Coaching and Mentoring Older Triathletes
There’s no two ways about it: getting older means a number of things will have to change about how you approach training, racing and recovery. Here I shares some top tips and advice.
Sadly, for the vast majority of the population, getting the recommended 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week (a bit over 20 minutes per day) is a real stretch. There is, however, no doubt a groundswell of middle-aged people being attracted to endurance sports and the healthy lifestyles they provide.
It is also no surprise that as we age, so too does our physiological state decline. So starting to train (or get back into training) as a 45-year-old offers a number of challenges that as a 17 year old you wouldn’t have even imagined could be an issue.
Physiologically, we hit our peak somewhere in the mid-20s to early 30s and thereafter it is downhill; this might extend to mid-to-late 30s for ultra endurance sports like Ironman. Generally, though, as we age we take longer to recover from sessions, are more prone to injuries, lose strength, can’t go as fast as we once did and in general terms just can’t do what we used to. So what do we need to do?
Here are some basic training principles
If the date of birth on your driver’s licence says that you’re 50, stop trying to train like you’re 20.
1. Older athletes still have the mindsets of what they could do 30 years ago. Ageing slows us, we lose muscle mass and our hearts don’t beat as fast or hard as they used to ‘back in the day’. This means that inevitably we lose strength, speed and endurance. As such we need more recovery between harder training sessions and for such key sessions to be more widely spaced so that the benefits are derived without the downsides.
2. You can’t train a tired (or sick) body
The human body is a very adaptive mechanism. Slowly and progressively increase the training loads and your body will adapt and become fitter and stronger – regardless of your age. The problem with this principle of the ageing process is that it takes a little longer, so work on developing a little patience with your progressing years.
3. Listen to your body – it’s trying to tell you something.
If you feel tired and fatigued, if it is a real chore to drag yourself out the door to exercise, if you’ve got a sniffle, if your performance is dropping off in spite of your training, then what you might actually need is to back off and change your training habits. Remember, just because something is written down on a piece of paper doesn’t mean you have to do it 100 per cent of the time. We’re all individuals, and as such you need to learn the telltale signs your body will convey to you.
4. Push yourself
If you really want to improve as you get older you have to train hard from time to time. After you’ve developed (or re-developed) a base of conditioning you have to be prepared to push yourself with some intense cardiovascular exercise to improve your race day performances. The key is allowing adequate recovery time from these intense workouts before loading your body once more. What may have taken you 36 hours to recover from when you were 25, may take 96 when you’re 50. Take the time you need between such sessions by building in more recovery workouts.
5. Do the little things
You can speed the recovery process by doing the ‘little things’ in and around your training sessions. With youth, you might have been able to take shortcuts and not worry about these sort of things. As you get older they make more and more of a difference. Be sure to warming up and stretch before your sessions and cooling down and stretch after them. In fact, about 10 per cent of your total training time should be dedicated to stretching, warm up and cool down. Stay hydrated during your sessions and be sure to start the recovery process immediately after a training session by consuming some carbohydrate and 20-to-30 grams of protein immediately post-exercise. Try ice baths, spas (alternating cold and hot treatment), massage and compression garments to enhance the recovery process. And remember, the best and cheapest form of recovery of all is sleep – aim to get seven-to-eight hours per night. With some experimentation you’ll find the combination of recovery strategies that works best for you.
6. Stress is stress
As a youngster, often all you need to worry about is your training and school. As we age, other things arise that create stress for us. Training is just another form of stress and our bodies don’t differentiate between different ‘types’ of stress. At a certain point, when our ability to absorb stress is exceeded by the stresses being placed on us, our systems fail. This ‘mal-adaptation’ presents itself as a cold or flu, a loss of sleep, falling performance (at work and in competition). The stresses we experience as we age expand (e.g. relationships, professional, financial, etc.) and our capacity to absorb those stresses diminish the older we get. Recognise this and during periods of increased stress back off the one thing you can immediately control – your training loads – and give yourself the opportunity to get back into balance.
Train/exercise with a purpose
7. Circumstances differ from person to person. As such, training and nutritional program(s) need to be personalised to your specific requirements. Anything less, at best won’t help you achieve your goals as effectively as you otherwise would and at worst are thwart with danger to your health. Remember, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ program when it comes to you – particularly as you age!
8. Get some sound guidance for your specific circumstances
Learn to listen to your body and recognise the importance of a balanced lifestyle. Let’s face it, if you’re 45-plus it is unlikely that you’re going to be putting food on the table for the family from your athletic pursuits. Whether you go to Hawaii and break 11 hours or not, while a wonderful personal achievement, it isn’t going to have potential sponsors pounding your door down, but doing that couple of 220km rides – just because you heard on the grapevine that Macca did a few in training – could just be enough to send you over the edge. Particularly if you had a stressful business meeting the day before and have to jump on a plane later that day and fly out to see a client in Asia and your family is annoyed because you’ve missed another birthday party.
Age gracefully, maintain perspective and I assure you, you’ll be enjoying yourself and your chosen lifestyle well into your old age.