“Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” by James Clear is for those, including triathletes, who wish to create new, performance-enhancing habits. It is also for those who want to eliminate destructive habits.
In the Introduction to the book, Mr. Clear shares a powerful case study involving the British Cycling team. By applying the principles in this book, the team went from a perennial loser on the world stage during the 20th and early 21st centuries to the dominant competitor from 2007 to 2017.
During this ten-year period, British cyclists earned 178 world championships and sixty-six Olympic or Paralympic gold medals. They also won five Tour de France races.
This is the first example of many that highlights how so-called atomic habits have been used to improve fitness training, running, and personal and professional development efforts.
Following are my takeaways from the book, from the perspective of a triathlete.
What are ‘Atomic Habits’?
Atomic habits are regular activities or routines that, while small (hence the word ‘atomic’) and easy to do, provide significant impact (also related to ‘atomic’) on a process. Repeating these over time (as a habit) leads to a compounding effect.
According to James Clear, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.”1
Developing the habit of consistent, regular and structured training is an example of an atomic habit related to triathlon.
How to Develop Positive ‘Atomic Habits’
“Atomic Habits” summarizes the approach to developing new, performance-enhancing habits in a two-step process:
Determine the person you want to be and how you want to be defined.
Take small actions that prove that you are this person. Repeat these actions.
Rather than focusing on the action you want to achieve (such as to complete an Olympic-distance triathlon), the approach described in “Atomic Habits” starts with defining yourself in terms of the person who will achieve the goal.
In the triathlon example, the person makes the subtle but important change to define him/herself as an Olympic triathlete. From here, the triathlete develops a training plan, eating habits, sleep behaviors, and so on (the process) consistent with an Olympic-distance triathlete.
The new habits develop through a four-step process detailed in the book and described in the first column of the table below.
Makes object of a good habit
Makes object of a bad habit
James Clear also describes ways to make sure the new habit sticks. These include habit stacking (combining an existing positive habit with the desired new habit), changing the environment, and reframing a habit (from “I have to go for a run” to “I get to go out into the fresh air and improve my heart health”).
You will also learn about the Diderot Effect and the Goldilocks Rule and how these can support building new habits.
Be Patient, New Habits Require Time
It often takes time to make new habits part of our new-normal routine. Mr. Clear cautions us to be wary in how we interpret the results as we work to develop new habits.
The tendency is to expect linear results. For example, in my training, I expect to see consistent (linear) reductions in my 5k time as I restart running after a break. However, this is not the way results typically come.
The graph of Results vs. Time below shows Mr. Clear’s representation of our expectations and experience as we build new habits.
While we expect linear results, results are non-linear. The gap between the expected and actual results creates what Clear calls a “Valley of Disappointment”.
Seeing this graph for the first time created an ‘Aha-moment’. My experiences in run training definitely follow this, one reason that patience is so important. When impatience wins, I will try to speed up the results by training harder or longer. The result is usually injury and longer recovery time.
Our beliefs and the views of ourself can be engaged to drive processes that help us achieve our goals. Focusing on becoming the person we want to be can lead to greater performance than had we focused on the goal. Atomic habits help us become who we want to be and perform at a higher level.
For More Information About “Atomic Habits”
“Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” is available in print and audio versions at Amazon.com by clicking the link or picture below.
Why would a senior triathlete hire a coach for triathlon training? Triathlon coach, Dr. Jeff Sankoff, also known as The Tri Doc, shares his thoughts.
Meet the Tri Doc
I became acquainted with senior triathlete Dr. Jeff Sankoff during the January 23, 2020 episode of the Tri Swim Coach podcast. In that conversation, Jeff shared five common myths of triathlon, including the myth that we must get slower as we get older.
Since then, I have also listened to several episodes of the Tri Doc podcast which Jeff produces. Jeff is an Ironman University certified triathlon coach and finisher of over 50 triathlons of various distances. He is also a husband, father, and emergency physician living in Denver, Colorado.
Jeff possesses a unique ability to communicate information from his medical training in a manner that I can easily understand.
