Balance in Training Intensity for Senior Triathletes

Finding the right balance in the intensity of your triathlon training will make training more enjoyable, lead to greater consistency, and produce better results.

Training Intensity for the Over-50 Triathlete

A few months ago, I listened to separate podcasts with Phil Maffetone and with Coach Parry. Both made the point that senior endurance athletes are more likely overtraining than undertraining or training too easy.

Had you watched me as I listened to these, you would have seen my head nodding in agreement.

Their comments were in line with the results of our 2021 survey of senior triathletes. Respondents to the survey indicated that ‘injury or illness’ is the second greatest challenge for triathlon. Certainly, overtraining is a major contributor to injury and illness.

So, training at the right intensity is something many of us think about. But, how do we get it right?

I hope to answer this question – and hear from you on this subject – through this post.

“Training in its simplest form is a balancing act. [T]he goal is to simultaneously build and develop seemingly opposing forces. In the world of distance running, we need to balance speed versus endurance, strength versus efficiency, and flexibility versus stiffness, to name a few.”

Steve Magness in “The Science of Running“, p. 160 (2014).

What Is Meant By Overtraining?

In the two years before adopting the MAF-180 training method, I found myself in a vicious cycle. One day, I would train hard, trying to make up for the last session which I had skipped or shortened. This was typically followed by two or more days of no training to recover from soreness or injury and from excessive fatigue.

Overtraining is caused by training at too high an intensity, one involving more stress than our body can handle given its level of fitness, strength, recovery, and other ‘stuff’ happening during this time. Early symptoms of overtraining include prolonged muscle soreness, laboring to complete routines that would typically be possible, and/or several days of sub-par performance.

Generally, the problem is solved by a few days to a week of low intensity training (walking, slow jogging or biking) and extra rest. However, continued pain or sluggishness with other symptoms, such as insomnia, loss of interest in training, and headaches, is cause for seeing a physician.

Is It Possible To Undertrain?

Yes, it is possible to undertrain, though it is not common.

As a reference, I define ‘undertraining’ as training at a volume and/or intensity that is not sufficient for completing the distances of a multisport event in a reasonable time. For example, if you are competing in an Ironman 140.6 triathlon, you must train for completing the 2.4 mile swim in the allotted time. And, you must have enough energy left to complete the bike and run legs.

Looking at it another way, you will undertrain for an Ironman triathlon if you only train at sprint triathlon distances.

What Is The Right Balance?

This question reminded me of an email discussion I had with Laurent Labbe, a Senior Triathlete who lives halfway around the world from me in Asia.

Laurent told me about a meeting he had with a supplier whose manager was formerly a professional cyclist. During lunch, the two of them, both over the age of 50, discussed the difficulties in finding a group or club with which to train. Both found young people to be too fast and people their age to generally be too slow.

In the end, these two guys agreed that the right balance was to train at a pace that represented a “reasonable effort”.  

At the most basic level, the top two keys to achieving the right balance, or “reasonable effort”, in training are:

  1. Progressing modestly when increasing training stress. In this context, distance, speed, and weight being lifted are all measures of training stress. Here is where the 10% rule of thumb should come into play. The ‘10% rule’ tells us to never increase the level of stress by more than 10% from one session to the next.
  2. Recovering properly between sessions. Recovery is probably the most under-utilized training tool in our arsenal. It involves rest as well as hydration and nutrition, everything needed to allow our bodies to adapt to and strengthen from the stress applied during the previous training session.

Don’t Ignore Other Sources of Stress That Affect Training Balance

The above two keys to balanced training assume that the major stress during training comes from the intensity of the activity. However, as Steve Magness points out in “The Science of Running“, there are a host of other factors that contribute to total stress.

These additional sources of stress include environmental (ambient temperature, humidity, altitude) and physical (hydration, type and availability of energy sources, sleep quality) factors. Life events such as travel, family and work related issues, and other commitments also add stress.

Put into a mathematical format, balance is:

   St = Sr + Se = Rt, where   

St = Total stress during training
Sr = Stress from training routine
Se = Stress from external sources
Rt = Recovery from total stress after training

How I Have Found The Right Balance

I mentioned earlier about the vicious cycle of overtraining and long recovery that my training had become. Over the past two years, I have found that training with a heart rate monitor in a range defined by the MAF-180 method for the bike and run has forced me to train at a lower intensity. It also corrects for additional stressors during a particular workout.

