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RAGBRAI Training: Advice for "Mature" Riders

  • 25 April, 2011
  • TJ Juskiewicz

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 


  1. Mary Alterman

    I haven’t been riding a bike for the past fifty years or so, at least not in any consistent way. I had to stop playing tennis (and ski, less) because of the arthritis in my knees and so I decided to take up biking. (That was last year). This year, as I was trying to decide how to celebrate turning sixty, I remembered Ragbrai (I live in Minnesota but was born and raised in Iowa, Carroll, Iowa, to be exact). Your advice has been helpful but I am having to tweak it a little for an “older newbie”. If you have anything specific to add for first time riders over 55, I’d appreciate it.

    Thanks for all your well-written and informative essays.

  2. Schley Cox

    Last year was my first RAGBRAI. I was 65 and I am coming back this summer (just received my number). Based on my experience last year I have some tips. First it’s OK to walk a hill. There were a number of hills last year that just popped up from a flat and there was no way get any momentum at the start. I yelled “STOPPING”, hopped off plodded to the top. Another tip: drink water and electrolyte drinks all day. Plus, eat all day long — just a little bit at a time. Finally, for all you diabetics (like me) check that you don’t conk. I’m still on oral meds and last July one of the nice Iowa intern docs told me to stop taking my oral med for the rest of the week. My blood sugar was 80 AFTER I ate a meal. She directed my back to the town trough. After a cheeseburger, a funnel cake and a sugar root beer I went back and my blood sugar had shot up to 120. Don’t take my medical advice. I’ve never even played a doctor on TV. Get you own advice from a real doc. Don’t be surprised if for a whole week you’re not diabetic any longer.
    Ride on,
    Schley Cox, Team narthXpress (It’s an Episcopalian thing)

  3. Cheri Shatto

    Thank you Ladies. This will be my first year I am 63 and I am having trouble getting out on my bike due to weather in NW Iowa. Schley the walking the really bad hills makes a lot of sense thanks for that tip…The riding I have done makes me feel great and I did get up to 10 miles one day with few after effects then the weather turned bad again…
    So whatis the best way to train when you can’t get out and ride?

  4. Don Walter

    I’m 58 and I started riding about seven years ago, after having gotten overweight and sedentary. I lost the weight, but realized if I didn’t exercise it would come right back. First, I started running – a little at first but now can do my daily three miles most days of the week. (I’d recommend the book “Younger Next Year” as inspiration and counsel.) My first attempt to add riding to my running was a day on the Katy trail on an old mountain bike with under-inflated tires. 44 miles later I’d already learned what not to do. I’ve now completed the Katy – both directions, in one and two day stints. However, those of you in Iowa have much better trails right around Des Moines. If you live around Des Moines the Raccoon River Valley Trail, the High Trestle Trail, and the Summerset Trail are wonderful places to ride. The point – like the coach said, don’t underestimate your ability to build endurance. My friend who coaxed me to ride a couple days of RAGBRAI this year reminded me it is a ride, not a race. Over the years I’ve been riding I like to joke that my three favorite friends to ride with are water, sugar, and ibuprofen. Having grown up in Iowa I’m a bit concerned about the heat, but I’ve also learned that there is no shame in listening to your body and taking a break. Let’s face it folks, by the time any of us make 50+ we’ve already faced more challenges to our grit than this. If we’ve made it through those, this is just one more notch in the belt of experience. Ride on!
    An old Hawkeye transplanted to Jayhawk territory. Love them birds!

  5. Linda

    Thank you for the info.. this is my first Ragbrai. I’m 63. I rode my first 35 miles today and I feel it. I’m tired and ache. I plan to take any easy 20 miles tomorrow. I have been staying with the riding schedule and a little ahead. I have logged a total 550 miles since I started training. Some days I think I can ride Ragbrai and will be ready and then today after 35 miles and the body ache, I wonder if I will be able to average 68 miles a day for 7 days. If I get
    1,000 miles logged…how important is it that I get up to 175 miles in one week?

  6. Gary Watts

    I begin the spring on an old, heavy bike doing lots of gravel roads. I switch to a lighter road bike and up the distance and speed. If I can do 20 hard miles and work on my cattle farm 8+ hours I’m ready for RAGBRAI

  7. Mark Epperson

    Rule #1 – This is your vacation, enjoy it your way!
    This means walking the hills you need to walk, stopping when you need to stop, and taking a day off if you need it…. You can always find a bus willing to help someone out.

    Rule #2 – Eat. Constantly. Most remember to stay hydrated…but many forget to eat the 3X the calories they need to fuel their trip. This is no place to diet.

