Whether you're a Millenial or a Baby Boomer, here's how to get the most out of your training, recovery, and lifestyle.
by Luke Yates
If you've ever stood at the finish line of a triathlon, you've seen first-hand that youth is not a requirement for enjoyment—or success—in the sport. Though age might be a hindrance when it comes to resilience, speed, or injury avoidance, age hasn't stopped athletes such as Lew Hollander and Sister Madonna Buder from crossing even IRONMAN finish lines well into their 80's,
But just as transition areas are filled with all shapes, sizes, and ages, triathlon is not a one-size-fits-all sport. Twenty-five-year-old legs and lungs are different than a 50-year-old's. Though they share a similar sporting lifestyle, there are very real differences between the challenges a 30-year-old faces in endurance sports than someone in their 60's.
To help get a handle on what unique strengths, weaknesses, challenges, and gains each successive decade might bring to our favorite pastime, we chatted with four triathlon coaches who've molded triathlon into their lives at various stages themselves and now mentor athletes of all ages.
Read on for help navigating triathlon from wherever you are in life—with bonus tips from your fellow rock-star age groupers.
The teens and 20's
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The 20's are where it all begins for many triathletes. Despite the range of sporting backgrounds people bring to triathlon, the goal of the first few years is basically the same: Regardless of experience, this is a key time for developing form.
"It's about having awareness about how you're actually moving, and developing that ability to move from the core," says six-time IRONMAN world champion coach, Mark Allen.
The result of this focus is that as endurance builds, the body becomes more efficient.
Matt Dixon, head coach of Purplepatch Fitness, takes the approach of "athlete as artist." This means learning open water swimming techniques, practicing cornering and riding in the wind, and understanding how to maintain posture and manage terrain when running.
Lance Watson echoes that thought: "A young athlete should be much more focused on skill development than energy systems, with the higher focus on dynamic movement," he says.
Watson, head coach at Lifesport Coaching, feels that there are three key periods of athlete development. Learning to train, learning to race, and learning to win. The 20's are for learning to train, and forming good habits such as time management and recovery. Dixon adds sleep and nutrition to that list.
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A concern according to Allen, is that "young folks are generally very enthusiastic and they just want to go hard all the time." Dave Scott, another six-time IRONMAN world champion, elaborates further: "What happens when the young ones keep tacking on big volume is that they end up getting pretty vulnerable in their connective tissue. All of a sudden they have tendonitis and inflammation."
Triathletes are susceptible to over-training and obsession at any age, but this can be a particular concern in the 20's. At this stage, it's important to be patient with the training process and understand that sessions may not feel that hard. Moreover, this is the phase of life where athletes—no matter how serious—should break the rules from time to time and have a beer or two. Enjoy that rapid metabolism while you can!
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This decade is when a lot of triathletes hit their peak. With the accumulation of years of training, stamina is well developed and strength is at its maximum.
"If you're doing it right, this is when you're going to have your maximum peak power. Here, your sustained strength also has the potential to go up," says Scott.
The aim is now to consolidate fitness. According to Dixon, this is the time for specificity in workouts. This means the easy feeling of low stress aerobic workouts must be accepted, but when hard workouts are prescribed, they should be seriously hard. These extremes are the hallmark of effective training in this phase of life.
Swimming is the one discipline where fewer rest days are needed according to Dixon and Scott. Hard swim sessions are easier to recover from than hard workouts in cycling or running, and the more technical nature of swimming has to be maintained for long periods.
Athletes in this age bracket have moved beyond learning to train, and land squarely in the "learn to race," or "learn to win" phase. The athlete has matured and developed skills specific to triathlon, and can move on to working on mental strength.
"Athletes in this age range carry a bit more experience and confidence onto the race course," says Watson. "Basically, their sport intelligence is at a new level."
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Scott feels athletes in their 30's should begin to focus more on flexibility. Allen notes that as athletes age, strength work is paramount. "It's imperative for race performance and continued improvement," he adds.
But by far the biggest change overall is the increased demands on a triathlete's time in this decade—often from work and family. "As you move towards the 30's, if you're asking pitfalls, it's retaining a 20's mind-set of thinking you're bulletproof and resilient, ignoring your life stresses, and dumping training on top of life," adds Dixon.
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Many athletes sustain top performances well into their 40's. Top-end speed begins to wane, but endurance remains. So while 800s at the track might be tailing off, paces over the longer workouts can remain very close to those of earlier years. It takes years of consistent training to build a strong aerobic base, and this doesn't just disappear overnight. Combine this endurance with that hard-earned mental experience, and it's not difficult to see why triathlon age groups into the 40's remain extremely competitive.
According to Watson, an advantage in this decade is greater understanding of training methodologies and access to expertise. Athletes now see the value in coaching and have the confidence to trust their coach and believe in their plan. This allows them to train and periodize properly, and hopefully stay healthy.
At this stage, training must be carefully scheduled and a premium should be put on key workouts. Add in some structured tempo and maintenance workouts, and other extra sessions can be cut out. Anything just to add volume, and low-end anaerobic work that leads to a lot of training stress, should be avoided.
