At the age of 105, Robert Marchand is a French amateur cyclist and world-record holder in January 2017 in one-hour cycling, an event in which someone rides as many miles as possible on an indoor track in 60 minutes. Marchand pedaled more than 14 miles (22.5 kilometres), setting a global benchmark for cyclists aged 105 and older. That classification had to be created specifically to accommodate him. No one his age had previously attempted the record.
Researchers at the University of Evry-Val d’Essonne in France studied his physiology and published the findings in the December 2016 Journal of Applied Physiology.
Robert Marchand, (1911-) already owned the one-hour record for riders age 100 and older, which he had set in 2012 at age 101. As he prepared for that ride in 2012 he came to the attention of Veronique Billat, a professor of exercise science at the University of Evry-Val d’Essonne in France. At her lab, Dr. Billat and her colleagues study and train many professional and recreational athletes.
Billat was particularly interested in Marchand’s workout program and whether altering it might augment his endurance and increase his speed.
Conventional wisdom in exercise science suggests that it is very difficult to significantly add to aerobic fitness after middle age. In general, VO2 max, a measure of how well our bodies can use oxygen and the most widely accepted scientific indicator of fitness, begins to decline after about 50 years of age, even with frequent exercise.
However, Dr Billat found that if older athletes exercised intensely, they could increase their VO2 max. She had never tested this method on a centenarian before though. But Marchand agreed to be studied.
Marchard is small at 5 feet in height (1.5 metres) and weighing about 115 pounds (52 kilograms). He only began exercising regularly when he retired (after working as a truck driver, gardener, firefighter and lumberjack).
Almost all of his cycling on Paris roads was completed at a relatively leisurely pace. Billat changed that routine. But first, Marchand undertook medical tests in the university’s human performance lab. The researchers tested his VO2 max, heart rate, and other aspects of cardiorespiratory fitness. All were healthy and well above average for someone of his age. He also required no medications.
Marchand then set the one-hour world record for people 100 years and older, covering about 14 miles (22.5 kilometres) in 2012. Afterward, Billat gave him a new training regimen: about 80% of his weekly workouts were performed at an easy intensity. He did not use a heart rate monitor. The other 20% of his workouts were performed at a difficult intensity. For these, he was instructed to increase his pedaling frequency to between 70 and 90 revolutions per minute, compared to about 60 r.p.m. during the easy rides. A cycling computer supplied this information. The rides rarely lasted more than an hour.
Marchand followed this program for two years. Then he attempted to better his own one-hour track world cycle record. Before he undertook the cycle event, Billat remeasured all of the physiological markers that they had tested two years before. Marchand’s VO2 max was now about 13% higher than it had been before, and comparable to the aerobic capacity of a healthy, average 50-year-old.
Unsurprisingly, now aged 103, his cycling performance improved considerably. During his world record attempt, he pedaled for almost 17 miles (27 kilometres), about three miles farther than he had covered during his first, record-setting ride.
Billat said, “we can improve VO2 max and performance at every age.” There are caveats, though. Marchand may have been blessed with great genes that have allowed him to live past 100 without debilities and to respond to training as robustly he does. So his anecdotal success cannot tell us whether an 80/20 mix of easy and intense workouts is necessarily ideal or even advisable for the rest of us as we age. In fact, if people older than 50 years of age suddenly undertake vigorous exercise it could do more damage than good. Hence people are advised to consult their doctor before beginning or changing an exercise routine.
Lifestyle may also matter. Marchand’s diet is simple, focusing on yogurt, soup, cheese, chicken and a glass of red wine at dinner. He is also “very optimistic and sociable,” Billat said, “with many friends.” Friendships are said to be linked to a longer life.
Photograph of Robert Marchand, age 105, in Paris on 5 January 2017 by Joel Saget, Agence France-Presse