and better.
- Build back up slowly to reduce the risk of injury and overtraining.
- Pay attention to negative changes in your performance and mood.
Experiment of one
We’re each an experiment of one and your experience may differ.
John Marsh, the former publisher of RoadBikeRider crashed and broke his collarbone. Here are three columns:
- John Marsh’s comeback from surgery part 1
- John Marsh’s comeback from surgery part 2
- John Marsh’s reflections on coming back
I had surgery last fall and had time to prepare for it. I’m recovered fully – I cross-country skied 90 days last winter. Here are two columns:
Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process
My eBook Anti-aging 12 ways you can slow the aging process has chapters on:
- Physiology of aging
- Assessing your strengths and weakness
- Endurance riding including sample weeks and months for riders of different levels
- Intensity training – not for everyone!
- Strength training including an illustrated program using things you have around the house.
- Stretching including an illustrated program
- Weight bearing and balance exercise
The 106-page eBook Anti-aging 12 ways you can slow the aging process is $14.99
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.