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Six Principles of Triathlon Training for Seniors

Six Principles of Triathlon Training for Seniors

As we age, triathlon training should change to reflect the changes in our bodies. Following an approach that recognizes six principles of triathlon training for seniors age 50 and over will ensure strong performance.

Introduction

Academic research has shown that decreased performance with age is not a given. Often, decreases have more to do with reduced energy, lower intensity in training, and less time spent training.

Unfortunately, the questions I receive show that most triathlon training programs do not consider the changes that occur with aging. The consequences of improper training can be career-ending.

On the flip-side, triathlon training following the six principles outlined here will help senior triathletes continue strong and with minimal injury.

How Should Triathlon Training Change for Seniors?

Consistent exercise can slow aging. However, maintaining consistency can be easier said than done. For some, lower energy with age makes it difficult to find the motivation for regular exercise. For others, jam-packed schedules make consistent exercise a challenge.

Also, the physiological changes that occur with age are the ingredients for more injuries. Never in our lives has the adage “working smarter, not harder” been more appropriate.

Physiological Changes with Age

King David understood what researchers today confirm – the human body is awesome. David wrote in Psalm 139:14 “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. “

Included in this wonderful design of the human body is the capability for self-repair of many types of tissue, including those of the muscles, tendons, and bones. Through repair, muscles become stronger during strength and endurance training. This same process promotes recovery from injuries.

However, in the typical aging process, our bodies become less efficient in making these repairs. Recovery from normal exercise and especially from injury takes longer. Tissues become stiffer. Taken together, these ultimately affect our athletic performance.

We need not give up though. Recent research cited in Masters Athletes: A Model for Healthy Aging has shown that our ‘old’ cells can be re-programmed through physical exercise to behave like younger cells.

According to a report published in Preventive Medicine, people who did the equivalent of 30-40 minutes of jogging per day, five days a week showed biological markers of a person seven years younger.

The Aging Musculoskeletal System

Beginning at around age 50, our skeletal muscles lose cells and become smaller and stiffer according to Dr.Vonda Wright in Masters Athletes: A Model for Healthy Aging. Accompanying this decrease in muscle mass is a reduction in strength and the power they are able to generate.

Reduced muscle mass and strength and increased stiffness are the basis for more frequent muscle strains and joint pain. Knee pain, sometimes incorrectly attributed to osteoarthritis, often highlights weak quadriceps. Shoulder pain in swimming is often a consequence of ignoring the smaller muscles responsible for joint stability. And, hip injuries are often rooted in stiffness and weakness of the core and gluteal muscles.

Tendons stiffen with age, in part, because of decreases in water content, hormonal changes, and thickening of elastin fibril tissue. On top of this, overuse which produces micro tears in the tissue leads to further stiffening of connective tissues .

Overuse injuries, those caused by continuing to exercise fatigued and/or tight muscles, are the most common among senior athletes. So here’s the dilemma: We need to keep moving to be strong and flexible, but moving more can lead to injury. Hint: strength training and stretching are two of the six pillars of triathlon training for seniors.

Nothing good happens in running, or in most sports, when you get tight. Tight muscles never outperform loose muscles simply because their range of motion is restricted, meaning they can’t move the full length for optimal power. 

Ryan Hall from Run the Mile You’re In 

Our Cardiovascular System and Aging

The lower mass and stiffening of tissue observed in older muscles and tendons is also seen in the cardiovascular system. According to Dr. Wright, “a 70-year old heart has 30% fewer cells than the heart of a 20 year-old.”

With the stiffening comes less efficient delivery of much-needed oxygen to cells. With less oxygen, performance, metabolism, and energy levels suffer.

The good news is that through endurance training, oxygen consumption increases. Dr. Wright reports that “Through endurance conditioning, one is capable of modifying maximum oxygen consumption, diastolic filling, relaxation, and arterial stiffness.”

Aging and Nutrition

How do the changes in our bodies affect our needs for fueling before, during, and after training?

