How to train as you age: what triathletes need to know as they get older
We explain how ageing impacts your body as it gets older and the key training areas for your age, whether you’re 25 or 65, so you'll be stronger and faster than ever
It’s often assumed that fitness and performance decline with age – wrong. In fact, there’s no reason you can’t keep on improving right up until the Grim Reaper turns up at your final race to take you to the great transition zone in the sky.
- Why do you put on weight when you hit middle-age?
- How does age affect your Ironman performance?
- What’s the optimal age for a triathlete?
The reason? Age-group triathlon isn’t one long, pure, streak of improvement from 20 to 70 and beyond. Unlike the elites, triathlon is a hobby, balanced with work, family, mortgages and taxes.
All of these have a varying impact on your life at different times, which all have an impact on your triathlon training to differing degrees.
For instance, while ‘acclimatising’ to nominal budgets, a 50hr working week and managing household routines significantly affects a 26-year-old’s training programme, a 60-year-old’s tri problems stem from managing motivation when faced with a loss in muscle mass, bone density and maximal aerobic capacity.
- Eating protein throughout the day reduces muscle loss in older people
- How ageing affects athletic performance
But, as coach Joe Friel says, age is just a number. “The primary reason athletes are ‘old’ is due to their relatively slow rate of recovery following stressful workouts,” says Friel.
“Someone can be ‘old’ at 35 due to a poor rate of recovery. On the other hand, I’ve coached athletes in their 60s who recovered very quickly, so we are still ‘young’.”
Understanding your recovery rate, as well as the training sessions and build-up races that really work for you, comes down to experience. So whatever your age, reflect once a month to see what worked and didn’t, such as workout intensity, equipment, nutrition….
And when you’ve reached ‘optimum’, the good news is that through manipulation of each, you can maintain peak performance for years. Now on with the advice that’ll see you threaten your age-group podium…
Kids and teenagers
Children and teenagers should also follow general rules when entering the world of triathlon. The first is that triathlon must be fun. If it becomes a chore, you’ve taken it too seriously, too soon.
When it comes to training advice, a focus on technique can stay with you for the rest of your life. Our neural map’s more ‘pliable’ during formative years, so swim coaching’s a must.
Bricks are also essential as, not only do they teach you the key USPs of triathlon, they’re thoroughly enjoyable – although maybe in retrospect!
- Training for triathlon as a teenager
- How much triathlon training should children do?
- What to do if your child is a talented triathlete…
- How much strength training should kids do?
When it comes to strength work, contrary to popular belief, the young athlete can use weights. But, to begin with, these need to be guided by an experienced triathlon coach. Bodyweight exercises are the ideal through the early teenage years as bones continue to harden.
Finally, young triathletes – and their parents – should digest good fuelling habits. A pint of water with breakfast and home-cooked food are two good places to start.
How to train in your 20s
Without patronising our younger audience, much of the triathlete’s improvement at this age stems from education. And as many 20-29-year-olds will be swim, bike and running away from home for the first time, it’s nutritional advice that heads the menu.
“This fuelling advice is applicable to all, but especially this age-group who could easily fall into bad eating habits,” says head coach of Tri for Fitness, Terence Collins. “Ensure your diet features recommended daily amounts of the following: vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, lean meat or fish, wholegrains, pulses as well as dairy. Also, avoid processed foods such as crisps, sausage rolls, pies, pasties, cakes and biscuits. These foods contain high amounts of sodium, fats and sugar, which can be harmful to your health.”
Avoid ready-meal ruin
You can avoid falling into ready-meal ruin by purchasing a Nutribullet. The Christmas kitchen hit of years gone by is omnipresent in the athlete’s kitchen because you can whip up a healthy juice or smoothie with little mess. A breakfast smoothie containing cherry juice is scientifically proven to ease sore muscles, while evidence showing age-groupers can race harder and longer thanks to beetroot continues to grow.
Acclaimed nutritionists like James Morton, formerly of Liverpool FC and now with Team Sky, encourage a traffic-light system where green equals high carbs (1-1.5g carbs/kg bodyweight per day), amber is moderate carbs (0.5-1g/kg) and red is low carbs (less than 0.5g/kg).
This ties in with the intensity of the session, so if it’s, say, a 3hr ride including numerous hill climbs, you’ll go green before, during and after the session. If it’s an ‘easy’ 30min lunchtime swim, you’d go red, and so cutting calories and potentially weight (if needed).
Becoming less reliant on carbohydrates retrains your body to utilise more fat calories for fuel, too. Like Sky, this is more easily recorded and actioned via online software outfit Today’s Plan, which matches this traffic-light system to your diary and session.
