Are you training correctly for your stage of life? The doctor’s guide to maximizing your cycling potential at every age
The ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates, often described as the father of medicine, would be excellent sports director cycling team.
More than 2,500 years ago, he advised that “the surest way to health” is to give each individual “just the right amount” of nutrition and exercise. The word hormone also comes from the ancient Greek, a term meaning “to set in motion” – and that’s right because hormones start our journey to optimal health and performance from the moment we’re conceived.
Commonly described as internal chemical messengers transported in the bloodstream, hormones are instrumental in the function of cells, tissues, and organs. These vital body regulators exist in different types: sex steroid hormones including estradiol, testosterone; anabolic body building hormones such as growth hormone; stress response hormones such as cortisol; and hormones such as thyroxine that control metabolic rate.
Hormones are much more than mere messengers; they are more like executives directing the DNA in cells to produce the most beneficial proteins, in the right amount and at the right time, for optimal health and fitness.
Understanding our hormones and their key effects at each stage of life can help us keep them in balance, which in turn helps us reach our full potential. So let’s look at the defining role that hormones play in each of the seven stages of a cyclist’s life.
Age 0: FUTURE CYCLING BABIES (AND THEIR PARENTS)
Although a favorable genetic template is a good starting point for future success in cycling, unfortunately we cannot select Olympic parents. During pregnancy, the baby’s endocrine system – the body’s hormonal network – adjusts to the intended external world; Parents-to-be who stay fit and healthy pass on to their baby an endocrine system primed to be active.
Key tips for expectant parents:
- Be healthy and active to ‘train’ the endocrine system of the developing fetus.
- Keep exercising, but at a lower intensity—follow CW digital editor and new mom Michelle Arthurs-Brennan’s advice in our guide to cycling and pregnancy
- Do not eat too little or too much during pregnancy – you need about 200 kcal per day in the last three months
Age 0-14: CHILDREN CYCLISTS
The main work of hormones during childhood is directed towards growth. Many adult endocrine systems, such as those that generate energy for intense exercise, are not yet developed. That’s why the main advice for parents who want to encourage their children to get involved in cycling is to emphasize enjoyment and skills, rather than promoting intensive or high-volume training.
Children should not do high stress interval sessions and the volume should be limited – the number of hours per week (including school practice) should never exceed the child’s age. Too much training too soon can be counterproductive and potentially lead to mental and physical burnout.
Key tips for parents of aspiring cyclist kids:
- Focus on encouraging enjoyment rather than a heavy training load
- Encourage the development of bicycle management skills
- The weekly hours of exercise should not exceed the age of the child
Age 14-20: TEENAGE CYCLISTS
During adolescence, there is an explosion in the production of sex steroid hormones: predominantly testosterone in men and estrogen in women. This leads to divergence in physical and physiological characteristics, although the timing of these seismic hormone changes varies among individuals.
From now on, the men’s training plan cannot be applied to women. So the key advice for this age of cyclist is to avoid heavy training loads while the hormonal networks settle into adult patterns. The absolute maximum is 15 hours per week, including daytime and school activities. Quality of sleep and the amount is especially important in this age group, to support the hormonal shift of speed during adolescence – teenagers need at least eight hours a night. As Shakespeare’s Macbeth put it: “Sleep is the main food in life’s great feast.”
Key tips for teenage cyclists:
- Hormones change at different rates during adolescence, so the optimal training load will vary greatly depending on how far an athlete has progressed through puberty.
- Less time on electronic devices and more time sleeping will support the hormonal networks of teenagers
Age 20-40: YOUNG ADULTS
Young adult cyclists, from around 20 to 40 years of age, should see hormones working at their full potential to bring about beneficial adaptations to training. To allow your hormones to work their full magic, we need to go back to Hippocrates’ advice: you need to find your personal healthiest balance between training, rest and cycling nutrition. And don’t forget the importance of sleep for optimal cycling performance – after all, when we sleep, many performance-building hormones, such as growth hormone, are secreted. You really do get fitter while you sleep.
As adults we are more resilient, but training too hard can still compromise performance. Too little recovery relative to the training load can lead to this overtraining syndrome. Too little energy intake compared to the energy demand from training and everyday life will lead to a trap of relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-S). When this happens, we don’t have enough energy to keep the hormonal networks running smoothly and the body necessarily goes into energy saving mode and reduces hormones. Over time, performance declines and may take many months to recover. Therefore, young adult cyclists must maintain a personalized, periodic approach to all aspects of their schedule: the training itself, as well cycling nutrition and recovery supports it.