According to Dr. Nancy Clark, the major changes in diet with age should be:

  • More protein – we need a greater amount of amino acids to achieve the same muscle-building effect that occurs in younger athletes. The masters athlete should aim for 0.6 to 0.7 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day (1.4-1.6 g/kg/day) spread throughout the day.
  • More anti-inflammatory foods – Fish oil (supplement and through fish like salmon and sardines) and certain plant and nut-based oils (e.g. olive, avocado, and walnut) are recognized for their anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Stay hydrated – With the less sensitive thirst response that comes with age, we are more likely to become dehydrated. Our bodies may need water before we feel thirsty. Common advice is to observe the color of your urine and drink enough for it to be consistently light-colored.
  • Watch the electrolytes – According to registered dietitian Sally Kuzemchak, those over age 50 are more likely to be “salt sensitive”. They should watch their salt intake. However, make sure you do not become electrolyte deficient during training, especially in high temperatures.

Principles of Training for Senior Triathletes

  • More stretching
  • Proper strength training
  • Leveraging high-intensity interval training
  • Getting enough rest
  • Staying hydrated
  • Nutrition – eating enough of the right food

More Stretching

Proper warm-up and stretching before vigorous exercise with additional stretching during cool down prevents the gradual shortening of tendons and cartilage. From my experience, I can say the same for muscles.

stretching before and after workout prevents injuries - one of the principles of triathlon training for seniors
Pre- and post-workout stretching is a fundamental of triathlon training for seniors.
Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

Stretching of the entire body prevents imbalances. For example, in my early days of running, I was religious about stretching my hamstrings after running but not so diligent about stretching my quadriceps. A chiropractor who diagnosed my knee pain pointed to the imbalance in flexibility in these two muscles. After a short time of consistent stretching of my quadriceps, the knee pain disappeared.

Related post: Optimal Stretching Pre and Post Workout

Proper Strength Training

Comments earlier in this post highlighted the connection between injury and muscle strength. Weak muscles are more prone to injury and provide less support for joints during activity.

It is important to strengthen the right muscles. While many athletes focus on strengthening cosmetic muscles (biceps, triceps, calves), these may not be the best ones on which to focus.

There are also plenty of personal stories in favor of strength training. One example is from ultrarunner Judy Cole (age 73). Judy ran every day during her early 30s. However, early on, she reported having problems with her knees.  Strengthening her quads and hamstrings eliminated the pain allowing her to continue running.  

Related post: Review of Mark Allen’s Strength Training for Triathletes

Related post: ‘At the Core’ – Strength Training to Help Seniors Perform Better and Avoid Injury

Leveraging High-Intensity Interval Training

High-intensity interval training, or HIIT for short, is an approach to training characterized by short periods, or intervals, of high-intensity exercise alternated with periods of recovery.

HIIT first gained notoriety in 1996 through a report published by the Japanese speed-skating coach and professor Izumi Tabata. Tabata’s paper documented the value of HIIT for elite athletes. Another study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology documented the benefits of HIIT over medium-intensity training for increasing VO2 max, an indicator of aerobic fitness. HIIT continues to be used for athletes of all levels, including cyclists and distance runners, for both endurance and strength training.

I have included HIIT here because it’s used for training in swimming, biking, and running. It also supports strength and fitness while simultaneously reducing the risk of overuse injury compared to long periods of lower intensity training. It also promotes variety and exercising the entire body.

For more information about HIIT training and its benefits, look at Dr. Joseph Tieri’s book Staying Young with Interval Training. After an introduction to HIIT and its benefits, most of the book shows various HIIT exercises.

Getting Enough Rest

Rest and recovery apply to all ages. As suggested in an earlier post, we ought to make consistent, high-quality sleep a priority.

However, one liability of age can be the ‘ability’ to persevere through pain. If you only take one lesson from this post, it is that we must train smarter, not harder with age.

Tired muscles are more prone to injury. Abused cartilage and muscle will get their revenge. It is best to rest or change your training plan to avoid aggravating sore areas.

Staying Hydrated

As we age, our sensation for thirst becomes weaker. At the same time, lower water content of body tissue is one contributor to injury. Stay hydrated.

