Death comes to the archbishop

January 28, 2019 § 12 Comments

One common refrain I hear from old cyclists is how cycling “keeps them young” and “they’ve never felt better” and “they’re fitter than people half their age.”

Of course this is pure flibberflabber. Nothing keeps you young. The trajectory of life, with zero exceptions, is that you get older until you die. And it is equally flummadiddle to say you’ve never felt better, unless you were never a child, in which case you are still an infant.

Finally, it is true that you are fitter than SOME people half your age. You are also fitter than dead people. This doesn’t mean you have obtained some amazing level of anything. It simply means that other people out there have obtained even less. And whatever it means, it doesn’t mean that because you are fitter than some 20-year-old slob, that you are 20 years old.

Sciencey stuff about aging

There are actually a series of changes that all human go through as they age which affect performance in cycling. One of the biggest factors is the actual loss of muscle fiber, known by the dreadful-sounding term of “sarcopenia.” All humans lose significant amounts of muscle fiber as they age, but something about age 50 causes a pronounced decrease that continues until death.

This loss of muscle fiber cannot be reversed and is the same rate of atrophy for trained athletes and for complete couch potatoes. “But wait!!!” you screech. “I’ve seen that Internet ad of that dude in his 60’s who is massive and buff like a rhino! He ain’t losin’ no damn muscle mass!”

Unfortunately, Billy, he is. Muscles are composed of something called motor units. A motor unit is made up of a motor neuron and the skeletal muscle fibers innervated by that motorneuron’s axonal terminals. Groups of motor units work together to coordinate the contractions of a single muscle; all of the motor units within a muscle are considered a motor pool. This is different from the motor pool that the military uses to shuttle people here and there on base.

These motor units become denervated over time. This is a sciencey way of saying that the nerve part of the motor unit dies. And once the nerve dies, the muscle fiber dies with it.

“So how come Internet Rhino Dude is so massssive?” you wonder.

Well, it is possible to train the remaining muscle fibers so that they are hypertrophic, which means Buff AF. But the number of muscle fibers hasn’t increased one whit, kind of like if you lose one leg and really train the other, it may make the remaining leg strong but it doesn’t give you two legs.

What this means for Strava

Without clogging the page with too many words, basically it means that after 30 you are going to start sucking. “Thirty???” you screech. “THIRTY?????”

Ya, thirty. And by the doddering, fumbling, mumbling, demented old age of forty you can count on solid losses of 1% muscle mass per year.

Regardless of the age at which peak performance is attained, most elite athletes begin to show some decline in performance by their early thirties (Figures 5 & 6). Despite the onset of irretrievable declines, some very ‘late maturers’ and some exceptionally gifted athletes may still out-perform younger men at an elite level of performance at up to forty years of age while already showing declines from their own peak levels (Figure 6).

It’s not all bad news, however; some of the news is downright horrible. For example, the muscular atrophy that occurs, irreversibly, from aging, is powerfully correlated with a condition known as death. In fact, muscular atrophy as measured by things such as testing one’s grip strength is an incredibly powerful predictor of, yep, death. At the risk of contradicting bastions of scientific learning such as, it’s the loss of muscular strength, not the absence of #fakesupplements and #quackbullshit that are going to send you to an early grave.

Lest everything appear to be gloom and doom, and honestly, what could possibly look rosy after learning that your future Stravver trajectory is inexorably downward, there is a glimmer of hope out there.

The glimmer is exercise. All that riding you do will never make you young again, or even younger, but it will make the quality of your remaining years exponentially better than those glued to the La-Z-Boy.

Taken together, a combined exercise program consisting of both resistance-type and endurance-type exercise may best help to ameliorate the loss in skeletal muscle mass and function, prevent muscle aging comorbidities, and improve physical performance and quality of life.

In other words … KEEP RIDING!



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