After listening to Jeff, I asked him to make a case for triathletes age 50 and over to hire a coach for their triathlon training. I came away from our conversation with a new perspective which I have organized into three reasons for seniors to hire a triathlon coach.
Before Starting Triathlon Training
Jeff recommends that anyone with risk factors for heart disease should be cleared for training by a medical doctor before beginning training. You may have heard of deaths that have occurred during triathlons, rare as they are. Check out the Tri Doc podcast from July 22, 2019 for more on this subject.
The Tri Doc’s Three Reasons for Hiring A Triathlon Coach for Seniors
Many older athletes are intimidated by the thought of doing a triathlon, often because of its three sports, one which may be especially challenging to an individual. For many this is swimming. This was also the case for Jeff.
Triathlon is an underappreciated sport for older athletes.
Dr. Jeff Sankoff, The Tri Doc
The reality, according to Jeff, is that triathlon is excellent for older athletes precisely because it does involve three sports. Training for the three sports of triathlon leads to a broader range of fitness and reduces the risk of overuse injuries common in older athletes.
So, now that you are convinced of the merits of triathlon, consider the reasons you should hire a coach to guide your training.
Reason#1: Realistic Goal Setting
Goals are useful for new and experienced triathletes alike. They provide clarity for defining and for evaluating the results of a training plan. For this reason, goal setting is one of the first benefits of hiring a coach.
For the beginner triathlete, one who ‘doesn’t know what he doesn’t know’, this can be especially valuable. The triathlon coach will work with the athlete to identify his/her goals. The coach can also provide a ‘sanity-check’ on the individual’s goals, helping the triathlete set achievable ones and prioritize triathlon gear purchases.
To illustrate, let me share how a triathlon coach would have helped me with my first triathlon.
To be clear, I did not have a coach. However, before my first triathlon, I read almost everything on triathlon that I could find and trained diligently in swimming, biking, and running. My daughter and I held a mock triathlon, including the transitions, a week before the race. I felt prepared.
However, days before the race, my thoughts ranged from ‘just finishing’ to ‘winning my age group’. I really had no clue of what the race would be like.
On race day, I saw my first tri-bikes, initially in the transition area and then as they sped past my hybrid bike and me as if I was leisurely riding in the park with my youngest grandchild.
I finished with relative ease but also learned that there are some very fit ‘old people’. There were many other lessons from that day, all learned while I fell in love with the sport.
In hindsight, a coach would have helped me set realistic goals beyond finishing the race.
Reason #2: Smarter Triathlon Training
Are you looking to compete in a longer distance triathlon? Or do you have your heart set on standing on the podium at the awards ceremony of a major triathlon? If you and your coach agree that your goals are realistic, the coach will provide a roadmap for realizing them.
A coach typically begins with an assessment of the athlete’s current fitness and capability in the three sports. Jeff usually requests videos of the athlete swimming, biking, and running. He studies these videos to identify changes to the swim stroke, bike fit, and running form that will improve performance and reduce the possibility for injury.
With focused goals for the training, the coach will develop a customized training plan for the triathlete. The customized plan often includes advice for recovery and nutrition and a strategy for race day.
Through periodic communication, the coach and triathlete will review progress against the plan and make any adjustments, keeping in mind the athlete-specific goals and the reality that our bodies are less forgiving of training errors as we age.
Reason #3: Minimizing Injury
As we age, we become more prone to overuse injuries. For this reason, all Tri Doc training plans incorporate strength training.
Most people misunderstand strength training as part of triathlon training. For example, many of us have visions of bulging biceps and broad shoulders when we think of strength training. However, bulk is not the aim in triathlon training.
Instead, the goal of strength training is to maintain the muscle that we have and strengthen muscles around joints to prevent injury. Strength training is especially important for older athletes since muscle loss occurs at an increasing rate as we age.
Should injuries occur, the triathlon coach will ‘tweak’ the training schedule so the athlete continues to increase their fitness and endurance while the injury heals.
Not everyone needs a coach but everyone can find a reason to hire a coach.
Dr. Jeff Sankoff, The Tri Doc
One More Benefit of a Triathlon Coach for Seniors
Most triathletes in their 50s, 60s, and 70s are highly motivated and competitive. However, as we become less energetic or suffer injury, the motivation to train can wane. A coach will encourage the older athlete to continue training and racing, helping him/her recover from injury and even reach new levels of performance.
