I’m currently visiting my parents back in Vancouver. In the process of cleaning some old files, I found my training diary from my salad days of 1988-1992 (20-24 years old), when I was going through my undergraduate and early graduate university years while living and dreaming the Homeboy life. That should probably convince me never to clean up my stuff ever again, because the evidence of the advancing years was all there in gory detail. Some of the major changes while comparing my past and recent training diaries:
The Bad News
• Age: 20-24 years vs. 36 years
• Weight: 133 lbs (summer) and 136 (winter) vs. 146 (summer) and 152 (winter). Some but certainly not all of this is due to increased muscle mass from picking up speedskating and regular resistance training in the mid-1990s, along with a relatively late physical maturity (my wife will say my emotional maturity today is still questionable!).
• Average yearly training: 450 h (~12,000 km) vs. 200 h (~5,000 km).
• Races per year: ~25-30 racing days (single races and weekend stage races) along with 20+ training crits/TTs vs. 6-10 racing days at best in total.
• Non-training factors: Minimal vs. consistent need to cram training in amidst family and career demands.
The Good News
The above isn’t pretty objectively, but there’s surprisingly good news too:
• Income: much higher now, although taxes, a house, and family probably levels things out to the point that I have less disposable income!
• VO2max: In the course of my research, I’ve done aerobic tests on myself ~2-3 times each year. It has remained in the range of 60-65 mL/kg/min in nearly every test over this period, again reinforcing that VO2max doesn’t give you much feedback about fitness. My lactate threshold, however, has probably dropped only about 20 W over this period. This is obviously due to a lower training volume, but it has probably been compensated a little by increased muscle mass.
• My anaerobic power output has remained pretty consistent too! I did a number of Wingate tests in 1992 and averaged about 750 W. I did some again in 2002 and averaged about 780 W for a slightly shorter time.
• Max HR: In every test I’ve done through the years, my max HR has remained at 174 bpm, in stark contrast to the prediction of 220 age (200 then vs. 184 now). This is worth a column in itself!
• Enjoyment of riding and racing: I get so much pleasure out of each and every single ride now! Even the cold and wet commutes in April have become treasured! I completely soak in the atmosphere of every club ride and every race because they have become such rarities. Heck, I even won my first race at the ripe old age of 34!
The Fountain of Youth?
It’s a fascinating phenomenon that the huge majority of pros hit their peak in their late 20’s (Ullrich won his first Tour at 24; LeMond at 25; Armstrong at 27; Roche, Delgado, Indurain, Pantani at 28; Riis in his 30s), while we all know how Jaja, Tchmil, Museeuw and others have dominated in their 30s. Top female racers seem to hit their prime in their 30s also, though this is often due to their coming into the sport later in life. In contrast, swimmers seem to hit their peak in their late teens and early 20s. The reasons for these differences is one of the most interesting question in sport science.
Cycling is a terrific sport in that we can participate as racers and riders throughout our entire lives without degenerating into beer leaguers (Seniors Tour golf) or couch potatoes (when was the last time you saw a 50 year old playing American football?). So how do we age gracefully in cycling and maintain or even improve our performance through the decades? What are the physical changes and how do we accommodate them and even put them to advantage? Our Toolbox crew will explore these questions in a series of articles in the coming weeks. If you have a specific question on the concept of aging and training, let me know!
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and is freaked out to be twice as old as his freshman students. His company, Podium Performance, also provides elite sport science and training support to provincial and national-level athletes in a number of sports. He can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at email@example.com.