Nutrition – Eating Enough of the Right Food

Consuming additional protein to ensure that we are producing muscle from strength training is the most significant takeaway. Eating anti-inflammatory foods and a rainbow of different colored fruits and vegetables is good advice for all ages.

What Is Your Experience?

Please share your questions and comments below.

We would love to hear what you have learned from your experiences? Your reading? From your coaches or training partners?

How have you adjusted your training with age?

Also, let me know if you have any issues with my comments. Really.

“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,” Hebrews 12:1

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Lessons in Ironman Triathlon Racing – Another Senior Triathlete’s Experience

Lessons in Ironman Triathlon Racing – Another Senior Triathlete’s Experience
Laurent Labbe and his oldest son before Ironman Nice. Picture courtesy of Laurent Labbe.

Laurent Labbe recently finished Ironman Nice, a long course triathlon that boasts swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, biking in the Alps, and running along the French Riviera in Nice’s historic waterfront. While the beautiful venue made the race enjoyable, Nice was even more special for Laurent. It confirmed an Ironman triathlon hydration and nutrition plan he had been working to develop.

Disappointment at Ironman Vietnam

Before diving into the story from Nice, let’s go back a little less than two months to Vietnam. It was here that Laurent competed in Ironman 70.3 Vietnam, his 10th long course triathlon.

Following a disappointing race at Ironman Vietnam, Laurent determined to come up with a better approach to nutrition and hydration for an ironman triathlon. Regarding Ironman Vietnam, Laurent said:

“The bike part was a little bit slower than I had planned, but the running was the worst leg. It was very hot. The temperature at the start of the swim was 29⁰C (84⁰F) and 35⁰C (95⁰F) during the run. I didn’t manage it well. I was overheated and the only way I found to complete the run was to put water on me every 2 km (1.25 mile) to cool down.” 

Laurent had anticipated the heat. He had prepared an adequate amount of water to carry on the bike. He also carried a cereal-based energy bar to eat about halfway through the bike course.

However, he had not included any sports drink with electrolytes. This was his first mistake. He also forgot to eat the cereal bar during the bike leg until much later than planned.

The consequence of not consuming a sports drink with its electrolytes on the bike became especially evident when he got to the run. While his body craved the electrolytes, he found the sports drinks provided by the race organizers to be “disgusting”.

And, when he tried to make up for not eating early enough on the bike by consuming bananas and gels during the run, his stomach revolted.

An Incentive for a New Ironman Triathlon Hydration and Nutrition Plan

Laurent is not alone in forgetting to eat on the bike during an Ironman triathlon. I have lost count of the number of stories of triathletes who were so caught up in the excitement of a race that they forgot to eat or drink until it was too late. As a result, they “bonked” or at least hurt their performance on the run. Maybe it’s happened to you.

With this not-so-pleasant experience in Vietnam, Laurent was determined to finding a better approach to hydration and nutrition for his next race in Nice, France. The challenge was that he had less than two months.

Hydration and Nutrition Plan for Ironman Nice

With the memory of Vietnam fresh in his mind, Laurent stayed focused on developing his race plan for Ironman Nice. He reflected on his experience in training and racing, spoke with other triathletes, scoured the internet, and tested various nutrition and hydration products.

In looking back on the Nice triathlon, he was able to say with a smile, “It seems that all the preparation and, this time, the race management was right”.

So, what was the race plan that made such a big difference?

Let’s start by looking in on Laurent a few days before the Nice triathlon while he was putting the final touches on his plan.

A Pre-Race Test of the Plan

During the week before the race, Laurent rented a bike and he and his son road to the top of Le Mont Ventoux, one of the most famous portions of the Tour de France.

He used this ride to test a bike computer having a screen large enough for him to continuously monitor his heart rate and to watch the time so that he would eat and drink at precise intervals.

It became clear to Laurent during this ride that without a clock his perception of time was wildly inaccurate. However, by maintaining a heart rate within the aerobic zone and drinking a little every 10 minutes, Laurent was able to ride the 40 km (25 km) distance to its 1,909 m (6,260 ft) elevation without stopping.

