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Terry VanderWert

Should Senior Triathletes Track Heart Rate Variability?

Should Senior Triathletes Track Heart Rate Variability?

We know that recovery is critical for older triathletes. If heart rate variability can measure how well we have recovered, can it also help senior triathletes recover more completely?

My First Experience With Heart Rate Variability

Joy and I started using a new Sleep Number bed recently. While reviewing our sleep scores from the Sleep IQ app, it surprised me to see Heart Rate Variability, or HRV for short, as a metric for sleep quality.

I had previously come across articles about HRV in relation to triathlon training. However, I had paid little attention since there seemed to be a fair amount of controversy about HRV measurement and its usefulness for training.

In this post, I share what I have learned about the current state of heart rate variability for triathlon training and how it may be useful for senior triathletes.

What Is Heart Rate Variability (HRV)?

According to Sleep Number’s Sleep IQ app, “Heart rate variability (HRV) is the measure of different time durations between each heartbeat.”

For example, a heart rate of 60 beats per minute suggests that the heart beats an average of once each second. However, the actual time between beats varies, sometimes more and sometimes less, around the average time.

The variation between heartbeats comes from our autonomic nervous system’s (ANS) effort to fine tune our bodily functions in response to various sources of stress.

The ANS helps us maintain balance through its two branches:

  • sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which manages our ‘fight or flight’ stress response needed for short-term survival.
  • parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which handles our ‘rest and digest’ responses required for long-term survival.

The commonly reported value for HRV is the standard deviation of the variations in the time between heartbeats. Another name for this is the standard deviation of normal-to-normal inter-beat intervals (SDNN) measured in milliseconds. (Don’t worry if your memory of statistics is rusty.)

What Can Senior Triathletes Learn From Heart Rate Variability?

The SleepIQ app adds, “A high HRV is good. High HRV means high energy, good recovery, enhanced cognitive performance, and balance of heart and mind. Monitor stress and well-being by monitoring your heart rate variability.”

Under most conditions, high HRV shows that your body can adapt to many types of changes. Conversely, lower HRV suggests a less flexible body, one currently experiencing or on the verge of health problems.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, low HRV is “also more common in people who have higher resting heart rates. That’s because when your heart is beating faster, there’s less time between beats, reducing the opportunity for variability.”

However, there are some exceptions, which complicate use of this metric. High HRV can also occur when the stress from training has exceeded our ability to recover, at the onset of illness, and because of changes in sleep and exercise patterns.

Can We Influence Our HRV?

If a high HRV is generally better, what can we do to increase it?

As illustrated in the table below, there are many factors that affect HRV. Some, like diet and exercise, we can control. Others, such as age and gender, we cannot.

LifestyleTrainingBiologicalMental HealthEnvironmental
Sleep VolumeAgeStressChemical
Exposure
NutritionIntensityGenderDepressionElectromagnetic
Field (EMF) Exposure
ExerciseOverall
Fitness
EthnicityAnxietyAir Quality
Alcohol
Consumption
Unfamiliar
Stimuli
GeneticsEmotionsWork Schedule
Tobacco &
Drug Use
IllnessMeditationUse of Vibrating
Tools
Table 1: Some factors that affect HRV by category (Source: Elite HRV)

Getting good sleep, eating a heart-healthy diet, avoiding unhealthy environments whenever possible, and training at a level appropriate for our level of fitness are actions we can take to increase our HRV.

In addition, alternative medicine approaches, including biofeedback training, may be helpful. Biofeedback is a method mentioned by Cleveland Clinic for improving heart rate variability for those who suffer from stress, emotional disorders, physical issues such as hypertension, and addictions.

Related post: 11 Passages to Read to Help Fight Worry

The numerous factors affecting HRV explain why it is best to track HRV during sleep, that is when many of the factors will not affect the measurement. If manual measurement is required, then measure HRV immediately upon waking.

HRV For Triathlon Training

HRV is already recognized as a tool for assessing the risk of sudden cardiac death. Meanwhile, measurement of HRV for applications like endurance training is still emerging, albeit quickly.

For example, in the past few years, HRV measurement has advanced from requiring ECG sensors to using a cell phone camera. Its use has expanded to include guiding day-to-day triathlon training.

Earlier Research Demonstrated the Potential for HRV as a Training Metric

In principle, because HRV measures the effects of mental and physical stress, it should be an indicator of training stress.

A 2016 report titled “Detailed heart rate variability analysis in athletes” documented the higher HRV for elite and masters triathletes compared to “healthy, but not athletic” adults. The author’s conclusions included: “Further investigations are needed to determine its [HRV’s] role in risk stratification, optimization of training, or identifying overtraining”.

