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Balance in Training Intensity for Senior Triathletes

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 degree of 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

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

by Terry VanderWert 0 Comments
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.

Patience in spending on supplements, sensors, and equipment is valuable. There are no shortcuts in triathlon training. Consistency and discipline win the race.

 

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?

 

Better Balance Makes A Stronger Triathlete

Better Balance Makes A Stronger Triathlete

Does better balance make for a stronger triathlete? I believe it does.

In the post titled “Triathlon Bike Training When You Can’t Ride Outside” published last month, I wrote about my upcoming skate skiing lesson. Why skate skiing? Because it is great cross-training for the bike leg of triathlon.

I completed the lesson, finishing with a game plan from the instructor for further developing my skate skiing technique. Before the second, solo outing with the skate skis, I watched a few videos with drills for beginners.

The videos reinforced what I had learned during the lesson, that skate skiing requires much better balance than classic cross country skiing. Before moving from the practice area to the course, I must learn to balance while gliding on one ski longer than I am currently able.

How do I improve my balance? That is the question I have been trying to answer and the subject of this post.

What is Balance?

According to the non-profit VeDA, “Balance is achieved and maintained by a complex set of sensorimotor control systems that include sensory input from vision (sight), proprioception (touch), and the vestibular system (motion, equilibrium, spatial orientation); integration of that sensory input; and motor output to the eye and body muscles.”

Essentially, balance involves the following three processes:

  1. Signals from inputs (eyes, ears, touch, etc.) travel to and are processed by the brain.
  2. Signals from the brain travel to the muscles required to maintain balance.
  3. These muscles contract as needed to stabilize the body.

For good balance, these processes must occur quickly and efficiently.

Yoga is one way to develop better balance and become a stronger triathlete.
Yoga is one way to develop better balance. Practicing poses like the one shown produces better balance and makes for a stronger triathlete. Picture from Jessica Perkins.

How Does Age Affect Balance?

Balance tends to decline with age, beginning as early as age 40. According to the USA’s National Institutes of Health, a problem with balance is among the most common reasons older adults seek help from a doctor. 

Poor balance can have many causes. These include disease, loss of eyesight, reaction to medications, changes in the skeletal system, and loss of muscle strength and joint flexibility.

Muscle strength is key to balance for a healthy, active adult. Strong muscles allow the signals from the brain to produce quick response. Conversely, if muscles are weak, they may not be able to provide adequate or fast enough response to maintain balance.

The foot, which can also change with age, is critical to balance. Even a relatively minor change, such as growth of a bunion, has been shown to affect balance.

Posture, which affects one’s center of gravity, often becomes poorer with age through loss of core muscle strength. If our body’s center of gravity is not directly over the support position, we are not balanced. With poor posture, we are less stable and more likely to fall.

How Can Balance Be Improved?

Assuming no other medical conditions, balance is primarily related to the neuromuscular system. Therefore, the current training program can be modified to (1) strengthen any overlooked muscles that affect balance and (2) train the nervous system.

Sensory systems

According to an article on the NESTA (National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association) website, adaptation of the nervous system occurs more quickly than does building of muscle mass. Early in a strength training program, the ability to lift greater weight is due more to adaptation of the nervous system than to increase in muscle mass.

The Law of Facilitation is in play when a signal from the brain to a muscle or set of muscles passes through a given pathway, excluding other paths. As the movement is repeated, the resistance in the ideal path becomes progressively smaller with the number of repetitions. The body continues to adapt and respond more efficiently until the movement becomes automatic.

Through this process of adaptation, we are creating what is often called ‘muscle memory‘. Through practice, even complex movements are made with little or no conscious effort.

Muscle strength

Several posts, including Six Principles of Triathlon Training for Seniors, document that the rate of muscle loss increases with age. Our goal is to reduce the rate of muscle loss. As noted earlier, one component of a program to improve balance is to strengthen the muscles affecting balance.

While the focus of most strength training for triathlon is the larger muscles (gluteus maximus, hamstring, quadriceps), smaller muscles (gluteus medius, soleus) are often ignored and lose strength without us realizing it.

Since these smaller muscles are important for stabilizing the hip and knee when standing on one leg, they are important for balance and, therefore, skate skiing and ice skating as well as biking and running.

Posture

My wife is a stickler for good posture. After many years of ignoring her comments about my posture, I now encourage her to point out when I am slouching or not sitting tall. She relishes the assignment and is quite good at it.

Exercises To Develop Better Balance and Become a Stronger Triathlete

Through a ski instructor, physical therapist, and several websites, I have developed a routine that I expect will lead to better balance for skate skiing.

The following series of exercises is performed three days per week. They are add-ons to regular strength training, which includes a series of five core strengthening exercises and a new exercise targeting the gluteus medius.

Single leg balance

Skitrax has produced a video demonstrating three ‘dry land’ drills for improving balance. The video shows these drills; I have added the duration for each set.

  • Single leg stand – stand on one leg with the knee bent slightly and the other leg off the ground and stationary. Hold for one minute on each leg. Once this becomes too easy with your eyes fixed on a point in the distance, try it with your eyes open but looking to your right or left. Then try it with your eyes closed.
  • Single leg swing – stand on one leg with the knee bent slightly and the other leg swinging forward and backward. Move your arms in combination with your leg. Repeat one minute on each leg.
  • Single leg dip – stand on one leg with the other out to the side, then bend the knee of the leg on which you are balancing to dip down and return to standing upright with your knee bent slightly. Repeat for one minute on each leg for 10-15 repetitions.
  • Single leg hop scotch – hop on one leg, landing inside an array of five real or imaginary rings and return backward to the start. Switch legs and repeat. Maintain standing balance at the end of each repetition.

Expect these to become easier as your body adapts to the position and the stabilizing muscles become stronger.

Single leg forward jump and hold

To even more closely mimic the movements in skate skiing than those of the single leg hop scotch, Peter from McBike & Sport suggests hopping forward and out onto one foot and holding this position for one to two seconds to simulate maintaining balance during the glide. Repeat the sequence on the other foot for one repetition. I am working up to repeating this 50 times for each foot.

Check-out the video demonstration of this drill.

Better Balance Makes A Stronger, Less Injury Prone Runner

This project started out as an effort to find a better, more enjoyable way of training for the bike leg during the winter without sitting on a trainer or moving to a warmer climate or buying a fat tire bike.

What I have learned is that better balance will also help in the run leg. Running is effectively a matter of jumping onto one leg and balancing on it for a short time then repeating this on the other leg. Good balance of each leg minimizes fatigue and injury from running.

Essentially, running is a series of single leg squat jumps, occurring quickly and repetitively. 

The Importance of Single Leg Balance

What’s Next?

Over the next several weeks, I will be working to improve balance so that I can get back out on the snow with better skate skiing form. I will keep you posted on what I learn.

Meanwhile, please share your thoughts on the exercises I have added to my routine.

Also, I would love to hear what you have done or are currently doing to maintain or improve your balance.

Share your comments below.

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