This more “reasonable effort” has made training more fun. As a result, I train more frequently and have avoided injury caused by overtraining. As the post titled “Training to Train – Building Aerobic Fitness for Senior Triathletes” documents, I have also seen steady improvements in fitness.

Before leaving this question, I have two more suggestions for the 50+ triathlete from my experiences.

First, avoid setting too aggressive a schedule for training for your next race. A related suggestion is to not try making up for lost time should you be forced to temporarily suspend your training for whatever reason.

The Right Balance In Training Is Not Static

The ‘just right’ amount of training will also vary day to day.

Think about these questions:

  • How hard did you train yesterday? What amount of muscle damage resulted from this session?
  • How well did you rehydrate and refuel after this workout?
  • What was the quality of sleep last night?
  • What is the weather (temperature, humidity) where you will be training today?
  • Did you hear any alarming news this morning?
  • How are you feeling today?

The answers to these will help determine how hard you should train on a given day.

The definition of “reasonable effort” also changes over time as you become more fit.

I recall a conversation with Paul Zellner while I was discussing his experience with triathlon. Paul mentioned that he has found it necessary to push himself with age. He said that he felt that he was often training at too easy a level.

Paul is a multiple marathon and Ironman triathlon finisher. He is also currently active in these sports. Therefore, it is not surprising that his definition of “reasonable effort” has changed as his fitness increases.

How To Know If You Are Training ‘Just Right’

There are various ways to monitor your training stress and recovery between sessions. These range from the simple and free to complicated and expensive.

TrainingPeaks, for example, provides users a way to rank their session using feeling (from frowning to smiling face) and a 1 to 10 ranking of perceived exertion. While I am not a fan of these qualitative rankings, they are accessible to everyone. They can also highlight trouble, especially when feeling or perceived exertion suddenly changes.

Resting heart rate is a more quantitative, yet still accessible, measurement. One member of The Villages Triathlon Club told me that he measures his heart rate upon waking each morning. If the measured rate on a particular day is more than 10% above the typical value, he will reduce the intensity of his training for that day.

This approach has support from the author of a post on the ANT+ website titled “By The Numbers – What Your Heart Rate Monitor Is Telling You“. The author writes “If you see a rise of 10 percent or more in your resting heart rate it may indicate that you are fatigued, emotionally stressed or your immune system has been weakened.”

Other Metrics For Training Recovery

If you wish to dig deeper into this subject, you can look at other tests and measurements for assessing the level of recovery. These include:

  • Measuring heart rate variability (HRV)
  • Measuring ground contact time – uses a foot pod power meter such as one produced by Stryd
  • Blood tests for creatine kinase and cortisol levels (generally used for elite and professional athletes)

The first two are available with additional equipment or sensors. However, the latter (blood tests) are most likely beyond the need of amateur athletes.

How Do You Know When You Are Training At The Right Intensity?

What metric or approach do you use to judge if you are training too hard or too easy? Leave your comments below.

Bright Spots in Triathlon From COVID Restrictions

I will confess that I have done my share of complaining about changes over the past year. After all, the COVID restrictions turned my triathlon schedule for 2020 upside down.

Of course, that this is one of my biggest complaints means I have nothing serious about which to grumble. This doesn’t stop me from trying, however.

Knowing that I should learn to accept what I cannot change and not complain, I started thinking of the good that has arisen from these changes.

In this post, I have listed the three I see most clearly. You probably have others. Please add them to the comments at the end.

‘Do all things without complaining or arguments.’

Philippians 2:14

Running on Different Surfaces

Running on uneven surfaces is beneficial for strengthening a wider range of muscles in the feet, ankles, legs, and core. It is also good for improving balance. According to one source, off-road running lowers the risk of injury compared to road running.

Related post: Better Balance Makes for a Stronger Triathlete

During recent restrictions, some governments required a mask to be worn when within 6 feet of another person not from within your household. In these situations, I found it simpler to run on trails and grassy park areas away from the sidewalks where pedestrians and leisure walkers travel.

Training without a mask may mean avoiding people. The solution? Run where the people are not.

Training More Aerobically

If you are like most of us, you train differently when people are watching compared to when you are alone. At least one study has shown the power of training with others. Group classes and training partners tend to drive us to train harder.

This can be good.

