Tips for the Aging Triathlete

Older triathletes with their awards
October 25, 2023

Simon Butterworth


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In my youthful days, an Old Geezer referred to a man over 50. These days, as I am 77, I would not define an Old Geezer as much less than 65. And, while calling a woman an Old Geezer would have been insulting back in my youth, I suspect today's women are not so sensitive. So here are some thoughts from one Old Geezer to others on what it takes to race long when your non-athletic friends think you are crazy.

But first, a nontrivial question. Why would you want to keep doing long-course racing into your 60's and 70's. It's a question you should ask yourself when you first get the idea of doing an IronMan, AKA long-course race, at any age. It should be an annual question to ask yourself until you stop. It's a huge time commitment to do well and enjoy. It means not doing some things that perhaps you should be doing. You need to bring the family along for the fun. This does not change because your children are grown up and or you are retired. And racing short-course is enough to stay healthy with more time for other stuff.

A day in a young athlete's life should not be much different than for an old athlete. Advancing age does not alter the workouts you should do but does change their frequency. At any age, adequate sleep is essential, strength and mobility workouts are crucial, and a healthy diet is not negotiable. Finding the balance between enough and too much training gets more challenging with age.

Here are my priorities.

Over the years, I have heard several work colleagues claiming they can get away with less than 6 hours of sleep a night. None were athletic. Science says around 7.5 hours is needed consistently, which is sleep, not time in bed, to stay healthy. Most top professional triathletes get 8-9 hours and nap daily. Since I retired, this has been my routine during the peak training months. If other priorities in life limit you to 7 or fewer hours a night, short-course racing is the way to go until more time is available.

Yes, you can have a crappy diet and still compete reasonably well. The diets of some Olympic athletes are far from good. I think one argument is they are young. But what is that doing to them? Are they reaching their best potential? And, more important for this audience, health problems in old age. Bad diets tend to go along with excess body weight. You won't and perhaps can't get to a healthy body weight with exercise alone. I weighed almost 20 lbs more than I should have before improving my diet and limiting alcohol (tough, I love my Guinness). Those extra lbs probably accelerated the developing arthritis in my knees. Fortunately, I lost that weight before training for long-course racing.

Strength and mobility
I am not a good example to follow regarding this topic. My problem is the lack of consistency. It is hard to work this into a training plan when you are also swimming, biking, and running. But it is vital to being healthy in old age. Working this into your daily, weekly, and monthly routine should be considered when considering long-course racing. The best way to address this is to find a strength and mobility coach focused on overall health and endurance sports. Get them to evaluate your current condition and develop a routine that takes about 30-40 min to complete. You could do this after a recovery workout in one of the three sports.

Workout Frequency and Intensity
The best advice is to read Joe Friel's Fast after 50. Here are some of the things you would learn from it. Most training plans follow the standard seven-day week. Youngsters can keep a challenging training schedule with one easy or rest day each week and a recovery week after three weeks. Sometime after 50, but it could be later, this will become too much.

My early solution, when still working, was simple: 2 weeks with appropriate high-intensity and long workouts, then a recovery week. Friel's solution is a nine-day or even 10-day week with two recovery days. Eventually, you will get to where I am, two nine-day weeks and then a nine-day recovery week.

When you consistently struggle to progress with LT and or Vo2 workouts, then it is time to spread things out.

Advancing age has one significant benefit: you have learned a lot. If this knowledge includes many years of triathlon or one of the three sports, you should be able to recognize the signs of overtraining. And, you have the gained wisdom to know that backing off or taking a rest day is not going to wreck your training. Stick with a 7-day week or work up a plan as Friel suggests, but either way, be prepared to adjust it daily or weekly.

To summarize, what does it take? Consistent training gets more critical as we age, and you won't be consistent if you don't look after your health. Fitness helps your health, but it does not guarantee it. So, a healthy diet, limited alcohol consumption, adequate sleep, and more rest days are the magic formula. Oh, and being on excellent terms with your medical support team.

Coach Simon Butterworth has an experienced philosophy about coaching.  The key ingredients in a good coach/athlete relationship are regular and open communication, mutual respect, and keeping it fun for the athlete and their family.  His training programs are developed with those ideas at the forefront. He works with athletes to develop both short-term and long-term objectives that work well within the context of the other things they have going on in their life.

Coach Simon is a 2X World Ironman Champion and has 16 Ironman World Championships races to his credit. He has finihsed on the podium 7x.  He is a USAT Certified Coach, USMS Swim Coach, FIST Certified Bike Fitter and Training Peaks Certified Coach.

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