I nearly tied myself in knots defining this. I mean, we’re all getting older aren’t we? I’m older now than when I first started writing this piece. Verbally untying myself, I’m referring to riders over the age of 50, irrespective of sex, skill level or previous training history. Cycling is a sport you can enjoy into genuine old age – there are 70 and 80 year olds on the same start sheet as 14 year olds at my club time trial. The days when you retired at 65, played two rounds of golf and keeled over are, thankfully, long gone.
However, whilst age is not usually seen as a natural performance enhancer it shouldn’t be viewed as something stopping us from getting faster on the bike. It’s achievable, it just takes application. The Principles of Conditioning (adaption, overload, progression, recovery, reversibility and specificity) apply to older riders as much as younger ones, as do the components of fitness. The effective application of these principles lies in their thoughtful, sequenced deployment to the individual.
I’ll explore the specifics with reference to older riders in more detail another time, but for now it’s worth looking at some broad areas.
This is a much neglected area, and getting it right can give you more sustainable, long term satisfaction and fulfilment out of your riding. There are many commonalities around why people ride but the fundamental drives are often different with older riders. I’m risking over characterising here, but younger riders often want to race although they might not be entirely sure (or even care) what they want to compete in. The primary drive is to win. This is natural, they’ve got the time to discover what they’re best at and they haven’t had the chance to experience the whole of the competitive playing field. They calculate risk in a different way. Sometimes, they don't calculate risk at all. Some older riders want to race, but the drives may be different e.g. fitness, weight management, riding in sportives, social, getting in shape for a week’s riding abroad – the list is endless. Having a few years under your belt can bring a clarity of focus about what you want to get out of your cycling and it’s worth spending a bit of time exploring this. Conversely, if you’ve forgotten why you ride and your motivation, commitment and enjoyment of the sport has ebbed, maybe it’s time to find where you left your mojo.
You might want some support in looking at the pillars of sports psychology notably, goal setting, imagery, self-talk and anxiety control/stress re-framing if this is an area you feel has been holding you back. With some work, this could improve your results or, equally importantly, your enjoyment of cycling.
Older riders have different types of engines. Some well trained and tuned, other less so. The adage that riders don’t train hard enough when they train or rest well enough when they rest becomes more relevant to the older rider. Your ability to train hard when needed coupled with effective rest is paramount to developing and building resilient rather than transitory fitness. It needs careful analysis of your performance data and thoughtful planning. Fitness takes a little longer to develop with older riders and training needs to fit around real life, not supplant it. Your training will need to be specific, targeted and measured. The knowledgeable use of a power meter and a heart rate monitor is, in my view, pretty much essential.
Youth brings a natural ability to adapt and, at a pinch, young riders can cash in their genetic youth tokens and avoid doing the supporting activities that are so important to older riders. It’s the little things like active (as opposed to passive) recovery, developing your core strength, stretching, hydration, nutrition, weight bearing exercise, strength and conditioning and the like that become so important. An injury and illness prevention strategy will mean more consistent and effective training as will recognising the importance one of life’s most vital performance enhancers, good quality sleep. In short, do all the right things to support your 'on the bike' training and you will be a better, faster cyclist.
This is particularly important if you’ve come to cycling as an adult rather than as a child. As a kid, skills acquisition, balance and judgement come from playing on your bike, riding off curbs, keeping up with your mates, riding on different surfaces and leaving chunks of skin on them. As an adult you’re not allowed to get your bike out of the garage and play, you’re scared of what the neighbours will say. Youngsters who aspire to ride at elite level often ‘play’ by spending hours training and racing on the track – this can be an intimidating and unforgiving environment for those of us with a few years under our belts. But finding the right environment to develop your skill level will ultimately make you a more efficient rider and can be a rewarding experience. There’s a lot of satisfaction in mastering and executing a new technique.
If you think I can help you get more out of your cycling then get in touch – if nothing else, age brings a little wisdom and we might learn something from each other.
Rich Smith is quite old and knows a few things about getting older after practising for the last 52 years. He still ascribes to his father’s view that whilst getting older presents certain challenges it is better than the alternative. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach, a mature psychology student and in a previous life, has 30 years’ experience working in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.