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How A Coach Can Help Throughout Your Triathlon Journey

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 You Choose Your Triathlon Distance Based On Body Type?

Should You Choose Your Triathlon Distance Based On Body Type?

Does your body type make you better suited to compete at a particular triathlon distance? Are you better suited for sprint triathlons or for Ironman distance races?

I started wondering about this after finishing a difficult training run recently. This post summarizes what I learned while looking for an answer to this question.

In Search of the Ideal Triathlon Distance

Most of you know there are triathlons in a wide range of distances – from super sprint to full Ironman 140.6. If you want to learn more, check out this post.

Over the past several years writing for SeniorTriathletes.com, I have spoken with many triathletes age 50 and over. Some have done sprint and Olympic distance races. Many have done Ironman triathlons. Some have even done ultra-endurance events.

I remembered a conversation I had with a man, an Ironman triathlete, after the New Mexico triathlon. While waiting for the awards ceremony after this triathlon, he told me he preferred Ironman triathlons over sprint triathlons. In fact, he disliked sprint triathlons, which was the reason he had not done this race.

Why? Because in a sprint triathlon, he felt pressure to push harder, that is, to literally sprint during the entire race.

Then, I remembered my conversation with Ironman Craig Cross. Craig believed his body was better suited for weightlifting than triathlon. Yet, he was doing Ironman triathlons.

I wondered if my body makeup made me better suited for sprint triathlons than the longer, endurance-based Ironman races. Or was my experience just a result of my training and the time I devoted to it?

Can Somatotyping Link Body Type and Ideal Triathlon Distance?

To answer this question, I turned to the internet.

Here, I learned of another field of sports medicine and research involving the characterization of body type and correlation of body type to performance in various sports.

Interestingly, I found that many fitness trainers use somatotyping to tailor an individual’s training program to achieve a body type best suited for their particular sport.

Definitions

A few definitions will be helpful in following the information in this post and in your own research should you choose to go further into this topic.

Somatotypes – categories into which individual bodies are categorized according to their shape. A typical somatotype will include a ratio of each of the following three basic body types:

  • Ectotype characterized by a long and lean frame with little body fat and little muscle (think: super model).
  • Mesomorph types have greater than average muscular development and, generally, a medium frame. Those with this type develop muscles easily and have more muscle than fat on their bodies. American football lineman are predominantly of this body type.
  • Endomorph types have a higher percentage of body fat and less muscle mass. Endomorphs are often heavier and have rounder bodies. However, this does not mean they are obese, though they gain weight more easily.

Anthropometry is the systematic study and characterization of human body measurements. As illustrated in this paper, the characterization of body type involves a complex set of measurements and calculations based on these measurements. The output is a score that includes a rating that represents the proportion of each of the three body types – ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph – in an individual.

Body composition is a measure of the relative amounts of fat, bone, muscle, and water that make up one’s body. It is a more useful indicator of health than weight.

Body Type Affects Sports Performance

Sports medicine research has repeatedly documented that body type affects performance in sports. For example, the body type of elite athletes varies between sports, as shown in this study comparing the body types of elite kayakers, football (soccer) players, and basketball players.

“Several studies have shown that body composition is related to higher performance in endurance sports, especially in sports where athletes must transport their body weight. Thus, for each kg of extra weight in the trunk, aerobic demand increases by 1%, and for each additional kg in the legs, aerobic demand increases by 10%.”

These studies have shown that a body type that reflects less weight based on fat mass leads to higher performance in sports that require endurance. This is especially true for sports that involve a lot of running. Less fat corresponds to higher VO2max values.

A big body type that is ectomorphic or mesomorphic is going to be much better at sprinting as these traits make people much stronger.

Shorter runners with thin body types tend to make better long-distance runners than taller runners as long and large legs make it difficult to lift and propel a body forward. Shorter strides and less weight tend to lead to greater speeds over long distances. 

What Is The Perfect Body Type For Running

What About Body Type and Triathlon Performance?

Results of a study published in the European Journal of Sports Science concluded that body type is a significant factor for male Ironman triathletes while not one for their female counterparts.

This study, based on competitors of Ironman Switzerland, concluded that the ideal somatotype for male Ironman triathletes is 1.7-4.9-2.8 (ectomorph-mesomorph-endomorph). Somatotype (body type) contributed to 28.6% of the variation in Ironman times.

“The endomorphy component was the most substantial predictor. Reductions in endomorphy by one standard deviation as well as an increased ectomorphy value by one standard deviation lead to significant and substantial improvement in Ironman performance (28.1 and 29.8 minutes, respectively).”

Similarily, an article titled “Physical and physiological factors associated with success in the triathlon” reported:

“Elite triathletes are generally tall, of average to light weight and have low levels of body fat, a physique which provides the advantages of large leverage and an optimal power to surface area or weight ratio.”

Other researchers have drawn similar conclusions from studies of body type and triathlon performance. In Changes in Triathletes’ Performance and Body Composition During a Specific Training Period for a Half-Ironman Race, the authors included from their review of prior research, “Body composition is also related to performance in endurance sports, including triathlons. An excess of body weight is especially disadvantageous in the run segment”.

The consensus appears to be that excess body fat correlates to lower VO2max, which leads to lower performance in endurance races, like triathlons.

Performance is Not Just About Body Type

The authors of Kenyan and Ethiopian Distance Runners: What Makes Them so Good? help us see that athletic performance is more than just about genetics. Environmental factors such as diet, the location in which one lives (in this case, altitude), and the culture (active from a young age) influenced the runner’s body type.

The study also highlighted psychological influences within culture that have led to the dominance of this group in distance running.

You Can Change Your Body Type Through Training and Diet

The study involving Ironman Switzerland triathletes mentioned earlier also concluded:

“Athletes not having an ideal somatotype of 1.7-4.9-2.8 could improve their performance by altering their somatotype. Lower rates in endomorphy, as well as higher rates in ectomorphy, resulted in a significant better race performance.”

How does one change their body type? In part, through training and diet.

The National Association of Sports Medicine (NASM), which provides training and certification for personal trainers, nutrition coaches, and many other fitness-related disciplines, provides recommendations for training and diet based on body type.

While your genetics may predispose you to a general body type that works against being an elite triathlete, you can change your body composition and type to improve your performance.

Reducing weight by reducing body fat is the first place to start. Developing upper body muscles for swimming and lower body muscles for the bike and run will lead to further improvement.

Is There An Ideal Triathlon Distance For Your Body Type?

I encourage first-time triathletes to first do a sprint triathlon. If you are like me, you fall in love with this distance and continue with it. However, many others aspire to longer distance triathlons.

Barring physical limitations that prevent you from training for a desired distance, you can go after your goal. It’s a matter of priority, of commitment.

You might not be the highest performing triathlete in your age group. However, neither you nor I can use body type as an excuse for not going after a triathlon goal.

What Triathlon Distance Do You Prefer? Why?

Let us know in the Comments (below) your favorite triathlon or other endurance sport distance and why you prefer it.

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?

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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