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Why Senior Triathletes Should Use Interval Training

Why Senior Triathletes Should Use Interval Training

Interval training for senior triathletes provides important health and fitness benefits through short, intense periods of exercise. It is not surprising that, in recent years, high intensity interval training, or HIIT, has been among the most researched type of fitness program.

The interest in HIIT comes in part because of its value for the growing population of seniors. For the older athlete, HIIT can be an important part of a training plan. Why? Because it reduces the wear and tear of continuous, low to medium intensity exercise used to help us stay competitive as we age.

What is HIIT?

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), high-intensity intervals are defined as those exercises performed at 80 to 95 per cent of one’s maximum heart rate. Intervals are between five seconds and eight minutes long.

The periods of high intensity are followed by periods of complete rest or active recovery performed at 40 to 50 per cent of one’s maximum heart rate. These periods depend on a person’s fitness but are generally longer than the high intensity period. As you will read further on, recovery is a critical part of an effective HIIT protocol.

Since there are so many ways to apply the principles of HIIT, this technique is used by elite and amateur athletes. It is even used as part of cardiac rehabilitation.

HIIT exercises can be performed in the gym using stationary bikes and treadmills, in the pool or lake, and at home using only bodyweight.

You May Already Be Using HIIT

If you have taken a cycling class at your local fitness center, you have probably made use of HIIT. Tabata, one of the most well known methods of applying HIIT, consists of eight repetitions of 20 seconds pedaling at 170% of maximum sustainable oxygen uptake followed by 10 seconds of rest. Done properly, the cyclist will maintain the same level of power for each repetition, rather than have the power taper off with each successive interval or even vary between intervals.

Other examples of high intensity interval training for the swim and run legs of a sprint triathlon are:

Interval training helps senior triathletes be more competitive racers.
High intensity interval training can help athletes of any age become more fit and competitive racers.

Benefits of High Intensity Intervals

High intensity interval training has three main benefits:

  • Reduces the tendency for overuse injuries,
  • Minimizes boredom – and the tendency to skip workouts – from repeating the same routine day after day,
  • Increases performance, that is, helps us become faster.

While longer, moderate intensity workouts build our body’s aerobic system, high intensity intervals tap into and strengthen both the aerobic and anaerobic systems.

In a May 22, 2019 article in Science Focus magazine titled “HIIT is changing the way we work out, here’s the science why it works“, author Jamie Millar explains the changes occurring during and as a result of high intensity intervals:

“Ramping up the intensity forces your body to tap into its anaerobic system for energy, because it can’t supply the oxygen required to work aerobically quickly enough; in the recovery intervals, your body reverts to its aerobic system. As the session goes on, your body relies less on the anaerobic system, because quick-release energy sources of phosphocreatine and glycogen (glucose stored in your muscles) become depleted. Your body will therefore start to rely more on the aerobic system, which releases energy more sustainably but slowly from fat.”

In Millar’s comments, we see benefits in developing our anaerobic system and in burning more fat. The latter is one reason why HIIT (along with proper nutrition) is great for weight loss.

What Senior Triathletes Should Know About Interval Training

Getting the most from HIIT and avoiding injury from it requires a well-thought out and properly executed plan. Here are three fundamentals of this type of routine.

First, Warmup

Before engaging in intense intervals, it is essential to warm up our muscles and get our heart rate up. My typical warmup is a 10 to 15 minute swim, bike, or run before the interval portion of the session.

Second, Recover Properly

Recovery in the context of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) has three meanings:

  • Recovery between each interval of a session,
  • Proper recovery at the end of HIIT session, and
  • Fully recovering between sessions.

Recovery during a HIIT session – Experts remind us to honor the recovery time specified in each interval. During the so-called ‘recovery interval’, our body clears out lactic acid from our muscles. One study showed that a recovery of 3 minutes between 4 minute running intervals led to faster, more productive intervals than when shorter or self-selected recovery intervals were used.

Recovery after a HIIT sessionA study by the German Federal Institute of Sport Science showed that active recovery, such as 15 minutes of moderate jogging after a HIIT session, led to a beneficial increase in anaerobic lactate threshold compared to passive recovery.

Recovery between sessions – Between HIIT sessions, it is important for our body to eliminate the lactic acid, hydrogen ions, and hormones (e.g. adrenaline) produced during the anaerobic exercise. For some types of HIIT, recovery also involves repair of micro tears of the muscles.

It is because of the time and need for complete recovery between intense sessions that most training programs include no more than one HIIT session per week.

Third, Be Patient

As with any form of physical activity that I can think of, doing too much too soon is a formula for injury. The key is to progress slowly.

For example, here is an example of a progression I have used, one that has NOT led to injury:

  • Hill repeats – start with 2 x 15-20 seconds running up a hill with at least 8% grade (8 feet [meters] rise over 100 feet [meters] distance) after a 10-15 minute warm-up run. Repeat every 7 to 14 days adding two repeats each session to a maximum of 10 per session. (Source: Stryd.)

On the other hand, I have become injured twice while trying to run intervals too fast. Too fast in this case means significantly faster than my 5k race pace. In one case, I injured a hamstring. Another time, I injured muscles around both knees.

Both injuries required a week without running. I am sure that I lost more than I gained from the sessions.

Managing Risks

The idea of becoming fit for little investment in time may sound appealing. However, that should not be the takeaway from this post.

To gain the benefits and avoid possible serious injury, HIIT must be done properly. The risk of high intensity can outweigh the benefits if done improperly.

Before starting a HIIT program, proponents of HIIT unanimously agree that you should discuss your plans with your physician.

How Do You Use High Intensity Intervals in Your Training?

Comment below to let us know how you are using intervals in your training? What have been the results?

Affilitate Disclosure


Book Review: “Atomic Habits” for Triathletes

Book Review: “Atomic Habits” for Triathletes

“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.

Related post: Book Review: The New Psycho-Cybernetics

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.

StepMakes object of a good habitMakes 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.

Figure 1: Plateau of Latent Potential from page 22 of “Atomic Habits” by James Clear.

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.

You can also see the text for free by clicking here.

Throughout the book, James Clear refers to resources on his website for creating atomic habits. Please checkout the website at https://jamesclear.com/.

Follow the links below to purchase “Atomic Habits” on Amazon.com.

  1. Clear, James, “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones”, Avery, 1st edition (October 16, 2018), p. 17.)

Why Should Seniors Use A Triathlon Coach?

Why Should Seniors Use A Triathlon Coach?
The Tri Doc, Dr. Jeff Sankoff, triathlete and triathlon coach. Picture courtesy of The Tri Doc.

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.

Example of a strength training plan by Jeff Sankoff Tri Doc, triathlon coach for seniors
Strength training is an essential part of triathlon training according to Tri Doc, Dr. Jeff Sankoff. Pictured is an example of a personalized plan. Picture courtesy of The Tri Doc.

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.

Related post: Six Principles of Triathlon Training for Seniors

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.

Related post: 5 Ideas for Staying Motivated with Age Young – A Conversation with Tony Schiller

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 tri_doc@icloud.com 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?

Please share your comments below.


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