Information for Masters Athletes

As those of us cyclists in the masters category go past 50, we certainly start to notice a few things changing in our bodies, and we notice a few creaks and groans as we get out of bed or the armchair!

Our ability to reach our full performance potential on the bike will also be in decline, but this will not really be noticeable day-to-day, this is a very gradual process that takes place over years.

What is generally noticeable is our ability to recover from a hard ride, race or training session.

Do not despair, all is not lost as you will see!  With a considered approach we can very much reduce the effects of aging on our performance on the bike. 

As part-time athletes, many of us are currently far away from our absolute maximum performance potential, so there is in fact potential to make gains in performance if we are smart about our planning, training and diet. 

To do this we need to understand what is happening in our bodies as we age.  So what’s going on?


Below are some of the effects that come about as we as human beings start to age.

  • Skin gets drier and loses elasticity due to oil gland reduction in production.
  • Fingernails grow more slowly.
  • Hair gets thinner and loses pigmentation.
  • Compression of joints, leading to up to 2” of height loss.
  • Bone mineral density reduces, more fragile bones.
  • Metabolic rate slows down, and it becomes easier to gain weight, mostly fat.
  • High-pitch sounds become harder to hear.
  • Reading glasses needed as lens in the eye becomes less flexible.
  • Changes to women’s menstrual cycle and cessation.
  • Sleep quality worsens, with waking in the night.  Duration is also reduced.

Performance Impact of Ageing

As we age, our Aerobic Capacity (VO2 max) declines, and so does our performance on the bike along with it, due to the following.

  • Maximum Heart-Rate reduces.
  • Stroke volume of heart reduces.
  • Blood volume decreases.
  • Loss of muscle fibres.
  • Enzymes for aerobic metabolism (mitochondria) are less abundant and become less effective.
  • Increased body fat and weight gain (VO2 max is measured per kg body weight)

Interestingly Lactate threshold as a percentage of VO2 max actually increases as we age, which is a performance benefit.  However the decline in VO2 max usually offsets the benefits.

The decline in VO2 max is very small in the age group 35-49, but increases exponentially after age 55.

The science suggests that the effect of aging on VO2 max is even higher in women than in men.  For example, in one experiment, 40k TT performance was shown to be reduced 10% in men aged 35-60 but 15% in women aged 35-55.

What can be done?

By being active and riding your bike regularly you are already doing more than most people to slow down the effects of aging.

To reduce the effects of aging we need to address the 3 main areas of decline;

  1. Maintain High-Intensity training to offset declines in VO2 max and power at lactate threshold
  2. Maintain muscle strength and bone density
  3. Minimize body fat and weight gain

Maintain high-Intensity Training

Due to recovery from high-intensity exercise taking longer and the reduced inclination to do high intensity training as we get older, we are training less at high intensity.  Therefore, aerobic capacity and endurance will decline as a consequence.

By maintaining high-intensity work (at or above threshold) in the weekly training schedule, we can reduce the decline in VO2 max and other performance factors.  Two sessions per week and occasionally three, is enough to achieve this.

It is important to be fresh when performing these sessions, so getting a good recovery is of paramount importance.  Overtraining can happen much more easily with masters athletes.

It is important to ensure that masters get plenty of rest, have plenty of good quality sleep and eat healthily (see below.) 

It is recommended to leave longer between high intensity sessions, say 2 days minimum between sessions.  I would also recommend more frequent recovery weeks. Perhaps reduce to a 2-weeks “on”, 1-week “off” schedule, rather than the more commonplace 3-weeks “on”, 1-week “off”.  A 9-day “week” can also help, if you have the time to do this (e.g. retired.)

Maintain Muscle Strength and Bone Density

To offset the reduction in muscle loss and bone density, it is highly recommended that masters athletes undertake weight-lifting, as part of their year round training schedule.

Weight lifting is proven to help offset the declines in muscle mass and bone density. 

Many cyclists hate the idea of going to a gym and avoid “doing weights”, for fear of putting on weight and getting bulky.  However, a correctly implemented weights programme, will avoid this kind of hypertrophy but will still give great strength benefits.

This is an area in which performance on the bike can actually be gained!  Furthermore, masters athletes actually see more benefits from weigh-lifting, than younger athletes!

The scientifically proven benefits of weight training for cyclists include improvements in:

  • VO2 max
  • Lactate threshold power
  • Exercise economy
  • Fatigue onset delay
  • Maximum strength
  • Maximum speed

It is recommended that masters athletes continue with a weights programme through the year, rather than just as an over-winter exercise, because it takes just 6 weeks to lose the gains made in the gym for masters.  One session per week, should be enough to maintain the benefits, during the riding/racing season.

Minimize body fat and weight gain

It is highly recommended that masters athletes have a low calorie density diet.  This is not a fad diet but should be a way of life.  It is outside the scope of this article to go into this in detail, but here are some examples of low calorie density foods, that should form the bulk of meals;

  • Vegetables. Almost all green vegetables have the lowest calorie density of all foods.  They mostly comprise of water, fibre, and a low amount of carbohydrate.
  • Lean meat and fish. Lean proteins like chicken, white fish, and turkey have a low calorie density, yet fattier meats and fish have a moderate to high density.
  • Fruits. These have a low calorie density because of their high fibre and water content. Berries and other watery fruits tend to have the lowest density.
  • Milk and yogurt. Reduced-fat milk and yogurts with no added sugar have a low calorie density and provide a good source of protein.
  • Whole eggs are a great low calorie-dense source of protein.
  • Starchy carbs. Some natural starchy carbs like potatoes, legumes, and other root vegetables have a low to moderate calorie density. This is especially true once they’re cooked, as they fill with water.
  • Sugar-free drinks. These beverages, such as water, coffee, and tea, have a low calorie density and can help keep you full.

The opposite end of the scale is calorie-dense foods such as simple sugars. Intake of these should be reduced as much as possible.

  • Sweets, chocolate bars and crisps. These tend to be high in sugar and fat, making them very calorie-dense.
  • Cakes and Pastries. This might be the hardest one of all for cyclists to avoid!
  • Fast food. These can be some of the most calorie-dense foods available. Studies show that an average fast food meal packs around twice the calories of a normal, healthy meal
  • Oils. While certain oils, such as coconut and olive oil, are healthy, they still have a very high calorie density. Consume healthy oils in moderation.
  • High-fat dairy. Foods like butter, cream, and cheese have a very high calorie density.
  • Fatty meats. Some fatty meats have a very high calorie density. These include bacon, sausages, lamb, and fatty beef cuts.
  • Nuts. Like other healthy fat sources, nuts are very calorie-dense. While they do have many health benefits, they’re easy to overeat. Try measuring out your portions before you eat them.
  • High-fat condiments. Some sauces, such as mayonnaise and ketchup, are very high in calories and should be avoided where possible.
  • Sugary drinks. Some smoothies and full-fat milkshakes are high in calories

There are additional health benefits from maintaining a low calorie-dense diet as well.

For weight-loss, it is recommended to reduce your calorific intake by no more than 400 calories and you shouldn’t be losing more than 0.5kg/1lb in weight per week, otherwise you will be losing weight from muscle mass and other areas detrimental to performance on the bike.

References and Further Study

Age performance research

Strength Training

Nutrition/Energy Density

Book Recommendation

Fast After 50 by Joe Friel


The excellent Dylan Johnson –

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