I was reading a discussion (Cycling: mashing versus spinning) in which someone commented ...

In the big picture, winning against other age-groupers is pretty unremarkable.

... which implies that cycling performance is affected by one's age.

Now ageing might be, to quote the FAQ, "an actual problem that you face".

Assuming that ageing is in fact some kind of 'problem', can you tell me what's useful to know about it? Especially as it relates to cycling (ability, performance, expectations, and/or training)?

For example a little bit of googling found "Key found to muscle loss as we age" which suggests that one cause of muscle wasting in older people is decreased blood flow to the legs (which cycling presumably helps to counter-act somewhat).

To be a bit more specific:

  • I'm soon to be 50 (but please feel free to talk about other ages if you know about it and think it would interest)
  • I'd looking for any specifically age-related information (e.g. I think all articles will say that in general exercise is good for you at any/every age: which is the opposite of being an age-specific statement, or statements about specific ages or ageing)
  • I'm looking for bicycle-specific information (so perhaps not especially for statements relating to flexibility, memory and other mental abilities, impact-resilience, and/or other such ageing-related phenomena that aren't especially relevant to bicycling)
  • I'd prefer actionable or prescriptive information

7 Answers 7


I'm over 50, starting my 30th year of cycling, and raced for 10 years when much younger. I've been tracking my performance over the 30 years with detailed training diaries.

The main age related issue I've found is that it takes longer for me to recover from hard efforts. The consequence is that I cannot train as hard overall because I cannot handle as many hard days of training. I also find that I need to warm up longer before hard efforts, which reduces the time I can spend working hard in any given training session.

Overall, I haven't found much decrease in performance given the reduced amount of hard training. In other words, if I compare my current performance to earlier times when I was training at the same level of effort, my performance is only a little worse.

I'm curious to find out at what age I will start seeing a bigger decline.

I deal with the reduced number of hard sessions by pushing myself extremely hard during those sessions and taking it much easier on other rides. My goal is that my hard days are very hard and my easy days are very easy.


I think as you get older the "use it or lose" it problem with muscle mass and bone density becomes more obvious. The rate of loss of both of those increases as you age. My solution here is just to keep stretching, keep riding and do more tai chi and yoga rather than aikido & judo.

A secondary effect is that recovery time increases, as does reaction time. So you're both more likely to crash, and you take longer to recover when you do. Perhaps a shift from criterium to velodrome racing is a good idea once you hit 50 (not that any of my friends seem to be doing that, but they should). At the extreme, a lot of geriatric old farts switch to recumbent trikes once they hit 60 or 70, partly because they struggle to get on and off an upright, but also because the cost of falling off one is so high - break a hip at 70 and your life expectancy drops dramatically.

On the positive side, if you're a competitive cyclist your increased experience and tactical judgement help to offset your lower peak power output until well into your 40s. There have also been quite a few long distance records set by older cyclists, including some hour records. Older in this case meaning "over 30", although Fast Freddy Markham set the hour record when he was 50.


Here's an article on that subject:

With muscles, 'use it or lose it' rings true

It's good and bad news:

  • With regular extreme exercise, some people stay strong into their 70s


    The subjects in the study were 40 recreational masters athletes between the ages of 40 and 81, who trained four to five times a week for running, swimming or cycling races.

    Surprisingly, neither leg muscle size nor strength declined significantly with age among the subjects, suggesting that regular training had warded off the muscle-wasting effects of aging. The sample MRIs showed virtually indistinguishable quadriceps in a 40-year-old triathlete compared with a 70-year-old triathlete. In contrast, the quadriceps of a 74-year-old sedentary man were shrivelled and enveloped in fat.

  • However muscles and "spinal motor neurons" which you don't exercise don't benefit

    The older runners had a slightly higher number of arm motor units than their sedentary peers, but the difference wasn’t statistically significant. Both were dramatically lower than the younger controls – a finding that wasn’t entirely unexpected.

