“I have a new approach to being a ‘Superager’,” says Elizabeth Wicks, who just turned 73. “You must expend enough effort that you feel some ‘yuck.’ Do it till it hurts, and then a bit more.”
As I write this, I’m sitting near my father-in-law, Dick, who turns 90 this year. He’s riding his trainer at a steady 80 rpm! He gets around with a walker and needs my help getting on and off the trainer — but he still rides the trainer every morning! My father-in-law, a retired MD, is consistent in his workouts. He also incorporates intensity, upping his cadence to 100 rpm several times during his 10-minute ride.
Staying as fit as possible — slowing the rate of your inevitable physiological decline — rests on four pillars:
In the first column covering The Four Pillars, I discussed consistency. Today, I’m discussing why intensity matters. (Each of the numbers above is a link to that specific article in the series.)
Aerobic Capacity Diminishes Over Time
As you get older, how much you work out and how hard you work out both determine how fit you remain. In fact, longitudinal studies looking at how fitness changes over time show that how hard you work out is more important than how much you work out.
For example, 24 masters track runners, ages 42 to 59, were tested for body composition and aerobic capacity, which we often call VO2 max. (VO2 max is how much oxygen you can process exercising as hard as you can for about five minutes.) Ten years later they were retested. They’d all continued to run but only 11 had continued racing. The other 13 had done what many older athletes do: shifted to long, slow distance (LSD) exercise. Over the 10 years the high-intensity group had an insignificant 1.6% drop in VO2 max, while the LSD group’s VO2 max had declined 12%!
But you don’t race — why should you care?
The higher your VO2 max is compared to others your chronological age, the lower your physiological age, which means greater expected longevity!
What Can You Do?
In one study of seven men and four women, all of whom did not work out regularly, the 11 trained for six months at low intensity: on average, their VO2 max increased 12%. This is one reason why consistent exercise is important. For the next six months they did the same amount of volume, but increased the intensity and their average VO2 max increased 18%!
After I quit bike racing I started doing just LSD riding, which is definitely more fun than intense, painful riding. I don’t know what my VO2 max was then, but I know that I got slow.
Several years ago I added intensity back in to my cycling and XC skiing. I still don’t know what my VO2 max is, but I’ve gotten faster. I don’t really care how fast I am — I’m not competitive anymore, so the speed doesn’t really matter.
What’s important is that now, because I regularly add intensity to my workouts, I can ride and ski more comfortably at a moderate pace, and I recover more quickly so that I can do another moderately paced ride or ski the next day.
My four-part 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.
Off-Season Conditioning Past 50 – how to best work on your off-season conditioning given the physiological changes of aging.
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.
Muscle Strength and Power
In which societies do people maintain the strongest legs as they age? The obvious guess would be societies that continue to run a lot in daily life. But that would be wrong.
Actually, people with the strongest legs throughout life are those who lack outhouses, much less indoor plumbing. They squat daily over pits to urinate and defecate. Squatting and standing back up requires more leg strength than running many miles.
Your leg muscles are composed of groups of muscle fibers. Some are bundles of slow-twitch fibers, which contract relatively slowly and have great endurance. Others are bundles of fast-twitch fibers, which contract faster and have more power but less endurance. (Slow- and fast-twitch refer to the speed of the muscle fiber contractions, not your cadence.)
The bundles are recruited progressively depending on how much your body is asking that muscle group to do. Slow-twitch fibers are recruited first, for example, on an LSD ride. When climbing a hill you recruit more slow-twitch fibers, and when hammering up the hill you also start to recruit fast-twitch fibers.
To stand back up after a full squat, a person has to recruit almost all the fast-twitch muscle fibers, which is why s/he has stronger quads than a distance runner or distance cyclist (but not stronger than a sprinter).
To keep a muscle group from atrophying you need to ask those muscles to work hard, either sprinting on the bike or doing leg exercises – for example, single-leg squats while brushing your teeth. This is also a great weight-bearing exercise to maintain strong bones, and it helps your balance as well. Hang onto something to steady yourself until you get the hang of single-leg squats.
Next week: I’ll continue my look at the Four Pillars with a discussion of why recovery becomes more important as we get older.
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.