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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