Preparing for a Bicycle Adventure: 5 Fitness Tips for the 50+ Athlete
First things first—congratulations on your decision to go forward and embrace one of the most rewarding challenges you’ll ever undertake. From personal experience, I can tell you that a bicycle adventure will change you for the better, both physically and mentally. And I applaud your decision to prepare yourself for the big event.
Whether you’re embarking on an epic adventure like the Empire Builder, a 700-mile trek from Montana to Seattle, or a flat 4-day “Rails to Trails” exploration of the Couer d’Alenes, a little preparation goes a long way toward enjoying your travels.
Of course, physical preparation isn’t just helpful for bike tours, it can have a positive impact on many aspects of your life.
Our president and resident fitness expert, Todd Starnes, who was a sports scientist before joining Bicycle Adventures, has some great words of wisdom for the 50+ athlete—
”Getting old just plain sucks; our choice is either to grow or decay.”
For me? I’ll take growth every time, and if you’ve read this far, then I think you will too! Your next bike adventure can give you the push towards your own personal and physical growth.
It doesn’t matter whether you choose to complete Oregon’s Crater Lake (the best bike ride in North America, according to Bicycling Magazine) or opt for a more cultural two-wheeled experience in Mexico, just enjoy the ride with smiles and sun!
I think it’s important to state up front that physical fitness doesn’t have to mean going to the gym. So many of the activities that contribute to a healthy body can be done right in the privacy of your home, like strength and resistance training, stretching, and even cardio.
The work you do toward preparing your body pays benefits in all sorts of unexpected ways, whether you’re training for a bike tour with the family or just want less stiffness and more stamina when you’re gardening, doing housework, or playing with your grandkids at the park.
So why should we exercise?
Physical exercise can slow the effects of aging and prevent muscle atrophy and bone loss, too—a real concern for 50+ women. I think it also gives you more physical confidence to try new things…and I love what it does for my energy level.
If you’re ready to get started, here are five tips to help 50+ athletes prepare for a bike tour and some advice on how to ramp up to the next level for those who are steady 30-miler cyclists.
Let’s Begin With Strength Training
Strength training sounds complicated and even a bit intimidating, especially if you’re out of practice. But it really comes down to these five simple motions:
You’ll notice “lifting weights” isn’t mentioned—because it really isn’t necessary! Although if you want to join a gym and work with machines and free weights, that’s always an option. I’m going to give you exercises you can do at home, with no complicated machines, and a far lower risk of injury.
The American College of Sports Medicine suggests activities to strengthen each of the six main muscle groups: Chest, shoulders, arms, abdomen, back, and legs. Strength training will come in handy on a bike adventure in so many ways—supporting your back, chest, arms, and posture during the ride itself and giving you the muscles you need to pedal up hills (like the cliffs and canyons in our Southern Utah National Parks tour).
The classic “push” exercise is the push-up, which strengthens your arms, shoulders, chest, abdomen, and back—it’s an all-purpose exercise powerhouse. If you aren’t strong enough to do a classic military version, you can try this four-step plan</a< to get you there (or you can just stick with the modified version that works best for you).
A good strength routine balances pushing and pulling. You don’t need a pull-up bar to build your pulling muscles, but a set of lightweight dumbbells is helpful. I like the alternating dumbbell row because you can really feel results with just a few reps. (Don’t own dumbbells? Substitute cans of soup or milk jugs.)
Planking is great for strengthening your core, which underpins pretty much everything you do. If you’re a beginner at planking, you can learn good technique and modifications with this video, plus variations for more advanced moves.
No, this isn’t a “gotcha,” there really are sitting-type exercises to help you build strength. I’m talking about squats and lunges, which are great for developing your abs, legs, and back. Even if you have knee problems, you can do these exercises at home.
I don’t have to tell you how important it is to strengthen your lower back and core—doing laundry, tying your shoes…we’re bending all day long. Some great home bending exercises are back extensions and bicycles.
Build Your Endurance With Cardio and Feel the Benefits
The CDC recommends that healthy older adults get at least two-and-a-half hours (150 minutes) of moderate aerobic activity (like brisk walking) every week, or 75 minutes of high-intensity (running, jogging, cycling) activity. The heart benefits of aerobic activity are not in dispute.
But the added benefits of increased endurance will help you on your bicycle tour, so you can fully enjoy the gently rolling hills of the San Juan Islands.
Simple things to do now to improve your cardio endurance:
- Skip the elevator and take the stairs.
- Pursue an active hobby like tennis, swimming, or riding your bike (especially riding your bike).
- Take a brisk walk on your lunch break instead of snacking at your desk.
- Go kayaking or paddleboarding.
- Get a jump rope and skip rope to music.
Add Some High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
Although it sounds complicated, HIIT really isn’t. It’s simply combining brief intervals of intense exercise with longer periods of less strenuous work. You can incorporate HIIT just by running for a few seconds every few minutes when you take your daily walk—or pedaling extra hard for 10 to 30 seconds periodically on your training bike rides.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends HIIT because it:
- Improves aerobic (and anaerobic) fitness.
- Lowers blood pressure and cholesterol profiles.
- Reduces belly fat and body weight while preserving your muscle mass.