In another 2016 report titled “The role of heart rate variability in sports physiology“, the author noted that studies in which HRV was used to monitor exercise training “suggested that monitoring indices of HRV may be useful for tracking the time course of training adaptation/maladaptation in order to set optimal training loads that lead to improved performances”. In other words, HRV could be used to optimize training load and recovery.

Triathlete and triathlon coach Dr. Dan Plews describes himself as “a big proponent of using daily, resting measures of heart rate variability (HRV) to help guide day-to-day training decisions”.

Plews completed his PhD on heart rate variability in 2017. In an interview with Mikael Eriksson on the Scientific Triathlon podcast during the same year, Dr. Plews shared some results of his research.

He stated that our resting HRV, that measured first thing after waking, can tell a lot about how well we have recovered. However, since many factors affect this single measurement, it is better to look at the trend in HRV, typically over seven days.

HRV Measurement for the Amateur Athlete

Over the last five years, HRV has grown from a research topic to a metric used by amateur athletes and fitness enthusiasts to plan their training schedules.

HRV measurement is more accessible. Today, you can measure your HRV with a smart bed, such as Sleep Number. You can also measure HRV with your smartphone or a host of wearable devices, like smart watches and finger rings.

Smartphone apps are also more capable of interpreting and summarizing the measurements.

For example, the following is from a post on the EdureIQ blog. “HRV, which can be measured reliably and with validity using a smartphone application, gives us insight into the functioning of our autonomic nervous system, and trends in our daily, resting HRV give us insight into the balance between stress and recovery; downward trends in HRV, or big daily fluctuations in HRV, tell us that stress and fatigue is accumulating”. 

One word of caution. There is significant disagreement about the accuracy of devices that use light, rather than electrical impulses, to measure heart rate through the skin. It is not clear whether this is based on fact or marketing tactics.

However, the consensus is that the day-to-day trend in HRV is more useful than an isolated HRV measurement, even if made during sleep or immediately after waking.

Some Suppliers of Sensors and Software for HRV

If you are interested in exploring heart rate variability for your training, look at these suppliers of devices and software for measuring and reporting it.

I would also like to hear (in the Comments below) what you learn and/or decide.

Elite HRV

This company supplies a free cell phone app for use with a select list of heart rate chest strap which they have qualified for HRV measurement.

Garmin

Garmin supplies sports watches, including heart rate monitoring devices and apps for measuring and tracking HRV.

HRV4Training

This business provides a paid smartphone app described to provide “Heart Rate Variability (HRV) insights to help you quantify stress, better balance training and lifestyle, and improve performance”.

ithlete

According to the ithlete website, “A convenient one minute daily measurement with ithlete will provide you with all the information you need to tailor your training and recovery ensuring maximum performance.”

Polar

This leader in heart rate measurement offers the Polar Flow app for use with one of their heart rate straps to measure HRV.

Whoop

Whoop uses a wearable device to measure heart rate, heart rate variability, breath rate, and other factors (e.g. skin temperature) to calculate a degree of recovery.

Is Tracking Heart Rate Variability Helpful for Senior Triathletes?

There is growing evidence that heart rate variability is useful for tracking training stress and recovery. Measuring HRV is no longer an issue. However, interpreting the results may still be a challenge because of the many factors that affect day-to-day and even longer trends in HRV.

What do you think about using HRV as a metric for monitoring your triathlon training and recovery?

Triathlon Across the USA: State #44 – Delaware

Triathlon Across the USA: State #44 – Delaware

Bear, Delaware; May 16, 2021 – Lums Pond State Park, Bear Triathlon.

The Delaware triathlon was part of a six-week road trip that included stops in Omaha, Nebraska; The Villages, Florida; and parts of Virginia and Delaware for triathlons in these two states.

Before the Delaware Triathlon

Joy and I began the week between the Virginia and Delaware triathlons with bike riding on a portion of the Virginia Capital Trail, starting at Colonial Williamsburg. After a few days in the Williamsburg area, we packed up and drove to the Atlantic Coast of Delaware via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and the Delmarva Peninsula.

We settled in Bethany Beach, Delaware from where we took the three days leading up to the Bear Triathlon to tour the coastal area between Ocean City, Maryland and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

The sights and experiences of the area between southern Virginia and the Delaware coast for the first time reminded us how thankful we are to be on this triathlon journey.

Before the Delaware triathlon, we visited the Atlantic coast at Bethany Beach, Delaware.
The Atlantic Ocean from the Bethany Beach, Delaware boardwalk.