    Rule #3 – It’s a tour not a race…. Speed is not an issue.

    Rule #4 – Consider a “comfort camping” option like http://www.shuttleguy.com. They’ll provide tents, air mattresses, beverages, and give you a quiet camping experience where you can rest….unless you WANT to hang out with the 20-something’s in the main campground?

    If you need it, get a medical recommendation…. I’m an insulin dependent diabetic with one kidney. I’ve done the last 6 RAGBRAIs, and working with my endo I now know that I should drop my Basil by 50% on the second day and stop bolusing for meals….but check first as YMMV (your milage may vary)

    Lastly….. Come ride with me! RAGBRAI is the high point of my summers!

  8. rsumwalt

    My second RAGBRAI this year right after I celebrate by 60th birthday! I recommend:

    1) Training correctly and building up miles. Use Coach Ertl’s schedule – I did last year and had no trouble. Trained the 1,000 miles in SC where we ride year round, and may not his the 1,000 this year so it may be interesting. Take long easy rides to get your body used to the distance. Remember, in RAGBRAI, you can stop for a half hour, hour, whatever, so it becomes a bunch of 15 mile rides if you want it to.

    2) Drink a glass of chocolate milk right after every 15+ mile ride. This is the best recovery drink you can find and it keeps you from damaging yourself so that you can ride more and without major intervals between rides.

    3) Study the hills in the upcoming RAGBRAI and go do practice rides with that amount of ascent in them to see how hard they will be on you. They should get easier as you train more.

    4) This year, I am going to stop more in towns and enjoy myself more. I conquered RAGBRAI last year; this year I am going to dunk more nuns and eat more corn and ice cream.

    5) If you are starting, and old like me, get a physical from a doctor before you start and maybe a check before you go to RAGBRAI. Make sure you don’t have something wrong, so that you can really enjoy yourself without concern.


  9. Karen

    Last year was my first year on RAGRBRAI, and I was 52. I ended up only riding two days because my husband got sick, and we had to go home. I rode 82 miles one day and 50 the next! I was so proud of myself. This year I want to try to make it every day, but if I don’t at least I tried! I train with my new husband and he encourages me, which is very helpful. We got in about 200 miles last year before we started. We train first on flats and then we start working in hills. My husband has ridden RAGBRAI for 30 some years so he has a lot of practical knowledge. My advice to older riders is to have fun, keep moving and don’t take yourself too seriously! It’s a blast!

  10. Bacchettaman

    Last year I rode my first ragbrai at 57. With the proper training you’ll be able to take in ragbrai like it was a menagerie… which it is! It will be over too soon. I had great time! Resist riding a faster rider’s pace. Relax and ride YOUR favorite pace. There’s no shame in riding all the way to the right, life is easy there and you can watch the show. If u take n-saids for inflammation bring extra along, DON’T run out. Ragbrai has a way of bringing on dehydration very insidiously. If your discharge is dark-yellow that’s a red flag. Drink up!

  11. Ginny Sweeney

    For those over 50 + Four years ago I fell and fractured L1 in my back, then two and a half years ago I had more fractures-four in one month in my left foot, then tore tendons in my left elbow, sprained an ankle-I was falling apart all while doing basically nothing but a simple walking program. Mayo clinic determined I had osteopenia, arthritis and some connective tissue problems plus prednisone had helped me gain a lot of weight. I started to ride bike while I still had a cast on, only a few blocks at first, slowly increasing. Last year I rode one day in Ragbrai-what a life changing experience. Now I ride anywhere from 14 to 40 miles a day, walking during winter when too icy to ride. In February I had an emergency Compartment Syndrome and ended up having all three facia in my right lower leg cut open. This was not caused by exercise but my connective tissue disorder. Anyway , I just finished five days of testing at Mayo Clinic yesterday. Since I started riding two years ago I no longer have osteopenia-bones are normal, my asthma has disappeared, no more sleep apnea, heart rate and pressure is normal and my connective tissue and ligaments are getting enough circulation that they have strengthened considerably. My pain is now in control with maybe one pain pill a day as compared to 6 to 8 two years ago. They are even willing to put off further surgery to my back and a past injury to my left shoulder saying if I continue the riding I won’t need it for a long time and the arthritis I was getting seems to have slowed tremendously. The Mayo doctors were in awe at the improvement and gave me a full go ahead on Ragbrai saying only to follow the regime and increase slowly. So this year I’m trying for the whole week with a back up of a Sag bus-don’t want to take any chances of overdoing and not being able to continue riding when it’s over. This is a lifetime committment and a fun one. Thank you Ragbrai for all you give us!

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