Cycling motivation, nutrition and training for the over 40s.
Above, image of Robert Marchand, the 100 year old Monsieur Magnifcent, who rode 100km recently to celebrate his centenary.
Once was the day when a 40 year old man was considered ‘old’. Just 30 years or so ago, people over 40 looked older, dressed older and thought older. Yet as people nowadays are increasingly knowledgeable about nutrition, exercise and the importance of having an active lifestyle, the idea of just being ‘too old’ has itself become old.
40 has become the new 30. With a decent exercise schedule, a cutting back of alcohol and rich food and a more rational approach to work, stress, and all the other attendant hassles of modern life, we can stay healthier, look better and feel better for longer.
I’m going to presume that I am preaching to the converted, so to speak. If you’re reading this you must already have at least have somewhat of an interest in bikes and riding. But maybe you’ve hit a plateau? Maybe you get out there sometimes, hit a hill whilst riding with the Young Turks and start to actually feel 40+?
Well, don't give up just yet…
Ever wonder just how much can you really achieve, if you put your mind to it? What limitations are there that might hold us back from realizing our true potential, even for us over-40s?
There are not as many as you might think.
As a cyclist who turned professional at the ripe old age of 37 and went on to ride with the best (and finish!) in the 2012 Tour of Qatar and Oman just before my 42nd birthday, raced in Belgium and notched up a decent result or two here and there, I always advocate that it is never too late.
Most people assume that growing old leads to an inevitable decline from vitality and activity to frailty and a sedentary lifestyle. And guess what, for most people, this proves to be right, because that is exactly what happens to them. But who ever wanted to be ‘most people’? Not me, and not you, I hope. Studies on Masters’ level athletes show that muscle mass, power and strength decline far slower in them than in the general population.
Between the ages of 40 and 50 years, we can lose > 8% of our muscle mass; this loss accelerates to > 15% per decade after age 75 years. Loss of muscle mass is often accompanied by loss of strength and functional decline, which can be alleviated by, you guessed it, exercise.
So get training.
Yet how does an average, over-40 year old cyclist go about improving? There are three basic factors to be considered, and they are:
Training, nutrition, and motivation.
On the Bike…
As a cyclist, you already own one of the best pieces of equipment out there for getting fit. The bike provides a low-impact tool that gets you out in the fresh air to work on your cardiovascular system and strengthen muscle and, if you want, to test yourself in competition.
Regular, steady-paced training rides are not bad – if you can get out four times a week for anything from 45 minutes to 2 hours, you’ll increase the speed of your metabolism and your stamina. If you can mix up your training and start to do intervals once or twice a week, even better. The increased demand on your body will help you lose weight faster and become fitter.
Intervals are pretty simple – after a decent 20-30 minute warm-up, find a flat piece of road with little traffic, and sprint near to 100% for 20-40 seconds. Then pedal softly for one minute, then do it again.
As you get fitter, seek out more advanced training plans. Remember, training for hours and hours is old school and often detrimental. Oscar Freire won three World Championships with a bad back and just 15 hours training a week. Train smart and race hard. Maximize your time. Train to race, have that in mind, always.
Listen to your body.
A critical factor. If you don’t want to train on a given day, don’t. Then, when you do feel good, go out and crank it up.
For those wanting to be faster and stronger, I can’t stress enough the importance of training at close to your threshold. For this, find a 15 to 20 kilometer loop where you can simulate a time trial, or, even better, compete in time trials on a regular basis. This allows you to build stamina, speed and raw, base power and will make you fitter all round.
Do this ride weekly, timing it, and you will soon notice the benefits, and as you become stronger those times will plummet. After 3-4 weeks add an extra 5km, then 10.
In the gym.
The benefits of a gym workout for the over-40s are many-fold. The exercises firm up muscles and strengthen ligaments and joints, and, if you include stretching, increase flexibility. You will soon start feeling (and seeing) those benefits if you can stick to a routine, and that is, in my opinion, the best motivator.
Increased muscle mass means your metabolism works harder, thus burning fat quicker. Also, these exercises, for men, help increase testosterone levels, something that decreases in men past 40.
You don’t need to spend 2 hours in the gym – a short, smart 20 minute workout will give you all you need. Train smart, not long.
If the gym isn't your thing, start to include some of the great Youtube, cycling specific non-bike and non-weight workouts, such as this one here, 3-4 times a week.
Low muscle strength is linked to premature death, you can read about it here in this recent study.
Most of us don;t stretch enough when we are younger bus as we get older, those old aches and pains suggest we should definitely be limbering up. Stretching is one of the best prevention tools, preventing neck aches from long rider, pulled and tight muscles and back pain. One of my favourite sources for great stretches for the whole body but specifically the lower back can be found here, featuring Dr. Eric Goodman of Foundation Training.
Don’t fear, a ‘good diet’ doesn’t mean that you will never taste the joy of pizza again, or the crunch of a potato chip – because you’ll be exercising more, you can eat those foods with guilt-free pleasure from time to time.
However all research on nutrition is clear – the healthier you eat, the healthier you’ll become. Staying lean is 70% nutrition and 30% exercise. Fish, meat, chicken, fruit and veg and and 'good' carbs are in.
Finally, a word on alcohol. Drink, by all means – research shows that moderate drinkers live longer than non-drinkers – but drink wisely. A glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or a dark beer is fine but don't overdo it - though most doctors suggest all adults should have at least one day a week without alcohol and regular boozing can affect sleep patterns - and help pack on the pounds.
Here is the tricky part. It’s hard to stay motivated with a job, kids, bills and the other million things that make up a life. Yet doing exercise and eating better is actually being kind to yourself and your family.
The healthier you are, the happier you are – it’s a proven fact. Energy levels increase, concentration become more focused, joints and muscles become stronger, and, crucially, you just might be around on this earth longer to take care of your family and friends.
Other motivators include the weigh scale – jump on there once a week for a boost. If you are dong the right things, the kilos will drop. Also, if you’re interested, try some competitions. There are many different events out there for people to try, from sportifs to real races.
Believe in yourself. Remember that, as an over-40, the bike doesn’t define you and that it isn’t an extension of your ego. That is actually a blessing, trust me! I’ve met enough guys whose whole life is defined by the bike and their performances on it, and it eventually, inevitably, gets messy when you live like that.
That wonderful machine though can be a tool by which you express your will. We’re little dots in the universe, we struggle to be heard amidst the roar of life, and yet the bike allows us to become champions, even if it’s just within the confines of our own minds.
So go practice those victory salutes!
Oh, and the most important thing of all – don’t forget to have fun!
Have expectations but manage them properly. Don’t lose perspective. Cycling demands so many sacrifices, but if you are sacrificing the sense of enjoyment that brought you to the sport in the first place then something is wrong. When I feel my motivation waning I can happily take a week or even two off, even mid-season.
It’s really never too late. Cycling will always welcome you back, even if it makes you hurt a little!