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Advice on Swim Training for Senior Triathletes

Advice on Swim Training for Senior Triathletes
Article from The Villages Daily Sun newspaper about a resident who re-started swimming after moving to The Villages, Florida. (From the February 25, 2016 issue.)

For seniors, swim training is a tremendous way to build endurance while reducing the potential for overuse injuries.  While many of us are getting back into the water as pools and beaches reopen, it can feel like relearning to swim.   On the other hand, since we are more or less starting over, we might as well do so with attention to the basics.  For swimming, this includes our stroke, kick, and breathing.

With this in mind, it seemed an excellent time to update a post about swim training for seniors from the earliest days of SeniorTriathletes.com.

If you have questions about swim training as you start or restart swimming, please share these in the Comments section below.  I will get you an answer – guaranteed.


Introducing Swim Coach, Bob Jennings

During each visit to The Villages, Florida, I am reminded how active its residents are.  According to its official website, The Villages is “America’s Healthiest Hometown”.  It’s difficult to argue with this, given the number of fitness facilities, athletic activities, and clubs including those for swimming, biking, running, and triathlon.

During one visit to The Villages, I came across an article in The Villages Daily Sun (picture above) describing a resident’s return to swimming after quadruple-bypass surgery.   In attempting to track down the gentleman profiled in the article, the article’s author introduced me to Bob Jennings.

Bob has been a lifelong swimmer, even swimming in college.  He began to coach swimming in 1973 and has continued to this day, currently serving as coach of The Villages Aquatic Swim (VAST) team.  In mid-2020, the VAST team has 80 members covering ages from the 50s to 90s.  The roster contains two members in their 90s, three in the 85 to 89 age group, and four in the 80 to 84 age group.

In addition to being a swimmer, Bob has been a longtime runner and has competed in triathlon since its earliest days.

Open water swim

The Villages Triathlon Club organizes group swims and practice triathlons, complete with an open water swim kayak for safety purposes.


Bob’s Thoughts on Swim Training for Seniors

I spoke with Bob Jennings to get his views on questions that many senior triathletes have about swim training.  Below, I summarize our conversation.

Senior Triathletes: From your experience as a masters swim coach, what are the differences between training for younger and older (50+) swimmers?

Bob Jennings: Younger swimmers tend to have better breath control, are stronger, and heal more quickly. They also have less time given family and career obligations. On the other hand, older swimmers tend to be better at listening to their bodies. They also have more time for rest, more flexible schedules to ensure they complete their training sessions, and are more eager to learn and to perfect their strokes.


Restarting Swimming After a Long Break

Senior Triathletes: If someone has not been swimming for a while, where do they start?

Bob Jennings: Get into the pool. It is best to join a group such as Masters Swimming, an adult ‘learn to swim’ program, or another workout group for the benefits of a ‘hands-on’ coach who can view your stroke and define a customized training plan. The work-out group will provide camaraderie and support to encourage you as you progress and for those times you may not feel like training.

Plan to start small and gradually build up, remembering to listen to your body.  Initially, a new swimmer will swim for a short amount of time to avoid injury.   The distance swam will gradually increase in later sessions.

“I don’t want my swimmers to be sore.” Bob Jennings, VAST Swim Coach


Senior Triathletes: As one progresses from a beginner, what are the main goals of swim training for a senior triathlete?

Bob Jennings: The goals are to improve the efficiency of your stroke and build endurance. Swim practices include a mix of long swims for endurance and shorter sprint sets for speed. When not in the pool, we attend swim meets with college and professional swimmers and talk to the swimmers about their strokes. I also recommend weightlifting three times per week. Use low weight with high repetitions to avoid shoulder injury.

Related Post: See Review of Mark Allen’s Strength Training for Triathletes for swimming-specific exercises.

We also encourage our triathletes to learn strokes other than just freestyle. In triathlon, you can use other strokes like backstroke and breaststroke if you become tired or are ‘getting beat up’.


A Resource for Swim Gear

A swim coach will also provide guidance on swim gear for swimmers and triathletes.  For example, here is a more recent exchange between Bob and me.

Senior Triathletes: What can I do to ensure my swim cap stays on during a swim? Today, my cap came off after about 900 yards.  Some swim caps provided by race organizers have come off within even shorter distances.

Bob Jennings: Try a different size cap to keep it on your head.


It’s Never Too Late for Seniors to Begin Swim Training

Senior Triathletes: Any final comments?

