How does age affect your Ironman performance?

You may not be able to turn back the clock, but getting older doesn’t have to end your long-diatance triathlon ambitions

Age vs Ironman – older, wiser, faster?

Your 30th birthday is one of life’s landmarks – and with good reason: it’s the point at which you’re deemed to be at your peak. You’ve been an adult long enough to gain some useful experience, but you’ve still got the strength and energy of your youth.

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Hence the accepted wisdom is that athletes reach their prime in their early 30s. But the accepted wisdom also suggests that the prime period doesn’t last very long and is taken as a signpost of impending decline.

But it seems that Ironman competitors are challenging that accepted wisdom. A recent paper* published in the journal Age, comparing the top 10 men’s and women’s finishing times at Ironman Hawaii between 1983 and 2012, not only found that the athletes’ average age jumped from 26 to 35, but also that the average finishing time fell from 671 minutes to 566 minutes. 

To put it another way, over two decades the best finishing times dropped by 1:45hrs – that you might expect. But the athletes posting those times were on average almost 10 years older – that you wouldn’t. 

Bucking the trend

It would be tempting to write these findings off as a statistical anomaly, but it’s not as simple as that. An earlier study of nearly 25 years of Ironman Hawaii results published in the same journal in 2013** found that these sorts of improvements weren’t confined to the elites.

This study looked at athletes aged 40 and over from 1986 to 2010. It found that men over the age of 44 and women over 40 significantly improved their performances in the three disciplines and in the total time taken to complete the event during that period. 

Athlete on the bike at Ironman UK

So what’s going on? The short answer is nobody knows. It may simply be that more people are participating so there’s a wider range of athletic ability involved. Perhaps it’s that younger athletes are more attracted to shorter distances that have an emphasis on speed over endurance. It’s also possible that, as the sport has developed, so too has the associated training and coaching expertise, which can be better tailored to older athletes as a result. 

All we can say is that age doesn’t necessarily preclude athletic improvement. “These observations suggest that it is possible to maintain a high level of performance up to 40 years of age and over,” points out Professor Romuald Lepers, co-author of both papers. 

But, as he goes on to explain, the good news comes with caveats. “Perhaps motivation to keep training hard is a key. Don’t think that by getting older you’ll inevitably get slower. But as we get older we need to train smarter, with smaller training volumes, especially in running. The improvement in the performance of triathletes aged 40–70 over recent decades shows that they probably have a smarter approach to training.” 

So what is smart training for athletes that are supposedly ‘past their prime’? The simplest explanation is training that gives your body sufficient time to recover from, and adapt to, the training loads. The older your body gets, the more time it needs to do those two things. Training smart means not only being aware of that, but also altering your training to allow them to happen.

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Age vs Ironman – older, wiser, faster? (cont)

It would be tempting to write these findings off as a statistical anomaly, but it’s not as simple as that.

An earlier study of nearly 25 years of Ironman Hawaii results published in the same journal in 2013** found that these sorts of improvements weren’t confined to the elites. 

This study looked at athletes aged 40 and over from 1986 to 2010. It found that men over the age of 44 and women over 40 significantly improved their performances in the three disciplines and in the total time taken to complete the event during that period. 

So what’s going on? The short answer is nobody knows. It may simply be that more people are participating so there’s a wider range of athletic ability involved. Perhaps it’s that younger athletes are more attracted to shorter distances that have an emphasis on speed over endurance. It’s also possible that, as the sport has developed, so too has the associated training and coaching expertise, which can be better tailored to older athletes as a result. 

All we can say is that age doesn’t necessarily preclude athletic improvement. “These observations suggest that it is possible to maintain a high level of performance up to 40 years of age and over,” points out Professor Romuald Lepers, co-author of both papers.  

But, as he goes on to explain, the good news comes with caveats. “Perhaps motivation to keep training hard is a key. Don’t think that by getting older you’ll inevitably get slower. But as we get older we need to train smarter, with smaller training volumes, especially in running. The improvement in the performance of triathletes aged 40–70 over recent decades shows that they probably have a smarter approach to training.” 

So what is smart training for athletes that are supposedly ‘past their prime’? The simplest explanation is training that gives your body sufficient time to recover from, and adapt to, the training loads. The older your body gets, the more time it needs to do those two things. Training smart means not only being aware of that, but also altering your training to allow them to happen.

