Age-Specific Injury Prevention and Recovery

What can older endurance athletes do to minimize injury and speed recovery from injury when it occurs? Triathlon coach John Hansen shares his advice for our community of senior triathletes, duathletes, and other multisport athletes.

Introducing John Hansen

John Hansen is a USA Triathlon Level II, USA Swimming Level I, and USA Cycling Level III Certified coach. He coaches the University of California Davis Collegiate Club Triathlon team. He also has his own coaching business, focusing on long-course athletes, 70.3 and 140.6.

About one month ago, I read an article he had written for USA Triathlon titled Transitioning Back to Training After Injury. The article contained easy to follow guidelines for returning to training after injury. The guidelines he provided differed based on when in a training cycle the injury had occurred.

John’s advice for starting or restarting training is good advice for all of us. However, it is especially good for seniors training for their first triathlon.

The ’40-20 rule’ he described was new to me. This rule combines “training volume that is 40% of the volume you were at prior to the injury” with adding “20% of the new volume every 1-2 weeks”. We can modify the rule to be more conservative or more aggressive, depending upon the severity of the injury.

In the article, John also recommended adjustments to equipment and gear depending on where in the training cycle the athlete is.

How Age Affects One Coach’s Advice

John wrote the article for the general population of endurance athletes, not any specific age group. As I read, I was curious if he would change the approach if focused on the SeniorTriathletes.com demographic. So, I asked him the following question by email:

“How, if any way, might you change your advice if writing to 50-80+ year old triathletes, aqua-bikers, and duathletes?”

Following is John’s response, included here with his permission.

“Thank you for the question. With respect to the article, many of the points, especially the general points I made in the beginning of the article, are easily applied to triathletes in the 50+ age groups. However, there are several key elements this population should focus on to prevent injuries and optimize their transition back to training. All these elements are related to the injury recovery process, which takes longer for triathletes ages 50+. With that in mind, there are a few key prevention pieces of this puzzle to focus on:

Preventing Injury for Senior Endurance Athletes

First is strength training. Strength training for this age group is all about minimizing muscle mass loss, managing the quality of the muscle as it ages and sustaining connective tissue (tendons/ligaments/fascia) strength. Muscle mass decreases approximately 3–8% per decade after the age of 30 for non-active adults.

As triathletes, this population is helping to stem these issues, but the curve can be further reduced if the 50+ population engages in a full body strength routine 3x week. These positive benefits then result in a lower frequency and/or severity of injuries and ultimately a quicker recovery time.

Second is muscle pliability and connective tissue mobility. Muscles that are more pliable and connective tissue that allows for greater joint mobility, leads to lower frequency and/or severity of injuries and ultimately a quicker recovery time.

As we age, our muscles become less pliable because they retain less fluid, making them more rigid. Aging also affects connective tissue, reducing the mobility in our joints. Connective tissue loses fluid and collagen over time, making joints less mobile and more rigid and stiff. However, stretching, rolling, and myofascial release stimulate the production or retention of lubricants between the connective tissue fibers, thus preventing the formation of adhesions, creating more flexibility in muscles and greater mobility in joints.

The most vulnerable time for reinjury is when you feel normal as you return to training.

John Hansen, TRANSITIONING BACK TO TRAINING AFTER INJURY, October 14, 2022.

Recovery After Injury for Older Athletes

With respect to returning from an injury, key areas for this population [of senior endurance athletes] to focus on would be the following:

  • Rebuilding volume and intensity modestly; follow a more conservative plan than what I discussed in the article.
  • Follow a two-week training cycle instead of a one-week training cycle so the harder and/or long workouts can be spread apart with more rest or light training days in between these efforts.
  • Follow walk-run protocols and minimize hill training on runs.
  • Incorporate exercises, such as standing on one foot, standing on a wobble board or Bosu ball, to develop greater balance, coordination and proprioception.
  • Spend more timing warming up to allow the body (muscles and connective tissue in particular) to be better prepared (enhanced blood flow, fluid in the joints, central nervous system and more) to tackle the main body of the workout.

Related post: Rest and Recovery: Why It’s Important for Senior Triathletes

How Has Your Recovery Changed With Age?

Do you have questions for John? Or, can you share your experience with recovering from injury? Post these in the Comments below.

