by Davy Kestens in Training Tips, image by Pascal

Triathlon for the older athlete

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As the populations of many nations get grayer, outlets for keeping physically fit have proliferated: softball, tennis, running, even weight lifting are gaining popularity. Now add triathlon to the host of competitive activities for those 60, 70, and even 80 years old.

It’s Easier Than You Think

A lot of people think of triathlon as ironman, which is beyond the capability of most fit younger athletes, let alone seniors. But there are much shorter triathlons, and the beginner need only swim 1/4 mile, bike 10 miles and run 3.1 miles to compete in a “sprint” triathlon. Elite athletes complete this course in under an hour, and even the slowest break 2 hours. This is not a long time for an athlete to perform, and though it takes training, the load is not over-burdensome.

Getting Started

Most older people, even confirmed couch potatoes, have competed in their younger days. It may have been just sandlot soccer or an occasional mile run, but nearly everyone is capable of the conditioning necessary to finish a sprint triathlon. All it really takes is the desire to do it.

Running is the easiest way to start, and many come to triathlon through a running background. For those who have run a lot, the transition actually makes things easier on the body: swimming and cycling don’t tax the joints like running. Even those with no background in running at all can pick it up quite easily; it’s just a short step up from walking. And in the race, it is perfectly acceptable to walk some or even all of the run segment.

It is a rare person who has not ridden a bike. This is the easiest and probably the most enjoyable part of triathlon, with one caveat that comes later. Biking can be done in groups, and a lot of scenery can be covered. It may hardly seem like training at all.

Some athletes arrive at triathlon through a swimming background, and they have a leg up on those who don’t, for swimming is the most challenging part of the race to learn from scratch. Fortunately, most people have had some introduction to swimming, and with a little training, this part of the race becomes easy, as it is very short.

Breaking it Down: the Run

We all run the same: putting one foot in front of the other. Seniors who have never done any running should ease into it, first walking, then alternately running and walking, and finally jogging at a slow pace, increasing gradually. 3.1 miles is not a very long distance, and even the slow-footed should traverse the distance in less than 40 minutes.

Breaking it Down: the Bike

Anyone who rode a bike when he was a kid can ride at 60 or 70. But here’s that caveat: all bikes are not created equal. Some serious triathletes will spend thousands of dollars on a faster bike. For the beginner, though, any bike will do. After a while it will be apparent what type of bike each individual wants. It is a good idea to have the bike fitted professionally. Biking for an hour and a half, or even for the 45 minutes or so it might take for the race, can be uncomfortable on an ill-fitting bike.

Breaking it Down: the Swim

The swim is the one part of the race that will improve a lot with professional instruction. However, the quarter mile is so short that even those doing the back stroke and dog paddle can usually complete it in less than 15 minutes. The most important thing about the swim is to finish it without being exhausted. “Go easy on the swim and push on the bike and run” are common sentiments among triathletes..

Breaking it Down: Transition

There are transitions between the swim and bike, and between the bike and run, and these often make the difference between a medal and no prize. Elite athletes rush through transitions, but others need time to rest a little—with the emphasis on little.

Breaking it Down: Fueling

The body runs on protein, fat and carbohydrate, but the latter is most important when it comes to hard competition. There are many products that make it easier to consume carbohydrates while competing: gels and powders added to drinks. And speaking of drinks, hydration is equally as important as fueling. A body with a full tank of gas but out of water will stop as surely as a car.

Finally: Don’t Overdo

The competitive juices get flowing, even among seniors, and since there are age-group awards, things can really heat up, competitively. The older body is not as forgiving as a younger one, and older athletes should take things at a reasonable pace. Pushing the body too hard risks injury or worse.

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