Previewing the Race Course

Late Saturday afternoon, Joy and I drove from Bethany Beach to Lums Pond State Park, outside Bear, Delaware, for the Bear Triathlon packet pickup. It surprised us to see a line of tens of cars stretching out of the park entrance onto the road leading up it. My first thought was that this was going to be a big triathlon. with a lot of participants.

The Bear Triathlon was a decent size, with about 550 competitors in the sprint and Olympic distance races combined. However, we eventually learned that Lums Pond State Park offers tremendous opportunity for outdoor activity beyond triathlon, from kayaking and paddle boating to picnicking. There was even a cricket match being played next to the race transition area.

After collecting my race packet, which included a t-shirt and race numbers for the bike and run, we drove the bike course. We do this as often as possible to check the condition of the roads, looking for potholes or other obstacles that could present a hazard during the race. This is also an opportunity to review the hills and turns along the course.

Near the end of the course, we saw the remains of a mother deer and her fawn lying on the bike path. By the next morning, these were no longer there.

Sign at the entrance of Lums Pond State Park in Bear, Delaware.
Lums Pond State Park (Bear, Delaware) is home of the Bear Triathlon.

3rd Annual Bear Triathlon

The Bear Triathlon is one of several running and multisport events managed by Rip It Events (Columbia, Maryland). The company also offers coaching services.

This race included both sprint and Olympic distance events. Organizers allowed participants of either distance to compete as an individual or as part of a relay team.

The advertised distances for the individual legs of this USAT-sanctioned sprint triathlon were:

  • Swim: 0.6 miles (966 m or 1,056 yards) – Actual: 1,348 yards (0.77 miles or 1,233 m)
  • Bike: 10 miles (16 km) – Actual: 9.9 miles (16km)
  • Run: 3 miles (4.8 km) – Actual: 3 miles (4.8 km)

Actual distances shown above are from my Garmin Forerunner 920XT.

An Anxious Group

Maybe it was because of the many race cancellations over the past year, but the triathletes competing today seemed anxious to race.

Lums Pond State Park opens at 5 am and the transition area was set to open at 5:15 am.

I arrived at the park entrance a few minutes before 5 am expecting to wait for the gate to open. I imagined there might be a few cars which had arrived before me.

However, to my surprise, the gate was already open. I passed through without stopping.

I was even more surprised when I reached the parking lot closest to the transition area. Cars were already lined up one deep across the width of the parking lot.

Cars filled with triathletes ready to race gathered in the parking lot before the transition area opened, some even before the park was scheduled to open.

A Cool, Still Morning – Perfect For a Triathlon

The 48°F air temperature during setup of the transition area made wearing a sweatshirt feel good However, as the sun rose and race time approached, the air temperature climbed a few degrees. Meanwhile, the air remained still, with only a slight breeze, and clouds covered most of the sky.

By the start of the swim, the combination of full sleeve wetsuit and temperature in the low-to-mid 50s °F was comfortable – not too cold, not too warm.

By the time we finished the bike and run legs, the temperature was still comfortably in the mid-60s °F.

As the sun rose on race morning, the temperature became more comfortable. Perfect race conditions.

Swim

The race director reported the temperature of the water in Lums Pond to be 68°F. Not only was this race wetsuit-legal according to USA Triathlon rules, but he encouraged racers to wear a wetsuit.

Competitors started their swim in one of eight groups based on race distance, age, and gender. The first four groups, or waves, included those in the Olympic triathlon.

The three-quarter mile swim was longer than typical for a sprint triathlon. The course traveled at an angle away from the beach, then turned left toward the opposite side of the pond. After a short distance, we made a second left turn and swam parallel to the beach, finally reaching the last buoy. From here, a swim of a few hundred yards brought us to the sandy beach.

However, the swim leg was not yet complete. To finish this portion, triathletes needed to continue another roughly hundred yards before crossing the timing mat. We were then in T1, the first transition period.

The Bear Triathlon began with a counterclockwise swim around a series of orange buoys. The course started to the right in the upper picture, then turned left twice before crossing the top portion of the water. A third left turn at a buoy beyond the left edge of the upper picture led to the beach (lower left). The swim leg officially finished after completing a jog across a grassy area to the ‘Swim In’ entrance of the transition area (lower right).

Bike

We mounted our bikes just outside the transition area. The bike leg followed a course that left the park on Bucks Jersey Road. The single loop course exited and later re-entered the park at the main entrance gate.

Once outside the park, we made four right turns following Howell School Road, Red Lion Road, and Route 301. The final of the four turns brought us back on Bucks Jersey Road and the ride to the transition area.

The second right turn on the bike course of the Bear Triathlon was at Howell School Road and Red Lion Road
The second right turn on the bike course of the Bear Triathlon was at Howell School Road and Red Lion Road. Volunteers and local police ensured safety of the racers by controlling traffic at this busy intersection.

