There’s a reason why some of the rides I organise are called “Travelling Ouballie” rides. If you don’t know what an “ouballie” is, or how to pronounce it, I suggest you go read this post first, as it explains it all.
The fact is time marches on relentlessly. We’re all getting older – you may not notice the changes from day to day, but they’re still happening.
Are older cyclists over the hill?
One of the saddest things in life is someone who no longer even tries to do something, because they think they’re too old. When I was in my late 20s, I knew a man who was in his early 30s and who couldn’t sit cross-legged. Why not? Simple: for years (by his own admission) he felt that “grown-ups” didn’t sit cross-legged, and that it was for children.
Those warped views meant he had stopped moving and using his body in ways that our bodies are meant to move and be used. When we challenged him, and he eventually tried, he was quite unable to sit cross-legged. I shudder to think in what physical state he would be now.
Is age all in the mind?
Some people will tell you that it’s all in the mind, and that age is but a meaningless number. There’s a degree of truth to that, but there’s no escaping the impact of our bodies physically getting older. If you don’t believe me, have a look at any sport that requires aerobic and anaerobic power: the upper age limit for success is around 40, give or take a year or two.
If it was all in the mind, then that upper age limit wouldn’t have been there. The oldest winner of a cycling Grand Tour was Chris Horner, at age 41. All those elite athletes have their mental game sorted, and it isn’t simply a case of just thinking yourself into shape.
From personal experience, I can tell you it also takes longer to recover from injury, when you’re older. It’s certainly not impossible, but you need to factor in that longer recovery time.
The reality for the older cyclist
Yes, physical aging changes how our bodies work, and crucially, how they recover. For any physical movement, your muscles requires oxygen, and the max rate at which your body can absorb and use oxygen is called your VO2max rate. As we age, our VO2max rate slowly declines, generally by around 10% per decade, after the age of 30. Strenuous exercise can slow that to around 5% decline per decade.
VO2max relates not only to our lungs, but also our hearts. As we age, our maximum heart rate also decreases. It is the combined reduction in performance of our overall cardiovascular system that causes our reducing VO2max rate.
So it’s all bad news?
Not at all! If you’re in your 40s, 50s, 60s or even 70s, and go for regular long bike rides, chances are your VO2max rate could be significantly higher than that of a 25yo couch potato. The VO2max decline is compared to your own maximum possible rate. When compared to that of a couch potato half your age, it will instantly be obvious that physically you might be in better shape.
Additionally, it is normal for our fast-twitch muscle fibres to decrease, and our slow-twitch ones to gradually increase. That’s not so great if you’re into sprinting, but is very good for endurance. Go look at the average age at an audax event to see how older cyclists can benefit from this.
The benefits of getting regular physical exercise are enormous, and well-documented. Not only your physical health will benefit, but your mental health will also improve.
Look at the photo at the top of this post, and decide what you want to end up like when in your 70s. Most people have a choice: move less, and end up feeble, like the sedentary man in the MRI scan, or keep exercising, and ending up more like the triathlete.
Those MRI images are from a study that was published to the internet, but is no longer (directly) available. However, thanks to the Wayback Machine, you can still view the original.