Triathletes over Fifty: Staying Healthy & Injury-free

Due to a large number of questions from my athletes who are aging up into their 50s or older, I am undertaking a series called “Tri over Fifty”. Each article will discuss a different aspect of participating in our wonderful sport for those fifty years of age and older.

Is it safe for athletes over fifty to train for triathlons?

The answer is almost certainly a resounding “Yes”. However, let’s discuss some of the benefits and risks of this type of training. The benefits of physical activity in aging are well demonstrated and include improved cardiovascular, pulmonary and muscular systems, as well as improved brain function.?1? While aerobic fitness doesn’t improve cognitive ability in people without any difficulties, there is a definite relationship between those with regular, habitual physical activity such as masters athletes.?2? But along with the benefits of regular physical activity come risks, such as injuries from either overtraining, acute trauma and cardiovascular events. ?3?

Why 50? Well, to start with, I just joined this decade of life, so I can identify with the many challenges that come with it. Some are common to younger decades as well such as family commitments, caring for kids who may still live at home and being in prime earning years of your job. However, others have more in common with the decades to come, such as problems with arthritis, menopause, andropause, development/arrival of chronic health problems such as heart disease or cancer. Fifty marks a point in our lives when we may no longer feel youthful, but we are far from old age.

The most recent question I received was from a 54-year-old athlete, Dan B., who asked: “How can I remain injury-free at 54 years old while training for triathlons?” Without knowing more about Dan’s specific background, I am going to make some assumptions for this series.

  • You’re interested in maintaining an active lifestyle whether it’s in triathlon or another sport
  • You’re worried about the best and healthiest way to train, given your lofty goals
  • You’re tolerance for certain activity levels or recovery strategies is narrower than it used to be
  • You’ve been training for triathlon at least since your 40s, and have noticed changes in your body
  • You’ve had previous, minor injuries that may be nagging or take longer and longer to recover from

In this article, I want to discuss the most important of these three first…issues related to the heart.

Is Triathlon Training Healthy for the Heart?

Exercise and regular activity are some of the best prescriptions a physician could write for her patients! In this modern world of a pill for every problem, you’d need a dozen or more different pills to even come close to the benefits of exercise, and it still wouldn’t be close. People who are routinely active have up to 50% fewer cardiac events in middle life than their sedentary comparisons. ?4?

Some additional benefits include decreased depression and anxiety, lowered risk of dementia, stronger bones, fewer falls, lowered blood pressure, better lipid profile, fewer strokes, lowered risk of multiple types of cancer and more. Feel free to download the infographic here and share, or print it out and use it as a reminder of why you should exercise.

Infographic showing the benefits of exericse.

Cardiovascular Issues from Endurance Training

The benefits of exercise on the heart are well known. The heart accommodates and adapts to the demands we place on it in the same way our muscles adapt as we lift weights. Initially, there is some minor damage, and after recovery, the muscle rebuilds and repairs itself to be stronger and able to handle more stress. Some adaptations are normal and beneficial like the ones we already discussed. But others may be harmful and lead to sudden death, chronic abnormal heartbeats, or inability to pump blood adequately.

The amount of endurance training that leads to abnormal heart problems is still not completely known, but there does seem to be a sweet spot of about 20-30 minutes of moderate activity daily (ie a 15 minute/mile jog or walk, cycling at 15-20mph).?5? Triathletes, marathoners and other endurance athletes often train 5-10 times more than these beneficial durations. Below I list several different types of abnormal adaptations from an abundance of endurance exercise. These fall into three categories of issues related to muscle tissue, blood flow, and electrical conduction.

Problems with Blood Flow

  • Sudden blockage of an already narrowed artery causing a heart attack or leading to cardiac arrest
  • Already narrowed arteries which may cause angina. Often early signs of angina are ignored or unrecognized.

Problems with Muscle Tissue:

  • Thickening of muscle fibers causing blockage of blood flow (Hypertrophic Obstructive Cardiomyopathy)
  • Scarring of muscle tissue causing myocardial fibrosis
  • Stretching of muscle tissue causing cardiomyopathy or atrial fibrillation

Problems with the Electrical Conducting System of the Heart

  • Atrial Fibrillation, often chronic, that may contribute to fatigue or cause strokes
  • Ventricular Fibrillation caused by a heart attack. This results in complete collapse and loss of consciousness called a Cardiac Arrest, which is often deadly…more often than not.

Risks of Sudden Cardiac Death in Triathletes

Two case series articles have been published that sought to gather and categorize deaths occurring in triathletes. One was published a few years ago and at that time was the most comprehensive article dealing with the topic.