We owe a big thank you to the race crew and volunteers. They did a tremendous job of directing bikers and controlling car and truck traffic with whom we shared the road.

Run

The out-and-back run course took us on a combination of grass, dirt trail, and asphalt covered roads. One feature of the out-and-back course I enjoy is the exchange of encouragement between racers. This was on full display today.

By the time sprint triathlon racers were on the run course, some of those competing in the Olympic distance race were also on their run. The difference was the Olympic triathletes covered all but the last few yards leading to the finish line two times.

The first and last few hundred yards of the out-and-back run course were across a large grassy area that had been the location of a cricket match the day before the triathlon. Note the location of the first station for water and sports drink.

After the Delaware Triathlon

After completing my race and repacking my bike and other gear (wetsuit, goggles, swim cap, bike helmet, and race number belt), I sat outside the transition area on the edge of a picnic table from where I watched others coming and going.

During this time, I met John Dean, a seasoned, senior triathlete who was closing in on his 100th triathlon. He made it. You can read John’s story, 101 Triathlons – John Dean’s Story, on this site.

I waited as long as I could for the awards ceremony. However, I eventually needed to leave to make the hotel check-out time. Thankfully, the race organizer was kind enough to send me the award I received for my second place finish within my age group.

After showering and checking out of the hotel, Joy and I started our journey back to Minnesota. Our route took us through Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on the way to West Chicago, Illinois for an overnight stay with friends.

Upon reaching our Minnesota home, we began a multi-month project of decluttering, donating, and packing for our move to Florida.

Race Firsts

  • First triathlon in which the swim took place in a body of water in which swimming is normally not allowed.

Your Favorite Lake For A Triathlon Swim?

Have you done a triathlon in Delaware? I know John Dean did his first one in Delaware.

Tell us about these in the Comments below.

101 Triathlons – John Dean’s Story

101 Triathlons – John Dean’s Story

Have you ever asked yourself, “Should I do a triathlon”?

If you have been thinking about doing your first triathlon or going further with the sport, John Dean is a good guy to know. He has seen and experienced a lot through his 101 (and counting) sprint to Ironman triathlons.

I should warn you that John will most likely tell you to go for it. And, if you are older, he will also tell you “age should not be a limiting factor in triathlon”.

John Dean’s Triathlon History

The Senior Triathletes’ community represents a mix of backgrounds and experiences. Many trained for and completed their first triathlon later in their careers. Others are now training and competing in retirement.

There are also individuals like John Dean for whom triathlon has been a nearly lifelong adventure.

After completing his first triathlon 30 years ago, John continued with the sport. When we spoke recently, he had completed his 101st triathlon.

The Journey Began With Running

John’s path to triathlon began nearly 40 years ago with running. Like many of us, running was a means for him to lose some weight gained after having given up smoking.

John’s initial goal was to complete a 10k race in under 40 minutes and to finish a marathon. He told himself that once he met these goals, it would be time to move on to something a little less strenuous, like fishing or golf.

However, once John easily met those two goals – his first 10k time was around 39 minutes and his first marathon time was 3 hours 25 minutes, he kept going, trying to improve his times.

For the next ten years, John competed in running races from 5k to full marathon distances.

Including his 101 triathlons, John has raced almost 300 times. Most of these have been running races, though he has also done a few duathlons and swim races.

“Should I Do A Triathlon?”

In January, 1992, John’s friend, Peter, invited him to complete a triathlon during August in Norfolk, Virgina. Fearless and eager to take on a new challenge, John answered, ‘Sure, I’ll do that’.

However, after looking deeper into triathlon over the next couple of days, John called his friend. A bit panicked, John asked Peter, “Isn’t there swimming involved in a triathlon?”

Peter confirmed to John that there is swimming in a triathlon. The problem was that John did not know how to swim.

Upon learning this, Peter unsympathetically replied, “Well, you have eight months to learn to swim”.

So, John went to his local pool and spoke to a lifeguard. The conversation went something like this:

Coach: “How far do you need to swim?”

John: “A mile.”

Coach: “How far can you swim?”

John: “How long is the pool?”

Coach: “25 meters.”

John: “In that case, I can swim 24 meters.”

Coach: “Then let’s get to work.”

Those who are holding back from doing a triathlon because they either do not know how to swim or are not comfortable swimming should take heart. John started his inspiring triathlon journey being unable to swim a single length of the pool.

Actual First Triathlon

Not wanting to embarrass himself in front of his friend on race day, John registered for a triathlon near his home before the August race. As luck would have it, one of the Bud Light Series triathlons was scheduled for May in nearby Delaware.

