Aerobic fitness takes decades to develop

It finally hit me that aerobic fitness takes decades (not years) to develop. Listening to the successful athlete podcasts and meeting a lot of new cyclists that went from never riding a bike to 4 w/kg during the pandemic, I’ve been telling myself that with enough training I can do the same thing. The truth is, unless you have decades of aerobic training under your belt, or are genetically gifted, you will never experience that type of success as a cyclist.

I’ve been hating on myself so freaking much, beating myself up on why I can’t get faster. Don’t kill yourself trying to get that high aerobic base in 3 years like I’ve been doing, it won’t happen. It takes decades to get there, no training plan and no coach will get you there faster. Don’t burn yourself out like I’m doing, ride easy and ride often, you will get there eventually.

Also, don’t look for marginal gains. I have spent so much time, energy, and money looking for some way to get my fitness up. Just keep things simple, ride your bike more and rest more (if you can), the fitness will come.


Not supporting or refuting…

I don’t think it’s that simple to say this much time/Kj’s/Km’s etc…and one will be able to achieve XXX. One thing for sure that decades of riding has done is in the durability department.

I fully sympathize with beating yourself up but, for different reasons. It can be difficult to learn to ride for pure enjoyment even though we are trying to become always faster. I have just come to realize I’m good with who I am given career and family obligations. It is what it is and it’s not all that impressive honestly. But. I’m still doing ok for 50 something career dad husband burning it at both ends.


Agreed. I just did some swimming before my teen years, but never did any cardio sport. Picked up triathlon 5 years ago, and I couldn’t believe why even after getting my FTP above 3.5W/kg, I would get dropped during the last hour of 4h rides by the local cycling club gentlement (all +50y). Or why they could go for +80km rides on Saturday AND Sunday, while any big ride for me would leave me destroyed the next day, even if riden at endurance pace.
It’s only started to feel now, after 5 years of training and an FTP above 4W/kg, that I can start keeping up endurance wise with people who have done sport their whole lives.


I’m not buying into it taking “decades” to build a strong aerobic base. Genetics most definitely play a much bigger part I think. I mean look at Pogacar and the other wonder kids of the moment. They have all built themselves up relatively quickly and it goes against the old-school view that you did need to be in your late twenties or early thirties to be winning Grand Tours. Quite clearly you don’t IF you have the right genetics and training regime to back it up.

I think what most people discover when they attempt to build aerobic fitness is actually their own genetic limitations. If you follow a decent structured training plan for 3 years and find that you have hit a plateau then you are probably getting to the point where you are approaching your genetic limit and any future gains from there will be marginal unless you are doing something wrong. The only thing that really happens over decades is getting older!

I’ve been doing aerobic sport for my whole life (bike, tennis, skiing, soccer) and yet my aerobic fitness is pretty average considering the effort I put in. But it’s about as good as it can be for ME, which is all I can do. There are guys out there who have ridden a lot less than me who I will never be able to compete against and there are guys who have ridden more that I can drop. It’s really not a fair game!

The revelation is to only benchmark against your own past performance and perhaps a few peers at a similar level. Remember that for even 99% of the guys in the pro peloton, there is someone faster than them!


Same here.

^ this.

Certainly aerobic development is a long game, however in 2017, in my mid fifties, and with only 2 years HIIT spinning plus a year of road biking, I built my personal best aerobic base + highest FTP + highest estimated vo2max. Then tried indoor training and went backwards, for various reasons. Then switched to a different approach and after 18 months almost back to 2017. In my experience training under the guidance of a coach has taught me a lot, resulting in far more consistency with fewer hard efforts while continuously improving and building the aerobic engine. YMMV.


I definitely agree with not burning yourself out. Over-training is a very common error when you are fully committed - been there, done that and now wearing the T-shirt.

However, riding easy and often may or may not be the right answer depending on your goals. Sometimes you need doses of controlled intensity, which is pretty much the point of platforms like TR. Riding easy all the time won’t allow adaptation and progression. But all depends what you want from your cycling. If you want to get faster, then you have to ride faster at some point along the way and there is no point in waiting decades!


Tell that to the juniors that are DESTROYING me in all my races this year…


Right?! Folks of all ages on local podiums have natural ability, mostly riding 10+ hours/week, and just follow basic principles without well planned out structure.

I don’t think TRusername is saying to ride easy all the time, Before and after TR I’ve got controlled doses of intensity in every week. Not a fan of TR’s recovery week with no intensity, that really didn’t work for me. YMMV.

Years? yes…but more than most people realize. 2-3 years is just the start.

Decades? No, not even close.

Should also be noted that time cannot be separated from frequency. You can significantly cut down on the time required to build an aerobic base if you train at a high volume from the beginning.


It does not take decades. A huge percentage of the folks who are competitive at a national or even international level in aerobic sports arrived on the scene with less than 10 years of aerobic training. (E.g. While he continued to improve, Michael Phelps made his first Olympic team 8 years after he started swimming.) But the folks who do excel in less than 10 years do have 3 things most middle aged armatures do not have: high talent/genetic gifts; they started very young (early teens at the latest) and they did very hard training while young and able to recover very quickly which allowed a consistently high work load over time.