Laurent felt prepared for Nice.

Laurent Labbe and his oldest son on the bike ride to the summit of Le Mont Ventoux
Laurent Labbe and his oldest son on the climb to the summit of Le Mont Ventoux. Picture courtesy of Laurent Labbe.

Racing Ironman Nice

The temperature on race day in Nice was also high, 27⁰C (80⁰F) at the start of the swim. The day’s high of 34⁰C (93⁰F) occurred during the bike leg. Anticipating these temperatures, race organizers reduced the distance of the race a bit to 150 km (93 miles) for the bike and 30 km (18.6 miles) for the run.

Racing with a Heart Rate Monitor

Laurent used the heart rate monitor to control his effort on both the bike and run to maintain a heart rate within the endurance range.

For the bike leg, this meant maintaining an average rate of 144 beats per minute (bpm); his heart rate never went above 161 bpm. “I could have probably gone faster (on the bike) without any problem. However, the target for this race was to finish within the time limit.”

For the run, Laurent’s target was an average heart rate of 139 bpm, his endurance training rate. The highest rate came in the last 500 m during his sprint to the finish line.

“I saw many people on the bike and run forcing themselves and having difficulty breathing. In contrast, I was able to ride and carry on conversations with other racers including a Chinese guy, a Moroccan lady, and a man from Dubai. 

Hydration and Nutrition for Ironman Nice Triathlon

Laurent’s nutrition and hydration plan reflected his experience in previous hot weather Ironman races and with the week earlier ride to the summit of Le Mont Ventoux.

Specifically, the plan was as follows.

  • On each of the three days leading up to the triathlon, he took a serving of Overstim Malto. Admittedly, this was based solely on the recommendation of a friend and not on any personal experience.
  • On the bike:
    • Alternated drinking from one of the two bottles of sports drink, one bottle each of Overstim Long Distance Hydrixir and Hammer Nutrition Sustained Energy, every 10 minutes throughout the bike leg. Laurent also carried extra packages of the powders. These would be used to refill the bottles if he happened to run out before the end of the bike leg.
    • Ate one packet of a fruit-based energy gel, such as those from Overstim, every hour. Since the gels come either with or without added salt, he took one of the salted versions at the mid-point and near the end of the bike.
    • Stopped eating any solid food around one hour before the end of the bike. This provided time for the food consumed during the bike to be digested before beginning the run. Running with undigested food can cause stomach problems. 
  • On the run:
    • Drank some water with a little added salt provided by race organizers at each aid station.
    • Ate a salted biscuit or a salted gel at each of the aid stations.
    • Used showers provided by race organizers to help cool down.
  • On the day after the race, he took a recovery drink; Hammer Nutrition Recoverite is an example.
Laurent Labbe on the run at Ironman Nice.
Laurent Labbe on the run at Ironman Nice. Picture courtesy of Laurent Labbe.

Will This Plan Work Next Time?

Laurent completed the race feeling strong, healthy, and with little to no pain during and after the race. Racing with a heart rate monitor, staying hydrated, and consuming calories at the right times appeared to be the key.

Laurent found this approach to be effective, at least for one long bike ride and one long course triathlon. However, he is quick to acknowledge that he has no training in sports medicine or nutrition.

It will be interesting to hear what happens when he uses this approach in the next triathlon.

Please Share Your Questions and Comments

What do you think about Laurent’s racing plan?

Have questions about hydration and nutrition for ironman triathlon?

What are the most important lessons you have learned from training and competing in a triathlon?

Share your thoughts and questions in the Comments section below. 

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What I Learned About Race Fueling at the Rocky Gap Triathlon

What I Learned About Race Fueling at the Rocky Gap Triathlon
Rocky Gap State Park in western Maryland

Rocky Gap State Park, Flintstone, Maryland, USA – The 25th Annual Rocky Gap Triathlon was held June 1, 2013 in Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland’s Allegany County.  It was during this race that I received some valuable advice about run training and race fueling from a fellow senior triathlete.   It was also State #15 in the ‘Triathlon Across the USA” adventure.

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