Training and racing to suit your age
Older racers come in many different vintages and types — with widely varying goals and training needs. Masters coach Tom Daly identifies four veteran racer archetypes and devises focused guidelines for each
It’s commonly assumed that as we age our performance wanes and we grow less competitive. Not so! More and more riders are recognising that it’s neither eccentric nor illadvised to remain a racer decades after our prime years have passed. Training for optimum performance should, of course, be adjusted to suit your age. The difficulty is, there is no one-size-fits-all advice: older riders are an especially diverse bunch, with a huge range of lifestyles, sporting backgrounds, goals, and states of health and fitness. The first question to ask yourself is, what kind of older rider are you?
As a coach specialising in maximising the performance of veteran riders (www. mccm.iwsi.ie), I am especially interested in human stories — every enquiry that comes my way has hopes and ambitions attached. It’s my job to find their best pathway towards better performance.
To illustrate the diversity among older riders, I have depicted below four masters category archetypes — the main different types of older rider. Drawing on case studies — four CW readers — I’ll show how the route to peak performance depends on each individual’s unique set of traits and motivations. Of course, no rider fits a single ‘type’ perfectly — but we do have key themes in common. Let’s meet our willing participants and see what we can learn from them.
1 The Old dog
Everyone knows an ‘old dog’: the type of rider who has been riding for years and is determined to stick to the same oldschool methods. They spin the small ring till spring and then gain form by training and racing hard — all the time. The old dog’s main measure of commitment is hours in the saddle per week and miles per year — as many as possible.
As the old dog begins to decline with age, they finally face the prospect of being ‘over the hill’. Some want to stay in the game and wonder if it is time to learn new tricks and get to grips with ‘modern methods’. Contrary to the proverb, they can be taught new tricks.
ALAN Dunlea, 44, is A toolmaker from Co. Clare, ireland
I’m not a typical old dog, as I’ve only been cycling for four years, but I identify mostly with this type, as I go hard and fast for as long as I can without any concession to my age.
I used to smoke and play golf until a buddy persuaded me to go for a spin, and I quickly fell down the cycling rabbit hole. I started casually riding with my wife and friends, progressed to getting hammered in club rides, and then to being dropped in fourth-cat races. I spent every night during the next winter kicking myself up and down hills and falling in the door cramping up. I started getting points the following season — my best result was third in a stage of a three-day, and I was upgraded to third-cat.
My only strategy is to suffer. In a break, I’ll be the idiot doing the turn the other guy missed, and it’s a club joke that I’m the donkey for hire in the bunch. My short-term aim is to get upgraded to second-cat; in the longer term, to win an M50 National Championship. I’d also love to win at least one race.
With ageing beginning to bite at 44, Alan’s rapid progression will slow. If he continues in his current mindset, the point will come when he starts going backwards — sooner than necessary. If he is serious about achieving a race win, he needs to get coaching advice and train with more structure and specificity appropriate to his age. Similarly, in racing, he needs to act less on impulse and more on intelligence — to take more shelter and then make his efforts really count at key moments. If you identify with Alan, consider doing the following:
Undertake a strength training programme, working on and off the bike to preserve declining muscle mass and develop sprint-specific strength.
Reduce volume, and ensure your recovery is age-appropriate, allowing you to hit the numbers in every key workout. Taper properly for targeted events. Race strategically, taking as much cover as possible from other riders to preserve yourself for the sprint.
Training and racing to a plan may diminish your sense of spontaneity and fun but will increase your chances of strong results — it’s your choice!
2 The Newbie
The typical newbie masters rider has a background in sport that was disrupted by the demands of a social life, career, growing family, or injury. They were drawn into cycling and quickly fell in love with it but soon wanted to get faster, often aspiring to hang on to the front group.
The newbie begins to target events: a century or a trip to the Alps, eager to improve by leaps and bounds. Meanwhile, they feel bombarded by conflicting and confusing advice from friends, magazines and the internet, ending up feeling helpless: “A mate told me I’d save 20 watts per tyre if I changed from brand A to brand B.” They seek a clear, structured pathway to getting faster in the limited time available.
AMANDA karlsson, 50, is A police officer from Gloucestershire
I’ve always considered myself sporty and competed at senior county level in squash and hockey. Later, I circuit-trained and ran until back surgery put a stop to it. So I bought a second-hand bike in 2014 and joined a women’s cycling club to keep fit. I
gradually gained in confidence and mileage and, after completing Ride London in 2016, I decided to try racing.
I’m competitive and, turning 50, keen to test myself against others. I bought a race bike and got a coach but was still lapped four times in my first event at Shrewsbury circuit in 2017. I was disappointed and lamented the poor availability of female masters racing. Even so, I persevered and tried fourth-cat. Eventually, I stopped being dropped and eventually won points and got upgraded.
Winter training on the turbo last year seemed relentless, and a colleague suggested I try Newport Velodrome. Everything was new and scary: gate-starts, sprint tactics and 42-degree banking. But the thrill and the challenge was addictive. I switched to a track coach, invested in a bike and all the kit, and did the British Cycling National Masters Track Championships in June, which I really enjoyed. Now I’ve decided to focus on preparation for the World Masters Track Championship in Manchester in October 2019. I’d love to give it that one good shot, and I want to stay track racing into my 60s and be competitive at national level.
Amanda’s entry into competitive cycling is similar to that of many masters riders who take up cycling for fitness for other sports, or to recover from injury, and quickly fall in love with it. Amanda’s tenacity is an example to others seeking to improve performance: if you want to move to the next level you have to be prepared to take a kicking, move on and learn from it.