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Triathlon For a Healthy Brain – Pat & Joan Hogan’s Story

The physical exercise that accompanies endurance sports like triathlon supports a healthy brain. Just as our muscles adapt to the stress of weight training to become stronger, our brain adapts to new challenges.

Most of us are familiar with some benefits of what Dr. Patrick Hogan calls “challenging exercise”. For example, we know that exercise promotes cardiovascular health.

However, did you know that there is a 45% decrease in incidence of Alzheimer’s dementia in those who do an adequate duration and intensity of exercise consistently into older age? Neither did I until I spoke with Dr. Pat and Joan Hogan.

Add to this the psychological benefits of social interaction and improved thoughts of gratitude, confidence, and hope that accompany triathlon training and who shouldn’t want to get involved.

Improved brain function is an important reason Pat and Joan Hogan have continued in triathlon into their 70s. It is also why they plan to continue to train and compete in the sport as long as possible.

Who Are Pat and Joan Hogan?

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Pat and Joan, first through email and later over the phone, as they sought to connect with Craig Cross, another senior triathlete whose story appears here.

Dr. Patrick (Pat), DO, and Joan Hogan, RD, are part of the Puget Sound Neurology and Integrative Headache Center in Tacoma, Washington. Their practice is focused on treating movement disorders, migraines, and pain from other sources.

Dr. Hogan, Director of the Center, has spent much of his career treating neurological disorders such as Parkinsons and Dystonias. In fact, the National Parkinson’s Foundation has granted his Parkinson’s treatment program national recognition as a Center of Excellence. 

Joan has been a Registered Dietician for over 30 years. Her specialty within the practice is testing and therapy for delayed food and food additive hypersensitivity. For many individuals, food sensitivity is a source of pain, disease, and discomfort.

Joan has also written a book titled “Nutrition for the Ailing Brain: Your Guide for Parkinson’s Disease and Other Neurological Disorders“.

Both Pat and Joan are active triathletes, having completed various distance triathlons, including half and full Ironman races.

Over 70 Years Combined Competing in Triathlon

The Hogans put into practice in their own lives what they prescribe for their patients – challenging exercise, a healthy diet, and quality sleep. Pat and Joan have a combined experience in endurance training, particularly triathlon, of over 70 years.

Pat completed his first triathlon in 1984 while serving in the Army as a neurologist at Tripler Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii. After completing the Honolulu Marathon, a friend introduced him to triathlon.

Since he enjoyed swimming, biking, and running, Pat chose as his first triathlon an Olympic distance race in Hawaii. He has never looked back.

Joan’s experience is almost as long as Pat’s. She completed her first triathlon, an indoor race, in 1987. Like Pat, she combined her love for swimming, biking, and running as individual sports to take the leap to doing a triathlon.

While she was comfortable in a pool, swimming in the open water, especially in cold water, was another thing. After completing one triathlon involving an open water swim in cold water without a wetsuit, she hit pause on the sport for a while.

However, once Pat and Joan began training together, Pat convinced her to get a wetsuit. This addressed the cold water part of the challenge.

Demonstrating one benefit of training with a partner, Pat also helped Joan “slay the dragon” of her anxiety with the open water.

They completed their first triathlon together about 20 years ago in Ft. Louis, Washington.

Pat and Joan Hogan's 'wall of pain'. They train for and compete in triathlons to support a healthy brain and a healthy heart.
With over 70 combined years in the sport of triathlon, Pat and Joan Hogan have collected many awards and medals.

What is the Relationship Between Exercise and Brain Health?

Much of the benefit of triathlon training, such as improved endurance, improved coordination, and improved speed, occurs through changes in the brain that are then transmitted to the muscles.

According to Pat, a program of challenging physical exercise, such as triathlon training, activates the chemical irisin that is released into the brain. Irisin stimulates Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) which leads to formation of new brain cells. It also produces new connections within the brain. While BDNF naturally decreases with age and stress, it increases with exercise.

These new brain cells and synaptic connections improve brain function and prevent diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.   

Thankfully, the areas of the brain most prone to atrophy, the hippocampus and frontal cortex, are the parts most improved by exercise since exercise-produced BDNF is most concentrated in these areas of the brain.