What Does It Cost to Hire a Triathlon Training Coach?
Jeff described two approaches for amateur triathletes to involve a triathlon coach in their training:
Purchase a ‘canned’ training plan – For somewhere around $30/month, one can purchase a training plan based on a specified triathlon distance (e.g. sprint, Olympic, Half-Ironman, Ironman). Most plans are not age-specific, a major concern to this audience.
Personalized coaching – This approach provides the triathlete regular access, usually by phone, text message, and email, to a triathlon coach. The goal setting, video analysis, and personalized training plans referred to above are included. The cost, which typically ranges from $150/month to up to $600/month for elite athletes, depends mostly on the frequency of interaction between the athlete and coach. Jeff’s average monthly fee is around $200.
One caveat. Many, but not all, triathlon coaches are certified by organizations such as USA Triathlon or Ironman University. Some experienced triathletes are also coaches, even though they have not taken time to become certified. Do the research, putting your relevant life skills to work.
For More Information
Email Dr. Jeff Sankoff, The Tri Doc, at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions and for more information about his coaching services.
Leave Your Questions and Comments Below
What has been your experience with triathlon coaches?
How have they helped you with training and racing?
I hope that this post will give you some ideas to remain active and compete in triathlon events even when the drive to do so wanes.
But, first, a bit about Tony. You will see why his perspective is worth listening to.
Meet Tony Schiller, Fitness Champion on Many Levels
I am embarrassed to say that I was not acquainted with Tony Schiller until I skimmed the Fall 2019 issue of USA Triathlon magazine. Tony was listed as the winner of the 60-64 age group in both the Sprint and Olympic distances at the 2019 USA Triathlon National Championships.
Since the article listed Tony’s home as Eden Prairie, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb a few miles from my home, I contacted him. He graciously agreed to speak to me.
Why the embarrassment? I learned during our conversation that Tony has been involved in the sport of triathlon since its earliest days, even racing professionally. Running and later triathlon turned out to be his sports.
During a career that is far from being over, Tony has achieved seven world championships. He is also one of only two men to be named USA Triathlon’s Male Amateur Triathlete of the Year (1995) and Masters Triathlete of the Year (2002 and 2015).
A Disturbing Trend
In speaking with children of all ages about the benefits of endurance sports, Tony observed that each year, the children appeared to be less fit than the previous year.
Deciding to do more than just speak about fitness, Tony introduced the MiracleKids Triathlon. The mission of the triathlon was “to build a world-class race to motivate kids and inspire fundraising for families of kids fighting cancer.” Over the next ten years, 12,500 kids, including two of my grandchildren, raced in the event. They also raised $4.5 million to help kids with cancer.
In 2014, Tony co-founded CycleHealth as a Minnesota 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to kid wellness. CycleHealth merged with the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities in 2017. Today, they work together to sponsor endurance events around the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
Another small-world-story was born when Tony told me of one of their events, a race at Fish Lake Park in Maple Grove, Minnesota. Ironically, I have watched this event twice, once from our living room window. The second time, I was so curious about what was happening at the park that I walked over to check it out from the ground.
Besides problems with youth fitness, Tony also recognized that adults became less active with age, often out of lack of interest or motivation. This has not been Tony’s experience, however. He has maintained an enjoyment for swimming, biking, and running making him an ideal champion for triathlon and other fitness activities.
Five Ways to Keep the Passion for Fitness Alive
The challenge of keeping the passion to train alive is real. 2019 was the first season within the decade of the 2010s in which I did not complete a triathlon. Why? No excuses; just a matter of priority. I did not train as I needed to race competitively so took the year off.
But I cannot quit. I have nine more states in which to complete triathlons after which Joy and I will have been in every USA state for a triathlon. This is what we call the ‘Triathlon Across the USA’ adventure.
“You aren’t old until age becomes your excuse.”
During our conversation, Tony shared the importance of staying active. He also described ways he has seen work, some he has applied, and some he is planning to use. I added a couple to round out the list.
