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 this 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 more leisurely “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. As Todd Starnes, our president and resident fitness expert (he was a sports scientist before joining Bicycle Adventures) often says—”Getting old just plain sucks; our choice is either to grow or decay.” For me? I’ll take growth every time, and your bike adventure is a giant leap forward towards your own personal and physical growth.
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.
And the work you do toward preparing your body pays benefits in all sorts of unexpected ways, whether you’re training for a bike tour or just want less stiffness and more stamina when you’re gardening, doing housework, or playing with your grandkids at the park.
Why 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 gives you more physical confidence to try new things…and I love what it does for my energy level.
So if you’re ready to get started, here are five tips to help 50+ athletes prepare for a bike tour.
It All Starts 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 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.
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
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, especially one like the Washington Cascades adventure where 100-mile days aren’t uncommon.
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. You can find a great HIIT workout for beginners here.
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—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 it them at home and on your own schedule.
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! Just send me a note at email@example.com and let’s have a chat.