In summary:

loss of motor units is only one aspect of age-related decline ... choose a mix of exercises that also target cardiorespiratory fitness and bone health ... the majority [of Canadians] still don’t meet even minimum guidelines for physical activity ... current decisions about exercise [affect] quality of life a few decades down the road.

“We control 70 per cent of how we age,” she says. “The other 30 per cent is genetic, and we can blame our mothers for that. But 70 per cent is in our hands.”


Years ago, I read an academic journal on exercise physiology. From memory, almost all measures of fitness decline from around age 30, except strength. The test subjects in the study increased their strength to whatever the maximum age measured in the paper.

Mind, my own experience is greater endurance as an older athlete than when younger. Mostly due to working out appropriately to meet the goal.

  • 1
    There is a steady loss of motor neurons, beginning at about age 20. Most people have an overabundance and will never notice them missing, but if the number drops below a certain level then muscles begin to weaken regardless of exercise level. Commented Feb 21, 2012 at 1:43

I'm 65, with the problems one might expect; had surgery on a knee last year, aches and pains in shoulder joints, had a little bout of angina a couple of years ago and got a stent...

Still riding though. By all accounts, given that cycling is a superb aerobic (or "cardio" as they say now) exercise, it might behoove the older rider to toss in some resistance training as well to compensate for muscle-mass loss. I've been doing non-impactive upper-body work recently (using a device called a "Bulgarian training bag") and it seems to be helping my wonky shoulders and general upper-body strength.


I haven't done a comprehensive survey, but I do know of two cycling studies that try to tackle the question of how cycling power changes with age. I do not have a background in exercise physiology or biology, but I do have a background in research methods.

Gent and Norton (2012, ungated paper here) recruited 156 men and 17 women, age 35-64 years, all active masters cyclists. They obtained 10s peak power (representing sprint power, mainly from the phosphagen or ATP-PC system) and power at VO2max (which I will call VO2max power for short) from a ramp test. Power was expressed in watts per kg. Their sample average 10s power was 15.2 W/kg (standard deviation 2.8) and the average VO2max power was 3.9 W/kg (SD 0.56). Their median amount of physical activity per week was 15 hours. This sounds like a very active sample. My average VO2max power is about 4.5 W/kg right now, which puts me well within the current Zwift requirements for the B category - I tend to be on the slower side for B races, but this is a fairly competitive category.

Gent and Norton found that the average 10s power declined by 0.138 W/kg per year, and that the average VO2max power declined by 0.007 W/kg per year (the p-values for these tests are <.0001 and 0.218 respectively). Basically, the study showed that 10s power declined faster than VO2max power; in fact, this sample's VO2max power was essentially unchanged with age. The study didn't report results by gender.

Brown, Ryan, and Brown (2007, ungated paper here) recruited 36 men and 20 women, age 16-64 years, all active competitive cyclists. They all did at least 2 high-intensity training sessions per week at the time of study. Their average amount of physical activity wasn't reported, but this was probably also a very active sample. This study tested both VO2max power and power at lactate threshold. This is basically power at a blood lactate level of 4 mmol/L, a commonly accepted threshold in the literature. I believe this can be interpreted like functional threshold power, although we determine FTP via an approximation instead of measuring your blood lactate levels during exercise. The full sample had an average VO2max power of 4.4 W/kg (SD 0.7), and a lactate threshold power of 3.0 W/kg (SD 0.6). As above, these are quite high averages. The current Zwift requirement for racing category B is maximum aerobic power at least 4.1 W/kg or estimated threshold power at least 3.36 W/kg.

Contrary to Gent and Norton, this study found that VO2max power declined by an average of 0.048 W/kg for men, although there was no apparent decrease for women. Power at lactate threshold declined by an average of 0.044 W/kg for men and 0.019 W/kg for women.


