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 this after recently finishing a difficult training. 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 covering 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 also done Ironman triathlons. Some have even done ultra-endurance events.

I recalled a conversation I had with a man, an Ironman triathlete, a spectator of my New Mexico triathlon. While waiting for the awards ceremony, he told me he preferred Ironman triathlons over sprint triathlons. He went further to tell me he disliked sprint triathlons, 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 somatotyping, a field of sports medicine and research involving characterization of body type. Somatotyping is also used to correlate 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:

  • Ectomorph characterized by a long and lean frame with little body fat and little muscle (think, ‘super model’). With a lean build, this body type may have an advantage in swimming due to reduced drag in the water. A lean frame may also lead to better aerodynamics on the bike.
  • 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 body fat. American football lineman are predominantly of this body type. They may also be excellent cyclists because of their ability to generate power.
  • 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. With proper training, those with this body type are able to compete in triathlon.

Anthropometry is the systematic study and characterization of human body measurements. As illustrated in this paper, anthropometry involves a complex set of measurements and calculations based on these measurements. The output is a score representing 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 is an indicator, not guarantee, of 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 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 concluded 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, where we live (in this case, altitude), and culture (active from a young age) influenced the runner’s body type.

The study also highlighted psychological influences within a culture which 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.

At What Age Do Senior Triathletes Start Triathlon?

At what age did you start to compete in triathlon? What was the reason?

I started wondering when I read an article, which is sad in many ways, titled “Fast Cars, Nips & Tucks, Swim, Bike, and Run? Is The “Midlife Crisis Tri” A Thing?“.

Furthermore, was it reasonable to consider getting into triathlon later in life? I have had so many wrong impressions of age throughout my life. And, some were held not that long ago.

I decided to develop a one-question survey asking those of the Senior Triathletes community to give the age of their first triathlon. I promised to share the results this month.

Median Age is 50

The results show that the median age for a first triathlon among those in our community is 50. And, as the graph below shows, the distribution of starting age is relatively uniform from the 30s through the 60s.

Distribution of age of first triathlon for SeniorTriathletes.com quick survey respondents. Sample size: 18.

Related post: The Road to Ironman Triathlon – Laurent Labbe’s Story

What Can We Learn?

Admittedly, the sample size for this analysis is small. However, based on these results, I don’t see starting in triathlon as indicative of a mid-life crisis. If it were, the distribution should have been more concentrated in the 40s and 50s.

In our survey, these two age blocks represented only 44% of the responses.

Besides the results of this survey, I have spoken or corresponded by email with many of you. I have heard various reasons and motivations for doing a first triathlon. Many of these have involved younger family members whom you have inspired or who have inspired you. I do not recall any related to finding meaning for their life.

Take a look at some stories published in Our Stories. You will find many reasons and motivations for starting in the sport of triathlon.

Related post: “At Age 70, I Had 19 Days To My First Triathlon” – Pat Johnson’s Story

How Do You Interpret The Results?

If you would like your response to be included in these results, please complete the survey.

Meanwhile, what do you think about the survey results? How do you interpret them? Do you agree or disagree with my conclusion?

Triathlon’s Greatest Challenges for Seniors

During the first four months of 2021, I published a one-question survey on SeniorTriathletes.com. The survey asked about triathlon’s greatest challenges for seniors, both beginner and experienced triathletes.

If you have not already completed the survey, please do so here.

Meanwhile, here is a summary of the responses.

What Are the Greatest Challenges with Triathlon for Senior Triathletes?

The bar chart below summarizes results of the 2021 survey. For readability, I have included the description of each of the challenges below the chart.

One of the challenges included in the survey was ‘Not having the right bike’. Since this category did not receive any responses, I have not shown it in the graph.

Results of a 2021 survey of senior triathletes about their greatest challenges with triathlon.

Legend of triathlon challenges for the bar chart above:

A – Not having a training plan that works for me
B – Injury or illness
C – Concern about the swim
D – No races in my area that fit my schedule
E – Not enough time to train
F – Recovery too long to complete all training
G – Lack of training facilities
H – Other

The Survey Says: “Triathlon’s Greatest Challenges for Seniors”

I reviewed the responses in light of questions and comments from other triathletes age 50 and over during the past five years of writing for the SeniorTriathletes.com.

Here are my takeaways.

#1 – Not having a training plan that works for me

I am not surprised that this challenge is the one most frequently mentioned.

I started SeniorTriathletes.com intending to write about Joy’s and my adventures in Triathlon Across the USA and stories of other triathletes age 50 and over. Early on, however, I started getting questions about training plans for those in the 50+ age groups.  The common message was ‘other training plans are for younger people’. 

From the conversations I have had with many seniors who do triathlon, sprint to Ironman distances, there is consensus that our needs in training change, in some areas dramatically, around age 50. For example, changes in our musculoskeletal system with age is one reason that weight training becomes even more important.

