26 years in the sport is not that long compared to some, but at 72 years of age I am part of a rapidly shrinking number of old geezers. It made me think last year of how many of my rivals are still in the sport. I took a look at how many athletes around my age that had left the sport from ranking data given to me by USAT. The results were a bit surprising.
I compared the last three years of ranked athletes who were 64 and older in 2017 with ranked athletes with the same birth years in 1999-2003. Of the 3,634 athletes ranked in 1999-2003 1,051 were also ranked in last three years 777 new names showed up in the last three years. So we are getting smaller but not going away. The surprise was how many new faces have joined the sport at an age most people are accepting the inevitable. Good news for those not ready to slow down and looking for new challenges. Here are some of the things I have learned in the 26 years that keep me going and hopefully will keep you going.
No question any triathlon can be a challenge. What worries me is a tendency to look for the “easy” races because there is no such thing as an easy race. Some are just slower than others by virtue of terrain and or weather. So-called “hard” races make for a much greater “high” post race and sometimes that high comes on early in the race. Ironman St. George comes to mind for me but Escape from Alcatraz is at the top of my list at the moment. I competed in it for the first time last weekend. Yes the water is cold, the hills are very steep and there are lots of them. But I was having fun just looking at the San Francisco skyline from the side of the Hornblower just before I jumped. The fun continued exiting the water, surprise no numb face, hands and feet (there were cold), and up and down the hills with that bridge constantly reminding me where I was. So don’t follow what seems to be trend at Ironman of trying to make the courses easy, look for a challenge for you.
AGING UP AND SLOWING DOWN
Satchel Page, considered by many baseball experts the best professional pitcher ever (he played into his 50’s), had some great advice. One I love is, “Don’t look behind you something might be catching up with you”. This is great advice for older athletes. Don’t look back at those fast(er) results. Instead, look forward to seeing yourself finishing well and perhaps faster than some of the kids. Recovery slows as well as speed and if you fight that fact your races will slow even more and perhaps end. So look after yourself.
Diet is important at any age for everyone. It is more important for aging athletes. As we age we don’t absorb nutrients as well. I was weaned on Guinness in Ireland. By age 14 I was 6’ 2” so getting into a pub was not hard (age limit then I think was 16). So cutting back on the black stuff and an occasional “Uisce beatha“, that’s whiskey for the layperson, was hard but I think necessary to race well. One of the less known facts about alcohol is that it slows the metabolism. Meaning the calories you get with it goes further. Having said that, Ironman Cork is on my 2019 schedule with a stop at the Jameson’s Distillery at about mile 20 on the bike.
Sleep is another critical part of staying healthy, something the general population and many athletes don’t understand. If an athlete tells you they can manage on seven to eight hours average, it is, a) probably less than that and b) their potential is higher c) there is a good chance they will not be racing much past 60. I have been tracking my sleeping for the past 12 years and average over eight and a half hours a night. During peak training it is over nine hours and there is often a mid day nap.
Stress, other than training stress, is another factor to consider when training. It’s unavoidable in today’s world but it can be managed. I think that too many athletes try to push through stressful times following their planned training. The ability to make adjustments is essential. It does not mean stopping completely but may mean less intensity and/or volume or adding in some more rest days.
As we age, speed and power at and above lactate threshold drops more than our steady state speed, narrowing the range within any one zone. For many older athletes HR zones become especially narrow, the difference between my LT HR and easy pace, zones 1-4 is less than 12 beats, making staying in one zone near impossible. Many of my athletes, especially the older ones, say they can't run and hold their HR in Zone 1 and even have trouble doing that in Zone 2. The answer to that issue is to use the run/walk strategy, more on that below. Personally, I no longer pay much attention to HR. Instead I use respiration as a tool to judge perceived exertion.
Power data is still usable even with the narrowed zones. I display on my Garmin 3 second power and Lap Power. I have laps defined at 5k. This tells me when I am burning matches, anything over 210w (3 sec power), or holding too hard an effort for about 10 min (lap average). I recommend to all my athletes to follow a run/walk routine for any race over a sprint. I recommend this for all training runs for my older athletes. It is I think essential for a successful IM Marathon. I ran 2 minutes and walked for 15-20 seconds at the Ironman World Championships last year. For the first time I had the fastest run split in my age group.
Working on improving form is, along with staying healthy, the key to staying in the sport long term. It is also for me one of the things that make the sport fun. Often people think of this as a swimming thing but biking and especially running have to be worked on. I approach every workout thinking about form. Luckily swimming is easy, with the right attitude, no distractions other than the clock, and perhaps a rival, when in the pool. Of the three sports I have slowed the least in the water.
We don’t think so much about form when biking, and three contact points on the bike limit what we can change. However, in my opinion bike fit equates to form and it is essential to successful, comfortable cycling and is much more important than the cost of the bike under you. In addition to your fit, how you pedal, your cadence and the application of force through the pedal stroke, could be called form. The demise of the Computrainer was not just a sad loss of an iconic product but a loss of a very useful training tool. I don’t believe my cycling ability would be where it is without the Computrainer (my bike split in Alcatraz put me in the top 30% overall). The ability of the Computrainer to tell me how efficient my pedal stroke is/was is one of the features that separates it from all the new competition (with the exception of Garmin’s latest pedal power meter).
Bobby McGee changed my thinking about running from something you do to something that should be approached the same way as swimming. While I said that I have slowed the least in the water I think my declining speed on my feet has been greatly reduced by what I learned to do from Bobby. His drills are part of my weekly training and much of my functional exercises I also learned from him. Much like swimming there is not one way that run mechanics must be learned. We are all different physiologically even if we have near 100% common DNA. But there are some basics that must be followed and can be learned.
This is critical. For me the success I have had is certainly a major factor in the fun. But feeling good about myself is right up there. Just getting outdoors and visiting places around the world is very important. Meeting like-minded great people in all walks of life and political persuasion, essential. If we could all find a passion that transcended politics I think the U.S. and the world would be in a much better place.
Simon Butterworth is an amazing athlete and coach with over 25 years in the sport. He's certified by USA Triathlon, USA Cycling, and TrainingPeaks. He's raced over 130 triathlons, 20 Ironman finishes, and he's placed in the top three in his age group in Kona three times. He specializes in working with athletes 60 and over.