John’s experience with this race, his first triathlon, convinced him he would be ready for the August triathlon, at least enough to not embarrass himself.

Second Triathlon

John’s second triathlon, the one in Norfolk, Virginia in August 1992, was a bigger – meaning more participants – than his first. For this race of about 1,200 triathletes, organizers required all triathletes to rack their bikes in the transition area during packet pickup the day before the race.

The next morning, on race day, John arrived while it was still dark to finish setting up his transition area. Much to his shock, his bike appeared to be missing. He wondered, “Why would someone steal my $400 hybrid bike when there are all these $5,000 and even $10,000 bikes here?”.

With a walk around the transition area, he eventually found his bike. He had mistakenly racked it in the wrong place on the previous day. This was the first of many lessons John would learn from triathlon.

John had not set high expectations for this race. So, when he wound up near the middle of all finishers, John decided to continue with triathlon.

John’s Most Memorable Triathlons

It is easy to imagine that out of his hundred-plus triathlons, John has had some wonderful experiences.

What have been John’s most memorable triathlons? He described three.

John Dean after finishing the 2016 World Age Group Championship Triathlon in Cozumel, Mexico.
One of John Dean’s most memorable triathlon moments has been competing with the world’s greatest amateur triathletes at the World Championships in Cozumel, Mexico.

Racing in Cold, Rainy Weather

A not so pleasant but valuable experience came during one of his early triathlons. This race took place in Columbia, Maryland on a May day John described as “cold, rainy, and miserable”.

His sleeveless wetsuit and bare feet provided little protection against a temperature in the 40s °F. John remembers feeling “cold to the bone” before and during the swim.

The first oddity came during the swim. A group of swimmers donning red swim caps he encountered about three-fourths of the way through the swim had vanished by the time he reached shore at the end of his swim.

Once in the transition area, John had difficulty getting out of his wetsuit. He also fell twice trying to mount his bike. Something seemed off, but he was not sure what was happening.

The feeling that something was wrong continued after he was on the bike. Pedaling was unusually slow and difficult.

Convinced of a problem with the bike, maybe one brake dragging on the rim, John got off the bike to inspect it. He could find nothing wrong, so he remounted the bike and continued with the same difficulty.

Once again, he dismounted and checked his bike. He still couldn’t see anything wrong with the bike.

Fortunately, John eventually realized that he had been riding uphill, a fact he had not grasped prior to this. It was this sense of confusion that suggested to John the possibility of hypothermia.

Now, rather than mount and ride his bike, John ran with his bike on the bike course. As he warmed, he could eventually remount his bike and finish the bike leg and complete the run.

Thankfully, John had recognized the onset of hypothermia before it became more serious.

Racing With the World’s Best Amateur Triathletes

A much more pleasant experience occurred in 2016 after John qualified for the World Team at the USA Triathlon Age Group Championships in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

He and his wife, Jeanne capitalized on his high place finish at nationals to travel to Cozumel, Mexico, where John competed in the World Championships. After the race, they took some extra days for rest and relaxation in the sun and sand on this Caribbean island.

The course on this Caribbean island was flat. The weather was hot and humid. However, what made this race truly memorable for John was the chance for him to compete alongside some of the world’s greatest age group triathletes.

Becoming an Ironman

John’s sole experience with Ironman came in training for and competing in Ironman Lake Placid (Lake Placid, New York). He enjoyed the experience enough to plan a second Ironman race.

However, while training for it, John realized he would rather skip rocks or play ball with his young grandkids than do a long training ride or run. Acting on this feeling, John changed his plans and returned to focus on shorter distance triathlons.

John Dean crossing the finish line at Ironman Lake Placid.
John Dean crossing the finish line at Ironman Lake Placid.

How John Trains for Triathlon

Early in his triathlon career, John filled some skill gaps in swimming and biking through “several swim coaches and one bike coach”.

As we have already learned, the swim coaches took him from a non-swimmer to one able to complete an Ironman triathlon swim. His bike coach taught him both how to train (“ride lots of miles”) and proper technique (“remember to both pull up and push down to maximize power throughout the stroke”).

After these experiences with coaches, all positive, John returned to self-coaching. He continues today to be his own triathlon coach.

Training as a Lifestyle

Training is an integral part of John’s daily routine. Each week, John trains two days each in swimming, biking, and running. The seventh is a rest day.

On the swim days, John spends at least one hour in a local pool. Over this hour, John will swim a mile through intervals of between 5 and 20 minutes of swimming, separated by brief breaks.

On the two bike days, John typically joins one of two groups for a ride of between 25 and 35 miles. Many of the rides are on the Lewes-Georgetown Trail, a rail trail easily accessed from his home.

