One of the many reasons that triathlon is an amazing sport is that you will see participants in all shapes and sizes with a wide array of experience and goals. The ages range from kids to people in their 80s. As a coach, I have been blessed with the challenge of working with athletes from ages 19 to 78. With this challenge, I have gone straight to the source and asked my 50+ year-old athletes to contribute and share their experiences andlimitations that they have found in training and racing. They have confirmed that the information provided below is in line with the obstacles and differences that have emerged due to aging.
It is important for these athletes and their coaches to be aware of special considerations to create an appropriate training plan including the most effective periodization principles, the proper amount of rest and recovery, and to include resistance training and training with higher intensity.
Limiters with Age
Let’s start with the basic limiters that can hold athletes back when they reach a particular milestone in age.
- Changing body composition including muscle loss
- Slower metabolism
- Loss of bone density
- Weaker immune system
- Loss of joint range of motion
If this is the case, let’s would work as soon as possible to prevent these issues or limit the severity through optimal training rest. I have 3 key topics below that can be the difference between keeping an athlete healthy and moving or seeing them miss training sessions and races due to illness or injury. Communication, Periodization, and Strength Training are those keys.
Recognize the Signs – Communication
This topic falls above all others because it is that important. All athletes face the challenge of taking time to rest. It doesn’t “feel” productive, so athletes choose to swim, bike or run. A rule of thumb that I use with my athletes is this: ask yourself, if I do this workout, how will my workout (especially if it is a key one) feel tomorrow? This works for some. We also watch for signs. If an athlete is grumpy at a workout, looks generally tired, complains about lack of sleep (or I ask, and you know what the answer usually is), or heart rate is high on what should be an easy effort. Any one of these can be a red flag indicating over-training. The dangers of over doing training are plentiful. The immune system is weakened causing illness (a cold or flu, for example) short-term, and the potential for major illness or disease long term. Also, poor quality workouts and the potential for injury can occur in a tired or chronically fatigued athlete. As a coach, the biggest priority when working with older athletes should be injury prevention. I frequently ask the question, “how are you feeling?”. It opens the conversation and they will likely be truthful (it is the younger ones who may not) about pains and fatigue that they are experiencing. The key to keeping these athletes energetic and moving is to build their training schedules with more recovery weeks than the younger folks.
Periodization for Injury Prevention
For athletes over 50, the option of taking a recovery week after every 14 days of training allows for proper recovery and injury prevention. A plan should include 14 days of building volume and then one easier week keeping the frequency of the workouts, but reducing the volume. Rest days are also important as the plan is formed. Before age 50, athletes can generally get away with one day of rest, some even do an “active recovery” workout instead of total rest. After age 50, it is best to have 2 days of total rest in the training plan. It might be fine for some to do a very light workout as a rest day, but the idea is to recovery and rebuild which happens with time off.
Training for Strength and Performance
Changing body composition including muscle loss can contribute to a decline in performance. In an average person at age 70, 24% of muscle mass has been lost with the rate increasing 1.5-2% per year after age 70. The good news is, this is based on a sedentary person. “Many of what we consider to be the inevitable changes of aging are the things that we have some control over.” Joe Friel. The muscle loss is mostly due to a decline in activity and/or strenuous training, with lower hormone production also contributing.
Triathletes have swimming, biking, and running to strengthen their heart and lungs, but many do not do any form of resistance or weight training. Research shows that the only type of exercise that can substantially slow, and possibly even reverse, the declines in bone density, muscle mass, and overall strength. Including a regular strength training program into the annual training plan will contribute to success, injury prevention, range of motion, and a healthier body. I encourage all of my athletes to fit in their strength even if it means less time on the swim, bike or run.
To conclude, I have collected some real and wonderful thoughts from my athletes who are over 50:
“For me the biggest category is joints. It has taken me three years to be able to run with out pain. And only in the last 6 months to be able to run track again. It is the biggest limiting factor in training , both in duration and intensity. Weight played a big part early on, now overcoming arthritis that is in some joints.”
Roy is 78 years young, has been running since 1956 (except for a 6 year period), and started triathlon in the 1980s. His dream is to do an iron-distance triathlon.
“The most important thing for me is to be able to participate in training and races. If I get hurt – or worn down from over training – then I can’t participate so not getting hurt is the most important thing to me. At my age – if I get hurt – it is possible that I could completely lose the opportunity to bike or run permanently. This is very scary for me.
It is important to me that a coach understand the physical differences between younger and older athletes when training. And we don’t want to be treated like we are less of an athlete than younger athletes. We are still competitive (but realistic about no longer being 30 – or even 40 – or yeah even 50.”
Maggie, 61 years young, just started doing triathlons 4 years ago. She will compete in her first half-iron event next year! And, maybe an iron-distance the following year.
“As an aging athlete, the great thing about triathlon is that it allows me to listen to my body and it “tells” me what to do next in terms of training. As you age, you need to be aware of aches and pains and respond in a way that avoids injury. Triathlon is the ultimate cross-training sport because you have so many choices for getting a workout that allow you to take really good care of your body at all times.
My why is simple! I love physical challenges… always have and always will. I am happiest when I feel fit and am living a healthy lifestyle. I do triathlon 100% for me. It is my escape from the world. I like the training as much or more than the racing. I don’t care about standing on the podium or my finish time. I get my greatest satisfaction from just crossing the finish line, feeling good and thankful.”
Kent is 58 years young and just competed in his first Iron-Distance race!
Aging Athlete, never thought of myself like that. I’m just an overweight, 52 year old mom who trains/workouts nearly every day hoping to improve myself. Biggest challenge for me is building my endurance. In order to keep from getting injured, I am building my endurance up slowly. I am being patient with building my endurance and I listen to my body for clues when I need a rest. I think I understand my limits but with proper rest, I will push my limits, a little.
Linda is a young 52 and has been on the podium at many sprint triathlons this season!
“What I have learned is that if I train smart now, my body no longer hurts and I don’t feel like I am at as great of risk for soft tissue injuries such as plantar facitis and achilles tendonitis, which plagued me when I was younger. My workouts now are under the direction of Sally Drake, an outstanding triathlon coach. I try to work out at least once a day, six days a week. My workouts are usually about an hour to an hour and a half long. My main focus has been on strengthening and building endurance. I like to focus on longer distance races, such as Olympic and Half-Ironman distances because I feel that even though I am not going to set any speed records, I can have an enjoyable race and feel great about myself at the end.”
Chris is 63 years young and after a 15 year break from competing, he is back and signed up for a half-iron distance race in the spring!
“What else am I supposed to do with my day. Bake cookies and knit sweaters?” MM
“I think I need to motorize my walker so my run time will be faster!” CH
“As an “adult” athlete, I am doing all of the triathlon training as a further adventure in ‘active aging’. I’m training to be 90!” BO
“As a ‘mature’ athlete I can’t tell if I have to pee in an endurance event because I’ve hydrated properly, I’m just old, or my bike is just not prostate friendly.” SH
Sally enjoys coaching triathletes of all levels from newbie to elite, with a passion for helping them achieve or exceed their goals. She specializes in ultra-endurance, much through her experience in completing 13 full Ironman triathlons. Sally also believes in guiding athletes to find balance in training and family life and customizes her clients’ training schedules as needed to maintain this balance.
USAT Level II Certified Triathlon Coach
USAT Youth and Juniors Certified Coach
Ironman U Certified Coach
USMS Level I & II Certified Masters Swim Coach
AFAA Certified Personal Trainer
Red Cross Certified Life Guard
PSUPA Certified Stand Up Paddle Board Instructor