I am sure you have other ideas or experiences so please share your comments below.
#1 Set goals
My goal of completing a triathlon is each state will run-out, Lord willing, within the next two or three years. Then what do I do?
Set a new goal.
Tony’s advice: “It’s best to set goals that don’t run out”. However, if you do, think ahead for goals that will not run-out.
One of Tony’s ideas is to set a goal of “Eight triathlons in my 80s, nine triathlons in my 90s, etc.”. Or, if you are like Tony, you set a goal of winning a world championship in your age group in each decade.
#2 Sign up for a race
Over the last few years, my wife and I sit down around the first of a new year to decide on a road trip/triathlon schedule for the coming year. What area would we like to explore? Who would we like to visit?
We are grateful that we have used travel to triathlons to visit many friends and family members. Some of these are no longer with us.
Tired of racing alone? What about racing with a friend, spouse, child, or even a grandchild? My oldest grandson and I are planning to complete the California triathlon in the 50-state goal together.
Wow, I just realized that I have another goal, to beat my grandson in the triathlon we do together. The challenge is that he is both a competitive swimmer and distance runner in high school. And he has access to a great road bike. Better get serious!
“Age is a matter of mind over matter—if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
#3 Work at moving younger
What does it mean to move younger? Tony Schiller describes it like this.
“When I first see someone running along a road on which I am driving or running, I guess their age based on how they are moving – their posture, stride, foot bounce, etc. As I get closer, I adjust the guess. Finally, when I am beside them, I look at their face. Are they moving younger or older than their age? If their form makes them look younger than I guessed, they are moving younger.”
Today, Tony’s training includes a focus on moving younger. For example, “If I am swimming, I will focus on proper form, such as extending my reach”.
#4 Get ‘really’ good at swimming, biking, and running
In his latest book Master of One1, Jordan Raynor concludes “It is only when we get insanely good at what we do that we don’t just fall in love with our work but stay in love with it over a long period of time”. Having read the book, I am sure that Jordan would agree that this applies to non-work activities to which we have committed ourselves.
#5 Join a triathlon club
I follow the Facebook page of The Villages Triathlon Club. This triathlon club provides encouragement and training opportunities for newbie sprint triathletes; accomplished iron-men and -women in their 60s, 70s, and beyond; and everyone in between. The Club is there for everyone interested in getting and staying fit.
Check the related posts that include interviews with two of the members of the club.
Triathlon training must change as we age to reflect the changes in our bodies. The consequences of improper training can be career-ending. Following an approach that recognizes six principles of triathlon training for seniors age 50 and over will ensure strong performance.
Meanwhile, many of the questions I receive indicate that most triathlon training programs do not consider the changes that occur with aging. This post is the beginning of an effort to address age-related needs for the senior triathlete.
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.
In one report, VO2 max, an indicator of the size of one’s athletic engine, was measured for elite athletes of various ages. The study showed a linear decline with age for athletes from age 18 to 103. No ‘cliff ‘ in performance was observed.
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, being consistent 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.
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.
More frequent muscle strains and joint pain also result from reduced muscle mass and strength and increased stiffness. For example, knee pain, sometimes incorrectly attributed to osteoarthritis, often highlights weak quadriceps. Also, shoulder pain in swimming is often a consequence of ignoring the smaller muscles responsible for joint stability. Finally, 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.
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?
As reported in “What Masters Athletes Need To Know About Nutrition“, the physiological changes that take place with age mean that we need “fewer (net of exercise) calories, higher amounts of protein, and greater amounts of key nutrients”. We also need to pay close attention to staying hydrated which can be accomplished through choices of food and drink.
Principles of Training for Senior Triathletes
Proper strength training
Leveraging high-intensity interval training
Getting enough rest
Nutrition – eating enough of the right food
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 the entire body prevents imbalances. For example, in my early days of running, I was religious about stretching my hamstrings after running. However, I was not as 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.
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.
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 of 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.
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 just 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.
As we age, our sensation for thirst becomes weaker. At the same time, lower water content of body tissue is one contributor to injury. The message? 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. See the related post below for more detailed advice.
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