What We Can Learn from This 105-Year-Old Cyclist
Robert Marchand recently broke the cycling hour record for centurions. Scientists studied his body, tracked his progress, and came to one conclusion: there is no upper age limit to training.
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In 2014, a then 103-year-old Frenchmen and former wine dealer named Robert Marchand rode his bicycle into the record books: he cycled 26.92 kilometers (16.7 miles) in one hour, the farthest anyone over 100 has gone. In doing so, he broke his own record that he had set two years prior as a 101-year-old, when he cycled 24.25km (15.1 miles) in one hour. In between his two record attempts, Marchand volunteered to have his body studied and monitored by researchers from the University of Evry-Val d'Essonne in France.
The resulting case study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology last December, shed light on a fascinating and infrequently studied area of human performance: how people over the age of 100 adapt physiologically and physically to exercise.
“Almost all humans respond to training,” says Michael Joyner, a physiologist at the Mayo Clinic who studies how humans react to physical and mental stress during exercise. Marchand had a lot going for him—previously good health, a solid support team, and a structured fitness program that was tailored to his ability level. “Marchand shows that theoretically that there’s no upper age limits to training,” says Joyner. In other words, anyone at any age who's willing to work hard will see results.
Scientists tracked everything from his VO2 max and peak power output to max heart rate and body mass. Here are the most interesting takeaways.
His VO2 Max Increased by 13 Percent
VO2 max is a measurement that tells you how much oxygen your body is able to take in and use at maximum exertion. During the two years between records, Marchand’s rose from 31 ml/kg to 35 ml/kg—an increase of 13 percent. Marchand is something of a phenomenon (he nearly became a professional cyclist as a young man, and when he picked the sport back up at age 67, he would regularly go on extremely long rides, including one from Paris to Moscow) and his VO2 max numbers are expectedly astounding—equivalent to those of a fit 42- to 61-year-old man. (For context: top endurance athlete’s typically have a VO2 max at or above 80ml/kg during their prime.)
Marchand’s training showed that it is possible for people to improve the health of their lungs and heart and reverse or stall the normal downward trend of VO2 max.
In part because Marchand adapted his body to be able to consume and use more oxygen, that also enabled him to output more energy.
Peak Power Output Increased by 39 Percent
Marchand’s peak power output increased from 90 watts to 125 watts from one record to the next. His cadence increased from 69 rotations per minute to 90. That’s a 30 percent increase between the ages of 101 and 103.
In the two years between records, Marchand biked a total of 10,000 kilometers. His training consisted of regular intervals—80 percent of his total mileage was done at “light RPE,” or rate of perceived exertion, according to the scientists, and 20 percent was done at “hard RPE”—and small daily exercises, according to the Le Point magazine.
He Stuck to a Healthy, Balanced Diet
In several interviews since setting his record, Marchand has attributed a lot of his success to his diet, which primarily consists of yogurt, plenty of fruits and vegetables, bread, and half-a-glass of red wine a day. “I've done sport all my life, eaten loads of fruit and vegetables, not too much coffee,” he told Bicycling earlier this year.
According to Le Point, Marchand has never eaten much meat for ethical reasons, but, at the request of his doctors, he did being eating meat more regularly during training to build muscle.
His Weight and Heart Rate Stayed the Same
Marchand’s lean body mass and maximum heart rate didn’t undergo significant changes during the two years of training, and it’s not immediately clear to scientists why. While he was eating more meat to build muscle, he did end up shedding a few pounds, which could contribute to his improved VO2 max (since the measure is a ratio that includes bodyweight).
Marchand has shown that staying fit and exercising can offset some of the ailments of growing old, such as greatly reducing the chance of becoming disabled or injured. He’s a phenomenon in the sense that he’s been focused on exercise for so long and still has the gumption to ride over 3,000 miles a year. Yet, “what this shows is that aging is inevitable, but people with regular levels of physical activity, some of it at higher intensity, can theoretically extend their life span,” says Joyner. The study went so far as to say that these improvements are “adding life to the life, rather than searching to kill the death.”
It doesn't seem like Marchand—who, just last month, biked 14 miles in an hour and set another record in the over-105 class—has any intention of slowing down.