Bob Jennings: It is never too late to start swimming and you are never too old to start.


What If There is Not a Swim Club Near Me?

What if you don’t have access to a swim coach like Bob Jennings? There are other options, with varying degrees of the personal touch given by Bob.

First, many community centers and fitness centers offer individual and group swim training classes.  For example, in a post titled Making Fitness a Lifestyle – Jeanne Minder’s Story, Jeanne talks about swim training classes she leads at her local community center.

A second option is Tri Swim Coach.  Coach Kevin Koskella provides video training tools, video analysis of your swim stroke, and customized training for swimmers and triathletes.


What Swimming-Related Questions Do You Have?

Do you have a question about swimming for Bob Jennings or one of our other Senior Triathletes?

Add it to the Comments below and I will get you an answer..


This post was originally published on March 13, 2016.  It was edited on July 16, 2020 to include current information about The Villages Aquatic Swim Team and Bob Jennings’s latest advice on a personal swimming question.


Triathlon Swim – How Does a Pool Swim Differ from Open Water?

by T L VanderWert
Triathlon Swim – How Does a Pool Swim Differ from Open Water?
In a triathlon, hundreds of swimmers may start at the same time.

A surprising number of triathletes indicate that their greatest concern or weakest leg of the triathlon is swimming. The ‘concern’ element typically decreases quickly or even disappears with training, experience and confidence.

This article reviews the main features of pool and open water triathlon swimming.   The characteristics of each should be factored into your training.

Masters Running: What Hal Higdon Teaches About ‘Moving Young‘

Masters Running: What Hal Higdon Teaches About ‘Moving Young‘

A review of “Masters Running: a guide to running and staying fit after 40”, Hal Higdon, Rodale Press ©2005.

Staying active as we age is one way to not only live longer but with higher quality.  Of the 500 respondents to a survey of runners, 93% indicated that they ran to stay fit.

In his book “Masters Running”, Hal Higdon shares advice from his life as a runner.  Lessons from his experience will help you become a better runner and decrease the inevitable effects of aging.


A Little Background

Running is my weakest leg of a triathlon.

I could resign myself to the fact that, according to Dr. David L. Costill, I had simply failed to “carefully select my parents”.  However, I don’t just want to participate in triathlon.  I want to compete in the sport.  For this reason, I have read several books on running and am following a run training program from “Run Less, Run Faster” by Bill Pierce et al.

However, I found the advice from Hal Higdon particularly useful when I started running around 10 years ago.  I have also followed his ideas for the times I have restarted running after an injury or extended time away from running.


About the Author of “Masters Running”

Hal Higdon is a competitive runner and has been since he was in college at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.  He continued to run after college and competed internationally at Masters (over age 40) events.

However, despite his own accomplishments, he was struck by 91-year-old Duncan MacClean who he described as ‘moving young’ despite his age.    As Higdon wrote, cosmetic surgery and hair color can change our appearance, but unless we stay active, the first time we move, we will give away our age.  Celebrated USA Triathlete Tony Schiller made a similar comment during our conversation.

In the book, Higdon shares the results of academic research that, in the late 1970’s, documented what we now take for granted, that those who remain active, live longer on average.  The more strenuous the activity the greater the effect.  Swimming, biking, and running are among the activities that have the most impact on longevity.


Sprint to the finish line at the Lake Lanier Islands Triathlon 2018. The picture was taken by Tim Nettleton for TrueSpeedPhoto.com and provided compliments of Georgia Multisports.

Starting to Run

Starting from the proof provided from studies by researchers Ralph S. Paffenberger, Jr., M.D.; Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D.; Michael L. Pollock, Ph.D.; Jack H. Wilmore, Ph.D.; and David L. Costill, Ph.D., Higdon shares ideas on how to become a runner and continue running well into the senior years.

There is no argument that our abilities and needs relative to running and other types of physical exercise change as we age.  Nevertheless, those who commit to running can be successful by:

  • starting to train,
  • training more once started,
  • training smarter, and
  • learning when to rest.

While it is best if we never get out of shape, this news may be too late for some.  We must work with what we have and start from where we are.

If you want to start running, Higdon provides a simple plan that he calls the ’30/30 Plan’.  This approach involves a mix of walking and running for 30 minutes per day for 30 days.


Improving the Run

Having started running, we can adopt Higdon’s ideas for improving our running ability by:

  • gradually, but consistently, increasing the intensity (speed and distance) of running
  • strength training.

