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Making sure you get the most out of cycling in your 50's

January is the time when we are followed around the internet by gym membership invitations and recipes for slimming world, encouraging us to become fit and healthy with exercise and sensible eating. This is not just targeted at the over 50’s as it is important for all ages in working to minimise the risk of certain conditions in the future such as diabetes, osteoarthritis etc.

It is always said that a healthy body promotes a healthy mind and there are a host of ways in which you can get active, from walking the dog to swimming and cycling to running. If you’re looking to start being healthy and getting more active there is plenty of advice online, with the NHS also having their change 4 life initiative which offers advice on how to do it and links to local groups where you can meet likeminded people.

Back to Cycling

In our last blog post of the series entitled Why should the over 50’s cycle? we discussed the benefits of exercise in general with a specific focus on cycling, as follows:

Fresh Air: No one likes to stay in the house all the time. Until recently the main requirement of building a house was in keeping the air inside to ensure it was well insulated, though research suggests that this promotes stale air which can lead to the onset of respiratory conditions such as asthma and what is required is good circulation of fresh air so there has to be a happy medium.

Exploring: Doing the same thing day in, day out can be rather mundane as we need to be challenged and taking the bike somewhere different does just that. It challenges the body with the different environment and opens up the mind to something new and exciting. Cycling on the road can be dangerous but there are other options, with cycle paths in many areas and even canal towpaths to consider.

Health & Fitness: Cycling is a great way of keeping fit, helping your overall fitness and building strength in the lower body. The benefits you get from cycling can help you in other areas, allowing you to remain active for longer and losing weight which in turn can help your overall mental wellbeing. It’s important to remember that exercise helps both inside and outside of the body, with the British Heart Foundation stating that around 10,000 fatal heart attacks could have been avoided each year if people kept themselves fitter with just 30 minutes of cycling five times a week.

Low Impact: Running puts a lot of strain on the lower joints which can amplify the effects of some degenerative conditions. Did you know that there are 50,000 searches every month for the keyword ‘osteoarthritis’ on Google, with OA of the knee being the most common followed by hip and thumb OA. This condition affects the cartilage within the joint resulting in bone on bone contact which is the source of pain and compromises mobility. A low impact activity such as cycling reduces the strain on the affected joint whilst still allowing you to remain mobile and active, with endorphins released by the body acting as natural painkillers.

Do my cycling objectives change with age?

Image of cyclist riding into the sunset

The short answer is yes. Generally speaking those in their twenties should be more focussed on shorter races and time trials. Those in their thirties are more adapt at longer time trials, sportives and triathlons. The forties bracket is all about using your knowledge within sportives. The fifties, and the focus of this blog, is all about club riding and shorter sportives.

A sportive is a mass cycling event and whilst seen as non-competitive the Europeans see it slightly differently with prizes available to those coming out on top. The nature of the events also appeal to different age groups and different abilities and with the use of timing chips allows you to compare yourself against the rest of the participants.

Strengths: Dr Simon Jobson, sports scientist at the University of Kent has stated that your muscles receive the same amount of oxygen as they did when you were younger, it is simply delivered in a different way. With this in mind it is considered that distance and persistence are your key strengths.

Weaknesses: There is always a focus on the bones and research suggests that bone density decreases 0.4-0.75 percent annually from age 45 and by aged 80 bone density has dropped by 20%. These stats highlight the benefits of cycling in being low-impact compared to the likes of running, with the likes of osteoarthritis of the knee being more prevalent in the over 50’s bracket.

Food Focus: Iron is essential in being able to deliver oxygen to the muscles, therefore your diet should cater for this and if more importantly, if you are increasing your training then you should increase the intake of iron rich foods. Research suggests that where there is a deficiency in iron in the first place it can affect your overall training programme therefore your food is as important as your exercise.

The importance of a training programme

It is no secret that with age your physical performance diminishes. Knowing your limits is important in being able to determine your goals and this can be said of any age group as you would never run a marathon your first time out as the chances are you wouldn’t finish it, and if you did you would probably encounter a few injuries.

Be sensible in your approach and what you want to achieve. There are numerous websites (British Cycling as an example) which offer training programmes for different ages and different objectives, allowing you to gradually build up to what your end goal. You also need to consider the type of riding you want to do, whether it is distance, speed, interval training, off road etc and try to mix up your training so that your body is ready for anything. A long leisurely Sunday afternoon ride on your bike is great but if you’re not breaking a sweat then is it really as beneficial as a 30 minute power ride?

Don’t ride on your own

It can sometimes be difficult to motivate yourself to go out on your own and push yourself. If you’re on your own you have to ask yourself if you are doing the best you can? Could you push yourself further? Could you cycle faster? Being part of a group can help drive you on when you’re feeling tired and also be more fun in being able to share your experiences with other people.

British Cycling have a great tool on their website to find a local club so that you can find someone to go out with. You’ll be surprised on your times from going out on your own compared to going out with other people as that little competitive voice will always push you on that little bit longer than if you were on your own.

Don’t forget about healthy eating

The food you eat has a direct impact on your overall performance. We touched on this briefly above with the need for healthy eating and the intake of iron based food which can help deliver oxygen to your muscles and keep you going for longer. BBC Food have put together a nice little article on iron rich foods and the signs of a deficiency in the body. In a nutshell some of the best iron rich foods include kidney beans, oatmeal, tofu and lentils.

Sir Dave Brailsford has been at the forefront of Team Sky’s cycling success and an advocate of marginal gains, where each element of an athlete is analysed, from training programmes to food to sleep. The food of an athlete is extremely important, eating the right things at the right time and whilst the leisure cyclist may not need to adhere to such a strict regime every little helps.

Make sure you have fun

Image of an elderly couple on a cycling on a tandemIt may sound silly but it is one of the most important rules of any exercise and the one thing which will keep you going or better yet, get you outside when it is cold, wet and windy and that is having fun. You should be enjoying your healthy lifestyle and making the most of it.

We have talked about the opportunity to explore your local area whilst getting fresh air and if that is not all part and parcel of the fun of cycling then what is?

The best thing you can get out of cycling in your fifties is having fun and enjoying what you do. Exercise, fitness and a healthy lifestyle is just a nice by product.

Obviously if cycling is not for you then there are a host of other sports you can get involved in as it all helps to promote a healthy existence.