Anti-Aging: In Your 60s How Fast Do You Lose Fitness?

By Coach John Hughes

My friend and RBR reader Janet wrote, “One way I monitor my level of cycling fitness is by how hard (or easy) a routine ride is. I was off my bike for only 26 days and I could not believe how hard one of my routine routes was, the climbing in particular. I am so glad I did that ride yesterday. It’s basically looking in the mirror. I will now work on getting my fitness back.

“Is there a well-known relationship between how long it takes to build a level of cycling fitness vs. how long it takes to lose it?”

This is an excellent question that applies to all older riders, and the older you are the faster you lose fitness when you stop exercising. Unfortunately it takes a long time to build fitness and you lose it fairly quickly. Your body stays just fit enough to do what you ask it to do. The less you do the more fitness you lose.

Athletic Maturity

How athletically mature a roadie is bears on how fast the rider loses fitness. In my two-part eArticle Cycling Past 60 I develop the concept of athletic maturity and explain how to evaluate your athletic maturity. Based on an individual’s athletic maturity I recommend different exercise programs.

Three factors of athletic maturity are directly relevant to how rapidly you lose fitness:

1. Years riding.
How many years have you been riding: 1-2 years; 3-5 years; 6 or more years? The more years the more athletically mature you are because of a larger endurance base.

2. Miles per year.
How many miles a year do you ride: < 3,000 miles (5,000 km); 3-5,000 miles (5-8,000km), >5,000 miles (8,000 km)? The more miles per year you ride the more consistent you probably are so you lose fitness more slowly.

3. Longest annual ride. 
How long is your longest ride: <50 miles (80 km); 50-100 miles (80-160 km; >100 miles (>160 km)? The longer your big the ride the greater your endurance.

Two other factors of athletic maturity also influence how quickly a roadie’s fitness declines:

4. Leg strength?
How many step-ups can you do with your: body weight; body weight + 10%; body weight +20%? The stronger your legs are the more athletically mature you are.

5. Body weight? 
Based on the Body Mass Index (BMI) how healthy is your weight? Athletically active people have more muscle. Adjusting the BMI for this are you: obese; overweight; normal? The more you have maintained a normal weight the more athletically mature.

The other factors to assess your athletic maturity are upper body strength, flexibility and balance.

How To Reverse The Loss Of Fitness

Use these principles to regain your fitness:

Work on your weakness(es). 
Look at the above five factors. Where are you least athletically mature? Then spend relatively more time working on improving in that area without completely neglecting the other factors. You’ll get better results if you just try to improve one area at a time instead of trying to improve significantly in several areas at once.

Intensity and strength training. 
You lose power and strength faster than you lose endurance. You have two types of muscle fibers: slow twitch fibers, which have great endurance but little power and fast twitch fibers, which have strength and power but much less endurance. The muscle fibers are recruited progressively. As you ride at an easy pace some of your slow twitch fibers are firing. When you start riding a little faster more of your slow twitch fibers start working. When you start riding hard, e.g., climbing up a tough hill, your fast twitch fibers also kick in and your slow twitch fibers keep firing. Because intensity on the bike and strength training cause your fast twitch fibers to work both intensity and strength training are so important. (Slow- and fast-twitch refer to how quickly the muscle fibers contract, not your cadence.)

Consistency throughout the year is critical.
You need to ride almost every week of the year rather than taking a month off from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Why “almost” every week? Because recovery is also very important and you need periodic breaks of about a week or so to refresh physically and mentally. It’s fine to take next mostly off for Thanksgiving with your family and to take Christmas and New Year’s off but stay active in between.

Frequency is more important than volume as you work to slow down the loss of fitness or to regain fitness. In other words you’ll get more benefit riding four days a week for a total of 100 miles than doing one 25-mile ride mid-week and 75 miles on the Saturday.

Activities of daily living also help. 
The more generally active you are the more slowly you lose fitness, e.g., climbing the stairs instead of taking the elevator and walking to the local coffee shop or market instead of driving.

However, staying active throughout the day isn’t sufficient. When you are riding your muscle fibers fire in a specific pattern. Even if you maintain some fitness through activities of daily living but don’t ride much you start to lose your muscle memory. Simply running errands on your bike instead of driving helps to maintain your muscle memory.

Bottom Line

The bad news is that the older you are the faster you lose fitness. The good news is that with an exercise program using the above principles you can reverse that!

Happy Thanksgiving! I appreciate the time all of you take to read my columns and to ask good questions. Each of my clients is doing a short Thanksgiving ride next week without the computer and just thinking about all that he or she has to be thankful for. I suggest you do something like that next week for Thanksgiving too.

My wife and I are avid cross-country skiers and two of our ski areas have a few kilometers of trails open so we’re going to the mountains for Thanksgiving. We’ll take our rock skis, old skis that we don’t mind skiing over the occasional rock.

Posted on November 15, 2018 .