RAGBRAI Training: Advice for “Mature” Riders
I received a question from a ‘mature’ rider asking if I could give some advice addressing riding and training for the older cyclist. So this is the subject of this blog. As 52 myself, I certainly do not feel old at all or consider myself old. After all, cycling is the real fountain of youth! But there are a few things I notice about riding that I didn’t 20 years ago.
The first thing that goes with age is the ability to recover. Once one gets into their late 30s, the ability to recover starts to decrease. You will notice that after a long or hard ride, it may take a good two days before you feel good again, maybe even three as we get into our forties and fifties. There are a number of things that can be done to enhance recovery, and cyclists of every age should be doing these, but it becomes even more important as you get older to pay attention to these. First, be sure to rehydrate and refuel after rides. The quicker you can get food and fluid into your body, the faster it can get to work on recovery. You should also listen to your body and heed its need to recover. If you had a hard ride two days ago and your legs are still sluggish, give them another day before hitting them hard again (this is in reference to preparing for RAGBRAI, not once you are there!). The other thing you should do is do active recovery on your days off between harder rides. This means going out for a nice easy spin in a very easy gear. Let the legs spin around with little pressure on your pedals. Spin quickly. This gets the muscles loosened up and the blood circulating. It’s a means of giving your legs a massage. This will help you recover more quickly than not riding at all for a couple of days.
The other thing you will notice is your speed isn’t quite as good as it used to be as you age. However, the better trained you are, the more slowly your speed will decrease. I am the Director of the Iowa Games Cycling Time Trial event. Two years ago, first, second and fourth places went to riders 50 and older. Age shouldn’t have to be an excuse for slowing down. With modern advances in equipment, nutrition and training, it is possible for some people to continue to get faster despite getting older. I still refuse to use age as an excuse, so long as there are older people who are faster than me!
The other tendency is to put on some extra pounds as we age. This doesn’t have to be the case. We aren’t programmed to get fat as we get older, but it seems that way. A number of things happen as we age. We tend to get jobs that become increasingly sedentary, thus we burn less calories all day long. Second, we get busy with careers and families and often neglect our own fitness and health. Fortunately, cycling is a great calorie burning activity that can be done as we age as long as we make it a priority and get it done. Third, our metabolisms do decrease somewhat as we age. But this is mostly due to loss of muscle mass and loss of physical activity as we age. Metabolism can remain quite high as long as we exercise regularly and vigorously, and as long as we maintain muscle mass. Cycling is great for maintain muscle mass in our legs, but cyclists can lose upper body muscle as we age if we don’t continue to do upper body strength training.
However, the one aspect of fitness that tends to hang in there quite well as we age is endurance. If you look at the results for 24 hour races, you will notice that many of the winners are in their 40s and 50s. You even see people in their 40s in winning Olympic gold medals now. Endurance is gained by years of riding long distances. Physical changes take place in your body such as increased number of mitchondria and blood vessels in the muscles, a larger heart muscle and increased blood volume. These are changes that take a long time to gain (many years) but also take many years to go away, as long as you keep riding. So this is very good news for you as RAGBRAI riders. You may not go as fast, but you can still go as far.
So the bottom line is this: There are some things that change with age, but if you are healthy and fit, these effects should be minimal until you reach your late 50’s. A greater dropoff in fitness is observed in the 60s and certainly in the 70s. However, do not use age as an excuse or it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know some amazing cyclists who continue to ride into their 80s, and quite fast at that. Keep riding, maintain your weight and stay healthy and you will riding riding into your 80s and maybe even 90s!
Coach David Ertl
David Ertl is a USA Cycling Level 1 (Elite) Coach and owner of Cyclesport Coaching. He coaches individual cyclists, the Des Moines Cycle Club Race Team and the JDRF Greater Iowa Chapter for the Ride to Cure Diabetes. He can be contacted at Coach@CyclesportCoaching.com