To answer the question, we would ideally recruit a cohort of individuals, and test them repeatedly over time. This would also let us estimate the individual variability in the rate of power loss - that is, it's likely that some individuals decline faster than others. However, a cohort study is expensive and it would take a long time to deliver results. Hence, we have what we have, which are two studies that recruited a batch of people of various ages at a single point in time.

It's also worth pointing out that neither study design fully tackles the problem of individuals who drop out of the sport entirely. People who decline faster are probably more likely to drop out, so the older participants in these studies could be markedly different from the average 50-60 year old. There is a quote that you should beware of an old man in a profession where men usually die young; presumably this generalizes to women and to situations not involving outright mortality. Therefore, I feel like the studies above may under-state the average decline in power by age. A cohort study could at least monitor people until they quit cycling. But they might drop out of the study for other reasons, and you can incentivize but not require continued participation.

With that said, I think it's commonly accepted among laypeople that anaerobic power should decline faster than aerobic power with age. Gent and Norton's results are consistent with that. I think there may also be physiological reasons to suspect this; for example, in older adults, the loss of fast-twitch (type II) muscle fibers is faster than slow-twitch ones.

I would have expected maximum aerobic power to decline faster than power at lactate threshold. We don't see that in the latter study.

Women live longer than men. I would expect women to decline more slowly than men. The Gent and Norton study didn't report results by sex, and they did have relatively few women. Brown et al showed that women decline slower than men, both for VO2max power and threshold power. The women in both studies have normalized VO2max power pretty close to the men, and similarly for threshold power in the second study. I suspect the difference in the general cycling population is greater, so I wonder how representative the women are of the general population of female cyclists.

What should you do

I only set out to discuss how cycling ability changes with age. I guess the prescription is try to race people roughly your age. That said, power alone doesn't necessarily determine race outcomes, and soft skills can come into play if you have enough power to stay in contention. And you can maintain significant fitness even at older ages if you keep at it. The studies didn't discuss recovery, but other answers did - you need to pay more attention to recovery as you age.

If you're interested in research methods

There's a divergence between the two studies. Furthermore, these aren't the only two out there. Readers could look through the discussion sections for other studies. Also, this needn't be limited to cycling; running can also involve anaerobic, maximal aerobic, and sub-threshold aerobic efforts depending on the discipline. My impression is that many rowing events are at shorter distances, so studies on rowers might be more informative about maximum aerobic power than sub-threshold.

Researchers would prefer to do systematic literature reviews to answer this question. Systematic means that you specify the question(s), decide on a search protocol, and then you search the literature exhaustively. That way, you aren't biasing yourself to reviewing studies that fit your point of view, although you can't avoid the bias towards published studies being different from unpublished ones. You'd then make an assessment of study quality for each question, then you'd make a judgment about where the weight of the evidence lies. In the case above, if we had only two studies about the effect of age on VO2max power, we'd say the evidence is inconsistent.

Sometimes, you can pool the results from several studies with meta-analysis or meta-regression. Some people misidentify meta-analysis as the pinnacle of research. It is not. The quality of a meta-analysis depends on the underlying literature search having been done properly. Also, you can't always pool results (for example, maybe different parameters were tested, maybe the test methods were different enough to not be comparable).


I don't think there's anything "useful" to know about aging in the context you outline, although it could potentially be interesting for you to compare your own fitness and performance over time.

Common trend: Athletic performance declines with age.
Individual trend: My performance has increased with age since I pay more attention to my fitness, diet, etc.

So the "problem" as defined might be the general trend... which should not be correlated with individual performance.

  • It's true that people are more or less fit compared with other people of several other ages, and so it's difficult to say something definite about age (as opposed to about the individual). On the other hand, comparing me to myself, I've increased my amount of exercise in the last two months, and if I'm not mistaken maybe my muscles aren't growing as much or as fast as when I was a teenager and increased my exercise then: and maybe that age-related trend is universal; and maybe there's a corresponding, commonly-applicable adaptation/change to one's regimen that could be useful to know.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Apr 23, 2011 at 0:07

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