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Coaching: Cyclists 35 years and older have more options than ever

Posted on: January 13th, 2019

Cycling is a sport where huge improvement gains can be made well after the mid 30s and where riders are still competing in Ireland well into their 70s and even into their 80s. Above, Paul Bolger takes bronze in the Masters 50 race at the National Road Championships in Co Kildare two years ago (Photo: Sean Rowe)

 


With appropriate training, the physiological impact of ageing can be hugely reduced and older cyclists can achieve levels of performance beyond their imaginations, writes coach Tom Daly of Masters Cycling Coaching.


 

By Dr Tom Daly

Masters Cycling Coaching

The increased number of older people involved in cycling has become a phenomenon in many parts of the world.

The trend in Ireland is similar, with the recent surge in cycling very much focused on riders aged 30 to 35 years and older.

Cycling is also the preferred option for those moving on from other sports and wishing to remain active and competitive.

Mass participation events like sportives, grand fondos and the l’Etape du Tour are dominated by older riders and some of these events have a strong quasi-competitive element.

The number of older riders involved in pure competition hasn’t increased proportionately in Ireland yet, though the trend is moving that way.

In places like the USA and Australia, the masters’ categories often attract the biggest fields and are highly competitive. And it is no unusual to see those aged 70 years and older competing.

The World Master’s Cycling Federation Championships now attracts over 3,000 older competitors to Austria every summer.

Irish masters’ competitors have been particularly successful on the track.

In line with these trends, Cycling Ireland has introduced masters’ categories at national championship level in all disciplines.

At this weekend’s National Cyclocross Championships, the race with the biggest field is the Masters 40 event.

And there were also enough riders for separate Masters 50 and Masters 60 events.

This gives older riders fresh opportunities, motivation, and a chance to re-evaluate their goals.

 

Riders like Orla Hendron refuse to slow down with age; the Dubliner having won world masters titles on the track in recent years.

 

Getting Older – The Good & Bad News

We know the bad news. All aspects of performance deteriorate gradually after a certain age – strength, speed, endurance, power and so on.

So let’s not dwell on this too much, even though we will be looking at each of these in more detail in further installments.

The good news is much more palatable and there is a lot of it.

The main message is that the decline in performance results as much from reduced activity as it does from the natural ageing process.

In other words, with appropriate training the physiological impact of ageing can be hugely reduced.

And older cyclists can achieve levels of performance beyond their imaginations.

A great amount of research has been done on older athletes in recent years. There are still gaps in our knowledge.

But the research available to us, along with smart training and the wisdom gained from having so many older riders still very active, have led us to a place where performance gains can be huge well beyond our mid 30s.

For example, in the 60 years and older group, those riders who have maintained good training habits can routinely race at over 40kph.

Most of the winning times in the first modern Olympics in 1896 have now been bettered by athletes in their 70s.

The veteran’s cycling category in Ireland, originally put in place for riders who were ‘over the hill’, now counts among its ranks some of the very best riders on the home scene.

Not the best for their age; but riders who can go toe to toe with top elite men in their 20s and beat them in some of the longest and hardest races of the year.

So, across the full spectrum of older athletes, horizons just keep expanding, performances keep improving and the bar is raised higher and higher.

 

Now in his 40s, Paul Kennedy has returned to racing in recent years and took a bronze medal in the elite criterium championships. The field included professional and full time amateur riders half his age (Photo: Sean Rowe)

What is ‘old’?

When we talk about the ‘older cyclist’, what do we mean by ‘old’? There’s really no definitive answer.

The different physiological systems do not decline at the same rate and individuals can vary greatly.

Track sprinters, for example, may notice a drop in performance from their late 30s while pure endurance riders can maintain their top level for more than a decade longer.

Road racers lie somewhere in between – most will need to make changes to training patterns from their early 40s.

But they are not significantly disadvantaged until their mid or late 40s.

In very general terms, assuming that you train right, performance drops by approximately 1 per cent each year from the mid 40s to the mid 60s, and accelerates somewhat after that.

However, ‘age’ is relative. In a masters’ competition with age-related bands, nobody is at a large age disadvantage.

In the Cycling Ireland ranking system, older road racers are graded by ability just like everybody else, irrespective of age.

The Limitations

If cycling and competition is such a good thing for slightly older people, why do the numbers participating drop proportionate to age, particularly towards 50 years and beyond?

There are a number of reasons for this; physical attrition being an obvious one. Injuries and ill-health can take their toll.

Motivation and the competitive instinct can also decline, and some become just too busy with family and career.

The lack of age-appropriate competition can also be de-motivating.

Some would-be older athletes are also put off by over-cautious advice on health and injury risks.

For example, middle-aged and older people are given stern warnings about consulting their physician before engaging in vigorous exercise.

Yet, they are not warned to do the same if they don’t take up vigorous exercise, which carries a much bigger risk.

However, the biggest limitation on how much exercise we do, at what intensity and whether we race when we grow a little older seems to be attitude.

For example, there is an assumption that racers will retire, normally from their mid-30s.

Some will join the 80 per cent of Irish people 50 years and older who are obese or overweight.

Along with this attitude, some people believe that older cyclists just shouldn’t race; in the same way they believed in the past that women or people with disabilities shouldn’t race.

Overcoming the attitude barrier, both within ourselves and from others, is the biggest gap to more participation, competition, and greater achievement

 

Sportives are full of riders doing great things into their 40s, 50s and beyond; many fitter now than in their so-called younger ‘prime’ years.

 

The Possibilities

Given the right attitudes and conditions, there are a host of possibilities and goals for older cyclists.

Having said that, the older we get the more we need to be well informed, well prepared, and to adjust training appropriately.

The older physiological system responds differently to the stresses of training. Doing things the same old way won’t work well forever.

We get away with less as we get older. Poor habits will have a more pronounced detrimental effect.

More attention is needed to off-the-bike aspects of training and lifestyle and we may have to re-learn good habits if neglected in the past.

These changes and approaches, however, all lead to a more healthy, interesting and enjoyable lifestyle.

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