Improving Distance Cycling Performance for Those Over Age 50
Last year at age 55 I took up randonneur style cycling where participants enter events lasting 125 miles or more. I did all the event lengths: 200k (125 miles), 300k, 360k, 400k, 600k, 1000k, and 1200k. It was sort of tough since I had not done much bicycle riding the previous year – something like 1000 miles total. But since I was not trying to set speed records, I did reasonably well in rando events and had fun.
But what if I wanted to get faster at completing the events? What if I wanted to ride with the fastest groups in the events rather than the top third or in the middle? I’ve looked around at the other participants and the vast majority are typically my age or older, overweight, and not particularly good at climbing hills. This describes the way I rode last year. And of these cyclists, most think “training” does not involve doing anything other than riding a lot of easy miles on their bike. The participants who tend to shine in these events are not overweight, and they do pretty well climbing hills. So what does this tell you? I’d say being overweight is a huge factor regarding a cyclist’s performance ability over the age of 50. And I’d also say that making sure your rides are not easy all that often is another important factor. If you ride slow in training, then you can’t help but ride slow in an event.
What’s my take on why so many over-50 cyclists are overweight? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they have Americanized their diet for too long. This means they eat way too many foods that are comprised mostly of highly-processed carbohydrates that are low in fat: breads, pastas, cookies, cakes, muffins, pizza, hoagies, breaded meats, candy, non-plain low-fat yogurt, ice cream, fruit juices, and soft drinks whether or not they are full-sugar or diet. And the worst of the worst to consume is high fructose corn syrup. Ouch! You see, eating a diet high in processed carbs causes the body to overuse the hormone insulin. Overuse ultimately lessens the effect insulin has on the body, and as a result the body produces more and more insulin to get the job done that insulin is required to do. This condition is called Insulin Resistance. And most over-50 cyclists who are overweight suffer from it. And this is not by accident. Insulin Resistance causes the cyclists to be overweight. AND it makes it extremely difficult to lose weight.
Why does Insulin Resistance make it difficult to lose weight? Because to lose weight (lose stored body fat) one must be in an unfed state and free of insulin in the blood stream. And because the body is creating too much insulin, the body can never get to the unfed state free of insulin. Thus it never burns stored body fat. What is the solution then? Eat a low-carb high fat diet and practice intermittent fasting when you want to lose weight. By eating a low-carb low-protein diet you avoid producing much insulin. By eating fat your body will get used to burning fat for energy and when you eat it you will feel like you had a meal. And when the meal runs out, the body will automatically switch over to burning stored body fat. You lose weight.
The downside to losing weight this way is that you cannot do much moderate intensity exercise. And you certainly won’t be able to do any high intensity exercise. Carbohydrate intake is necessary to do these workouts. But you can do as much low intensity exercise as you like because fat is your body’s fuel-of-choice when doing low intensity workouts. Good workouts do not go hand in hand with losing weight. Oh well. That’s why most athletes who have to lose weight will do so in the off-season.
What’s my take on getting faster on the bike when you are over 50 besides losing weight? I think you have to do more high intensity interval training and lift weights. Instead of going for three 60-mile bike rides a week, one should go for one long ride and do high intensity stuff during the other two workouts. A very short ride can be added to each of these other two workouts if you like.
Why is it so important that the older cyclist do high intensity interval training and weight lifting? The answer is simple: the hormone testosterone. When men are young they produce tons of testosterone and any exercise activity they do, whether low, moderate, or high intensity, will generate strength improvements. But when men get old (over age 50), they only produce testosterone when they do higher intensity activities. Without testosterone your muscle mass will waste away. And by only doing long easy bike rides you are not producing testosterone and your muscles are simply wasting away. Less muscles translates into slower cycling speeds and less ability to climb hills.