The Cycling Ageing Process

by | Mar 10, 2017

I had a funny blog planned for this week. Educational, interactive and highly amusing. However, due to pressing concerns about the cycling ageing process, I have had to shelve it. Worry not, the humour will show its funny face in due course.

Now, some of you may be aware that it was my birthday last Sunday. (Thank you for all of the kind wishes. I had a pretty average day thanks for asking but that is beside the point.)  Nothing to worry about. I mean – it’s nothing but a number, right?

I turned 45.

How do I feel about this? In what way has it prompted me to park the infinitely more amusing blog? What is this thing called life all about?

I care not one jot about my age. Neither my birthday, nor my age, prompted me to park the funny blog and deprive you of a smile. This thing called life is all about Es (but more on that another time.)

So what is all the fuss about then? Let me explain…

TT Race Old V New

Head up Mr!  Head down Mrs!

 

Your Cycling Age

During the course of my birthday my 5 year old daughter found it highly amusing to sing happy birthday, referring to Daddy as “the 5 year old”. (This was not why I had an average day by the way). However, 5 is the magic number in this case.

Somebody wise once told me that it takes about 5 years of ‘structured training’ to “find your legs”. This refers to the process for all of the key physiological adaptations to take hold to the point where they really plateau out. From a cycling ageing process perspective – it is about growing up.

I asked my resident sports science advisor whether he agreed with this and he rather unhelpfully and somewhat cryptically told me that he would “ask Lance Armstrong’s lawyer”. Strange but true..

Anyway lets have a quick look at the science.

 

Finding your legs

I won’t bore you with all of the detail, which you can read about here, but some of the main adaptations include:

Skeletal Muscle

  • Increase in the cross sectional area of your slow twitch muscle fibres
  • Increased number of capillaries in trained muscle thus allowing increased blood flow
  • Increased muscle fibre recruitment (one of my personal favourites)
  • Muscle hypertrophy or increased size (not so keen on this one)
  • Connective tissue strengthening

 

Metabolic Adaptations

  • Increased size and number of mitochondria (another favourite) and oxygen storage capacity = greater ability of muscles to use oxygen
  • Higher capacity of muscles to store glycogen (longer to Bonk)
  • Greater ability of muscles to use fat as energy (fasted ride anyone?)

 

Cardiovascular and Respiratory Adaptations

  • Increased cardiac stroke volume (volume of blood pumped per heart beat) – largely due to increased blood volume and, simply put, a better and more efficient heart.
  • Reduced blood pressure at rest
  • Reduced resting heart rate (a mate asked me if my resting HR = my age – answer: sometimes…)
  • Increased pulmonary ventilation rate (mainly due to increased blood flow to the lungs)

 

This is by no means an exhaustive list but, in layman’s terms, you can see that there is a lot of shit going on.

 

How long do these adaptations take?

In my second exchange with my sports science advisor he answered this question with “How long is a piece of string?” I think I may need a new sports science advisor but, ok, fair point..

Simplifying again and starting from an untrained point of view, the main changes or markers in fitness will plateau at different rates:

  • VO2 Max – will typically plateau after about 6 months. Think of this as your oxygen delivery capability.
  • Lactate Threshold – this is your oxygen utilisation capability. You will see marked improvements over a few years as you increase capillaries in the muscle, develop mitochondria etc…
  • Efficiency – basically what power you can get out for a metabolic cost. Things like pedalling technique will affect efficiency and this can continue improving for a good number of years…

 

So my hypothesis of it taking 5 years to “find your legs” is not an unreasonable one. But. It is highly individual. Like a piece of string. Or a sports science advisor.

 

So what?

Well, I am undergoing my 4th year for structured training. So I reckon that I am yet to fully find my legs. My cycling age is 4.

Effects of ageing on performance

It is well documented that your physical capability declines with age. The cycling ageing process if you will.  For example, your heart does not work as well. Max HR declines. This has a knock on effect to your VO2 max, which also declines year on year.

Certainly it takes longer to recover when you are an Old Goat (not to be confused with Mountain Goat, which is a good thing). I was recently chatting with a mate about a dude who had signed up for a TT in the morning and was also doing a road race in the afternoon. This seemed like an ambitious plan but we concluded that he could get away with it “because he is about 21”.

There are a whole host of other bad things that happen to your body as you age.

Blah blah blah…

 

You are only as old as the man (or woman) you feel

Or so the saying goes..

I have a cautionary word in terms of how you view your age and this is really the whole point of this post:

As soon as you start thinking that you are old, you are already dead..

There you go. A fairly bold statement, but one that has been in the forefront of my mind ever since I decided to make the transition from weekend warrior/MAMIL to a bike rider. I very rarely talk about age (which is ironic given this post), I do not care about vets or masters races (unless they happen to get me onto a fast TT course) and I never use age as an excuse.

This sport is hard enough as it is but if you are on the limit, racing against a 21 year old, you cannot for a second think that he/she has got 24 years on you (or whatever the number is). If you do that you will likely watch his/her 21 year old posterior disappear down the road..

On Monday nights I regularly get my posterior handed to me at Herne Hill Velodrome Race Training by teenagers. This week a 14 year old chap (lets call him Ronald) took me to school as follows:

  1. I could barely hold Ronald’s wheel in the 2up team sprint to take a lap on the group
  2. I lost 3 out of 4 times in the 3up sprint for the line and only won a short one where I got the jump on him
  3. I watched Ronald pull 2 lap turns in the Team Time Trial where I was just about hanging on doing half laps

 

The thing is, I love this. I love the fact that he can do this. He respected me for pushing him. I respected him for being awesome. I didn’t ask him how long he had been riding. Who knows if he has “found his legs” yet? He is certainly nowhere near his peak. But then again, neither am I!

As an aside, when I was 14 I was a ‘Baller.  No, not strictly what you are thinking.. I played basketball pretty seriously and regularly gave the 45 year olds in the West Midlands local leagues a good schooling.  Except for the inmates of Featherstone Prison – I toned it down a bit for them 😉

 

What’s the moral of the story?

Robert Marchand

Robert Marchand

 

Age is nothing but a number and your age truly is a state of mind. Do you think that Robert Marchand thinks of himself as a 105 year old? I doubt it. I would imagine Robert considers himself to be a bike rider and world record holder.. I can’t believe that he gives much thought to his cycling ageing process.

On a personal level, I am looking forward to seeing what a 4 year old can do this season but can’t wait to turn 5!

I am mildly aware that I have been on the planet for 45 years yet I am really looking forward to turning 50 as that is when I get to ride the whole Tour de France route of that year with Tour de Force.  Care to join me?

As ever, thanks for putting up with my ramblings which can only get worse now that I am another year older…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hi, I’m the Unhinged Cyclist. That’s me in the pointy helmet with my trusty mower..

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