As with the swim training, John prefers to run on his own rather than in a group. On these days, he will run between 4 and 8 miles.

This is a typical schedule since John has learned to stay flexible in his training to avoid injury.

What About Technology?

John wears a sports watch with built-in heart rate monitor to track distance, pace, and heart rate. However, he does not actively use metrics from the watch during training.

Instead, John prefers to train based on feel, sometimes referred to as perceived exertion. At the end of each training session or race, he asks “Did I give it my best?”.

John’s Advice for Other Current or Would Be Senior Triathletes

You have a glimpse of where John has come from, his achievements, and how he continues in triathlon.

What are his top pieces of advice for beginner and current triathletes?

#1 – Give It a Try

John’s email signature includes a quote (included below) from author and personal development coach Michelle Landy. John’s belief is that anyone thinking about triathlon should consider her statement.

Triathlon is far from impossible. Many of us are evidence of this, so “give it a try”.

“It’s impossible, said pride,
It’s risky, said experience,
It’ s pointless, said reason,
Give it a try, whispered the heart.”

Michelle Landy, Author and Coach

#2 – Make Time for Recovery

John has learned that we need time for recovery to minimize injury. “We can’t train seven days a week.”

He believes he would still run even if he had not gotten involved in triathlon. However, John is also convinced that, had he continued running without mixing it with swimming and biking or other physical activity, he would have spent more time nursing injuries.

This is a common argument in favor of triathlon over single sports.

#3 – Pay Attention to Nutrition, Especially for Long Course Triathlon

Triathlon training and racing can burn many calories. This is a key appeal for many who get involved with triathlon, especially when weight loss is a goal.

However, in longer training sessions and longer races, it may be necessary to take in calories to supplement those consumed. On top of this, we need to train our bodies to take in these calories while continuing to bike and run to avoid digestive distress.

#4 – Thinking About Ironman? Get Family Buy-in

It takes a certain amount of Type-A personality to compete in triathlon. Therefore, it’s not surprising that many who have done shorter distance triathlons consider competing in longer distance races.

If this is you, first decide if longer distance is a priority. If it is a priority, next get your family’s agreement. The longer the race distance, the longer the training. Training for a half or full Ironman distant triathlon requires many hours each week over several months.

Several other senior Ironman triathletes whose stories I have published have echoed this advice.

Related post: What If I Want to Do An Ironman Triathlon? – Tom Lipp’s Story

John Dean and his wife Jeanne, a faithful supporter of his triathlon journey.
John Dean’s wife Jeanne has been a faithful supporter of his triathlon journey.

Other Benefits

John has experienced another important benefit of training for a triathlon. Swimming, biking, and running are all means of stress relief.

There is even further benefit of endurance sports like triathlon. Medical research has shown that physical activity delays or prevents mental decline. As one example, here is the summary of a 2011 research report.

A rapidly growing literature strongly suggests that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, may attenuate cognitive impairment and reduce dementia risk.

Ahlskog et al., “Physical Exercise as a Preventive or Disease-Modifying Treatment of Dementia and Brain Aging”, Mayo Clin Proc. 2011 Sep; 86(9): 876–884.

What’s Stopping You?

John recalled his recent conversation with a woman while both were at their local pool for a swim. Upon seeing his Ironman tattoo, she asked him about triathlon.

The conclusion to their conversation was John saying, “Try doing a triathlon. They are fun. Plus, you will meet great people.”

What is holding you back from getting into triathlon?

Please share your questions and concerns with those of our community in the Comments section below.

How To Train For A Faster Triathlon Run

How To Train For A Faster Triathlon Run

“How can I, a 70-year-old triathlete, run 10-minute (or better!) miles?”

I received this question in an email from a visitor to SeniorTriathletes.com. His question was the inspiration for this post. It has also become the nudge I needed to train for faster triathlon runs this season.

Click here to jump directly to the Update at the end of this post. There you will find my experience and results with the training plan described in this post, originally published on January 17, 2022.

Getting Back to a Faster Triathlon Run

While I have never been a fast runner, I ran 10-min and even faster miles in sprint triathlons while in my early 60s. For various reasons, mostly related to inconsistent training, I now run 11-12 minute miles in a sprint triathlon. However, as I approach age 70, I want to get back to running 10-minute (or better) miles in a sprint triathlon.

So, after reading the question in the opening sentence, I dusted off several books on training for running and triathlon. I also listened to videos and podcasts from Phil Maffetone and trainers at Coach Parry (“Faster After 50”).

In the end, I decided to not only share what I learned, but to make myself accountable to you while training for a faster triathlon run.

