Training tips for aging cyclists: how to maintain fitness and speed

For many of us, cycling is not just a sport, but a lifestyle that keeps us healthy, happy and creates energy and motivation that we carry over into the rest of our lives. One of the major benefits of cycling is that, unlike many sports, it’s a lifestyle we can continue well into our later years. However, we can’t ignore that, as we age, our bodies undergo changes that can impact our performance on the bike. 

However, with the right approach and mindset, older cyclists can continue to excel and enjoy their rides. In this article, we’ll explore some valuable training tips tailored specifically for older cyclists, helping you to maintain fitness and speed as you age gracefully.

Before we do that, it’s vital that we understand the aging process. As we grow older, several physiological changes occur in our bodies that can affect our overall fitness and cycling performance. In fact, our bodies peak when we are in our 20s and then start to decline, initially that decline is hardly noticeable but it speeds up the older we get. Although studies suggest that the rate of decline is less in active people, which should be reason enough to hop on the home trainer.

What causes that decline?

  1. Decreased muscle mass: With age, there is a gradual decline in muscle mass, known as sarcopenia.This decline is primarily due to a decrease in the production of growth hormones and we see that the fast twitch (type II) muscle fibers used for heavy workouts that involve lifting or climbing, anaerobic efforts and sprints are lost faster than slow twitch fibers. This is mainly because we rarely use those fast twitch fibers in our daily activities. 
  2. Reduced aerobic capacity: Our hearts’ and lungs’ ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles diminishes with age, resulting in a decline in aerobic capacity (known in fitness circles as VO2). This can lead to decreased endurance and slower recovery times during and after rides. In fact, maintaining a higher VO2 is highly correlated with increased health and longevity.
  3. Loss of flexibility and joint mobility: Aging often brings about a decrease in flexibility and joint mobility, which makes us increasingly prone to injuries and discomfort. Longer rides or more intense training sessions can really bring this to the fore.
  4. Slower recovery: Finally, one of the biggest complaints you’ll hear from older athletes is how much longer it takes them to recover from intense workouts or long rides, due to our bodies’ decreased ability to repair and regenerate muscle tissue.

So, these are the challenges we face as the years roll by. But in spite of all this, it’s entirely possible to maintain our fitness, speed and power as we age. In fact, some cyclists and triathletes continue to see gains well into their senior years. The key is to have a more precise and intentional approach to training. Here are a few tips to consider.

1. Prioritize strength training

We’ve all long known that strength training can improve our cycling performance across the board, but the importance of strength or resistance training increases considerably as we age. Rather than seeing strength training as a supplement to on-the-bike training, you should now make it the centerpiece of your week and structure your cycling routine around it in order to counteract the loss of muscle mass and maintain overall strength and power. Focus on compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and lunges to target multiple muscle groups simultaneously and, once your technique is solid, build to doing fewer reps of heavier weights. On the bike, incorporate more high torque sessions on your home trainer, focused on pushing a big gear at low cadence.

2. Include flexibility and mobility exercises

If you start dedicating time to stretching and mobility exercises, your joints will thank you after every long ride. You can work on flexibility and range of motion in just a few minutes each day, or join a local Yoga or Pilates class – this type of session can be particularly beneficial for older cyclists to enhance flexibility, core strength, and balance.

3. Optimize your training volume and intensity

In terms of on-the-bike training, this is the secret sauce right here. Research shows that intensity and frequency are the most important elements for maintaining aerobic capacity as you age. However, aging bodies take longer to recover, so going hard too often is likely to lead to overtraining, burnout or injury. So, how do you manage that mix?

Instead of chasing high mileage or long hours in the saddle, focus on the quality of your workouts. Incorporate interval training, hill repeats, and tempo rides to improve your speed, power, and aerobic capacity. We’ve covered before why the smart bike and smart trainer are ideal for this sort of training.

The second part of the equation is recognizing the aging athlete’s increased need for recovery. By reducing overall volume, you should be able to maintain that all-important frequency and a good rule of thumb is to allow 48 to 72 hours of recovery between intense or longer rides.

4. Listen to your body

While maintaining intensity and frequency in general is critical, it’s equally crucial that you learn to listen to your body and respect its limitations as you age. Incorporating scheduled and well-planned rest days and recovery weeks into your training plan gives your body the time it needs to recover. With age comes experience, and you should use those years of know-how to recognise when you’re feeling fatigued or on the edge of illness to dial back the intensity or take an extra rest day. 

Take a helicopter view of the whole season, or even multiple seasons, and you’ll find it easier to see the benefits of taking a couple of additional rest days this week to allow for better frequency and consistency for the rest of the month. This might all sound like a difficult balancing act and that’s why aging athletes arguably benefit more from a structured training plan or coach than younger athletes, who have more margin for trial and error.


5. Fuel your body properly

Handily, the same rule that applies to training holds true for nutrition too: focus on quality over quantity. As we age, our metabolism slows, which is why even healthy, active people tend to put on a few extra kilos as they get a little older. So, on the one hand, you may not need to consume the gargantuan feasts you once did to fuel your training.

On the other hand, good hydration, nutrition and sleep can help to offset some of those physiological changes we face as we age. Consuming enough protein (and a carb/protein mix after training sessions) and adequately hydrating before, during, and after rides can help to support muscle repair and recovery, as well as the overall immune system to limit the number of training days lost to illness. 

It’s foolish to think that aging won’t have an impact on your cycling, but by recognizing exactly what’s happening to your body and adapting your training routine accordingly, aging doesn’t have to mean slowing down on the bike. 

With the right training approach, older cyclists can continue to enjoy shooting up cols, racing to stop signs and smashing out Zwift races with friends while maintaining their fitness and speed. By prioritizing strength training, flexibility, and smart training strategies, you can stay strong, resilient, and competitive on the road or trail for years to come.