Training for Endurance Events as a Seasoned (older) Athlete

A triathlete racing his bike
January 8, 2017

Simon Butterworth



(As an aside: Mike was asked me to write something concise about training for endurance events as a “senior” and the keys to absorbing that training. He did not choose my favorite name for someone of my age, which is ‘Seasoned Athlete’. A name that does seem to give me some credentials for taking on this subject.)

Seasoned Athletes can go the distance; there are three Octignarians in this years IM in Hawaii. The not so good news is we can’t swim bike or run as fast but the really bad news is we can’t train as hard and as often. Recovery is important at any age and anyone can dig themselves into a hole. The problem for Seasoned Athletes is climbing out of that hole takes much longer (and we don’t have the time for that).

Assuming you have been in the sport for a while, the most concise way I could put it is don’t do anything different than you have done in the past. And, if you have dealt with a bout of over training along the way great, remember it well. If you do the same thing at an older age recovery will take all that much longer. All the old rules still apply, you get stronger only if you let your body rest to repair and build stronger muscles.

The ability to absorb the affects of training doesn’t suddenly start when AARP starts calling on you. It is a gradual process. Like much else with humans this is a very individual thing but at some point you will find you can’t do what you did when you were younger. If you are lucky it will sneak up on you gradually but it can also take random jumps.

From my own experience and that of a number of friends accepting that fact, when it starts to get noticeable, is very difficult. For us that change started in our mid to late 40’s. We still could swim or bike or run (or all three) very fast but injuries started to crop up when they had not a few years earlier. Those of us who accepted our fate are still racing.

I was very fortunate to have a long chat with Jim Ward when he was in his late 70’s and I was getting notions of stepping up to Iron Man racing. Jim I believe was the first 79 year old to finish in Kona, he tried when he was 80 but did not make the cut off. I met him after he had once again won Gold at the ITU World Championship (Olympic). At that age he was still doing the Olympic distance in the 3:30 range. He told me he could still do all the workouts, long and intense, he just needed days to recover. A weekly plan did not work for him. His week had in essence become 10 days. He had at least a day recovery between each harder/longer workout sometime three was necessary. Naps and the getting enough sleep, 8 preferably 9 hrs were key along with a good diet. He was a big believer in supplementing his diet with vitamins. He no longer was following a calendar-based block of training. Rather he added additional recovery days as he felt his body needed it.

(For those of you who never heard of Jim Ward he was someone very special. A former Marine, multiple times US Ambassador who spoke several languages and an amazing athlete. He died with his boots on out on a ride with his friends near Tampa at 82, stroke I believe).

The multiple day recovery time is certainly not a necessary feature of training in your younger years but getting enough rest and eating right should be nothing new to a seasoned athlete of any age.

In my own training I learned the ropes from reading Joe Fiel’s Triathlete Training Bible and Joe’s and Gordo Byrn’s Going Long. In my late 40’s when I got serious about training I worked on a four week block of training with the last one a recovery week of about 70% of the earlier volume. A day off a week was also standard. When we moved to Colorado and I hit 60 this became a three-week block.

This past year under the direct guidance of Gordo (first time I have had a coach) my training has become a bit more like Jim’s in that I am not following a strict calendar based plan. Sure I get recovery breaks but they are when I need them. Two things stand out looking back on the year. Sleep/naps were critical. I knew this in theory but had never felt I had suffered unduly if I did not get what I figured was enough (perhaps I am getting older). Anyway this year if I did not get a nap every day and/or 9+ hours of sleep (some nights approached 10, it helps to be retired) I was noticeably not on form the next day.

The other factor was fueling during training and to some degree calories in general. Leading into major races I used to always practice my fueling plan or try to more than once. It is not always easy when there are no aid stations and I never really got this down perfectly (and I don’t think I executed my fueling plans in a race well). When a race was not close the fueling/hydration got very spotty. What I did not realize was that by doing that I was compromising upcoming workouts (I thought I could catch up when I got home).

Twice this year I got the message hammered home that fueling correctly all the time is critical. In February I joined one of Gordo’s camps getting in 26hrs of training in 6 days. The last day ended with a 100-mile ride with a 4,000ft climb to Kit’s Peak in the middle. I maintained my FT Power up that climb for a full hour. There were of course sag wagons and unlimited amounts of food; the only other thing we had to do was sleep. My wife was not happy when I returned home and only wanted to sleep for a few days. I did get a great bounce from this camp and had a great first race of the season 4 weeks later.

Then after the Boulder 70.3 in August Gordo laid out three weeks with 25 hours each. Some performance measures did not look as good as they should and one cause was not enough recovery from the race (I did have a week of easy training). In the end I did not manage the complete block as planned, had to back off a bit for a few days in the last week. However on the last two big days (swim 3800 bike 100m run 10k Saturday, run 90 min Sunday) everything came together. The difference between that and earlier weekends was fueling on the bike and three very easy days. Power output was what we expected it to be and importantly it no longer faded towards the end. The run up the same trail was 2-3 min faster. My legs felt they had worked hard the day before when I ran on Sunday but I was running well. The next weekend I repeated the fueling plan at the Harvest Moon half ironman distance race and in had one of my best races at that distance in many years. Hopefully I can repeat that at a full IM on Oct 8.

One other surprise for me was/is the value of a coach having a coach, especially one who can look you in the eye and see how you are doing physically. A long and trusted spouse can do the same, especially one who has suffered having a jock (not sure what the female word for Jock is) in the house.

I have learned a lot this year and hope to pass this on to others. I asked Gordo to coach me when I learned that he had coached another Seasoned Athlete, Ron Ottaway, and his book credits helped as well. I also wanted to get a different perspective on coaching from my own experience.

In conclusion, knowing yourself, eating the best you can, and taking enough hours each day (week) to recover will enhance your experience as a ‘season athlete’.

(Simon Butterworth finished 3rd in his AG at the Hawaii Ironman in Kona).

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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