RBR reader Dave asks, “I’m a 72-year-old life-long club road cyclist in England. I also ride MTB although road is the more dominant. I love riding hills and a typical ride is around 40-50 miles, 4000 ft-7000 ft. of climbing at around 13-15 mph for me. Bigger and lesser rides also. 150-200 miles a week including indoor trainer.
“I’ve noticed in the last three years my leg strength is definitely decreasing, that I’m forced into lower gears on the hills, and that nothing comes as easy as it used to, unless it’s a fast flat section where the loss doesn’t seem as much. Generally, I don’t get tired, I just don’t have the same strength. I know we have to accept what aging does to us but I want to do all I can to stop/delay it.
“I’m aware of age-related muscle mass loss and know climbing hills is one of the answers in combating it. I already do that, and can ride a good standard for my age. My hill gearing is lower now but still relatively big, and I can exert muscle building loads. I wonder though, if the muscle building load exercise benefits could get cancelled out when done on long endurance rides.
“I’ve probably been a bit naive in thinking climbing hills was all I ever needed to do. Since noticing the decline in strength I’m getting the sense there’s a limit to what pure riding can do. I’m only a recreational rider but with a competitive spirit, and that’s probably a good thing since my similar age peers and I often cycle with younger riders. The only thing is, the effort to strength ratio seems to be growing, and so sometimes rides get preceded by a fear of going through the wringer once again! But I know there’s a lot more I can do.”
Coach Hughes. Just climbing isn’t sufficient to maintain muscle mass and strength no matter how hard a gear you use. A fellow coach works with pros including grand tour riders. After a three-week race he sends his clients to the gym to regain muscle mass and strength. These pros are riding hard in big gears and even that isn’t enough to prevent atrophy. Here’s why.
You recognize as you age your muscles atrophy. Muscle mass normally decreases approximately 3–8% per decade after the age of 30 and this rate of decline is even higher after the age of 60. This is called sarcopenia, the loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength. A muscle is composed of muscle fibers, which are formed by myofibrils. Myofibrils are made up of repeating subunits called sarcomeres. As a muscle atrophies, the cross-sectional area of your muscle fibers decreases. This occurs because of the decrease in the size and number of myofibrils per muscle cell.
Fortunately, the rate of atrophy can be slowed with exercise, and most of it can even be reversed with resistance training. Note that only the muscles that you train regularly retain or regain muscle size. Progressive resistance training has the same effects on the muscles of nonagenarians as it does on 25-year-olds.
We used to think that as your muscles atrophy from less use, they are replaced by fat tissue. What really happens is that as you lose muscle mass you burn less calories, which results in increased fat tissue.
Muscle Fiber Types
There are two types of fibers: slow-twitch (ST), which fire slowly and have great endurance, and fast-twitch (FT), which fire explosively when you need power. We differentially lose muscle mass in the FT fibers because as we age. Even though the result a greater proportion of ST muscles due to differential atrophy, the endurance is not enhanced. (ST and FT refer to how rapidly the fibers contract, not your cadence.)
Atrophy is the result of not using all of the muscle fibers. As we get older, we’re less likely to engage in activities of daily living that work all of the fibers. I’m older. I divide the groceries among more bags so I’m carrying less weight each trip up the stairs. I hire people to carry, split and stack firewood.
Your body recruits the muscle fiber types progressively as the workload increases. Riding at an endurance pace you’re only using part of your slow-twitch fibers. When you climb a moderately hard hill, more of your slow-twitch fibers kick in. When you climb a steep hill all of your slow-twitch fibers are firing and some of your fast-twitch fibers start to fire. When you or a pro sprint you’re demanding maximum power. All of your muscle fibers are firing and your legs are screaming for more help.
An experiment suggests maximal strength training improves cycling performance. Twenty well-trained cyclists were randomly assigned to an intervention group (11 men) and a control group (9 men and 2 women). The experiment lasted 12 weeks. The intervention group added strength training twice a week to their normal endurance riding. The strength training consisted of four lower body exercises with heavy weights. The control group continued their normal endurance training.