Higdon makes a major case for strength training indicating that the number one goal for the book is to convince the reader to include regular strength training in our routines.  The book includes an entire chapter on how to create a personalized strength training program.

Training smarter includes cross training.  This fits the plans of a triathlete who must train in three sports.  Higdon also identifies sports that support running, such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, as well as complementary activities such as stretching.

“Masters Running” includes information about rest and recovery.  Proper rest and recovery helps to prevent injury while maintaining the benefits of previous smart training.


Order “Masters Running”

Through examples and anecdotes from his nearly lifelong experience with running, Higdon not only makes points important to becoming a better runner but also illustrates why these are important, something our inquiring minds appreciate.


How Do I Start Running for My First Triathlon?

by T L VanderWert
How Do I Start Running for My First Triathlon?

Starting to Run for Triathlon Training

No matter if you are new to running or it has been some time since you ran, start slowly. Follow this advice from Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, for those in her 70+ year age group.

“You don’t have to completely change your clothes and get into special gear. Get the shoes on and go out in what you have on. Just move.”

Before you know it, your fitness will improve and you will be capable of completing your first triathlon.

Follow this simple advice for training for the triathlon run.

Many people who participate in a triathlon, independent of their age, come from a background of running. That was clearly not my case. I ran my first 5-k at the age of 50. The training that I had done in preparation for this race could be best described as intuition – no reading or advice from a trainer. In any case, I easily survived.

If you have been a runner for much of your life, then you can skip through this article since it is dedicated to those who have never been runners or have not been running for a number of years. However, please check back for information in the future where lessons from experienced masters runners will be shared.

PLEASE NOTE: If you are not currently running or if your doctor has not given you permission to start running, speak with your primary care physician before doing so. My wife, who has had both knees replaced, has been told by her orthopedic surgeon that she cannot run on her new knees for some time. She can, however, still participate in triathlon as part of a relay team.

If after consulting your doctor, you continue with your plan to start running, the following program, called the 30/30 Plan, has been defined by Hal Higdon, author of ‘Masters Running: a guide to running and staying fit after 40’ – click here for a review of this book:

“1. Walk out the door and go 15 minutes in one direction, turn around, return 15 minutes to where you started: 30 minutes total.

2. For the first 10 minutes of your workout, it is obligatory that you walk: No running!

3. For the last 5 minutes of your workout, it is obligatory that you walk; Again, no running!

4. During the middle 15 minutes of the workout, you are free to jog or run – as long as you do so easily and do not push yourself.

5. Here’s how to run during those middle 15 minutes: Jog for 30 seconds, walk until you are recovered, jog 30 seconds again. Jog, walk, Jog. Walk. Jog. Walk.

6. Once comfortable jogging and walking, adopt a 30/30 pattern. Jogging 30 seconds, walking 30 seconds, etc.

Follow this 30/30 pattern for 30 days. If you train continuously every day you can complete this is one month. If you train only every other day, it will take you 2 months. Do what your body tells you. Everyone is different in their ability to adapt to exercise. When you are beginning, it is better to do too little than too much.”

After 30 days you should be able to cover 1 to 2 miles by walking and jogging.

In preparing for her first triathlon at age 63, Sue Faulkner recalls “My first run was with my granddaughter alongside the canal, which was nice and flat. I could only manage 20 paces at a time before walking a short way, then running another 20 paces. It was a start.” Eight weeks later she was able to run the 2.5 km distance of the triathlon. Source: http://www.bbc.com/sport/get-inspired/28806570

It is important to not increase mileage or intensity (speed) by more than 5% per week. I have tried to do more and realized this to be true. On the other hand, in preparation for my first half marathon (13. 1 miles) last year, I learned that one can increase by small amounts each week without injury.

Before starting running, I recommend that you visit one of your local running stores (not a general purpose sports store) to review the options for shoes with people knowledgeable of the needs of runners. Most of the people working in these stores are runners. Find the correct fit (for example, I found that I needed a wide (2E) shoe width.

Brooks Adrenaline GTS15, size 13 2E

Brooks Adrenaline GTS15, size 13 2E

Also, note that you need to spend some time ‘breaking in’ these shoes, which can occur by walking or short runs. My experience is that with new shoes, the first few times that I wear them, I find an extra amount of friction between my foot and the inner sole of the shoe. This usually stops after a few miles of use.

Remember to be patient – progress consistently but modestly.

A future post will describe the importance of stretching after running and biking and a routine that I have found important for preventing injury.


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