Last week my former client June wrote me, “Hi Coach Hughes! I enjoyed so much working with you to train to ride my first century when I turned 60 in 2018. Time flies, doesn’t it? Each winter I lose more fitness. As I age, my low point seems lower!
I live in Seattle and it’s dark and rainy when I get off work. Although I have a trainer, indoor cycling is so boring that the trainer is dusty. I’ve tried spin classes but they’re too hard.
I have an electric-assist bike, which I’ve started riding this spring, although I’m a little embarrassed. My 75-year-old friend rides her e-bike exclusively, but I’m not ready to do that. I’m trying to regain my fitness, and then I’ll ride both my regular and my eBike.”
Coach Hughes replied, “I enjoyed working with you, too. Has it already been five years since I coached you for your first century?”
Then I wrote this column and e-mailed it to her.
How we lose fitness
Unfortunately, we lose fitness faster as we age. We lose fitness in three ways:
- True aging – age-related changes that will happen to all of us inevitably. By doing different kinds of exercises we can slow the rates of change.
- Episodic — reduced or stopped exercising for a while. This could be winter, a planned break (e.g., vacation) or unplanned (e.g., illness) times.
- Pathological aging – a result of changes in the environment, genetic mutations, accidents or how we choose to live.
We can make choices to control #1 and #2 and to make healthy choices to reduce the risks of #3.
I wrote this column responding to a question from a 60-year-old. The same points apply in even in the 70s and beyond:
Different rates of declining fitness
We lose fitness differentially. We lose power faster than endurance and our endurance fades faster than our muscular strength. This column goes into detail about the different rates of losing different kinds of fitness:
You have five training variables:
- How frequently you ride.
- How long your average ride is.
- Your weekly volume, the product of #1 and #2
- How long your longest ride is.
- How hard your rides are.
Because we lose fitness faster as we age consistency is the most important. You do a ride, you recover sufficiently, and you’re fitter. And then each successive day you don’t ride you lose just a little fitness. Riding three days a week is enough to barely maintain fitness, four days are better and five days most weeks are optimal.
You could have two different training weeks, both with the same amount of riding:
- Ride three or four week days, a moderate weekend ride and perhaps a short weekend ride totaling 5 – 6 hours for the week
- Ride two longer week days and a long weekend ride totaling 5 – 6 hours for the week.
Because consistency is so important week #1 is better.
This column goes into more detail:
Week to week consistency is also critical. The occasional week off is fine; however, it’s very important to exercise at least three days a week almost every week. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends aerobic exercise most days of the week totaling at least 2:30 every week. This doesn’t all have to be on the bike – you could go for brisk walks with your umbrella. Here are the ACSM’s recommendations:
Because you lose power faster than endurance some intensity is good. Intensity is like prescription medicine. The right kind(s) of intensity in the right amount(s) at the right time(s) make you stronger and faster. Doing the wrong kind of intensity or the wrong amount or at the wrong time you may not get any fitter and you might even damage your fitness. These two columns discuss intensity training generally:
- 6 Kinds of Intensity Training: Which One Is Best for You? – written in 2019
- Why Increasing Intensity is Good for All Road Cyclists – written in 2020
Intensity and longevity
Since I wrote the above columns there’s been more research on intensity and longevity.
Norwegian scientists studied 1500 healthy septuagenarians for five years. They were divided into three groups:
- The first group followed the same guidelines as the ACSM’s to walk or otherwise remain in motion for half an hour most days. Quite a few of the participants in this group also dabbled with interval training classes at gyms or on their own initiative.
- Another group began exercising moderately for longer sessions of 50 minutes twice a week.
- A third group did high intensity training twice a week. The high intensity workout was cycling or jogging at a strenuous pace for four minutes, followed by four minutes of rest, with that sequence repeated four times.
They found that the group that did high intensity training twice a week were about 2% less likely to have died over the five year period than group #1, which did mostly moderate exercise and also a little intensity intensity, and 3% less like to have died than group #2. You can read more in this column:
Note that the Norwegians did relatively long intervals with full recovery: 4 minutes hard and 4 minutes easy. They also did two only hard workouts a week with plenty of recovery between sessions.
Here are two related columns:
- Anti-Aging: Research on Longevity – written in 2021
- Anti-Aging: Update on Exercise and Longevity – follow up written in 2021
Intensity doesn’t have to be intervals as explained in this column:
- Anti-Aging: Interval or Fartlek for Longevity? – written in 2022
Training in the sweet spot is the optimal way to improve sustained power. Sweet spot workouts are similar in duration to those in the Norwegian study, but with less recovery. The intervals of sweet spot riding are typically 4 to 8 minutes long with half the time for recovery (2 to 4 minutes) between intervals. Riding in the sweet spot is just a little harder than a conversational pace. You can still talk in short phrases but not complete sentences. Your legs are talking to you but aren’t screaming. These columns explain sweet spot training in more detail:
- Sweet Spot Training for Every Rider
- Sweet Spot Training for Every Rider: Part 2
- How to Incorporate Sweet Spot Workouts into Your Training
- How a 77-year-old Woman Does Sweet Spot Training
I have a mountain bike with electric assist. Any electric bike is a great new tool. Functionally an e-bike is the same as putting lower gears on your bike. Depending on what you want to do, you can do a pretty short harder ride, a longer conversational ride, or an easy recovery ride. At this point in the season you can get more volume riding an e-bike than your regular bike.
What should June do?
- Exercise aerobically at least four and preferably five times a week.
- Have a purpose for each ride – don’t just pedal.
- Vary the intensity significantly.
- 1 or 2 endurance days at an easy conversational pace.
- 1 or 2 sweet spot days noticeably harder than endurance days but not painful.
- 1 or 2 recovery days so slow she’s almost embarrassed to be seen on her bike.
After June read the above last week, this week she wrote back, “Now I fully understand and accept I lose fitness faster as I age, I’m going to quit whining and get busy getting back in shape. Instead of just riding I’ll chose a purpose for each ride. Yesterday I rode my electric-assist bike up a one mile climb at a 6 – 7% grade. I’ve only climbed it under my own power a handful of times. Yesterday I only used the middle level of assist. I was tired! And proud! Today for recovery, I rode my conventional bike to the coffee shop. This weekend my friend and I are going for a longer ride on our e-bikes.”
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process includes:
- 4-month plan to increase riding volume. The plan is written for January – April but could be used for other four-month periods or adapted to shorter or long periods.
- 8-week plans to train for 100K and 100-mile rides.
- An annual plan to meet all of the recommendations of the American College of Sports Medicine on these activities: aerobic, intensity, strength, flexibility and weight-bearing.
I provide sample endurance, intensity and strength workouts. The book includes 53 photos illustrating different exercises.
Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process incorporates the latest research and most of it is new material not published in my previous eArticles on cycling past 50, 60 and beyond. It’s your comprehensive guide to continuing to ride well into your 80s and even your 90s. The 106-page eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is $14.99.
My eBook Intensity Training: Using Perceived Exertion, a Heart Rate Monitor or Power to Maximize Training Effectiveness describes the human power train: how your fuel is stored and burned, how power is then generated and how to improve your pedaling economy (analogous to improving miles per gallon.) The eBook explains intensity training made simple including the pros and cons of various ways to gauge intensities. It includes a dozen different types of intensity workouts and over 50 sample workouts depending on your goals. The 41-page eArticle Intensity Training: Using Perceived Exertion, a Heart Rate Monitor or Power to Maximize Training Effectiveness is $4.99.
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 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.