The study concluded “adding strength training to usual endurance training improved determinants of cycling performance as well as performance in well-trained cyclists. Of particular note is that the added strength training increased thigh muscle CSA without causing an increase in body mass.” CSA is the cross-sectional area of a muscle, i.e., the strength training reversed atrophy. (PubMed: Effect of heavy strength training on thigh muscle cross-sectional area, performance determinants, and performance in well-trained cyclists)
The cycling experiment was with a very small study group and was disproportionally men. The experiment was with competitive cyclists. And they lifted very heavy weights. Unless you’re a racer and do the very heavy lifting the results may not apply directly to you; however, it suggests recreational cyclists could still improve – just not as much – with resistance training.
Resistance training results in the growth of skeletal muscle fibers. Fibers grow when muscle cells regenerate from progressive resistance training programs. “This results from an increase in the size and number of myofibrils per muscle cell, as well as an increase in structurally-related muscle tissue, such as ligaments and tendons along with an increase in stored nutrients and enzymes in the muscle fibers.” (Understanding Muscle Atrophy: Use It or Lose It)
Resistance training also activates more muscle fibers, which then increase in size and strength.
How to Do Resistance Training?
You’ve decided to add resistance training to make you a better climber with improved cycling economy. How should you get started?
Resistance Training or Weight Lifting?
Unless you’re a gym rat you probably avoid lifting weights — you don’t need to! Stronger muscles result from any sort of overload. Instead of holding dumbbells and doing squats you can put on a backpack of canned food and go up and down the stairs several times. Push-ups work as well as the bench press. Resistance cords and bands are another way of overloading your muscles. One of my clients uses inner tubes!
Sets and Repetitions
Here are two routines:
- Use a load heavy enough you can only do 8 – 12 reps to exhaustion.
- Use a lighter load and do 20 – 25 reps to exhaustion.
A study by researchers at McMaster University in Ontario in 2016 found people who used the second routine gained just as much muscle strength and size as a group that did a routine with heavier weights and fewer repetitions. New York Times: Lifting Lighter Weights Can Be Just as Effective as Heavy Ones.
The number of reps you do is less important than exhausting your muscles. You should do as many reps as you can with good form to reach muscle failure. You shouldn’t be able to do one more rep. This is where you stimulate your muscles to grow and adapt.
Dave, this explains why hard climbing doesn’t stop muscle atrophy. Climbing a tough hill for five minutes, depending on your cadence, you’re doing much higher reps (300 – 450 or more total reps) at a much lower load. If you warmed up, sprinted flat out for just 20 to 30 reps to complete exhaustion, cooled down and then went home, this would be the equivalent of the above second routine. Because you need to sprint to muscle failure you can’t effectively include these in an endurance ride.
The Physical Activity for Americans, 2nd ed. recommends two non-consecutive workouts a week, similar to the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations.
Climbing Still Helps
Resistance training increases general muscle size and strength. Climbing hills converts the general muscle strength to cycling-specific power. Climbing regularly definitely improves your climbing and — within limits — going up harder climbs improves your climbing more. On a multi-hour endurance ride you can’t climb as hard (as fast or in as high gear) as you can on a specific climbing ride.
Fitting It All In
A couple of endurance rides, a couple of resistance sessions, a couple of climbing days total six days a week with only one recovery day. Even though you’re not on the bike a day with strength workout isn’t a recovery day for your legs.
As we age, we need more recovery. The report on the above experiment with the twenty well-trained cyclists didn’t give the ages of the participants. Experiments like this are typically with riders in their 20s to 40s; if the riders were older the report would have said so. As an older rider — even a well-trained rider — just adding strength training risks injury.
You can fit all the workouts in if you vary them by season. The winter is a great time to do two (or three) days of resistance training and one or two endurance rides with climbing, but no climbing-specific days. In the early spring, substitute a climbing ride for a resistance day and later in the spring substitute a second climbing ride for a second resistance day. Just adding climbing rides without cutting back the resistance training risks spring knee, a common injury from too much too soon.
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process includes a chapter Strength Exercises. I explain how to do resistance exercises correctly. I include illustrated exercises: 12 for leg strength, 9 for upper body and 6 for core strength. You don’t need to do all 27 exercises. I explain how to choose which ones are best for you. I give you an annual plan showing how to including resistance training with endurance and intensity riding. I also give you plans to build up to 100 km and 100-mile rides. I include a plan to increase over two years your annual riding from around 4,000 miles (6,500 km) to over 5,000 miles (8,000 km) a year. You can easily modify the plans for different annual amounts of riding. I discuss the importance of recovery and how to gauge if you are getting enough recovery. I combine the different kinds of training into programs that balance training and recovery. The 106-page Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is $14.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.