In humans, robust effects of exercise have been most clearly demonstrated in aging populations, where sustained exercise participation enhances learning and memory, improves executive function, counteracts age-related and disease-related mental decline, and protects against age-related atrophy in brain areas crucial for higher cognitive processes.

Carl W. Cotman, Nicole C. Berchtold and Lori-Ann Christie, Exercise Builds Brain Health: Key Roles of Growth Factor Cascades and Inflammation, Trends in Neurosciences, 30(9):464-72, October 2007.

The Hogan’s Approach to Triathlon Training

The Hogan’s take a holistic view of their triathlon training. Undoubtedly, this comes from melding their professions with the sport.

Their training includes, of course, the physical components related to endurance swimming, biking, and running and to strength training. However, equally important in their training are nutrition and rest.

While many consider nutrition and rest as ‘nice to have’ but not necessarily that important for the overall preparation for a triathlon, these two give equal importance to each of these components

Physical Training

Pat and Joan are self-coached, doing some combination of swimming, biking, and running on six of seven days per week. Today, their training is based on an intermediate Ironman 70.3 program for those over age 50 from TrainingPeaks.

A typical week involves three open water swims in the lake next to their house in Gig Harbor, Washington. A bike or a run, some which take advantage of the hills near their house, often follow these swims. There are also days for the longer, slower run with a few hill repeats added for excitement.

Besides their long bike ride on the weekends, Pat bikes the 18 miles to and from work one day each week.

Include Strength Training for Endurance and Balance

Strength training is important for all triathletes. However, the Hogans have learned first-hand that it becomes even more important as we age.

Joan commented, “I can no longer just go out for a run. I have learned through various people, including physical therapists, that I need to spend the first 20-30 minutes doing exercises to strengthen my hips, hamstrings, and core muscles. Otherwise, ‘things’ breakdown.”

Related Post: Better Balance Makes A Stronger Triathlete

Cross Training for Both Endurance and Brain Health

“To improve the brain, we must continually challenge it. That’s why exercise that requires skilled coordination provides greater brain stimulation,” says Pat Hogan.

“That the brain changes as we challenge it is called neuroplasticity. However, if you do the same thing over and over again, the brain does not have a reason to adapt.”

This is one reason that triathlon, with its three technical sports, along with strength training, supports a healthy brain.

It is even better for our brain health when we combine triathlon training with activities outside endurance sports. Examples include ballroom dancing, music, learning a new language, and golf. (It encouraged me to learn that my brain can also benefit from practicing and playing golf with its challenges.)

Ballroom dancing provides diversity in motion and valuable exercise for their brains. Plus, it’s great fun for Pat and Joan and many couples.

Nutrition for the Senior Triathlete

Led by Joan’s passion for nutrition and brain health, the Hogan’s follow a vegetarian diet. This choice was initially based on environmental and animal welfare concerns. Nutrition was a third reason for choosing to follow this diet.

According to Joan, “No matter what type of diet you choose, your diet must it be high in plants, seven or eight servings of vegetables per day.”

She emphasized it is critical that seniors get enough protein in their diet to offset the trend toward muscle loss with age. The amounts of protein she recommends for seniors are greater than that for the average population.

  • women: at least 30 grams three times per day (plus 50% per meal more while training for an Ironman distance race).
  • men: at least 40 grams three times per day (plus 50% per meal more while training for an Ironman distance race)

Joan recommends consuming some of the protein before exercise, even if only half of that for a complete meal. “A half a banana with a slab of peanut butter or a protein smoothie before exercising is great.”

Here is an interesting point. According to recent research, it may even be more important for women than men to consume carbohydrates and protein before exercise..

Plant-Based Protein

According to Joan, the amounts of protein recommended for senior triathletes are available from plant-based sources. Her ‘go-to’ sources include organic soy (tofu, tempeh, and edamame), seitan (made from wheat gluten), peas, nuts, nut butters, and various beans. The Hogans sometimes supplement plant sources with whey, eggs (from their chickens), and cheese.

She also mentioned that a serving of pasta from chickpeas, black beans, and lentils is high in protein. “One serving of these contains the protein in a piece of meat.”

Joan warns it is more difficult, though not impossible, for those on a vegan diet to get the recommended amounts of protein. “It takes a lot of work to get the required amounts of protein.”