Key tips for young cyclists:
- Balance training and racing, along with work and other demands, to protect hormonal networks
- Recovery and sleep are vital components of a training schedule. Cumulative lack of recovery relative to training load reduces positive hormonal responses to training, which can lead to overtraining syndrome
- Aim to maintain an adequate energy intake for the work required in a consistent pattern. Insufficient fueling and/or suboptimal refueling time causes low energy availability and reduced regulation of hormonal function. This can lead to RED-S with detrimental effects on long-term health and performance
Age 40-60: OLDER ADULTS
As a cyclist moves into later adulthood, middle age, from about 40 to 60 years old, certain hormones begin to decline. In particular, for both men and women, the reduction in levels of the anabolic hormones growth hormone and testosterone means that it is important to modify training and nutrition to maintain performance. Strength training becomes a priority for maintaining muscle mass and favorable body composition. Combining this with an adequate protein intake – at least 1.2g per kilogram of body weight per day – will alleviate the tendency to lose muscle strength due to a decrease in hormone levels. Furthermore, maintaining metabolically active muscle mass will help prevent ‘mid-life expansion’ where fat deposits in the abdominal region. These declining hormone levels apply to both male and female cyclists.
For female athletes, this age of cyclists brings the most dramatic decline of all hormonal networks. Menopause is when menstruation stops, because the ovaries stop producing cyclical variations of estrogen and progesterone. Consequently, low levels of these ovarian hormones affect mental and physical health. Given advances in life expectancy, many women today will spend at least a third of their lives in the hormonal state of menopause. Quite rightly, these women want to continue cycling and competing. In fact, staying active and exercising is one of the best ways to deal with the challenges of menopause. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) with estrogen and progesterone has also been shown to be particularly beneficial for female Masters athletes. However, competitive cyclists should be aware that testosterone is on the WADA banned list, so a TUE is required.
Key tips for Masters cyclists:
- Include weekly strength training as part of your training schedule.
- Consume plenty protein
- Factor for better recovery: add at least one more rest day per week and never train while tired
Age 60 and over: SENIOR MASTERS
Cyclists moving into the senior cycling ranks, from around age 60, should be aware that anabolic hormones continue to decline. Therefore, the quality and not the quantity of training becomes an even greater priority, as well as regular strength training throughout the year.
There is good evidence that strength training has beneficial effects on body composition, muscle mass and bone strength. One study involving a group of men in their 70s found that resistance training improved their muscle strength and could rival that of untrained 25-year-old men!
Equally important, research shows women who strength train maintain higher bone mineral density and even height compared to women of the same age who do not do strength training. A large study published in the paper shows that a combination of cardiovascular exercise and strength training has a synergistic effect on promoting a long and healthy life.
Key tips for older Masters cyclists:
- Continue to cycle to mitigate the effects of declining hormones.
- Focus on quality, not quantity
- Increase resistance! This is the time to do more strength and resistance exercises, not less.
Age 75-plus: SUPER-VETERANS
Shakespeare described the last age of “man” in a somewhat complimentary way as “dotage”, implying a loss of ability. But in terms of hormones, ‘second childhood’ is a more apt description, as these health and performance boosters drop to low levels. If you can, you should keep cycling, because there is growing evidence that being a masters athlete puts you in a good position to resist the effects of declining hormones in old age. Additionally, continuing with some form or strength training is very helpful in resisting the tendency to lose muscle mass and function. In addition to the beneficial physical effects, the social aspect of keeping in touch with cycling friends is an important part of staying happy and content in old age.
Key tips for the most mature class of cyclists:
- Keep driving! Being a lifelong cyclist will help mitigate the effects of declining hormones
- Stay in touch with cycling buddies, as this maintains those all-important social interactions
MEDICAL ISSUES: When hormones go wrong
Hormones can go haywire for reasons other than age. These are the main culprits for cyclists:
Training and recovery without fail: Suboptimal hormonal function can be caused by an imbalance in a cyclist’s behavior around training, nutrition and recovery. This can cause subtle problems around fatigue, poor sleep and poor performance on the bike. A red flag in men is decreased libido; in women it is irregular menstruation. The good news is that this is not a medical condition and full hormonal function can be restored by redirecting behavior.
Absence of menstruation: For female cyclists, missed periods should never be dismissed as unimportant, as they can be a sign of an underlying health problem such as RED-S.
diabetes mellitus: In type 1 diabetes, the body’s ability to produce the hormone insulin goes awry, meaning blood sugar levels are out of control. Early symptoms include fatigue, thirst and an increased need to urinate.
Thyroid dysfunction: anxiety and weight loss it can be caused by an overactive thyroid. An underactive thyroid gland can be associated with fatigue and weight gain.
This article was originally published in the print edition of Cycling Weekly. Subscribe online (opens in new tab) and have the magazine delivered straight to your door every week.
To find out more, Dr Nicky Keay’s book Hormones, Health and Human Potential ($19.75 / £16.99) is available from:
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