However, if our goal is to train slowly, then training with a group can cause us to train harder than we ought.

On the other hand, when no one is watching, we are comfortable training more slowly, more aerobically. We can also train with lower weights and more repetitions when no one is watching.

Having the freedom to train aerobically and with lighter weights is good because it protects us from injury.

Shunning the Mass Swim Start

Ask most triathletes and they will tell you that one of the least pleasant parts of triathlon is the mass swim start. You can feel as if you are being attacked by other swimmers as each jockey for position. It is only in the triathlon mass start that swimming can become a contact sport.

One way race directors are creating more space between triathletes is through the time-trial swim start. With this type start, swimmers enter the water at 5 to 10-second intervals. This extends space between racers in the swim which carries over to each of the other legs.

Related post: Triathlon Across the USA: State #42 – Arkansas with time trial swim start.

What Are Positive Changes Over the Past Year?

Are there changes to triathlon from COVID restrictions over the past year that you see as positive? I would appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Leave your comments below.

Four Symptoms of Impatience In Triathlon Training

Triathletes are a motivated, driven group. However, we can often be guilty of impatience when training for a triathlon as we strive to become faster or go longer distances.

Younger athletes can get by with more impatience and carelessness in their triathlon training. However, older athletes are less tolerant to training errors. Recovery from training related injuries is longer. Some injuries may even be career ending.

Patience Is A Virtue Especially in Training

When I hear of patience, I am often reminded of the phrase ‘patience is a virtue’.

There are various thoughts on the origin of this phrase. Some attribute it to the early fifth century poem by Prudentius titled Psychomachia. Others credit William Langford in his 14th century poem Piers Plowman.

Students of the Bible can also make a case for this truth being taught in the Old Testament (BC) and the first century church. Old and New Testament verses, including Proverbs 16:32, Ecclesiastes 7:8-9, Isaiah 30:18, and Galatians 5:22-23, teach that patience is not only good, but a source of blessing.

That ‘patience is a virtue’ is timeless. This idea has been passed down through the ages because it is true, including for triathlon training.

What Does Impatience In Triathlon Training Look Like?

You know the feeling during a game of Taboo when the hourglass timer is running out of sand and your partner is contemplating a clue for the challenge word?

That’s the feeling of impatience. But it has nothing to do with triathlon.

However, the following thoughts, mostly based on experience, do apply to triathlon training. They are examples of how impatience can rear its ugly head in training.

1. Going Too Hard Too Soon

My run training has suffered over the past few winter months. Gyms require masks throughout the visit, something I cannot and will not do while running. On top of this, it’s too cold for me to run outside.

So, when I traveled to a warm climate for a few weeks this winter, I was ready to run.

I have lost count of the number of times I have strained a muscle or been too sore the next day to run. On this trip, however, I pledged to exercise patience.

During the first two weeks, I resisted running too fast, instead sticking to aerobic base building described in a recent post.

Sure enough, I saw the results I had hoped for. After two weeks of aerobic training, I was ready to introduce some intervals and long runs.

Patience is important because the quickest path to injury is to do too much too quickly.

2. Buying the Latest Gadget, Supplement, Or Gear To Make You Faster

Our sport has caught the attention of some brilliant marketers. Many promise that the latest supplement, pair of shoes, bike wheels, or gadget will make us faster.

During the earlier days of my triathlon journey, I succumbed to these messages. I still have some of these items in my closet, which I no longer use.

Of course, we need some basic gear to be competitive. For example, a heart rate monitor has made my training more effective by forcing me to ‘go slow’ while I build aerobic fitness.

Also, swapping my 18-speed Giant hybrid bike, which I used in my first triathlon, for a properly fitted, entry level triathlon specific bike (tri-bike) has made a tremendous difference in my bike times. Most of the improvement from the bike came from the difference in gearing between the two bikes.

After this, I quickly experience the law of diminishing returns. Gear that will help a younger, professional athlete shave seconds from his/her time is unnecessary for me, an amateur triathlete who is solely competing in the sport for fun and as a focus for staying physically fit.

For most of beginner triathletes, spending a week’s wages to shave weight from the bike will have less impact on our bike times than strengthening the relevant muscles or losing a few pounds.

That’s not just my idea. While writing this post, I received an email with a link to a TrainingPeaks article titled You Need a Stronger Body, Not a Better Bike.