And, scratch the surface of the local middle age cycling heroes and more often than not you will find someone who was a competitive aerobic sport athlete in their youth. They did not start from zero when they took up cycling.


Thanks for the replies all. To clarify, I mean it takes decades for us average folks to build a good aerobic base. By good I mean resilience and repeatability. In my short experience with long road races and drop rides, it’s the grizzled 50 year old you need to worry about not the energetic 25 year old.

As for hitting the genetic limit after a few years of consistent training, that’s an interesting albeit disheartening thought if true. But to be clear, I wouldn’t consider a 5% bump in FTP per year to be a marginal gain.

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Yeah, it’s very unlikely that they started off slow and then built up to their present day performance over several decades. Far more likely that they were even faster back in the day and have managed to minimise the losses and maybe got a bit smarter.


Has it not occurred to you that the “grizzled 50 year old” is fast because he always was? The energetic 25 year old “noob” might well be slower. But the quick 25 year olds are not going to be mixing it with average folks. They will be competing at a higher level, so you don’t see them.

I think the worst thing you can do at this point is presume that if you chip away at it for the next few decades you will eventually turn into one of these super-fast oldies. It might never happen simply because of the hand you were dealt. It’s like being 6’6" tall and wanting desperately to become a professional jockey. It’s just not going to happen. But it doesn’t matter once you realise that it’s all about improving yourself, not comparing to others who may or may not have started with a better hand.


Just to be clear, this is only going to happen if you do everything perfectly. Training, diet, sleep, lifestyle all fully nailed. In all likelihood there will still be plenty of low hanging fruit from mistakes made along the way. But you do have to accept that there is a genetic ceiling that will get ever closer as you continue to improve.

This has got me thinking about my childhood and what if I went back in time with hindsight. Could I have become a pro cyclist? Could I have won the TdF? I think the answer is NO, regardless of what I had done. I remember being about 10 years old at the school sports day. There was this one kid who was head and shoulders faster than everyone else at the track. He wasn’t training, he was just gifted and looked like an athlete right from the start. Meanwhile I was just average at best. My only strength was the ability to train hard and recover, which still remains my strength to this day and drags my average butt slightly above average!

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That’s because they are smarter and more experienced…seriously.


I think we measure ourselves too often by FTP and watts/kg. I’m looking for the magic formula for me to take the next step after having a similar FTP for the past two years. However, I’m looking at the workouts I’m capable of and what I was doing before and see a pretty massive difference. FTP is the same. TTE for sweetspot, threshold and even some level of VO2 is much different. My ability to do long hard mountain bike rides has improved significantly even if my speeds haven’t. I’m just more of a diesel and less feeling like i’m on my limit. I think you should consider areas where you’ve improved and not focus so much on FTP.


I totally agree with this view. FTP is just one isolated metric. Two athletes with the same FTP, same W/kg can be miles apart in real life. One might die after 40 mins at FTP while the other might hold that power for 70 mins. That would make a huge difference in a race scenario or longer TT.


Likely that NONE of us here are close to our true genetic capacity. Pro’s at the very top end, possibly.

Your genetics may serve a role in determining in how quickly you develop but not as an ultimate limited. Even then, training time and efficiency are much bigger determinants.


It might take a few years for someone who’s spent a lifetime on the couch to build up some sort of engine but I don’t think decades. Initial progress can be made quick, progressing further to be the best you can be isn’t as easy.

4W/kg is something i’d envy depending on how/what equipment/online platform was used.

Pre lockdown I played indoor Futsal 2-3 times a week. I use(d) Garmin HR trackers and seen my heart in the 180’s during games… high %'s of time in zone 4 or 5.

Lockdown put an temporary end to footy, so i got a bike …and got obsessed, (one bike became 3 and an indoor smart bike was purchased) I followed the science as I learned it and trained quite consistently over the winter (POL) and blasted all this summer (over 6000 miles this year as a newbie).

Long story short, i played Futsal last night and probably ran more than i’ve ever ran for the hour. Looking at Garmin data I was all Z2 and Z3… which is far from Z4/Z5 it would have been pre lockdown.

I think that is a sign that you can progress aerobically fairly quickly.

Having said that, I know some roadies who haven’t really progressed year on year, but they don’t train with any structure; they’ve been going on their turbos during winter for years (primarily to keep weight off), ride their bikes every summer regularly (sometimes socially), and sometimes they go as fast as they can… but they don’t really get any faster or can they go quicker for longer… they all want to be faster but they don’t do much about it… but generally they all enjoy their bike time.

Your last EDIT. I’d replace “rest more” with “recover more”.

The quicker you can recover, the quicker you can “train” properly again… the more you train “properly” the quicker you’ll get… I hope!

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Likely the 50+ year olds that are dropping you are the ones that are good at cycling and enjoy it. They aren’t dropping you because they have been riding for decades, but they’ve been riding for decades because they’re good at it.

There are definitely aerobic adaptations in terms of efficiency for riders that have only ridden Z2 for 20 years, but there’s other ways to get there and your increasing fitness will bridge that gap more than riding for decades easy.

I still get my butt whipped by 50+ year olds in the A-Grade XC races, just like there’s 20 year olds that train less than me that whoop me too, they’re just more gifted than me genetically.

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