In the past, I’ve described the physical changes with aging in your 50s — both true aging and pathological aging. By training effectively you can slow (and even reverse in some cases) true aging. Exercise along with life style changes can significantly reduce the risk of pathological aging.
I specialize in coaching riders in their 50s, 60s and beyond. The same principles apply to all of the riders that I coach although the applications differ depending on the rider’s age and goals.
The following nine principles work together to provide a solid foundation and to reduce the possibility of overtraining and injuries:
- Training overload leads to adaptation.
When asked to do something it can’t, the body adapts so it can handle the new workload. Of course, when asked to do too much, the body may rebel.
- Progressive overload.
To continue to improve, the body needs new challenges.
- How much overload.
How many challenging workouts you can handle in a week depends on both your chronological age and your athletic maturity.
Experienced riders in their:
a. 20s and 30s usually can handle three or four hard training days a week with three or four easier days including two recovery days.
b. 50s usually can handle two or three hard training days a week with four or five easier days including two recovery days.
c. 60s and beyond usually can handle one or two hard training days a week with five or six easier days including two recovery days.
“Hard” means more challenging, e.g., more miles, or faster rides or intensity workouts. Hard also means changing the type of exercise, e.g., incorporating resistance training or cross-training.
Every rider should take at least one day off the bike.
You build fitness progressively. You need to increase the workload periodically to continue the overload-and-recovery pattern.
- Variation of intensity.
Your body has different types of muscle fibers and uses different metabolic pathways to produce energy for those muscle fibers. Each of the different types of fibers and metabolisms responds to different types and intensities of workouts. To improve, you need to vary your workouts. For example, if you always ride at the same speed you’ll never get faster.
You are unique and you will respond best in your own way to a training program. Cyclists have different mixes of fast- and slow-twitch muscles, various fitness levels, and diverse psychological needs, so fitness programs should take into account their individual needs.
“Ride lots” is the advice that cycling legend Eddy Merckx gave for achieving success in cycling, and he is right — becoming a better rider requires spending time on the bike. The muscles and neurological system adapt specifically to the demands placed on them.
The gains made in training are not permanent. Taking days and an occasional week off for recovery are important, but if you take several months off you will need to build back up from scratch.
Recovery is an integral aspect of conditioning, because most adaptations occur when the body is resting, not during the training sessions.
Two Examples: Training For A Birthday Ride, Training For A Cross-State Record Attempt
Here’s how the training principles apply to two different riders I’m coaching.
- “Ben”, age 69, is training to ride 70 miles in under 4:30 hours (15.55 mph) to celebrate his 70th birthday and then a century and a 200K.
- Bob Willix, age 53, trained to ride 556 miles west to east across North Carolina in record time.
Both riders followed the same general training plan with four phases:
- Base: Increase endurance
- Break: Recover fully
- Peaking: Build speed while maintaining endurance
- Taper: Gain freshness
- Ben started with a 56-mile ride the end of June and over 11 weeks built up to an 82-mile ride in 6 hours (13.7 mph) the beginning of September.
- Bob started in late June with a 170-mile ride, a day off and then a 100-mile ride. Over the next nine weeks he built up to a 250-mile ride and then raced 312 miles in 16:22 hours (18.5 mph).
As a general rule of thumb a rider’s longest training ride should be 2/3 to 3/4 the distance of the target ride:
- Ben’s 82-mile ride was 65% of 125 miles (200K)
- Bob’s 312-mile ride was 56% of 556 miles. We’d planned for him to race 400 miles in 24 hours but the race was stopped because of thunderstorms.
How Much Overload?
- Ben did one or two endurance rides a week during his base phase.
- Bob because he was younger could handle one endurance ride and two intensity rides a week during his base phase.
Because both riders are over 50 both used a pattern of alternating harder weeks with longer rides and easier weeks with shorter rides. Younger riders typically follow a pattern of three or four progressively harder weeks followed by an easier week. For older riders the alternating pattern provides more recovery.
Variation In Intensity
- Ben learned to ride at different intensities rather than at the same intensity each ride. During his base phase he did very easy recovery rides, endurance rides at a conversational pace and brisk tempo rides during which he could still talk but not whistle. In mid-September during the peaking phase he started intensity training with short sweet spot intervals of six reps of [4” in the SS and 2” easy].
- Bob also varied the intensity with easy recovery rides and conversational pace endurance rides. He started doing sweet spot intervals in June with four reps of [10” SS and 5” easy]. On the weekends he wasn’t doing long endurance rides he rode for three to four hours with the local race team.
The sweet spot is the optimal intensity to build power. It’s 4 – 5 on a 10-point scale of perceived exertion — you can talk in short phrases but not full sentences. It’s 93 – 97% of lactate threshold and 88 – 94% of functional threshold power.
One of the biggest changes with aging is the need for more recovery.
- Ben only rode four days a week. During his base phase he did endurance rides and two recovery rides. While peaking he rode one endurance ride, one intensity ride and two recovery rides.
- Bob rode six days a week: two intensity workouts, one endurance ride and three recovery rides.
As noted above each rider alternated harder and easier weeks to be sure he recovered and each had a one-week break with minimal cycling half-way through the training program.
Specificity During Peaking
- Ben would need to average 15.55 mph to cover 70 miles in less than 4:30. During the peaking phase he rode progressively longer rides starting with a 50-mile ride at 14.3 mph the first week and then a 20-mile ride at 15.4 mph the following week. He built up to a 70-mile ride at 15.2 mph and then a 35-mile ride at 15.9 mph.
