When Alejandro Valverde became world champion at the age of 38, it proved that consistency, determination and racecraft can go a long way to delaying the effects of ageing on performance. There is no doubt that Valverde is way beyond a normal pro cyclist, his work ethic and determination is something that you can emulate to an extent. Though there comes a point when you would say enough is enough i'm taking my foot off the gas. Think back to his terrible crash in the opening stage of the 2017 Tour, he suffered a broken knee cap and a broken ankle amongst other injuries.
OK, so we know Alejandro has an enormous amount of talent, he didn't start winning when he was 38, he's been winning races since he was a youth. Although many of my clients are beyond 38, we can still compare results to a bygone youth. I will always ride my bike and encourage anyone with a cycling background to reap the benefits of cycling as the years add up.
As you get older you lose muscle mass as a person, both the volume and the number of muscle fibers clearly decrease. The muscles also lose their ability to extract oxygen from the blood. This is mainly due to a decrease in mitochondria and their function. In addition, getting the immune system to deal with the aging process, which on average amounts to a decrease of 2-3% per year starting your 20th year of life. This is mainly due to a decrease in the production of white blood cells and T cells, as a result of which disease and infection will occur more often and faster. It is important to note here that the extent to which these aging processes are deployed varies enormously per individual. Factors such as genetics (talent), nutrition, lifestyle and the degree of physical activity are very important here.
Valverde strength training on the bike
But there is light at the end of the tunnel, because luckily research has shown that physical activity at a later age can delay these processes and even postpone them completely! Strength training and bicycle specific training sessions are both important here. The strength training ensures a less rapid decrease in muscle volume, while the cycling training ensures the adjustments at the cell level (ie in the muscle itself). This makes it possible to postpone the aforementioned aging processes. It is important to note that, from an untrained status, just leisurely cycling is recommended, here you will get enough training effect. If you are an intermediate cyclist, then it is good practice to use high-intensity training in addition to easy Z1/2 rides (so-called HIIT; high intensity interval training). These HIIT courses provide a 49% increase in mitochondrial capacity among young people, and an increase of 69% in veterans.
HIIT training and even strength training can be done very well on the bike. A good HIIT interval is the 40-20, when you produce a max effort for 40 seconds with only 20 seconds of rest. If you manage 10 repetitions, you'll be doing well and would be advised to easy pedal for some time. The type of rest you do between HIIT intervals should not include stopping completely, rather you should engaging in active recovery, like pedalling slowly. This helps flush out lactic acid ahead of your next work period. In addition there is total volume, as in how many intervals you do. It’s easy to do too much with HIIT, which ends up being of no real benefit because by the end of the workout you’re unable to maintain the intensity. As a rule, start with low volume and go as hard as possible. When it feels easy, add a round or two, but drop the RPE slightly.
Another example for good strength training on the bike use climbs, headwinds or turbo sessions with a very heavy resistance on a bicycle, where you try to keep your core muscles as stable and still as possible while seated. The duration should be from 20 minutes upwards depending on your level of fitness. I do encourage my clients to use the gym as part of their strength training, though cyclists can be a bit reluctant to change.
All in all, in endurance sports such as cycling, much progress can be made at a later age. I know this from personal experience, I got all my time trial PB's in 2017 aged 44. However, it is important to be even more specific and aware of the right training incentives as age increases. With a good balance between calm endurance training, HIIT training and strength training you only need the Spaniards will power to become a world champion.
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Duggal, NA, Pollock, RD, Lazarus, NR, Harridge, S., & Lord, JM (2018). Major features or immune senescence, including reduced thymic output, ameliorated by high levels or physical activity in adulthood. Aging cell , 17 (2), e12750.
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Gopinath, B., Kifley, A., Flood, VM, & Mitchell, P. (2018). Physical activity as a determinant of successful aging over ten years. Scientific reports , 8 (1), 10522.
Götschi, T., Garrard, J., & Giles-Corti, B. (2016). Cycling as a part of daily life: a review of health perspectives. Transport Reviews , 36 (1), 45-71.
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