The article summed up my sentiments. Most of us will get the greatest gains in performance from increasing our strength and endurance, not from spending on the latest fad or buying more expensive equipment.

3. Not Resting Properly or Enough

In a post on a rest and recovery for senior triathletes, Jim Chapman shared the benefits he has seen from increasing the amount of rest he gets. The patience to listen to your body or, in Jim’s case to his coach, is rewarded in the long run.

Driving ourselves too hard without proper rest can quickly lead to injury or, at a minimum, poorer results from the training.

Rest does not have to mean sitting on the couch watching movies. Cross-training that allows hard-worked muscles to repair can provide rest without sacrificing fitness.

Patience leads to a well recovered, adaptable body.

4. Not Sticking With Your Plan

If you are self-coached, like me, you may relate to this one. There are many free (e.g. library books, blog posts) or inexpensive resources for developing a triathlon training plan.

However, when improvement is slow, there is a tendency to change the plan frequently, even in small ways.

Then, if you are training alone, without a partner or as part of a group, the pressure to tweak the plan can be overwhelming.

There can be legitimate reasons to change a plan, especially if it is not working. However, we don’t want to be the proverbial dog who jumps when he hears the word ‘squirrel’.

Patience gives a solid plan a chance to produce results.

Patience Truly Is A Virtue In Triathlon Training

If you are beginning, patience is vital to improving your performance and gaining confidence while minimizing the risk of injury.

If you are an experienced triathlete, patience is a vital ingredient to training that leads to stronger performance. Patience leads to a strong finish.

Finishing is better than starting. Patience is better than pride.

Ecclesiastes 7:8

How Does Impatience Appear In Your Training?

What have you learned about patience during training?

Are there parts of your training with which you struggle in your training?

 

Six Principles of Triathlon Training for Seniors

Triathlon training must change as we age to reflect the changes in our bodies. The consequences of improper training can be career-ending. Following an approach that recognizes six principles of triathlon training for seniors age 50 and over will ensure strong performance.

Meanwhile, many of the questions I receive indicate that most triathlon training programs do not consider the changes that occur with aging. This post is the beginning of an effort to address age-related needs for the senior triathlete.

Introduction

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

In one report, VO2 max, an indicator of the size of one’s athletic engine, was measured for elite athletes of various ages.  The study showed a linear decline with age for athletes from age 18 to 103. No ‘cliff ‘ in performance was observed.

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

How Should Triathlon Training Change for Seniors?

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

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

Physiological Changes with Age

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

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

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

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

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

The Aging Musculoskeletal System

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

More frequent muscle strains and joint pain also result from reduced muscle mass and strength and increased stiffness. For example, knee pain, sometimes incorrectly attributed to osteoarthritis, often highlights weak quadriceps. Constant knee pain can also lead to mobility issues, for which many people may need to opt for Knee Replacement surgery. Also, shoulder pain in swimming is often a consequence of ignoring the smaller muscles responsible for joint stability. Finally, hip injuries are often rooted in stiffness and weakness of the core and gluteal muscles.

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

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

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

Ryan Hall from Run the Mile You’re In 

Our Cardiovascular System and Aging

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

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

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

Aging and Nutrition

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

As reported in “What Masters Athletes Need To Know About Nutrition“, the physiological changes that take place with age mean that we need “fewer (net of exercise) calories, higher amounts of protein, and greater amounts of key nutrients”. We also need to pay close attention to staying hydrated which can be accomplished through choices of food and drink.

Principles of Training for Senior Triathletes

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

More Stretching

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

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

Stretching the entire body prevents imbalances. For example, in my early days of running, I was religious about stretching my hamstrings after running. However, I was not as diligent about stretching my quadriceps.

A chiropractor who diagnosed my knee pain pointed to the imbalance in flexibility in these two muscles. After a short time of consistent stretching of my quadriceps, the knee pain disappeared.

Related post: Optimal Stretching Pre and Post Workout

Proper Strength Training

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

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

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

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

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

Leveraging High-Intensity Interval Training

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

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

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

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

Related post: Why Senior Triathletes Should Use Interval Training

Getting Enough Rest

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

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

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

Staying Hydrated

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

Nutrition – Eating Enough of the Right Food

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

Related post: What Masters Athletes Need To Know About Nutrition

What Is Your Experience?

Please share your questions and comments below.

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

How have you adjusted your training with age?

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

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