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Serious Cycling Training for Older Cyclists

Training, and zone training, for serious older cycling enthusiasts

Today’s article is courtesy of Billy Dean, an older cyclist, and one who, I suspect, is way fitter than me. Whilst I tend to cycle for fun and fitness generally Billy is much more concerned with building serious cycling fitness – when you’re older.

Here’s his article. It’s a little more technical than some articles about cycling fitness, but it’s very much worth the read if you’re seriously interested in getting fitter on the bike as you age.

Serious Cycling Training for Older Cyclists (and slowing the aging process)

 by Billy Dean

Billy dean older cyclist

Billy Dean in 1955

This article focuses on how to surrender our youth gracefully by training smarter, not by struggling against the effects of aging. We’ll explore reasons why our present fitness may not be our potential fitness and what we can do to close the gap. First, let’s examine why our ability to ride fast is less than it was when we were younger:

  • Our heart delivers less oxygen to our muscles because our maximum heart rate and the amount of blood our heart can pump on each stroke decrease with age.
  • We’ve lost muscle mass and produce less of the hormone needed for muscle repair.
  • We’ve lost more fast-twitch muscle fibers than slow-twitch muscle fibers. So fast, intense riding is more difficult than slow, moderate riding.
  • We can’t inhale as much oxygen nor exhale as much carbon dioxide because the elasticity of our lungs has decreased and the resistance of your airways has increased.
  • We can’t maintain intense riding as long as we once did, because the lactic acid produced by fast riding isn’t dissipated as rapidly.

    Billy Dean in 1985

These are some of the physical ways in which aging changes us, and why we tend to prefer long, slow rides – a zone of comfort where it takes less effort to keep our present fitness than the effort it would take to continue up the mountain. Long, slow rides are a good way to surrender our youth gracefully. But there are psychological reasons to continue up the mountain, and one of them is not being satisfied with our present fitness. And unless we’ve been training seriously for at least five years, we have not reached our potential fitness. We can continue up the mountain, increasing our fitness well beyond the age where research predicts we will slow down.

Yes, a combination of distance (endurance) and intensity (speed) will produce your best overall performance. But you have two reasons for reducing the distance and frequency of your long, slow rides:

  • Short, fast, intense riding has more effect on cardiovascular fitness than long, slow distance.
  • Fewer long, slow rides gives you more time to recover for the next ride that includes intense riding.

Standard Intervals

Intervals are the most effective way to improve your cardiovascular fitness. Pushing your heart rate into the high aerobic and anaerobic levels on a regular basis improves your heart, your lungs, your muscles, and your ability to mentally deal with the muscular discomfort of riding fast. Intervals are more effective when you:

  • Limit your repetitions to 2 or 3 because most of the training effect comes from the first interval, and much less from a second and even less from a third.
  • Add intervals to your training schedule only after you’ve got an aerobic base of at least 500 miles of riding at a steady, moderate pace.
  • Pay attention to intensity (heart rate), duration (1-2 minutes), frequency (2-3 per week) and recovery (48 hours).
  • Maintain the total hours you cycle per week. A combination of distance (endurance) and intensity (speed) will produce your best overall performance.

Fartlek Intervals

When I was a competitive runner and swim-bike-run triathlete, I did intervals twice a week – on the track, on my bicycle and in the pool. They weren’t fun, but I never thought of them as something I was struggling against. They were just a necessary aspect of my training so I could achieve my competitive goals: win my age division, or at least place in the top three, and improve my personal best times.

Billy Dean in 2016

Intervals are still not fun, but they are still necessary, because I still have goals: Slow the aging process as much as possible so I can enjoy cycling as long as possible; and stay fit enough to ride with my younger friends.

But intervals on the same day and the same route week after week can cause boredom and burnout. And I already ride three times a week with my cycling friends. So I don’t do standard, scheduled intervals. I just add brief periods of more intense riding to my long and short rides with my friends.

In my racing days, we called this type of interval a fartlek, a Swedish word for speed play. Fartleks are a less-structured form of interval training. They allow me to be flexible, to listen to my body so I can add short periods of intense cycling when I’m feeling good. Fartleks are a great way to turn grinds into grins. Here are a few to consider:

Pole Sprints… sprint from one telephone pole to the next at your maximum aerobic speed–the edge of your anaerobic threshold. Then spin easily for 4 poles. Repeat 3 times.

Hill Repeats… as you get near the hill, select a lower gear than you normally would. Stay seated and spin fast two thirds up the climb, then shift up, stand up and pedal over the top. Let your momentum carry you over and down to the next hill.

Breakaways… last person in line charges past the group. When she’s about 200 yards ahead, the pace line works to pull her back. Everyone rides easily for a few minutes, then another rider springs from the rear. Repeat 3 or 4 times.

Chases… two riders stop, allowing the others to continue in a paceline. Then the two work together to chase down the group. Repeat with pairs of riders.

