Anti-Aging: Use It or Lose It, Part 1 – Road Bike Rider

By Coach John Hughes

We just returned from a three-week trip to Bengaluru, India to celebrate a close friend’s wedding. An Indian wedding is a colorful multi-day celebration!

While I was in India I turned 73. From reading the literature, coaching older riders and personal experience I know the importance of “use it or lose it” as we age. Before I flew to India, I resolved regularly to do aerobic activities, upper, lower and core strength exercises, stretch and Tai Chi. My goal was not to fall too short of the New Exercise Recommendations for healthy aging from the US Department of Health and Human exercises and the American College of Sports Medicine.

We lose fitness in three ways:

  1. True aging – age-related changes that will happen to all of us inevitably. By doing different kinds of exercises you can slow the rates of change.
  2. Pathological aging – a result of changes in the environment, genetic mutations, accidents or how we choose to live.
  3. Episodic — reduced or stopped exercising for planned (e.g., vacation) or unplanned (e.g., illness) times.

This two-part column addresses episodic loss of fitness. Part 1 describes how we lose fitness and what I did to prepare for the trip to India. Part 2 will describe what I did (and didn’t) do in India.

I. How you lose fitness

Considerable research has been done on what happens if an athlete completely stops exercising because of illness, injury or other reasons. The points that follow describe what happens if someone stops working out completely. Fortunately, if you continue to exercise — just less — you lose fitness more slowly. 

Residual fitness How many years you’ve been riding is the biggest factor in how slowly you lose fitness and how rapidly you can recover the lost fitness. This relates to my concept of Athletic Maturity and this column explains how to improve your Athletic Maturity.

VO2 max is your body’s capacity to take in and use oxygen. It begins to decline at about day 10 of no training and continues to decrease over time.

Speed and high intensity workouts depend on your VO2 max. As your VO2 max declines your capacity to transport oxygen makes it hard to recover and continue with hard intervals. The loss of fast twitch muscles also reduces your how hard you can ride.

Endurance and aerobic capacity At about 10 days you slowly start to lose endurance. At about 14 days the loss of endurance accelerates because of the decrease in mitochondrial density and enzyme activity in the cells in your slow twitch fibers. On an endurance ride much of your energy comes from fat, which is metabolized in the mitochondria.  The decrease of mitochondria and enzymes reduces the amount of energy to your muscles.

Cardiorespiratory fitness is lost a little more slowly. Within about four to eight weeks of no training, your body’s capacity to move blood to your muscles decreases. This happens in part because your blood volume decreases. Also, the size of your heart muscle decreases and because it isn’t as strong it can’t pump as much blood per stroke. Because your heart can’t pump as much blood at submaximal intensities your heart rate is higher for a given workload.

Muscle atrophy happens more slowly and primarily affects the type II fast twitch muscle fibers. Fast twitch muscles provide power and slow twitch muscles provide endurance. (Fast twitch and slow twitch are the rates at which the muscle fibers contract, not your cadence.)

Metabolism and muscle function are significantly impacted. For a given workload you are burning more carbs and less fat for energy. Muscle glycogen levels also drop, leaving less in the tank to draw from. Your lactate threshold goes down because lactate accumulates quicker and at a lower intensity (loss of buffering capacity).

To sum up:

  • Rates of decline depend on how many years you’ve been cycling and how fit you were before you cut back on exercise.
  • Power and capacity to ride hard start to decrease first.
  • Endurance doesn’t decrease as fast.
  • Muscle strength decreases slowly.

II. Preparing for time off the bike

In October 2020 I had planned foot surgery and spent six weeks on my back. Anticipating the surgery I knew I’d lose fitness as described above. Before the surgery I followed a specific program to get fitter in order to offset some of the losses of fitness. Before going to India, I reviewed my training journal so I could follow a similar program of preparation.  I keep a journal so I can look back at similar episodes to see what worked at what didn’t work. My pre-India program was an improvement on my pre-surgery program.  You can read more about the value of a training journal here.

VO2 max. Increases in VO2 max result from large volumes of training at low intensities over long periods of time and from training at very high intensities for short intervals of one to five minutes. I hate intervals but I love mountain biking, which is a natural way to do very high intensity workouts.  

Endurance. Endurance comes from some combination of how long your rides are and how frequently you ride, i.e., total volume. Although I had a lot to do before our trip, I made a point of throwing my leg over the top tube almost every day for at least an hour a day.  Once a week I enjoyed a multi-hour ride with my buddy and at least once a week rode for multiple hours on my own. Here’s a column on how to do endurance training correctly.

Power. I live in the Rockies and use sustained power climbing on the bike. In addition to my weekly MTB high intensity rides and multi-hour endurance rides I did several on-the-bike power workouts a week. The roads in my neighborhood are very hilly and I can easily do 30 to 60-minute rides with lots of hard – but not flat out – climbing. A couple of mornings a week I rolled the MTB out of the garage (my roads are gravel) and pushed the pace. I climbed hard enough that I could only say a few words at a time but wasn’t going anaerobic.

Here are three related columns:

Strength. As we age, muscle mass decreases on average approximately 3–8% per decade after the age of 30, and the rate of decline is even higher after the age of 60. My body can only handle so much overload before it starts to break down. I decided doing my endurance, intensity and power rides was all my legs could handle so I didn’t do any leg strength exercises. I did my upper body strength, core strength and stretching programs three to four days a week.

Here are four relevant columns:

Full recovery week. As we age, we need more recovery each week. However, your weekly recovery may not be sufficient to fully recharge your batteries. Every three or four months I have my clients take a week with almost no riding or other exercise. This column explains Anti-Aging: The Week Off.

More information:

My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process has individual chapters on each of the types of exercise the American College of Sports Medicine recommends: cardiovascular both endurance and intensity; upper, lower, and core strength; weight-bearing, flexibility and balance. I include interviews with Gabe Mirkin (recommendations from an M.D.) Jim Langley (importance of goals), Andy Pruitt (importance of working on your skeleton, posture, balance, muscle mass), Muffy Ritz (recommended activities for older people, especially women), Malcolm Fraser (recommendations from an M.D.), Fred Matheny (importance of strength training), Elizabeth Wicks (motivation) and five other male and female riders ages 55 to 83. Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process incorporates the latest research and most of it is new material not published in my previous eArticles on cycling past 50, 60 and beyond. It’s your comprehensive guide to continuing to ride well into your 80s and even your 90s. The 106-page eBookAnti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is available for $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.

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