“Just note that the use of energy products should be reserved for intense sessions,” adds Collins, alluding to those ‘green’-day efforts. “Also avoid nutrition products that haven’t undergone extensive independent testing to verify their performance claims.”
The 20-29 age group should aim for around 2-2.5g/kg protein every day, too, consumed from real food like tuna and chicken, though recovery shakes are fine when it’s impractical to eat from mother nature.
Terence Collins says 20-29-year-olds should spend time learning about the different methods of measuring sessions
RUN TO THE BEAT
This is a heart-rate-based session.
Warm-up: 5min squats (bodyweight), lunges, single-leg squats, calf raises, hip extensions
Main set (intervals): 3 x [6mins building to HR @ 140bpm, 4mins @ 150bpm, 4mins @ 160bpm, 1min @ 160bpm-plus]
Cool-down: 5min easy jog
Warm-up: As session above
Main set: 3 x 15mins as: 3mins @ 60-80rpm, alternating right and left leg every 30secs, (sprocket) 21; 3min @ 100rpm, 19, 1min @ 60rpm; 2mins @ 95rpm, 17; 1min @ 60rpm; 1min @ 90rpm, 15; 1min @ 60rpm; 1min @ 80rpm, 13; 1min @ 60rpm, 1min @ 60-90rpm, 11
Cool-down: 5min spin
How to train in your 30s
Over the last four decades, the average age of parents having their first child has risen by almost four years to 33.2 years for men and 30.3 years for women. This presents the triathlon paradox, according to Tim Williams of coaching outfit Perfect Condition.
“In theory, the 30-39 age-group is old enough to have acquired experience and training history, and young enough to be at their physical peak [take Kona 2017 winners Daniela Ryf, 30, and Patrick Lange, 31],” he says.
“However, athletes in their thirties typically have young families and financial commitments, and are often climbing the career ladder. Under these circumstances, training and racing are often squeezed into short, sub-prime spots and rushed.”
That’s why Williams suggests two key areas to focus on – optimising time and periodisation, which broadly tie in with each other.
Optimise your time
Optimising time is self-explanatory but includes ideas like running with a buggy or indoor riding while babysitting. And that’s where a simulating platform like Zwift comes in. Online cycling outfit Zwift features three courses containing numerous routes where you can virtually race against triathletes and cyclists all around the world.
- Smart turbo trainers: 5 of the best reviewed
- Indoor virtual cycling training platforms: pros and cons
- Indoor virtual cycling training platforms: 6 of the best
All you need to create your indoor haven is a turbo trainer or rollers, internet connection and supporting device (from desktop computer to smartphone), a bike and an ANT+ or Bluetooth measurement tool.
This could be a basic speed sensor right up to a cutting-edge power meter. Indoor training can sear the synapses but platforms like Zwift add a motivational competitive edge.
- What’s the difference between cycling on a turbo trainer and rollers?
- How does turbo training help your cycling?
- Is smart-trainer racing here to stay?
Periodise your training
“Periodisation’s also key,” adds Williams. “It can be difficult to get your head around as it means excluding or minimising some aspects of training for periods of time to focus on others – maybe technical, maybe cardiovascular, maybe strength – but trust me, it’s worth it.”
There are numerous periodisation methods around but, unless you’re near-elite level, we’d recommend the traditional model. The idea is that you build endurance, add speed before peaking for your goal race come the summer.
Train to improve
A more detailed breakdown is:
Transition – 1-6 weeks, where you recover from the previous season
Preparation – 3-4 weeks, where you begin swim, bike, running and again but not too formally
Base – 9-12 weeks, where you build endurance through long, moderate-intensity sessions
Build – 6-8 weeks, where you can increase intensity and reduce volume to forge speed and power
Peak – 1-2 weeks, where you taper, meaning volume right down but maintenance of intensity
“Ultimately, this maximises your training time,” says Williams. “You train to improve your racing rather than to keep fit.”
Time-starved individuals need to maximise recovery. That’s where compression socks come in. Graduated pressure from ankles to calves acts like a second ‘heart’, swiftly pumping deoxygenated blood back to the heart for a hit of oxygen and faster recovery. We’d recommend bespoke socks to enjoy the physiological claims.
Three time-saving tips
There are many time-saving ideas to make the most of your training week. Tim Williams provides three here…
1. FORM NOT FITNESS Short sessions are great for keeping focus so think ‘form’ rather than ‘intensity’. E.g. swim – do a certain number of strokes per length; bike – set yourself a min cadence or a max gear; run – a target stride rate.
2. MAXIMISE BRICKS Don’t forget that tri’s a continuous challenge, which is where transition training comes in. As well as the physiological and psychological benefits, you can also enjoy the added time saving of a single session.