Related Post: What Masters Athletes Need To Know About Nutrition

The Healing Process Called Sleep

During sleep, our cerebral lymphatic system clears out from the brain, toxins and unused proteins generated during the waking hours. In the process, neurotransmitters in the brain are regenerated.

Interestingly, this regeneration only works during sleep, making it an important reason to get enough quality sleep each day.

Cutting sleep short prevents the healing from fully occurring. Complete healing is especially necessary for seniors because we already have a lower ‘neuronal reserve’ on which to rely as we age.

According to Pat and Joan, getting at least eight hours of sleep each day is so important that if you have to choose between sleeping and doing the workout, choose sleep. Don’t cut your sleep short because the benefits of your training will suffer from doing a workout without being adequately rested.

Related Post: Rest and Recovery: Why It’s Important for Senior Triathletes

Start Now and Never Stop!

If you are not doing a challenging exercise, start. That is the impassioned advice from the Hogan’s.

Don’t Wait . . .

“Our brain has a natural trajectory toward loss of balance and slowness of thought, if not actual dementia. The brain requires the medication of exercise to present this from happening. We call this medication Doesital (a term coined by Pat) and with diet, it is Doesital forte.

“Some say they will start later or take a break. We are all paddling upstream on a river, away from waterfalls. Once you go over the waterfalls, you can not go back up. We can avoid this irreversible fall with persistent exercise.”

And, Don’t Stop

Pat and Joan are committed to continuing in the sport of triathlon as long as they can, despite aging bodies.

Some think of our body as a machine with parts that require periodic replacement. However, this is not a correct view, according to Pat.

“Our bodies are much better than machines. Our joints are bio-mechanical, not simply mechanical, which means they adapt to stress and become stronger with use.”

Joan added, “Most problems that result in pain with exercise can be fixed without surgery.”

The author of “Runners Are Less At Risk Of Knee Arthritis Than Sedentary Populations” cites a 2018 paper which concludes:

“veteran marathon runners studied were actually around 50% less likely to develop knee arthritis than the non-runner comparison group.”

The author of this article also cited a paper published in the European Journal of Physiology which documents lower inflammation in knee joint fluid and blood serum following a 30 minute run.

Tips to Avoid Stopping

The Hogans have learned to be consistent with their training – exercise, diet, and rest. Here are tips they offer to help avoid quitting, especially when our body may initially seem to argue against exercising.

1. Make exercise a habit, part of your daily routine

When you have made something a habit, an unconscious part of your life, motivation is no longer required.

How do you make exercise a habit? Pat and Joan say that at the beginning it helps to “embrace some short-term discomfort as a means to longer term comfort”.

2. Train with a partner

The Hogans have the benefit of being each other’s spouse and training partner. They are able to better encourage each other because they understand one another’s schedules and the current demands upon them.

However, there are many other options for supporting senior triathletes on their journey, including Our Community on SeniorTriathletes.com, local triathlon clubs, and live and virtual coaches.

Let us know if you can use some help to find a support group for your triathlon journey.

Triathlon supports a healthy brain.
Pat and Joan Hogan after Ironman Salem. Having your spouse as your training partner for an Ironman distance triathlon solves a few of the challenges of committing to this training program.

3. Add some incentive by signing up for races

Paying the registration fee for a triathlon adds a new level of incentive to prepare for a triathlon. Most of us want to show up to the race knowing we have done what we could to complete the race, earn the t-shirt and finisher medal, and celebrate with other triathletes and our family and friends, even if they are watching from the sidelines – for now.

Final Remarks

Having seen the effects of a sedentary lifestyle and/or poor diet in their practice, Pat and Joan Hogan are on a crusade to convince those over age 50 to get into a habit of combining challenging physical exercise with an appropriate diet and quality sleep – for their body and their brain.

A little, short-term discomfort during exercise leads to a more comfortable life physically and a clearer mind. Besides, the training improves our thoughts of gratitude, confidence, positive attitude, hope, and inspiration that expand to all aspects of our daily life. 

Further Reading Related to Brain Health

Following are sources of additional information about the relationship between “challenging exercise” and brain health provided by Pat Hogan.

Books

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey MD and Eric Hagerman.

The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel.

Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement by Katy Bowman.

Articles

How Exercise Benefits Brain Health by Vernon Williams, MD; US News & World Report.

4 Key Features of a “Sports Brain” by Vernon Williams, MD

Have Questions or Thoughts for Pat and Joan?

Share your questions and comments in the Comments section below.

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How A Coach Can Help Throughout Your Triathlon Journey

Triathlon coaches have helped many senior triathletes navigate their triathlon journey. This is true for first timers, competitive master triathletes with decades of experience, and those in between.

After rejoining Lifetime Fitness during our visit to Minnesota this summer, I sat down with Cheryl Zitur, personal trainer and senior triathlete, to get her thoughts on several triathlon training-related questions, most of which have come from members of our community over the past months.

About Cheryl Zitur

Before I dive into sharing Cheryl’s thoughts on how a triathlon coach can help you along your triathlon journey, let me tell you a bit about her.

Cheryl came to triathlon with a background in competitive swimming during high school and college. At age 41, she trained for and completed her first sprint triathlon, the Buffalo Triathlon (Buffalo, Minnesota).

This first triathlon reignited the competitive spirit from her swimming days. After a couple of years competing in triathlon, Cheryl began exploring ways of training that would improve her performance and make her more competitive. Within two years, Cheryl experienced her first age group win.

It was time for a new goal, one that eventually led to her winning her first triathlon at age 49.

With a more effective approach to training, Cheryl was on a roll. She went on to win 18 more triathlons as a senior triathlete.

Along the way, Cheryl started training for longer distance triathlons, including Olympic, IRONMAN 70.3, and IRONMAN. It was at the beginning of this part of her triathlon journey that Cheryl first hired a coach to help her train for the longer distance races.

In 2013, Cheryl left her career in accounting to become a personal trainer, triathlon coach, and, more recently, coach of the Masters swim group at Lifetime Fitness in Maple Grove, Minnesota.

Today, Cheryl is a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT), Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES), and Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) with certifications from NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine). She is also a Level 1 USAT Triathlon coach and IRONMAN Certified Coach.

During the summer, Cheryl also runs an 8-week kids triathlon club for girls and boys ages 8 to 14. The goal of the club is to introduce young people to the sport of triathlon.

Navigating Life While Continuing With Triathlon

Many triathlons double as fundraisers for causes that help others, young and old, locally and across the world. Cheryl has demonstrated this spirit while continuing her triathlon journey.

In 2016, a year before completing her first IRONMAN triathlon, Cheryl donated one of her kidneys to her oldest son. While being a lifesaver for her son, donating her kidney has not hindered her performance or ability to remain active in triathlon.

Cheryl encourages others – triathletes and everyone else – to consider being a living donor and to check the donor box when the opportunity presents itself.

Triathlon As A Journey

Some seniors complete a triathlon, check this off their bucket list, and move on to the next item.

However, it is far more common that the first-time triathlete becomes ‘hooked’ on the sport. Triathlon is just the motivation needed for them to train consistently and maintain a healthy lifestyle, so they continue to compete.

Many who continue with triathlon do so with new goals. These include getting faster and going longer distances.

What I heard from Cheryl, who has been on her own triathlon journey as well as helped others on theirs, is that a coach can help triathletes at the various stages along the way.

I love helping people get to the finish line.

Cheryl Zitur

Coaching for First Time Triathletes

If you can swim, bike, and run, you are starting your triathlon journey from a good place. But you are not there yet. Triathlon is more than swimming, biking, and running as individual sports.

If you doubt this, go for a 45 minute fast paced bike ride. Then, immediately after getting off the bike, go for a 3-mile run.

How do you feel? A little wierd?

A triathlon coach will help you learn to run after the bike leg.

A coach will also help the first-timer prepare for the inevitable chaos that every triathlete faces during an open water swim start. He/she will also help the new triathlete plan the swim-to-bike and bike-to-run transitions.

A triathlon coach will show beginners how to put together the various pieces of a triathlon and complete distances in each sport back-to-back at a pace matching their level of fitness.

Helping You Become More Confident

Chances are you have one leg of the triathlon in which you are weaker than the other two.

From your questions, swimming is that leg for many of you. This is especially true when the swim is in open water. This is also Cheryl’s experience with the beginner triathletes she coaches.