If you identify with Amanda, consider doing the following:
Explore different aspects of cycling to discover what enthuses you most.
Use disappointing performances to positively re-evaluate your direction and make progress.
Seek the company of experienced, sensible riders to mentor you.
“A colleague suggested Newport Velodrome. It was addictive”
Find a supportive coach who respects your masters aspirations, to structure your training.
Remember, it takes a number of years for a newbie older rider’s body to become fully conditioned — identify a long-term goal, plan well in advance and work strategically towards it.
3 The Type-a
The typical Type-a rider is accomplished, refuses to settle for mediocrity and is in a hurry. They set ambitious goals, often targeting high-profile ‘bucket-list’ events. This type of rider is confident and applies target-focused, strategic approaches, often investing heavily in coaching, aero finessing and equipment. Many are highachievers in their work life, and working methodically towards a goal, through a structured plan, comes naturally to them. They are easy to coach once they buy into the strategy and communicate well, asking pertinent questions and giving good feedback. However, if relatively new to the sport, they can be vulnerable to injury from being in too much of a hurry and not giving their bodies time to adapt.
Paul Davies, 43, is a financial adviser AND analyst from the Peak District
Sport has always been important to me. I’ve clocked up three black belts in martial arts, won an American football scholarship, raced Xterra [off-road triathlon] to World Championship level and achieved top-10 in National Masters Cyclo-cross and top-15 in MTB Marathon — among other things.
My work is demanding but I can make space for 15-20 hours training a week when needed. My last big event was the Wines2whales three-day mtb race in South Africa in 2016. I came 12th out of 650 starters, in spite of lots of mechanicals and badly interrupted training from arthritis. I’ve been hampered by joint injuries from my younger years, which came to a head in 2017 when I had to have both hips re-surfaced, a specialist procedure. It was a dark time for me but my rehab goal was to go back to the Wines2whales in November 2018, which I did, finishing 10th in the vets category and 45th overall out of a field of 604 racers. I was happy with that after 9.5 hours of racing.
I’m very target-driven and worked with highly experienced physio and rehab specialists, building my form gradually. I used Manchester Velodrome for very specific workouts. My 20-minute power came back to around 400 watts. Working with a leading sports psychologist was very helpful — I got back to a happy place, riding my bike and aiming to compete at the top level.
Many Type-a riders discover cycling in their masters years and, like Paul, quickly become very focused and ambitious. Paul is especially high-achieving; many others take on very tough sportive-type events such as the Majorca 312 Gran Fondo or the Marmotte. Type-as who are over-60s typically have to work around some medical or biomechanical issues.
“Type-a riders set ambitious goals, targeting high-profile events”
If you identify with Paul, consider doing the following:
If you are relatively new to cycling, learn how to avoid hurting yourself — your body may be relatively unconditioned. Incorporate the necessary ‘scaffolding’ into your plan: strength, flexibility, bike-fit, and weight management.
Be realistic about your schedule. Can you really manage 15 hours of training? Work with a coach to build an optimised programme, planned around your work and life demands.
Along with the physiological development, refine your nutrition and pacing strategies — this is critical for less experienced riders taking on long, demanding events.
4 The Now-or-never
Now-or-never riders have until now never fully committed to their sport, and have been left with a nagging question: ‘what if?’ There are myriad reasons for having left it so long: career, family, or perhaps just lack of application. Some are plagued by feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, fearful of not matching up to their own or others’ expectations and feeling like a failure.
The realisation hits: it’s now or never. They want to give it one last go and make an all-out attempt to become a ‘proper athlete’ and finally see how far they can get.
Alison salthouse, 59, is A civil servant from shropshire
I had my first now-or-never moment aged 53, when my dad died; I remembered that he’d had a stroke aged 50. I bought a hybrid bike to get in shape, but was shocked when I found myself out of breath after half a mile.
I found a group of social cyclists and met a guy who took me out for three-, then five-, then 10-mile rides. I entered my first sportive — 13 miles — and that was the real beginning. I progressed to doing some big sportives and tried mountain biking and BMX. I had always dreamed of being good at something sporty, so I tried a crit but got lapped by girls young enough to be my daughters.
In 2015 I discovered the exhilaration of track cycling, which triggered my second now-or-never moment. I had found my sport and realised I could have one last chance of being a competitive sportsperson. I initially found it hard to get a coach — many seemed put off by my age and lack of a sporting background.
It has been an uphill struggle but I persevered and now have a coach who believes in me. I am faster, thinner and stronger. This year I competed in the LVRC National Track Championships and came fourth in the 500TT and Match Sprint. I began to believe I can achieve.
Next year I am aiming to podium in the 60-64 group at the World Masters Track Championships to celebrate my 60th! It’s been hard, of course, but for the first time in my life I love telling people my age and am looking forward to being that year older and in another Masters category.
Alison is a textbook example of how a now-or-never cyclist can eventually live the dream. She started gradually, explored various aspects of the sport and discovered which discipline enthused her the most. Next, she found expert guidance and then set clear goals. It is still early days for Alison but, by avoiding injury or ill-health, she can look forward to steady improvement and chasing world-class dreams into the 60-64 category and beyond.
If you identify with Alison, consider doing the following:
Undertake weight training to rebuild the strength critical for your target event and which may have been diminished by decades of inactivity.
Train specifically for your target event, e.g. high-cadence speed intervals.
Prioritise your weaknesses, such as standing starts.
Adjust the load-recovery cycle in a way appropriate for your age and the intensity of your training.
Karlsson‘s found her métier in track racing
‘Type A’ Davies overcame injury to perform at a high level