Age Is Just a Number: Strategies for Optimising Cycling Performance as We Get OlderDonovan van Gelder
We may be easing ourselves into a standing position in the mornings rather than springing out of bed and our music tastes may not extend beyond the turn of the century, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t aspire to good performances on the bicycle. Yes, our absolute best performance years may be behind us but we are far from done if we employ a few simple strategies. Older, not too old.
Testosterone is essential to cycling performance. If we had any doubt about that fact, we just need to check the list of banned athletes who were… supplementing. Not only does it preserve and increase lean muscle mass, it has also been linked to improved cognitive function, helping create red blood cells, greater bone density, and accelerated recovery.
Sadly, as we crest the peak of our youth and head into our thirties, testosterone levels drop by about 1% each year. Not only is age against us but tragically, also our sport. High levels of endurance training such as cycling have also been shown to reduce the levels of resting testosterone, even if the reasons have not been fully understood at this stage.
The production of another very important hormone: Human Growth Hormone, also declines, year on year as we age. As the name suggests, this is also an extremely important hormone involved in recovery and rebuilding after training, and this is where the improvements that we are trying to stimulate by pushing ourselves in training, happen.
We started this article saying that all is not gloom and doom but we seem to have taken a rather tragic turn. Thankfully, there is help at hand…
Weight training – Unlike high levels of endurance training that is catabolic (decreases muscle mass), strength training is anabolic, meaning it raises testosterone levels and builds muscle. It’s why cyclists over fourty and certainly over fifty would benefit from one or two strength sessions a week. Studies have shown that older athletes who weight train have higher testosterone levels, which ultimately leads to higher power output. The key is to incorporate the major muscle groups in compound exercises like squats, deadlifts and the like.
Running – Yes, running is an endurance sport but running hard has been associated with higher testosterone levels. At any intensity though, it has been shown to improve bone density because of its weight-bearing nature and the impact and stress placed on the skeleton when pounding the pavement or trail.
Protein – Increasing our protein intake will also aid the maintenance of muscle mass. More or less half a gram of protein per kilogram of bodyweight spread over four or five servings a day is considered ideal. Including two or three servings of dairy and nuts and grains will also be of great benefit.
Omega-3 – has been demonstrated to make muscle more receptive to the anabolic effects of resistance training and has also been shown in numerous studies to be beneficial in preventing heart disease and stroke. We can increase the amount of oily fish in our weekly meal planning or find a good quality supplement. Keeping in mind that all of these are not created equal.
Glucosamine – A natural compound found in cartilage, it has been found (although not conclusively) to benefit in joint health and could ease those morning aches and pains and the stiffness that follows a long day bent over the handlebars.
PH balance – As we age there is a tendency to develop an acid/alkali imbalance, meaning blood-plasma pH drops lower than we would like. That can further contribute to bone and muscle loss, which is why it’s a good idea to increase consumption of alkaline foods. There are also some good alkaline powders on the market, which can assist to maintain a healthy blood PH.
Recovery – Older athletes need to prioritise what we do between hard training sessions. We tend to take a bit longer than our younger counterparts so, need to employ all the tricks of the trade in order to even the playing field. We may not be able to do as many quality sessions as we did in our youth but we definitely need to keep the recovery sessions in between, at the required intensity level. Keeping that competitive nature in check on an easy-day group-ride is essential. Hopefully we have matured as we have aged.
Massage – As much a part of professional cycling as the bicycle. Regular massage will help stimulate muscle recovery and flush out toxins and metabolites that result from hard pedalling. It will also help to ease tension and stress from training and daily life and flows nicely into our last point…
Sleep – Our greatest recovery tool. Obviously we would want to aim at maximising not only the hours between going to sleep and rising in the morning but we also want to improve the quality of that sleep. Reducing screen-time before bed, eliminating caffeine late in the day and alcohol will all improve the quality of our Zs. But… here we have an advantage over our younger selves… older athletes’ lives are generally more settled. Our children are older and our work and recreational schedule is probably more stable. Allowing time for the odd nap.
It has been shown that if we can nap for long enough, at least a half an hour, we release those hormones like testosterone and growth hormone that help to repair and build muscle. Even better news is that during these snoozes, we don’t even need to fall asleep. Just letting our mind wander and relax and we’ll still enjoy rejuvenation benefits.