Having come from a background of competitive swimming, Cheryl leads a Masters swim class in which new swimmers and swimmers who lack confidence can pick up the basic skills for swimming. Along the way, they become more confident.

She also leads a group, many of these triathletes, who head out into the open water once each week. By swimming in various conditions, triathletes gain the confidence to tackle the swim leg no matter the conditions.

Cheryl also advises her students to use a wetsuit, that is, if the water temperature is within a range where USAT rules allow use of a wetsuit. A wetsuit will cover a multitude of swimming ‘sins’ by keeping the body and legs high in the water.

While a coach cannot guarantee your confidence, they will help you be more prepared for the unknowns.

Coaching For a Longer Distance Triathlon

Many triathletes progress to compete in longer distance races. You can find many such stories on this site.

Related Posts:

A progression from sprint to Olympic to half or full IRONMAN is common, even among those in their 60s, 70s, and beyond. Cheryl appreciates the differences between training for and racing in the varying distances, having completed all of them, from sprint to IRONMAN.

What seems to be a small step in going from the sprint to the Olympic distance, especially when you consider IRONMAN distances, turns out to not be so small.

Nutrition is huge for any race over two and a half hours long.

Cheryl Zitur, Lifetime Fitness

For sprint distance triathlons, the winning approach involves going more or less all out (Zone 4 in a triathlon coach’s language) for the entire race. However, each longer distance brings additional considerations.

For example, compared to the sprint distance, the Olympic distance triathlon introduces another dimension to the training and race plan – nutrition consumed during the race. And longer distances each bring new challenges. For example, training for a full IRONMAN triathlon often requires 12 to 14 hours per week during the last months.

A coach with the education and personal experience of training for and racing in the various distances seems essential, especially for the IRONMAN races.

According to Cheryl, finishing IRONMAN Wisconsin in 2017 is one of the top 10 highlights of her life.

Coaching for Better Performance With Age

Once you have witnessed the awards ceremony at a triathlon and decided to continue competing, you will probably want to be faster.

It’s possible. Some triathletes deliver their best performance later in their triathlon careers. They are faster now than they were ten years ago.

So, you want to be on the podium some day. How do you get there?

There are a lot of books on triathlon training you can read. The internet is full of material as well. However, many seniors realize that most of the literature in print or on the internet assumes a younger triathlete, at least someone 40 years or younger.

But the needs of our community differ significantly from the younger triathletes.

According to Cheryl, the most important difference between coaching a 30-year-old triathlete and a 60 to 70-year-old triathlete is the need for recovery. Older athletes are more prone to injury and therefore require more time for recovery between hard training sessions.

As noted in Rest and Recovery: Why It’s Important for Senior Triathletes, recovery does not mean retiring to the sofa. Cheryl prescribes active recovery, including yoga and other forms of stretching that develop core strength and balance.

Smarter Training for Senior Triathletes

Balancing training and recovery is part of what Cheryl calls ‘smart training’. This is her focus with all the endurance athletes she coaches.

The training often begins with a treadmill test to measure an individual’s heart rate versus running pace. From this, she will define the person’s four heart rate zones, which are used as the basis for an individual’s specific training plan.

The training plan she prepares will include the right mix of training within the various heart rate zones. A typical schedule will include about 80% of the training time in heart rate zones 1 and 2 for building aerobic base fitness and one workout per week in each of zones 3 and 4 for cardiovascular fitness.

The training schedule will also include strength training (an important element of training that is often the first to be cut by most triathletes), active recovery, and rest.

Finally, a triathlon coach will also help with specific issues, such as bike handling or the swim stroke, based on the triathlete’s needs.

Conclusion

Reflecting on my conversation with Cheryl Zitur, I wondered if, by remaining self-coached, I have missed an opportunity to become a stronger competitor.

A triathlon coach can help the beginner triathlete prepare and complete their first triathlon. Beyond this, a coach can guide the triathlete to new goals, whether it is to longer distance races, higher performance and competitiveness, or both.

Do You Use A Triathlon Coach? Why?

What are your thoughts about hiring a triathlon coach? Or maybe a coach for one of the legs, for example swimming? Share your thoughts and questions in the Comments below.

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?

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