Is age any barrier whatsoever?

“Age is no barrier to training for and completing races,” says Andrew Murray, doctor of sports and exercise medicine at Scotland’s Institute of Sport. “After all, Fauja Singh completed a marathon at the age of 101. With age comes wisdom and an appreciation of the need to increase training volumes and intensities gradually.” 

Older athlete in bike training

But the fact remains, however, that decline is inevitable, as Dr Murray explains. “Previous and existing injuries sometimes limit a person’s ability to train and compete, but with advancing years physiology also declines. So although remarkable performances are possible, they are more difficult to achieve than they are for athletes in their 20s and 30s.”

Those improvements may be harder to come by, but they’re there to be had. Just how long that scope for improvement remains though is difficult to say. “Regarding studies with ultra-runners, the limit for the best ultra-endurance performance is around 50 years of age. After that, age-related performance decline starts,” says Professor Lepers’ co-author Dr Beat Knechtle.

“But, although performance will decrease after 50, athletes can still relatively improve their performance within their age-group. So, the absolute best performance will be at around 35 years but, relatively speaking, athletes can compete in Ironman Hawaii up to the age of around 80 and still improve within their relative age-group.”

And that potential for actual and relative improvement is something Knechtle has first-hand experience of. “As an ultra-triathlete competing in races from double-Ironman (7.6km/360km/84.4km) to deca-Ironman (38km/540 km/420km) distances, I achieved my best absolute performances when I was around 35 years old. But I was still achieving podium finishes when I was 50. My better performances in longer races are probably down to experience, which increases with age. So pacing strategy and race tactics might change and improve.” 

So the question remains, just how much faster can we expect older triathletes to get?

*‘Elite Triathletes in Ironman Hawaii’, Age (2014, 36: 407–416). 

**‘Relative Improvements in Endurance Performance with Age: Evidence from 25 Years of Hawaii Ironman Racing’, Age (2013, 35: 953–962).

Phil Mack’s anti-ageing tips

Phil Mack has competed in triathlons for both Great Britain and South Africa, and was former strength and conditioning coach for the South African Springboks, Leicester Tigers and Ulster rugby teams.

“Getting older, I’m still very competitive, but I train smarter and listen more to my body,” he says. “Being a sports physiotherapist, there’s a wealth of information available to help me make good decisions about my training and health. I found that small changes to my training regime were essential to avoid injury and maximise my performance.”

Phil’s tips apply to all ages, but as you get older, they become more important. 

Maintain good health by monitoring your diet, weight and sleep

Note what works for you especially when it comes to sleep patterns. How well we recover and how well we avoid sickness is down to our immune system. Training hard, such as for tri, burns micronutrients that protect the immune system, so I would recommend a good all-round multivitamin. I would also recommend glucosamine, which occurs naturally in the body, but bolstering it will help protect the joints. Although it won’t repair existing damage, I believe it will minimise future problems and allow me to continue racing well into retirement.

Train smart

For example, most of my running is off-road to protect my joints. Also, I’ve replaced some distance work with high-intensity interval training. When I’m cycling or running, I pick hilly routes and aim to attack the climbs and recover going downhill. 

Running off-road

Maintain strength

Especially in your legs, glutes and core, by performing slow and controlled lunges, particularly walking lunges. Control position and alignment by activating the glutes.

Maximise recovery

Give your body sufficient time to fully recover between hard sessions. As you age you can train into your 50s and 60s as you did in your 30s, pushing yourself through intervals and hill training for example. What does change is the recovery needed from the same sessions.

Base recovery on how you feel – listen to what your body needs. If you feel sore, sluggish or tired, take more rest or an active rest day (e.g. a swim or light bike ride). Also if you feel fatigued or flat, don’t push through a session. Better to wait 24 hours and try the session again when it could feel completely different.

Keep your training varied

Try mixing in rowing, cross-training and aqua jogging.

Protect key joints and limit wear and tear

Make sure you wear good, supportive footwear. Keep race shoes just for racing, for everything else use a well-cushioned training shoe as each footstrike puts seven times your body weight through the joints. Also, minimise joint wear and tear by limiting the amount of running on tarmac. Use a variety of surfaces.

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(Images: Getty / Jonny Gawler)

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What helps keep your times in check as you get older? Let us know in the comments!