Sounds too good to be true, but it isn’t. And the best thing is that HIIT can be modified to suit any fitness level and you don’t have to do it every day to see results. Our fitness guru Todd Starnes recommends observing these rules:
- Aim for “comfortably challenging,” there’s no need to make yourself miserable.
- Think quality over quantity—if you are working hard but struggling to keep the pace you had after your first couple of intervals, you’ve done enough for that workout.
- Four to six intervals no more than twice per week is more than enough to experience the benefits of HIIT.
Don’t Neglect the “4 Rs” of Recovery
Recovery is even more important for the beginning or older athlete, so pay extra attention to the four “Rs” of recovery—
Rehydrate. If your exercise period is 60 minutes or shorter, rehydrating with water is probably enough. For longer sessions, use a sports beverage with carbs and electrolytes.
Refuel. You need to eat to replenish the fuel your body spent and provide nutrients to help your body recover. For adults over 50, that means protein—at least 15 to 25 grams in the hour after exercise. Protein bars and shakes are a convenient option if you don’t feel like preparing a snack.
Rest. I’m not just talking about a short break after exercise (although that’s always important), I’m talking about a healthy amount of deep, restorative sleep at night to give your body time to recover and repair.
Repair. The recovery process looks different in everyone, but for older adults, alternating heat and cold therapy, soft tissue massage, or even therapeutic soaks are helpful for encouraging the muscle repair that occurs after exercise.
The tour guides at Bicycle Adventures take recovery seriously with an appropriate schedule of hydration, nourishing snacks and drinks, healthy breakfasts, and even special accommodations for your own diet and nutrition routine.
What You Eat Matters More than You Think
Your changing nutritional needs become even more noticeable once you hit 50. For one thing, your body may not absorb essential nutrients as well as it did when you were younger—and strenuous exercise impacts digestion, a potential “perfect storm” of nutritional deficits.
Here are some foods to eat if you want your body to be ready to go when you are:
- Probiotics set the stage for a healthy gut, the gatekeeper to a healthy body. Some people use a probiotics supplement, but you can naturally introduce these healthy bacteria into your gut by eating yogurt with live active cultures (look for the LAC stamp), fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, and aged cheeses.
- Fiber feeds the healthy gut bacteria and aids digestion. Get what you need with easy-to-eat foods like barely ripe bananas, oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, and asparagus.
- Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, help you burn fat, and are good for your heart. Incorporate more servings of fatty fish like salmon to boost this important nutrient.
- Protein helps repair and grow muscles and maintain bone and joint strength. Try to get some protein at every meal with foods like dairy, fish, poultry, meat, or plant-based sources (lentils, nuts, seeds).
- Vitamin D is essential to muscle recovery and maintaining healthy bones. Unfortunately, aging skin isn’t as effective at synthesizing vitamin D from the sun, so it’s important to add it to your diet with either supplements or fortified dairy products.
How to Ramp up to the Next Level If You’re a Steady 30-miler Cyclist
So you’ve progressed to a great level—30 miles is a brilliant achievement—well done! But what if you just want to challenge yourself a little more and break through the 30-mile plateau?
Rest assured, you are not alone and there are several ways of getting to that next level, which I would love to share with you.
- Get More Power Behind Your Pedals
Add plyometric training (or jump training) to your weekly workout. Research has shown that in just one month, you can increase your power endurance by a healthy 17%! To avoid injuries, starting slow is the name of the game— so try squat jumps twice a week.
- Think Smart When you Climb
Pick a gear in which you can pedal smoothly, not mash. Think about pedaling across the stroke rather than simply up and down. When you are out of the saddle, if you feel your bike is swinging from side to side, shift to an easier gear.
- Avoid The Dead Zone
Brought on by repeated training at a single, moderately hard intensity. The dead zone can affect enthusiasts who push the pedals hard but don’t follow any training program. In order to improve, the body needs to adapt, which is achieved by a program that hits your personal extremes.
- Get the most from your speed
I know it sounds simple, but always remember to make yourself as aerodynamic as possible on your descents. You will maximise every ounce of speed you have gained. So sit back on the saddle and ride with your hands in the drops. Then tuck your knees and elbows into the bike and lower your head for better results.
- Resting Heart Rate (RHR) : a number you should know
It’s one of the best ways to monitor overtraining. If your beats per minute are 10% higher than normal, when you take your RHR in the morning (before you get out of bed), then you might want to have an easier day.
- Get Creative with Incentives
We all need a little something as a reward in order to remain focused, so when you achieve one of your goals, treat yourself—you deserve it!
Hopefully, I’ve given you some practical tips and pointers to help you get started on a physical program of preparation for your tour. You’ll notice that none of the exercises I suggest require pricey equipment, a gym membership, or hours of your time—you can do them at home and on your own schedule.
Ready to Ride?
If you have any questions about fitness, preparation, and recovery, I’m always here to talk to you. And if you’re still looking for the perfect bicycle adventure for you—I can help you with that, too! Get in touch to start planning the trip of a lifetime.
If you’d like to find out more about how to go about planning your bicycle adventure, sign up to our free email course. It’ll teach you everything you need to know.
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