Would you purchase an age-specific triathlon training plan? Press ‘x’ to Skip..

#2 – Injury or illness

Following is a comment from a Team USA qualifier at the 2016 USAT Age Group National Championship:

“One of the hardest things to learn while training for this sport is knowing when to rest. I was self coached for many years and often found myself going two or more weeks without a day off and then I would collapse. [My coach] has been adamant in making me take more rest days. It is not uncommon for me to take two rest days in a week now.”

Any training plan that does not recognize the unique needs of older athletes, including rest, proper stretching, and appropriate levels of stress, will likely lead to injury.

#3 – Concern about the swim

I am also not surprised that this was ranked as one of triathlon’s greatest challenges for seniors. My perception is that the majority of triathletes come from a running background. They either never learned to swim or have not swam for many years other than to splash around in a backyard pool or lake.

The ‘icing on the cake’ is the contact that often occurs during a triathlon. Anything that causes anxious breathing can also be mentally challenging.

congestion in the water during a triathlon swim
Congestion in the triathlon swim can create anxiety in some triathletes.

#4 – No races in my area that fit my schedule (tie)

In any year, there are not as many triathlons as other endurance events, such as 5k. Nevertheless, most regions have races within driving distance. As we saw, many endurance races, including triathlons, were canceled in 2020.

I will be surprised if this challenge is ranked as high in a survey repeated in 2022 or beyond.

#4 – Not enough time to train (tie)

Time can be a challenge for everyone, especially those who have families and are working full-time. This challenge would likely be ranked higher were it not for the portion of the senior triathlete community who are retired.

#4 – Recovery too long to complete all training (tie)

This challenge relates to training. From my conversation with experienced triathletes, this is not a significant factor because rather than not completing all training, they will simply modify a day’s planning if they have not fully recovered, rather than skip a session.

#7 – Lack of training facilities

Over the past year, fitness centers have been closed in many regions of the world. Triathletes have invented creative ways to continue their training, even if it is at or around their homes.

For example, there are strength training routines based on body weight or homemade weights (e.g. plastic milk jugs filled with water). Tri Swim Coach provides land-based training for the swim using resistance bands. Many triathletes also have trainers for their bikes.

Furthermore, ice skating and cross country skiing are great forms of cross training for biking and running for those who are unable to run outside during the winter.

Let me know in the Comments section below if you are looking for guidance on training without using a fitness center.

Other

I included this checkbox in case I had failed to include one of triathlon’s greatest challenges for seniors. There were some ‘Other’ responses to which respondents added a few words to describe these.

The responses were more or less split between (1) COVID-19 related issues and (2) lack of confidence in their ability to finish a triathlon.

What’s Next?

It is interesting to learn other’s thoughts about triathlon, especially when they are of a similar age. However, knowing them begs the question “So what are you going to do with this information?”.

The survey’s results has motivated me to create even more content that will provide useful information for the community of senior triathletes.

Many of you have dreamed of being part of a group that trains together using a plan customized for the age and training goals (for example, distance of the next triathlon) of those in the group.

Interested in joining a training group? Let me know in the Comments section below.

What Do You Think Are Triathlon’s Greatest Challenges for Seniors?

Let us know using the Comments section below how you interpret the results. Are there any surprises?

Do you have suggestions on how the Senior Triathletes community can be more connected? How about suggestions for training together, virtually if not in person?

How Are Multisport Businesses Coping With COVID-19?

April 14, 2020 – We hear a lot these days about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on small businesses. Among these businesses are the ones near and dear to our hearts who put on multisport events.

While the triathlon season has not started for most of the northern hemisphere, there is an air of uncertainty. Some races have been canceled for this year. Other early season races have been postponed when it is possible for the organizers to reschedule them.

Having participated in triathlons across the country, I am on the mailing list for many multisport businesses. I thought you might be interested to see how one race organizer is dealing with this uncertainty while working to keep their business afloat during this crisis.

Georgia Multisports Productions

logo for Georgia Multisports Productions, sponsor of the 2020 8-week endurance challenge.

Race Director and Senior Triathlete Jim Rainey sent information about the Georgia Multisports Productions (GMP) 8-week challenge.

Jim wrote in his email:

“We have recently created a Georgia Multisports Strava page to try and help us stay together and motivated so when the pandemic is over, and our lives are back to normal we are ready for what comes next.”

The event began April 1st and will continue through May 30th so you still have time to participate. Running and cycling miles will be tracked through a FREE account for the George Multisports Club on Strava. After joining the running and cycling events, register on runsignup. With the registration, you to receive awards, a t-shirt and discount for a future race.

How Is Your Favorite Race Business Handling the Crisis?

Let us know in the Comments section below what your favorite race company is doing about their early-season races, whether triathlon, 5k, or other.

error

Enjoy this post? Please spread the word :)