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Why getting older is no barrier to being a better cyclist

By Susannah Osborne

We take a look at how getting old can affect your performance on the bike, and what to do to combat it

If you’re knocking on the door of middle age and your Sunday rides are getting slower and slower, it’s easy to blame your age.

But before you book into a geriatric nursing home consider this – the affect that age has on your cycling performance is actually pretty small when you start looking at the type of training you do, your diet, your lifestyle and even the effect of your mates repeatedly calling you ‘Grandad’.

Pros like Chris Horner and the retired Jens Voigt are proof that age can have the upper hand on the road with both riders racing successfully well into their 40s.

What’s more, British pro Malcolm Elliott, who retired in 1997 aged 36, made a come back five years later at 41 and won a round of the Tour Series a month short of his 49th birthday.

So before you swap your cycling shoes for your slippers, how about working out what else it could be that’s slowing you down. 

The Science bit

The brutal truth is that as you get older you’ll probably experience a steady decline in your ability to kick your mates’ backsides. Your biological and physical peak is usually reached between ages 20 and 35 (supposedly – but more on that here), but when you look at the facts, the decline you experience is actually pretty slender. 

Estimates vary but scientists in New Zealand found that for trained cyclists, maximum power declined on average by just 0.048 watts per kilo per year from the age of 35 onwards. Other studies show a loss of between 1-3 watts per kilo.

Tim Harkness, cycle coach and sports psychologist explains, ‘Take a typical 45-year-old man who is 8kg overweight. If he loses the weight through structured training, he could gain around 30 watts. Take away the 10 watts he has lost in the ageing process and he’s still up by 20 watts.’

So it’s far from doom and gloom, especially when you consider that a study by Dr Roy Shepherd at Toronto University discovered in 2008 that as you reach middle age, regular outings on your bike can actually turn back your biological clock by up to 12 years as you get older.

Findings that are seemingly backed up by a 2015 study at King’s College London, which examined a  group of seasoned cyclists aged between 55 and 79, and discovered that they displayed significantly fewer signs of ageing compared to non-cyclists.

Making that bike of yours is the key to a long and healthy life. And if you still don’t believe us, here’s even more evidence…

Push yourself

Telomeres are the tips of your chromosomes and as you grow older they get shorter. Author and coach Joe Friel explains, ‘The length of telomeres is directly related to aerobic capacity (VO2max) and therefore endurance performance.’

Friel quotes a study by scientists at the University of Colorado, which compared the telomere length of young (18-32 years) and older (55-72 years) subjects, half of which were ‘sedentary’ and the other half ‘endurance-trained’. 

The results showed that telomere length in the older, endurance-trained subjects was only 7% shorter than the endurance-trained youngsters (compared to 13% difference in the sedentary groups).

What’s more, the higher the subject’s VO2max, the longer their telomeres were. VO2max increases if you do endurance sports, but it does so even more with interval training.

So you should incorporate some explosive efforts into your training to stay young.

Recover properly

If you’ve lived a life of hard knocks, it’s easy to think that your aches and pains are caused by your increasing maturity.

But old injuries are just that, old injuries to cartilage or muscle.

‘There is not a direct correlation between age and injury. Train properly, stay flexible and look after yourself and you’re less likely to get injured,’ says Tim Harkness.

He adds, ‘Professional athletes work harder when they are injured than when they are fit.’ So, if you attempt Alpe D’Huez after six months off the bike and you get injured, it’s not because you’re old, it’s because you’re daft. 

Lose your spare tyre

Visceral fat is the fat that’s laid down in your abdominal cavity around your organs. As we grow older, our metabolism changes and many of us are more inclined to put on fat around our middle.

But rather than accepting that looking like Michelin man is an inevitable part of ageing, you need to take steps to manage it.

Excess body weight ‘wastes energy, slows you down [and] affects performance and stresses joints,’ says Matt Fitzgerald, author of Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, £14.99). 

But cyclists need to keep muscle and lose fat and to do that means incorporating weight-bearing exercise and fast, vigorous, riding into your training.  

Stay motivated

Remember those teenage years when you did something once and instantly got better? Well, we’re sorry to say it, but they’ve gone. Progress comes more slowly as we get older, which can make it hard to feel motivated.

‘Seeing instant and progressive results gives you confidence,’ says Harkness, ‘and with confidence comes motivation.’ 

But rather than chuck your bike in a hedge when it starts getting hard (and then endure the embarrassment of having to retrieve it), it’s time to reassess – being as fit as you can be, given your work and lifestyle, is a more realistic goal than completing the Étape in the top 50.

You can always look to race against people in a similar age bracket to yourself as you get older.

This article originally appeared in Cyclist.co.uk

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