Surges… stand and accelerate for 10-30 seconds, or until you spin out the gear, then sit down and spin 10 rpm faster. Hold this cadence for five seconds, then return to normal pace. Repeat 3 or 4 times every hour.

Pickups… get out of the saddle and accelerate away from stop signs, over short hills, out of turns or around a car parked in your bike lane–check your mirror!


Training Zones is a detailed, results-oriented, illustrated guide on how to align your heart, your training and your goals by associating a range of heart rates with training effects. Please read it before you add standard or fartlek intervals to your training. Unlike blogs and articles that define each zone as a percentage of your maximum heart rate (MHR), this article defines each zone as a percentage of your Heart Rate Reserve (HRR) — the range of heart beats between your Resting Heart Rate (RHR) and your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR). The diagram illustrates the difference, and you’ll learn why that difference is critical when you read the article.

Do-It-Yourself MHR Test… most people use the formula 220-Age to determine their maximum heart rate for zone training. But your interval training will be more precise if it’s based on your actual maximum heart rate. Find a gradual hill about 2 miles long. Warm up for 15 minutes, then start climbing the hill. Increase your effort gradually until you’re within one or two hundred yards of the top, then stand up and sprint as fast as you can. Record the highest number displayed on your heart rate monitor. Rest, then repeat this test a few times to get an average value.

Training Zone Calculators… perform the heart rate calculations for you. If you’ve determined your actual maximum heart rate with the DIY MHR Test above, or a treadmill test, click the first link below. If you don’t know your actual maximum, click the second link:

Perceived Level of Exertion… some cyclists are experienced at perceiving the level of intensity by monitoring how their body feels. But perceived levels of exertion are subjective. So, if you’re just beginning to add intervals to your training, choose a more objective method of determining the level of intensity, such as a heart rate monitor or a power meter.

Power Meters… are more expensive than heart rate monitors, but they will keep you focused on your level of exertion more accurately than watching the heart beats on a heart rate monitor because a heart rate monitor will not respond to the power you are applying to the pedals as quickly as a power meter.

Nutrition… keep your glycogen stores high so you can handle more intense riding. Most cyclists have enough glycogen stored in their liver and muscles for about two hours of moderate intensity. When glycogen runs out, the body begins to burn fat, which can lead to bonking. So make sure you ingest 40 grams of carbohydrate per hour during your rides. Most energy bars contain about 40 grams of carbohydrates.

Your glycogen is low after a ride, but your blood flow will remain high for an hour or so. That hour after a ride is a glycogen window during which your body will convert the carbohydrates you eat more rapidly than normal. So eat or drink carbohydrates as soon after a ride as possible to ensure adequate glycogen recovery.

Recovery… let your body tell you when it’s ready to ride again. Your body repairs itself at night, while you sleep. So make sure you get adequate rest. If you need an alarm clock to get up in the morning, you probably didn’t get enough sleep.

Goals… strive to mesh the physical and psychological side of cycling, your training and performance goals, with the social side of life–your family and friends.

About Billy

Billy Dean is a retired technical writer and instructor. He has written articles for trade journals, been a newspaper columnist, and had his poems, essays and how-to guides published in newspapers and magazines and on the Internet. Despite his degree in English Composition, however, he continues to butcher the King’s English on a regular basis!

Seems like my entire life has run on legs and rolled on wheels. Six miles to school every day on a three-speed Schwinn, then back home delivering newspapers to every ranch along the way. Track and cross country in high school and college. Then to work every day on a 750cc Royal Enfield. Raced Bultacos in motocross and Huskys and Yamahas in the desert into my late 30’s, then returned to my first love: running. By my early 40’s, I had personal bests of 16:08 (5K), 34:39 (10K) and 2:43:26 (marathon).

In my mid 40’s, I began racing biathlons on a Schwinn Varsity, then bought a Nishiki to get into triathlons. My first swim-bike-run was at June Lake in northern California. The water was a frigid 58, and I was still a lousy swimmer, so several hundred swim-bike-runners beat me to the finish. The next year, with an Olmo Firenze under my behind and year of serious training under my belt, I finished 19th overall and set the 40-49 course record.

In my late 40’s, I replaced local running and swim-bike-run events with off-road marathons and ultras. Got chased by a buffalo in the Catalina Marathon! Just after my 47th birthday, my son was killed. That tragedy was the end of my racing and the beginning of long, contemplative runs in the mountains of southern California.

Trail running took me into my 50’s and 60’s. In my early 70’s, my knees told me they loved running too, but if I didn’t stop, they were going to hurt me. So I bought a Specialized Allez and began cycling again. Unlike running, which for me had been a solitary activity, cycling is a great way to ride and socialize at the same time. Yes, I still do intervals to stay fit enough keep up with those younger guys and gals!


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