How Much Does Age Matter in Cycling?

Older athletes have performed and competed in competitions for centuries, but our current generation is the first to be involved in such large numbers. Society has embraced the active lifestyle, and the older generations are seeing the benefits.

For endurance athletes, it raises an interesting question: What are we capable of as we move through the years? And how do we find our own path to athletic longevity and personal success?

Dropping Power and Recovery

You've probably heard the well-worn axiom that most master's athletes have less power and endurance, and recover slower than their younger counterparts. Not so long ago, this line of thinking was so popular that a generation or two started to believe it was true, and there were activities that most people believe "old" people shouldn't do anymore.

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If you consider yourself to be a kid in spirit, you probably just ignored this kind of chatter. Call it lying to oneself if you like, but recovery and performance are more about understanding how to defeat engrained cultural limitations with a healthy mind-set. That means you should avoid believing universal truisms about who you are and what you're capable of—athletic or otherwise.

But masters athletes still recover slower and aren't as fast as their younger counterparts, right?

A recent Wall Street Journal indicates that this isn't necessarily true in the higher echelons of endurance cycling. The interview between Shell and 70-year-old cyclist Michael Patterson, and Brent Ruby, director at the Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism at the University of Montana, is a breath of fresh air for anyone who fits into the category of "older-generation athletes."

70-Year-Old RAAM Athletes

Shell's article explains how Patterson's 4-man team, all 70 years or older, competed in the 2013 Race Across America (RAAM). Patterson's cadre of septuagenarians covered the distance in 6.55 days, blowing away the previous record for the 60 to 70+ age category. How did this compare with one of the top team efforts in RAAM?

Their performance was just two percent slower.

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The previous overall record time of 6.45 days was established by an elite British team, using similar training methodology as the 70-year-olds—but the Brits average age was only 37. The only other measurable difference was that they consumed slightly more calories than the old guys, who were probably more concerned about maintaining their weight and youthful physiques.

"We clearly need to rethink our ideas about what older people are capable of doing, yet we discount those capabilities all the time. As people get older, we can still do amazing things" says Ruby. It's true that the RAAM ride by the senior team stands as a hallmark achievement that should make us reconsider some of the traditional roadblocks we set for ourselves as we age.

As one of the original four founders of RAAM, and a 2nd-place finishing individual participant, I would add that while endurance training and racing seems to be the exploratory arena of more active older athletes, a healthy sense of deceit is needed to counter our self imposed limitations.

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