Cycling over 60 (or over 70)

Recently I searched for information on bicycle training for people over 60. At this time, I happen to be in that tier and in December 2015 I bound into the next higher tier. Much of the training information on the Internet is geared toward racing and competitive cycling.

Instead my objective is to be able to enjoy bicycle touring for as long as I can. Also, I’ve never been an athlete. The difference between an athlete and me is that I’m training for endurance and not speed. I want to be able to ride up to 70 miles and have something left at the end of the day.

With that in mind, I will talk about the things that work for me. I’m not a sports training or physiology expert, but after my first 400 mile self-supported tour in 2012 I have successfully done about 1000 miles in bicycle tours each year . I have toured with groups and have also done self-planned tours.

There is a more scientific approach by Richard Raforth, MD, in his article on Aging and Physical Performance. His Cycling Performance Tips site covers a number of other cycling topics. He covers bicycle racing, but also discusses distance touring.

My interest in touring came late in life and I am fortunate to be fit and healthy enough to jump in as I did. I envy some of the people that I meet who have done more ambitious tours when they were younger such as trans-America and Ireland to Sicily. I have also met many people like me who love the adventure of a 300 to 400 mile self-supported ride. In any case, the rides don’t come for free without personal investment in training.

Annual rides for me total about 3000 miles, including 2000 training miles and 1000 touring miles. When the weather is acceptable, I do two or three 25 mile rides each week, sometimes four. Acceptable weather is no rain and no snow on the ground. Otherwise, I find that riding in the cold, or on hot and humid days, or on windy days prepares me for most kinds of weather on the trail.

My average speed over a 25 mile training ride is 14 to 16 miles per hour. At the halfway point I always stop for a short break to hydrate and snack. My average speeds on a tour, whether fully loaded or unloaded, tend to be around 10 miles per hour. One of the differences is that on a tour my daily mileage is often between 50 and 70 miles. Another factor on a tour is that I spend a lot of time enjoying the scenery and attractions along the way.

I record all of my rides and I keep a spreadsheet of my training rides. I record my training rides using the Strava app on my iPhone and I record my tours on a GPS handheld device. I use the GPS on tours because it makes better use of batteries. I have a Strava Premium Membership that adds the capability to compare my performance with others in my age or weight group. The objective of my spreadsheet is to understand my performance from season to season and from year to year. The goal is to sustain my performance over time.

Sustaining performance means that sometimes a ride is going to burn. The muscle burn means that you are working hard and that you are striving. Muscles will recover quickly from the workout as long as you avoid injury. At my age I strive to avoid anything that could cause an injury and a recuperation period off the bike.

To sustain performance, I almost always ride the same two trails for training. I have memorized the grades and I understand the performance that I need to achieve on each segment. I know where I need to crank a little harder to get up a grade. I know where I need to shift gears to keep my cadence up on the downhill grades.

Cadence is the number of complete revolutions per minute that you achieve on the crank. I’ve seen people recommend a cadence of 80 or 90, which I think is high. A comfortable and sustainable cadence for me is somewhere in the 60 to 75 range. I will choose a gear that allows me to continue that cadence up hills, against the wind, and at slow speeds when fatigued. Likewise downhill or going fast. My downhill caveat is that I don’t like to go much over 25 miles per hour for safety reasons.

Every once in a while my competitive nature kicks in. It happens like this. I’ll see a rider closing from behind and I will start cranking a little harder. If I’m passed, I make a decision: shall I pace this person or ease off and drop back, maintaining my own pace? The decision is easy when a twenty-something passes me and clearly is sustaining speeds 10 miles an hour or more faster than me. In some cases, I will stretch myself to keep up, sometimes for 6 to 10 miles all the way to the trail head. Those are usually great rides for me because they push me to the upper limit of my performance and I get a great feeling of achievement.

The point is that it is important to challenge yourself. I respect people who get onto the trail and lope along because at least they are making an effort to exercise. But you need to challenge yourself if you want to maintain your physiological capabilities or at least minimize the decline as you age. The health benefits of this approach are well documented.

The bicycle that you use on training rides is also, in my opinion, important. My philosophy is that you should train on the bicycle that you plan to use on tours. Bicycle geometry, tires, and gearing are critical factors for comfortable and safe touring. There are many other factors, but in my view these are most important in the kinesiology of cycling. Even if you do not tour, using the same bicycle for all of your training rides makes it much easier to understand your performance since the bicycle is constant. There are lots of other things such as weather that are not constant. If your performance varies, it is best when the bicycle is not another variable to decipher in the equation.

Finally, many of us need to deal with medications. On a recent tour our tour director reflected the demographic of the ride by urging us, “Remember to take your meds.” As a corollary, your doctor needs to know that you plan to exercise and how much you plan to exercise.

In some cases, the dosage may change based on events or symptoms that can occur during a tour and your doctor can help to establish your requirements. You should never change dosage unless under the supervision of a doctor. You need to understand how your medications affect your performance, including the effects of increased or decreased dosage.

In my case, my cardiologist prescribed a beta blocker to control an irregular heartbeat. This originally manifested itself as a high heart rate that I couldn’t control. The cardiologist told me that if I happened to be on a ride or otherwise experienced a high rate, I could take an additional dose or two of the beta blocker. On my very first tour I experienced some rate problems in camp one evening. I took an extra dose. After a while nothing happened and I took another dose. I was up to three times my normal evening dose. The next day I couldn’t get my heart rate to sustain the blood flow to my muscles. I didn’t last long. I found a motel in early afternoon and crashed for a couple of hours to recover.

I love cycling and I’ve learned a lot about it and about my body in the past couple of years. Training rides and tours help me to feel better physically and mentally. Cycling won’t stop the ageing process, but the low impact exercise gives us a chance at being healthy as we age.

3 thoughts on “Cycling over 60 (or over 70)

  1. A cadence of 60 to 75 (or less) is adequate for biking around a neighborhood or doing errands, but it is too low for long-distance endurance. About 90 is what I’ve been taught to shoot for, and much more (over 100) when going uphill. This seems unnatural at first, but once you get used to it, it doesn’t. After a while, you don’t need a cadence counter (I don’t have one anymore), because it just feels comfortable and right. If your bike doesn’t allow that kind of cadence to feel comfortable, then you need lower gears. Low, low gears are a blessing. (And by the way, 10 mph overall on a tour is about right, unless all you’re concerned about is speed.)

    There is a physiological reason for the benefits of high cadence; it isn’t just somebody’s opinion. There are muscle fibers that are geared toward strength but not endurance (low cadence, high effort–powering your way up short hill), and others geared toward endurance but not strength (high cadence, low effort–biking up a LONG hill). When your ride a bicycle for hours, you need to take advantage of the latter. They will allow you to bike all day long without exhaustion.

    1. I need to give a higher cadence a try, especially up hills. I’ve observed a difference on hills, but didn’t understand the physiology. Touring bike gearing enables cadence as well as power. It’s a different concept for me.

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