I hope you will share your questions and experience by posting in the Comments section at the end of this post.

Let’s get started.

Three Pillars of Becoming a Faster Triathlete

Years of reading about triathlon training for the older athlete have convinced me of three pillars to becoming a faster triathlete – purpose, consistency, and preparation.

Purposeful Training Is Key

In their book Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise, researchers Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool share what they have learned about what makes people achieve more than previously imaginable. The book documents stories of many everyday people who strove to become experts in a particular activity. These covered a wide range, from memorization, chess and music to mathematics, golf and karate. They even cite accomplishments of 100-year old athletes in running.

With the realization that age is not the limitation it was once thought to be, more and more older adults are training harder and harder. Indeed, during the last few decades, the performance of master athletes has improved at a much higher rate than that of younger athletes.

Anders Ericcson, Robert Pool, “Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, p. 195

Did you read that? During the last few decades, performance of master athletes – that includes us – has improved at a much higher rate than that of younger athletes.

Their research has shown that practicing the same skills over and over leads to a stagnation of improvement. In my experience, this means running the same distance at the same pace day-in, day-out without a plan leads to becoming slower with age.

On the other hand, the researchers document how consistent, structured training designed to improve the key factors affecting performance will, with time, improve one’s performance.

Consistency Is A Must

As much as I have tried to make up for missed workouts by running harder the next time, this has not worked for me. I am not sure it works for anyone.

In fact, I am more likely to be injured, even if mildly, by going too hard. This then leads to shortened or more missed workouts, starting to a death spiral for my training plan.

For the older runner, avoiding injury serious enough to cause missed workouts is one of the top strategies for maintaining consistency. The approach to building aerobic fitness described in the next section is good for avoiding injury.

You are better off training more consistent, and by that I mean a day less, and then also training at the right intensity so you can recover better before your next session. By training consistently, I can guarantee you are still building on your aerobic fitness which is what’s going to help you more than anything else.

Markus van Niekerk on “Running After 50: Tips To Run Faster As You Get Older” podcast

Come Prepared For Training

Running puts significant stress on our body. This includes stress on muscles, joints, connective tissue. It also requires a base level of heart and circulatory system health.

To avoid injury or burnout, we need to make certain that our bodies are ready to begin a consistent, structured training program.

Before training to run faster, we must be able to run the distances required in the training plan.

More on this later.

Minimizing Injury Is Key To A Faster Triathlon Run

A common message throughout the run training plans I have read is to (1) set reasonable, achievable goals and (2) follow the plan, especially when it seems too easy.

It is far too common for runners, especially new runners, to set goals based on what they would like to achieve rather than on what they can achieve. Patient perseverance is a virtue in most endeavors. It certainly is for running.

Training to run faster as a senior goes hand-in-hand with preventing injuries. Injuries, from which we recover more slowly with age, can easily interrupt a training plan aimed at making you faster in the run.

People think because I’m getting slower I need to run fast in training so I can run fast in a race. It’s not the case. By slowing down your body is also able to recover after sessions.

Markus van Niekerk on “Running After 50: Tips To Run Faster As You Get Older” podcast

Start By Building Base-Level Fitness

As mentioned above, it is important to prepare oneself for a structured training program. First, it creates a base level of fitness that will, hopefully, support your body as you train to become faster.

I like the approach to building aerobic base fitness described in Training to Train – Building Aerobic Fitness for Senior Triathletes. Results in the post came from following the MAF-180 method.

This approach is easy enough that I could train using it five or more days per week without injury.

This method is also effective. I have repeated the results included in the post three more times with the same results – steadily faster times per mile while maintaining my heart rate within a relatively low range. On top of this, I lost some weight, even though weight loss was not a goal.

A little over a month ago, I added one 5k run per week, ignoring my heart rate monitor. The ability to run a 5k without walking showed me that my fitness was improving. It was also a prerequisite for the training program described later in this post.

part of plan for a faster triathlon run. Aerobic fitness using MAF-180 method
MAF-180 test results for run/walk on the same 3.5 mile course while maintaining my heart rate in the prescribed range.

Next – Add Structured Training to Increase Speed

Consistent with the evidence from Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise cited above, I feel ready to move to the next phase of my run training.

[T]here are some changes that need to be made to a training regimen as the body ages. The first changes in run training involve focus and frequency. . . . It is no longer quantity that is required for the masters runner, but quality. Every workout should be a quality workout, pre-planned with session goals and targets.

Ian Stokell, “Triathlon For Masters and Beyond”, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2013, p.140

A structured run training program I have used in the past is FIRST (Furman Institute Running Scientific Training). This method is the subject of Runners World Run Less, Run Faster by Furman University’s Bill Pierce, Scott Muir, and Ray Moss.