3. BURN FAT Simulate the training effects of long sessions by starting short sessions in a glycogen-depleted state to stimulate your fat-burning metabolism. Just don’t work too hard as carbs will be the predominant energy system
How to train in your 40s
As you age, it’s easy to become stuck in your ways,” explains one of the UK’s finest coaches James Beckinsale. “One athlete I coached, Tim Bishop, came to me as a strong runner but we worked on his off-the-bike run technique in search of a 3hr marathon. He was resistant to start with but, six months later and with an open mindset, a more economical Tim went sub-9hrs for an Ironman.”
Beckinsale transformed Bishop from a heel-striker to a forefoot runner and the rest, as they say… When it comes to technique, just remember that persistence pays off. But not purely on a muscular level.
Train your neurology
Mike Antionades is a biomechanical expert at the Running School. He believes that ‘training your neurology’ is the most neglected area of performance but, with a degree of dedication, it can pay off.
“It takes between 40-60 days and a lot of repetition to change your neural map and for new techniques to become an automated process,” he says. “You should practise new skills – in the case of what I teach, running technique – at least 30mins a day for the first seven to 10 days, and then three times a week to reinforce those new pathways.”
This will recruit more neurons, and essentially re-hardwire your brain and body.
As well as recruiting more neurons, key to improving your tri technique overhaul is a white, pearlescent substance known as myelin – a sausage-shaped layer of dense fat that wraps around the nerve fibres, maintaining a strong electrical signal by stopping electrical impulses leaking out.
The thicker the myelin, the thicker the insulation, the stronger the signal from one fibre to the next. And you achieve that by practice.
Check out our sports psychology section for advice on improving your mental strength
Focus on ‘force work’
“As well as being receptive to learning, this age-group need to keep on top of ‘force work’,” Beckinsale adds. “These are sessions like low-cadence and big-gear work to increase bike-specific strength.” With this type of session, there are several technique pointers to adhere to: maintain stable hips and control knee alignment through the entire pedal stroke; set your bike cleats slightly back to ensure a more stable connection between pedal and cleat; and if you feel knee pain, shift up a gear and keep cadence above 75rpm.
As your family grows up, you’ll have more training time. Cue a stab at Ironman. Cue more pain. One study showed 60% of Ironman competitors consumed a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drug in the three months before their race.
Used to fight pain, they work. But, like many athletes, don’t use them to alleviate muscle soreness as they impair the recovery process.
Coach Joe Beckinsale shares his 3 top tips for the 40-49-year-old competing athlete
1. SKILLS AND STRETCH
Essentially you lose it if you don’t use it, so work on your mobility. This means drills and technique work, as well as stretching and pilates.
2. BE EFFICIENT
Do the hard sessions hard but stay efficient at burning fuel. So continue to do the easy sessions easy, at 55%-65% of your maximum heart rate.
3. PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS
Studies show that your capacity to build greater levels of stamina increases as you age. So consider stepping up to 70.3 or Ironman.
How to train in your 50s
The alarm sounds. On auto-pilot, you turn it off before slowly rising to your feet to the tune of cracking. Yes, it’s inevitable that your joints stiffen as you grow older. Why is because the amount of lubricating fluid inside your joints decreases and cartilage thins out. Exercise certainly helps, as do supplements like glucosamine.
“I swear by it,” says coach Jo Lewis, who runs Tri50, a coaching outfit specifically aimed at the over-50s. “You also need to pay careful attention to your running to reduce chances of injury as well as improve performance.”
Avoid joint impact
Lewis recommends that the over-50s should run on alternate days to avoid too much impact through the joints, while high-quality speed sessions should be limited to once a week. “Don’t always run on tarmac roads, either,” Lewis continues. “Instead, include trails and cross-country routes, which are excellent for ankle and leg strength. Enter some winter cross-country run events, too, as they provide a goal and the necessary incentive to get out the front door when it’s cold, wet and windy.”
Invest in a quality pair of trail shoes – you can’t go far wrong with brands like Inov-8 and Salomon – as well as an aqua belt if you struggle with persistent running-related injuries. “Aqua jogging replicates your run technique and is proven to boost aerobic fitness without injuring yourself further,” says Lewis. “There are many aqua-jogging sessions available online but, broadly speaking, start off in the deep end before moving to shallower waters once the injury’s healed to allow re-introduction of impact.”