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All this doesn't mean age-groupers in their 40's have nothing to worry about.
"If you have a high-performing athlete in their late 30's, if they stay healthy they're able to keep competing at a high level through their early 40's. But often there's that one big injury, and it's a lot harder for them to come back to that same high level again," says Watson.
Injury is a real concern if hard workouts are included too frequently as sleep quality deteriorates and joint mobility reduces. Recovery can often be compromised to make up for the time spent training, working, or with the family. "There's equal, if not more life stress in the 40's typically," says Dixon.
Strength and conditioning needs develop further in the 40's. Strength can no longer be maintained solely through swim, bike, and run, so spending some time in the gym is essential. This should include exercises under heavy load, such as squats and deadlifts, as well as ongoing mobility work. It's also time to start focusing on nutrition. According to Dixon, athletes in their 40's become less efficient at digesting, so the timing and make up of meals is essential for good recovery and general well being.
All the coaches speak of the need to keep a balance in life and make time for family. There may even be opportunities to include them in your training and racing, with family rides or swims, and junior races, depending on their age.
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Moving into the 50's, athletes often find themselves with more time to call their own. Usually, children are more independent, and there's simply more free time in the week. On the work front, senior positions can be demanding, but also offer more flexibility. This is an opportunity for improvement, but it must be managed carefully.
"Before now, the swim, bike, and run is the bull's-eye, and strength and conditioning is the critical supporting cast. For the 50's and 60's, I put it as equal. It's one of the disciplines you have to do," says Dixon.
The timing of hard efforts should be controlled with more aerobic training than ever. "[There should be] increased emphasis on endurance work. Also, pay closer attention to rest and just being a little more attentive how you put weeks together," says Watson
For athletes in this age range, Watson plans what he likes to call "superman blocks." These are careful doses of tough work, at a point in the season when recovery can then be prioritized.
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One weakness Scott often notices is increased muscular imbalance with age. Dominant muscles become more dominant, driving motion and increasing the risk of injury. In addition, osteoporosis also becomes a concern, especially for women, due to hormonal changes and general aging. These can both be counteracted by weight-bearing work, while introducing specific mobility exercises.
"Generally, as people get older they become less flexible, which makes you work harder to go the same speed," adds Allen.
It's crucial not to over race at any age, but this becomes increasingly apparent moving through the 50's. Being realistic about recovery means accepting that race efforts are going to take time to get over so careful planning of a season is required. This could involve [shorter events] or extending the season by travelling to different countries where races happen at different times of the year.
The 60's, 70's, and beyond
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Heading through the 60's, many people begin thinking about retirement. This brings a huge increase in free time, and rather than focusing on limitations, Scott likes to challenge his athletes.
"Have you ever done this? Have you ever done that? Well let’s start. You can improve dramatically," says Scott.
While times may be slowing, and top end speed dropping away, there is still room for gains compared to competitors. The biggest thing both Scott and Allen see in athletes as they get older is the loss of strength and mobility in joints and smaller muscles but this doesn’t have to be the case.
"They lose muscle and tendon elasticity because there’s not as high water content. If you don't have the mobility, you can’t fire the muscle to its full capacity," says Scott. Bigger muscle groups are easier to maintain with the right training, so it's important to be aware of how those smaller muscles impact form. Allen adds, "People lose strength in their lower legs. You see old people walk along. It's like they're walking on blocks."
To increase mobility, they recommend yoga and Pilates, a thorough stretching routine or even dancing. Adding these activities to a training schedule, at any time, can have major benefits and lead to increased performance. And it's also important to continue resistance exercises. These are how those bigger muscles are maintained, and they contribute to improved posture, core strength and and reduced risk of osteoporosis.
"Once they're working on that, all of a sudden those smaller muscles that have been dormant, are now reactivated," says Scott.
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Due to the stress it places on the body, running drops off the most as triathletes get older. Watson adapts their training by putting in more work on the bike, because it's non-weight bearing and low impact.
When run sessions are scheduled, Dixon argues that they must be well structured with intervals and walk breaks. "I don't like older athletes slogging through gradually. I prefer to break it down and make each session really valuable with the best form and the best intent possible."
Swimming is one area where intensity can continue to be high. The cardio gains from hard sessions in the pool transfer well to the other two sports at any age, argues Dixon, but they also allow older athletes to maintain anaerobic work in a less damaging way to running.
Next time you take to that start line, look around you. Every athlete is unique and has their own personal story, their own strengths, fears and weaknesses. But you also share many so many things. Most people face the same challenges of trying to fit in training around a busy life, while looking to improve as both an athlete and a person.
So give yourself a pat on the back. You're doing a great job and training for triathlon isn't easy. But hopefully these tips from some of the greatest coaches currently out there can make that process just a little more manageable. Whether it's better time management or refined training focus, new activities or staying healthy, work it, watch it, and most definitely enjoy it. You've got this.
Luke Yates is an adventurer, triathlete, and journalist.