By Kevin Kolodziejski
Of course, the statement above is a bit . . . coarse. But I’m willing to come off as uncouth to explain the age-related loss of muscle, strength, and function that’s in store for both me and you — especially when the uncouth is both figuratively and literally true.
First, the figurative. It really does suck to watch your body go downhill after you’ve done — and keep doing — so much to ascend your own personal Mont Ventoux. But I don’t care how many pages of “L’Equipe” the little French boy hands you at the crest to stuff inside your jersey; the descent can be downright depressing.
So you need to get your mind right or the fact that your pedaling prowess declines with time could cause you to loathe what you now love. One way to make your mind right is to recognize that this is a fixed fight, one you don’t win. For you, victory is avoiding a knockout and going the full 15 rounds. To accomplish this, you need to know your adversary.
Say Hello to Sarcopenia, Again
In the last article, you learned sarcopenia — the inevitable loss of muscle mass, strength, and function — begins as early as the fourth decade of life and accelerates rapidly by the middle of the eight decade. There are dietary strategies, however, that delay the inevitable. Ingesting 25 to 30 grams of protein at every meal and balancing the ratio of carbohydrate and protein in snacks, for instance, provides an aging body slowly losing its ability to turn protein into muscle enough of it to mitigate that. Becoming eagle-eyed about your diet and making junk food a once-a-week treat at best limits weight gain and makes the low-grade inflammation that pals around with those unwanted pounds — and leads to the chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease that further serve to accelerate sarcopenia — less likely to occur.
Moreover, a healthy diet higher in protein tends to reduce the number of calories you consume. And you don’t need as many calories as you once did because sarcopenia sees to it that you’re carrying less muscle mass.
Less muscle mass: It’s why a version of following statement appeared in the Part I article, and why I’m feeling as if I need more newspaper from the French boy.
Less May Be Best for Seasoned Cyclists
As a recovering mileage junkie, my hands shake as I type this. For I fondly remember a not-too-distant time when a 150-mile weekend with a fair amount of race-type miles or racing on both days was the norm. But now’s not the time for nostalgia or mega miles. It’s the time to acknowledge sarcopenia literally sucks muscle from your body — and cycling serves as an accomplice.
Cycling doesn’t stress the upper-body muscles enough to stave off sarcopenia. And while high-intensity riding slows the loss of muscle below the belt, it doesn’t provide the sort of stimulus to build leg muscle significantly in older people.
Weightlifting, however, does.
In “Sarcopenia: The Mystery of Muscle Loss,” Chantal Vella, M.S. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D., cite several studies to show this is so. They add that while many of the factors leading to sarcopenia are “uncontrollable . . . the easiest and possibly most effective treatment within our control is progressive resistance,” what you would know as weightlifting. They suggest performing 10 to 15 repetitions per set, pass along the American College of Sports Medicine’s suggestion of performing one set for each major muscle group, but also entertain the idea that performing two or three sets per muscle group may be better for all those but the “most elderly.”
Training to Fight Sarcopenia
So how much less cycling and more lifting should you do? That answer depends on your present age, your past injuries, and the degree to which you’re willing to wage an unwinnable war, so I’ll leave that answer up to you. But I won’t leave you without a clue. Here’s how I’ve fought and continue to fight sarcopenia.
From my mid-30s and until I nearly reached 59, the frequency and intensity with which I lifted weights depended upon if I was currently racing or preparing to do so. During those seven months, I’d ride five days a week and lift on the other two. The lifting was designed to maintain, not add, upper-body muscle mass, featured high repetitions and moderate weights and never included exercises specifically designed to work the muscles most responsible for powering the pedals: the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
During the five months I’d use as my off-season, I’d replace one riding day with a weightlifting workout for the leg muscles neglected in-season. All three weekly lifting sessions would take some sets to muscular failure, but the workout devoted solely to the quads, hams, and glutes would be the most intense, an attempt to restore the muscle lost during a spring and summer of ambitious riding.
Then just before Christmas in 2019, I fractured my femur. The left one this time. (I had fractured the right about 10 years before by rolling a tubular through a turn — while 90 seconds in front of the field with no more than 2 km to go in a punchy-rider’s road race that brought out many of the best in the Mid-Atlantic region.)
And even though I rehabbed like an absolute madman — during the month I couldn’t work, a bit more than three hours a day was typical — my legs didn’t regain their previous size or strength. COVID hit soon after that. Group rides were put on hold, all races were canceled, so I continued lifting with my legs as intensely as possible once a week.
Doing so didn’t seem to affect my ability to climb, but when group rides began again, I lacked speed. Man, did I lack speed, particularly when I needed to accelerate quickly. In an attempt to remedy this, one month ago I swapped the leg lifting workout for an easy recovery ride followed by additional light upper-body work.
But enough about me and how you could alter your workout week to include more weightlifting. For that added weightlifting to do its most good, it needs to be done a certain way.
Weight Room Failure Equals Success Vs. Sarcopenia
While your muscle fibers do possess a type of memory (which is why you never forget how to ride a bike), they can’t recall the amount of weight you used five years, five months, or five days ago. What your muscles never forget, however, is how to respond to failure.
When you lift weights to the point where you can’t do another repetition — regardless of the amount of weight, regardless of your age — your muscles adapt so failure doesn’t happen again. Up until a certain age, that means the muscles increase in strength and size. After that age, an increase in strength and size may not occur. The failed effort though slows — and sometimes even reverses — some of the muscle loss from sarcopenia.
All of this is true whether you lift a heavier weight eight to 12 times or a lighter one 25 to 35 times. High-repetition workouts using lighter weights, however, seem better suited for cyclists, especially after the age of 40 or so.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.