Strength exercise is essential for the senior athlete and masters cyclist to avoid the devastating effects of age-related muscle loss.
Resistance training is an essential component of most successful athlete’s training routines. In fact, strengthening increases power and force production more than sport-specific training alone.
Of significance to the masters athlete, the performance benefits of resistance exercise may be even greater than that of younger athletes.
As we age, our muscles progressively decrease in size (atrophy), and this biological change causes a gradual deterioration of function and performance. Muscle size is directly related to strength and speed, and the loss of muscle mass is accountable for declining performance with age.
Sarcopenia is characterized by the slow and progressive loss of muscle mass that is associated with aging in the absence of any underlying disease or condition.
The inclusion of a resistance training component can flatten this curve and preserve, or even increase, skeletal muscle mass and physical function. Strength training is the optimal way a masters athlete can stimulate muscle cell production, increase muscle size (hypertrophy), and muscular strength.
Resistance Training Increases Lean Muscle Mass
After the age of 50, the rate of muscle loss increases, and a subsequent decline in performance follows. There is an apparent reduction of total muscle mass at a rate of
Repeated bouts of resistance exercise increase muscle growth (hypertrophy) through elevated rates of formation that exceed that rate of breakdown (Brook et al., 2015; Wilkinson et al., 2014) in older athletes.
The cumulative effects of consistent resistance training promote muscle repair, muscle preservation, and muscle growth in the masters athlete if a sufficient stimulus is maintained (Walker et al., 2011).
Resistance Training Improves Bone Mineral Density
Bone mineral density (BMD) decreases as we age and is a significant risk factor for cyclists due to the lack of weight-bearing stress when riding. Resistance training provides a considerable stimulus for increased BMD and improved bone health.
Resistance Training Increases Muscle Strength, Power, and Speed
The loss of muscle mass that occurs with age profoundly affects the muscle fibers that contract the fastest, the fast-twitch type II muscle fibers. Resistance training reverses this decline by restoring contractile protein to these fibers.
Substantial improvements in movement speed of various sport-specific skills occur due to increased skeletal muscle size and strength and stimulating the nerve connections prompting them to fire.
In a 2016 article published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, the authors showed that flying 200m track cycling performance in masters cyclists is improved by implementing resistance training.
Resistance Training Promotes the Loss of Body Fat
With the loss of muscle mass after age 50 comes a significant decrease in resting metabolic rate (RMR). Age-related changes to our RMR cause a drastic reduction in total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) by as much as 60-80%.
If we continue to consume the same amount of food but our RMR and TDEE decrease, we have positive caloric intake, and increased body weight and fat mass can result.
A 2020 study by Del Vecchio et al. showed that replacing a portion of endurance training with concurrent sprint and strength training influenced resting metabolic rate and lean mass in veteran endurance cyclists.
In contrast, aerobic exercise-based weight reduction causes loss of lean muscle mass and a decreased RMR and can be the reason for rebound fat gain.
Resistance Training Improves Endurance
In a previous post, I argued for the importance of strengthening in improving endurance in virtual cyclists. Research strongly suggests that resistance training enhances endurance in older athletes and much the same ways.
The authors of a 2011 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology proved that adding strength training to endurance-only training induced a significant improvement in strength and cycling efficiency in master athletes. This enhancement in muscle performance alleviated all the age-related differences in strength and efficiency.
Other Life-Changing Health Benefits of Resistance Training
Reduces the risk of death
Evidence shows that skeletal muscle strength is a strong predictor of longevity and substantially improves health-related quality of life and our perception of how meaningful, manageable, and fulfilling it is.
Helps treat high blood pressure and heart disease
When performed in conjunction with aerobic exercise, evidence points to strength training to reduce heart disease.
Improves your sleep
Sleeping problems are common as we age (insomnia affects about a third of masters over 65) and directly impacts many significant health risks. Still, increased levels of resistance exercise improve the quality and quantity of our sleep.
Prevents the risk of Diabetes
Resistance training has been shown to optimize the ability of the skeletal muscle to metabolize sugar.
Prevents mental decline and Alzheimer's
Research supports that strengthening promotes decision-making and memory, reduces brain cells’ shrinking, and can be a promising non-pharmaceutical intervention in preventing dementia.
Reduces depression and anxiety
Evidence suggests that strength exercise dramatically improves mental health and treating mental disorders.
Stronger muscles, bones, and the structures that connect them are essential to optimal injury-free cycling performance, and that is even more true as we age.
Resistance training in older athletes increases muscle strength by increasing muscle mass and improving muscle fibers’ recruitment and velocity. These benefits are not limited to power and speed, but endurance is also enhanced.
The masters athlete can not deny the profound benefits of resistance exercise on health, function, and athletic performance. In the quest to remain competitive, it is the race against our younger self that is often the most hotly contested, and by adding resistance training to your training plan, you will close the gap.
In a follow-up, I will explore recent research which supports the importance of maximal power cycling, otherwise known to you and me as sprint training, to power and strength for the masters athlete. You won’t want to miss it!
Are you old like me?
Do you work out with weights like me? Let me know your thoughts on the benefits. Comment below. Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!