Email discussions with co-author Bill Pierce over the past ten years have shown me that the authors promote a conservative approach to increasing speed. Success of the plan requires each training session to be done at the prescribed speeds. They also know that success requires avoiding injury.

Fundamentals of FIRST

The FIRST run training program includes three runs per week based on conservative goals. Aerobic cross-training activities, such as swimming, biking, and kayaking, supplement the three runs per week.

The goal of the three runs is to improve what the authors consider the three key factors affecting running performance. According to the authors, the goals of each of the three runs are:

  • #1 – Improve VO2max, running speed, and running economy.
  • #2 – Improve endurance by raising lactate threshold.
  • #3 – Improve endurance by raising aerobic metabolism.

With only three runs per week, one can train harder for greater effect plus recover longer between sessions to prevent injury.

Also Useful for Beginners

Another reason I like this book is that includes plenty of advice for new runners. It includes a ‘5k novice training plan’ that initially combines running with walking.

My Plan To Train For A Faster Triathlon Run

I have completed the base-building phase of the run training through four months with the MAF-180 plan. The next phase is to follow the FIRST run training method based on details in the 3rd edition of Runners World Run Less Run Faster.

Run Training

The twelve week plan will use times for the three runs prescribed in the FIRST method. The basis for these will be a 35:40 min 5k time recorded about one month ago.

With a sizeable gap between my current 5k time and the goal of a 10-min 5k in an upcoming triathlon, I realize I may need to repeat the program after the first twelve weeks. Of course, I expect the second time through the plan to be based on a faster 5k time.

By the time I complete the first cycle, I will know how well the plan is working for me. I will also know how well I have been applying it. I am confident that I will have a faster run in my next triathlon.

Cross Training

The FIRST plan also requires a minimum of two cross training sessions per week. For these, I plan to complete one session each of biking and swimming.

For the days when the biking is through a cycling class at my local gym, I will continue to perform a series of core exercises and weight strength training before the cycling class.

We all know that triathlon differs from a running race because it requires running after biking for a significant distance. Therefore, I will add a short run after completing a cycling class or bike ride.

My weekly swim will, at least initially, involve swimming 1,500 to 2,000 yards in a lap pool near my home.

Updates On My Journey To A Faster Triathlon Run

I have reserved this section for updates on my progress with the plan. These will show my experience with the sessions, what is working, what is not working, and new 5k times.

I will keep you informed through Senior Triathletes Highlights, our monthly newsletter, when I have updates.

Update #1 – After eight weeks of the 12-week 5k plan

Here is what I had learned through the first eight weeks of the 12-week 5k plan:

  1. I realized early on that I benefit from accountability to you. Knowing that I would provide this and at least one more update has made me stick to the plan.
  2. In pursuing a faster triathlon run, I have tracked results of three weekly runs from the FIRST training plan and cross-training (swimming, biking, strength training) on a Google sheet. I included a calculator for the paces of the various runs. This will make it simple to use the sheet for future repeats of the plan.
  3. It is important to base the paces for the plan on the time to complete a run of the distance for which you are training. I had started on the FIRST plan a few years ago. However, because I based it on my 5k goal rather than a recent 5k, the paces for the various runs were too high for me to complete. I eventually stopped before completing the plan. This time, I used an actual 5k race time and have been able to complete the runs.
  4. It has been surprising that the interval runs (Run#1) have been the easiest of the three runs, while the slower, longer runs (5 to 8 miles) have been the most difficult. I suspect – and the results seem to support this – that this difficulty comes from one hip being weaker than the other. Therefore, I have added strength training to the plan, something prescribed by most running coaches.
  5. Despite my best efforts to follow the schedule, visits from family and friends took priority. I will finish the plan about two weeks later than the plan.

Update #2 – After completing the first iteration of the 12-week 5k plan

I finished the 12-week plan, which ended with a 5k run to measure the results. The results were positive, with a 5k time that was reduced by 8%, from 35:40 to 32:48.

While I have not reached my goal, the improvement is significant.

I have already started to repeat the 12-week plan. This time, I will use the new, faster 5k time as the basis for each of the runs. By the end of this second iteration, I expect to be at my goal.

Stay tuned for additional updates

Share Your Questions and Comments

There are many triathletes age 50 and over reading this post with more experience in triathlon training than me. Some of you have hired coaches or subscribed to virtual training programs. Many have also completed various distances, from sprint to Ironman.

No matter where you consider yourself – beginner or experienced triathlete – you probably have questions, comments on my plan, or experience to share. Please include these in the Comments below.

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