- Bob’s biggest challenge would be riding overnight, which he’d never done before. One weekend he got up at 4 a.m., did things around the house and then started a 13-hour 220-mile ride at 4 p.m. At 3 a.m. he practiced taking a short sleep break. A week later he got up at 4:30 a.m. on Friday. After a day at work he kept busy around the house and then started a 6:10 hour 108-mile ride at 2:15 a.m. on Saturday.
- Ben is tapering for two weeks doing only two or three short easy rides while visiting his brother.
- Bob tapered for 10 days including one moderate sweet spot workout, one hilly ride and one 60-mile ride practicing riding at his target pace for the record attempt.
Each rider trained through the four different phases: base endurance, recovery break, peaking specificity and taper. Each followed the same training principles. However, Ben is 69 and Bob is 53. How I applied the training principles differed for the two riders.
- Ben didn’t do any special mental preparation.
- Bob had a hard time “wrapping his head around the record attempt” as he put it. Starting in June I had him do mental training four or five days a week starting with learning to focus, then learning calming techniques, then creating power thoughts and power images and finally visualizing the record attempt several times.
- Ben’s ride is several weeks away.
- Bob set an age group west to east record across North Carolina covering 556 miles in a time of 43:16 pending certification. It was an epic ride: the leading edge tropical hurricane Michael hit eastern NC at the same time Bob started in western NC. It started raining after just four hours and never stopped. He had to deal with closed roads, downed power lines, a broken derailleur and a flooded finish line! He broke the age group record by over four hours!
Next week I’ll share my Interview with Bob Willix.
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Peak Fitness 39 pages Contains four specific programs to improve your fitness in one or more of the following ways:
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Training with Intensity 27 pages Doing the right hard riding slows the aging process and delivers an array of benefits at any age:
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-Greater lung capacity
-More powerful muscles.
Fit for Life 34 pages Exercise options to strengthen your body’s functions that keep you fit for life, including your aerobic, skeletal, muscular, neural, core and balance systems.
The 100-page bundle Cycling Past 50, 60 and Beyond is only $13.50 ($11.48 for our Premium members with coupon code)
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 over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
I’ve heard about or read many build programs over the last 40 years. Lon Haldeman (RAAM veteran) told me he was starting from zero one year and simply rode 1 mile on day 1, 2 mi on day 2,…up to 100 miles on day 100. His experience with his own body told him it was safe and manageable (he possesses an amazing physiology!). Whereas John’s plan is based on training science, Lon’s is based on a desire to do what he used to do and what he knew he could do, progressively but quickly. John knows the average athlete, Lon knows himself. Experiment. Read what the experts (John, for example) say, and adapt to do what works for you without getting overtrained. When you are overtrained, you’ll know it: a basketball game on TV will be more appealing than another training ride.
John Hughes says
Lon is a long-time friend of mine. I rode my first PAC Tour in ’88. Lon also told me his first long distance ride was 10 miles to a water tower. Then he wondered if he could ride 15 miles to the next town. And then 20 miles. A lot of us got where we are by “I wonder if …” Lon is also an incredible physical specimen!
Richard Herbin says
Almost all Americans MAMILS have metabolic syndrome ( bad body composition,, blood lipid profiles, glucose tolerance, bone density, testosterone, etc.) and are on prescription drugs.
Sorta putting the cart before the horse to fine tune a training program on a base of diet induced bad health. that cannot be corrected with any amount of exercise.
But the studies proving how to fix these problems only started coming out in the 1950’s so the medical profession hasn’t caught up yet.
Stephen Davis says
Richard makes a cogent point as he diplomatically mentions an element of performance that broadly lacks understanding and application in this country. When the nutrition/performance link is given it’s proper weight in athletic disciplines and finds it’s way around the resistance of Meat and Dairy, the positive implications will reach mainstream, training results will improve, and records will tumble, imo.
Martin Sigrist says
This and the comment above make the point that “training” is about far more than just the physiology associated with muscle cells that many “training” sources focus on.
Diet and lifestyle are just a couple of examples.
For me it all starts with mindset. The purpose of training is to do ALL that you can to become the best you can be. Improving wattage is a big portion of that “all” but only a portion”.
Coach John’s case is an example. It’s a rare case where mental preparation is actually even mentioned. It may be coincidence that Bob did this and did so well but I doubt not.
And Ben is simply not training properly. If he thinks a century ride involves the legs and not the brain he doesn’t actually understand the nature of the challenge he has set himself.
The longer the duration of an event the more important mental toughness becomes.
In Ultra events it is actually more important than physical strength which is why ultra cycling events are the only ones where top females cannot only compete on equal terms with men but beat them.
Barry Bogart says
Richard is right. I have metabolic syndrome and am having trouble losing the ‘Covid 19 lbs’ I gained. I am not a racer but a Randonneur converted to a bikepacker. No kind od dieting or fasting works for me. What I need is some daily long rides, probably in a fully-loaded tour. That was impossible during Covid and since then extreme heat and wildfire smoke and flooding in BC has curtailed it as well. Wish me luck.
BTW some of my Rando friends just completed Hell Week on Vancouver Island. Check the results: https://www.randonneurs.bc.ca/eau-de-hell-week/results_2023.html. What I find remarkable is that most of these riders are in their sixties or seventies. Many averaging 25km/hr even over 600kms, including some gravel. I am 79 but not that fast!