2:1 training approach
Lewis suggests a 2:1 training approach, meaning two weeks of either building volume, intensity or duration across all three disciplines, before easing off in week three to rest and recover. This maximises performance gains while reducing the chances of overtraining. Here’s an example three-week block for the intermediate 50-59-year-old…
Weeks 1 and 2: Monday – rest day; Tuesday – 1:30hr aerobic ride; Wednesday – intense run session; Thursday – intense swim of 10 x 100m off 1:50mins with 15secs rest; Friday – pilates or yoga; Saturday – 60min trail run; Sunday – 2.5hr group ride followed by T2 practice and 10min run.
Week 3: Monday – rest day;
Tuesday – 1:30hr easy ride ride; Wednesday – social group run; Thursday – 10min aqua jogging followed by a 1km continuous
swim; Friday – pilates or yoga; Saturday – rest day; Sunday – low-intensity 2hr group ride
Maturity can equate to stubbornness, which is a barrier to swim improvement. “That’s why you should sign up to a local tri club or Masters swim group,” Lewis explains. “Consider the benefits – weekly coached swim sessions, technique focus and increased motivation.”
Overcome fear and flex issues to keep performing well into your 50s, as coach Jo Lewis explains…
1. GET OUT ON THE ROAD
Descending on the bike can be a worrying factor for mature athletes, so you must get out on the roads as often as possible to build competence and confidence.
2. STAY FLEXIBLE
Flexibility, mobility and balance are aspects which are often overlooked. A weekly pilates or yoga class will improve your recovery from the stresses of the three triathlon disciplines
3. MANAGE THE MENOPAUSE
For women going through the menopause, ensure you consume plenty of dairy foods, which can help prevent the onset of osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercises help, too.
- Menopause: How does it affect training?
- Is there a ‘male menopause’?
- How does the postmenopause affect your triathlon training and racing?
How to train in your 60s
From the time you’re born, your muscles grow larger and stronger. Then at some point in your thirties, you begin to lose muscle mass and function. Those married to the sofa lose 3-5% of their muscle mass each decade after 30, but even active triathletes experience some muscle loss with acceleration really kicking in from around 60 to 65-onwards.
That’s where strength training comes in. You see, while endurance exercise is great for the heart and lungs, it’s also catabolic, meaning you can actually lose muscle mass. This is particularly relevant as you age because one of the key anabolic (muscle-building) hormones, testosterone, naturally starts to decrease.
Strength training, however, is anabolic, stimulating muscle-building hormones, like testosterone and human growth hormone.
“You should strength train a couple of times a week,” says tri coach Joe Friel, “and it’s easily done as you can reduce the length of a swim, bike or run session by 15mins and replace with tri-specific strength exercises.
A gym’s ideal though a Theraband and skipping rope can come in handy. Just ensure you periodise these weight sessions after swim, bike and run sessions that aren’t exhausting, so low duration and intensity.”
Check out our section on strength training for sessions and advice
Friel also suggests that ageing athletes will “benefit more from extensive sleep than when they were younger”. That’s where napping comes in. In triathlon, Olympic champion Gwen Jorgensen was renowned for napping for 30mins or less six times a week.
Why is because napping’s been shown to restore alertness, enhance performance and reduce mistakes. A study at NASA on military pilots and astronauts found that a 40min nap improved performance by 34% and alertness by 100%.
- Struggle to sleep after exercise?
- Why is sleep important for athletes?
- 5 foods that… will help aid sleep
- What’s the best time to train according to your circadian rhythm?
“If you can nap for long enough – around 40mins – you release hormones like testosterone and growth hormone that help to repair and build muscle,” says sleep expert Nick Littlehales, but even shorter naps of 20mins are beneficial to restore alertness for an evening workout.
“The good news,” Littlehales continues, “is that with these shorter naps, you don’t even need to fall asleep. Just let your mind wander, relax and you’ll still enjoy rejuvenation benefits.” Ideal if you have an evening session planned
“There’s research suggesting that older athletes will better maintain muscle mass by eating more protein,” says Friel. Studies determine the following as the ideal: 0.4g protein per kg bodyweight four or five times a day; additional one to two servings of dairy (glass of milk, low-fat yoghurt) with each meal; and 40g casein protein before bed to maximise overnight synthesis rates.
Reaching your 60s isn’t an impediment to reaching peak performance, says top tri coach Joe Friel
1. DO 1HR/WEEK IN THE POOL
Develop basic swim skills (posture, duration, length, catch) and swim fast for short distances, e.g. 25m, with 30secs rest between intervals.
2. GET AN ANNUAL WINTER BIKE FIT
This is even more important as you age because muscle fibres struggle to retain elasticity, meaning you’ll become less streamlined.
3. EAT MORE ALKALINE FOODS
As you age, there’s a tendency for acid-base imbalance, which can contribute to bone and muscle loss. The answer? More veggies!