Ageing & Triathlon – a personal journey

I started in this wonderful sport at the age of 40 after giving up smoking and looking for something that would help me focus on getting fit. It came as no surprise that after my first sprint tri event I was well and truly hooked. For the next 10 years all was well with the world as my training improved, allowing me to compete in 5 Ironman and more than 15 Half Ironman events. I have also raced as a GB age group athlete at both the World and European triathlon championships.

In typical fashion the changes that affected my body accumulated slowly over time, so I didn’t always realise what has happening; the wood for the trees effect. But as I began to look back at previous years race times, my fitness tests (FTP & Functional Threshold H/Rate) results, or how I was coping with my training schedules, I could see the big picture and it was this; I could not do things like I did before.

That was when I decided I needed to find out why this was happening and what could be done in order to keep me racing.

What happens:

  • From the time we are born, our muscles grow larger and stronger. Then at some point in our thirties we begin to lose muscle mass and function. Those of us with a sedentary lifestyle lose 3-5% of muscle mass each decade after 30, but even active triathletes experience some muscle loss with acceleration really kicking in from around 60-65 & on-wards.
  • From 35 we can expect a 10% VO2 max decrease each decade until we reach 70, when that figure rises to 12-15%.
  • By the time we reach 50, it’s apparent that we are experiencing several life-altering changes that includes lower levels of testosterone, increased tendency for acid-base imbalance that further contributes to bone and muscle loss, a risk for weight gain, a loss of soft tissue elasticity with an increased likelihood of injury, reduced enzyme activity and more.

What to do:

  • More stretching. Proper warm-up and stretching before vigorous exercise with additional stretching during cool down prevents the gradual shortening of tendons and cartilage.
  • Proper strength training helps to slow down the loss of muscle mass. Weak muscles can be more prone to injury and can provide less support for joints during activity. It is vital to strengthen the correct muscles. While S&C training is important athletes need focus on strengthening the correct muscles not just train for cosmetic reasons.
  • High-intensity interval training. For athletes over 50, one high intensity workout per week per sport, with recovery between is a good guideline. Athletes over 60, may be advised to do this once every two weeks. It is important that the second or third week needs to be a recovery week of less training and less intensity. Everyone is individual and the intensity/recovery should fit the individual.
  • Getting enough rest. Rest and recovery apply to all ages, we ought to make consistent, high-quality sleep a priority. However, one liability of age can be the ‘ability’ to persevere through pain. Train smarter, not just harder, with age. Tired muscles are more prone to injury. Overused connective tissue and muscle will get their revenge.
  • Staying hydrated. As we age, our sensation for thirst becomes weaker. A lower water content in body tissue is one contributing factor to injury.
  • Nutrition – eating the correct type of food. Consuming additional protein to ensure that we are producing muscle from strength training is the most significant takeaway. Eating anti-inflammatory foods and a rainbow of different coloured fruits and vegetables is good advice for all ages.
  • One thing most athletes agree on wholeheartedly is the need for a coach, a club or training partners. For younger athletes, a generic training program from a book or website is ok. Any plan is better than no plan. 
  • Ageing athletes benefit from the expertise and experience of a coach who can build the correct training program suitable for their individual goals and progress. Their training programs and workouts might look the same as a younger athletes, but a good coach will make adjustments for pace and intensity that are realistic for the abilities of the more mature athletes, along with carefully planned recovery time, when necessary. This could be instead of following a four-week training block i.e. three build weeks followed by a recovery week, shifting to a three-week training block, two hard and one recovery, to allow your body the time needed to adapt to the workload. As we continue to age and train this can shift to a two-week schedule, one hard week and one easy week, and to start reducing the number of very hard workouts we do to minimize the damage. Allowing our bodies time to recover from the hard efforts will also help us mentally.

The differences between the decades can be overwhelming but are outweighed by the similarities, which should put any triathlete approaching the magic 50 (or 70) at ease. Age doesn’t have to be a barrier; triathlon can give you an enhanced purpose in life, challenges you to stay fit and healthy, allows you to meet new people and stay socially engaged, whilst seeing different places when racing or training with friends. I have embraced this principle and have continued to train throughout the decades, adjusting recovery, strength training, intensities etc as necessary and still enjoy the thrill of being a triathlete and sharing my interests with friends. 

For me, it doesn’t get much better than this! 

Training with friends
Weston Park Sprint Tri 2022 - 1st in Age Group
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