In the US, all identifiable deaths during USA Triathlon races between the years 1985 and 2006 were analyzed. The overall risk was 1.74 per 100 000 (2.40 in men and 0.74 in women). The rate did not seem to differ based on the type of event. Most of these deaths occurred during the swim leg. At autopsy, nearly half had cardiac-related abnormalities such as narrowed arteries or an enlarged heart.?6?

In February of 2020, a similar case series was published in the UK that looked at triathlon related deaths between the years The overall risk of triathlon-related deaths in the UK was 0.5 per 100,000 participants. Of these half were thought to be due to pre-existing cardiac conditions.?7?

The risk of dying during a triathlon due to a heart-related condition is not zero but it’s fairly low. Nevertheless, age is a risk factor for developing heart disease. If you have not had a cardiac evaluation by your primary care doctor, please make an appointment as soon as possible. Screening tests may include an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG), an echocardiogram or an exercise stress test. If you have anyone in your family that has ever had heart disease make sure your physician knows this as well, as it increases your own risk.

Silent heart disease in athletes has been the cause of death in two personal friends of mine, and a third friend was successfully resuscitated after a bicycle ride. All had been healthy & active their entire lives, and their endurance activities most likely prolonged their lifespan. So please don’t let the fact that you’ve been active stop you from getting a checkup and screening with your physician.

Thank you so much for reading this far. Next up in my “Tri over Fifty” series, I’ll discuss the muscle-related side effect of aging called sarcopenia, and again will discuss the benefits of triathlon training in combatting this monster.

Bibligraphy

  1. 1.
    Young J, Angevaren M, Rusted J, Tabet N. Aerobic exercise to improve cognitive function in older people without known cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(4):CD005381. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005381.pub4
  2. 2.
    Schott N, Krull K. Stability of Lifestyle Behavior – The Answer to Successful Cognitive Aging? A Comparison of Nuns, Monks, Master Athletes and Non-active Older Adults. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1347. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01347
  3. 3.
    Franklin B, Fern A, Voytas J. Training principles for elite senior athletes. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2004;3(3):173-179. doi:10.1249/00149619-200406000-00014
  4. 4.
    Sharma S, Merghani A, Mont L. Exercise and the heart: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Eur Heart J. 2015;36(23):1445-1453. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehv090
  5. 5.
    Merghani A, Malhotra A, Sharma S. The U-shaped relationship between exercise and cardiac morbidity. Trends Cardiovasc Med. 2016;26(3):232-240. doi:10.1016/j.tcm.2015.06.005
  6. 6.
    Harris K, Creswell L, Haas T, et al. Death and Cardiac Arrest in U.S. Triathlon Participants, 1985 to 2016: A Case Series. Ann Intern Med. 2017;167(8):529-535. doi:10.7326/M17-0847
  7. 7.
    Windsor J, Newman J, Sheppard M. Cardiovascular Disease and Triathlon-Related Deaths in the United Kingdom. Wilderness Environ Med. February 2020. doi:10.1016/j.wem.2019.11.002

The best Freestyle Kicking Pattern for Triathletes

Underwater view of a man swimming in a pool

“The design is finished not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”

Kicking has Multiple Functions in the Freestyle Swim

The kick can help rotate the body, create forward movement, and provide lift in the back end. Each swimmer needs to understand how their kick is fitting in to their stroke, what benefit it’s giving them and how they can improve it. Some folks will use kicking to keep the back end up, while in the mean time they are pushing down on the front of the water with their stroke. If they were to fix the front end, the back end could be repurposed and the same energy used would help them go faster. Yet in many swim squads, as long as the athlete is doing a continuous or 6 beat kick the coach is happy, and hopes over time they’ll get better at it.

Kick Removed equals the popular “band swimming” drill

If you take the above quote to the extreme and “take away” all the leg movements you’re left with the ever popular “band” swimming or no kick swimming, which helps teach swimmer how to quiet the legs, create good balance in the front half and identify the core muscles better.

Progress from there to 2 beat kicking which adds additional rotational component and not a lot of lift.  A 4 beat may provide more lift and compensate for balance asymmetries at various stroke points (sun yang uses a 4 beat on his breathing cycle) and often a 2 beat on non -breathing for example.

Progressing again, a well timed 6 beat kick provides rotation as well as propulsion. Each step also uses more energy and is less efficient when comparing energy spent for forward movement produced. Having the technical ability to choose your kick strategically based on energy management as well as swim speed in a triathlon is a high level goal for any triathlete.

How much Energy should Triathletes spend in the Swim?

No one suggests that a triathlete should go all out on the bike portion of a tri, or that their best tri run split should be equal to their best standalone run split. Yet many swim-centric triathlon or masters coaches will suggest swimming with a 6 beat kick during a triathlon.  This inconsistency in energy expenditure is baffling.

So why the inconsistency in suggesting a 6 beat or flutter kick…  is it best for a triathlete because it will result in the best speed ? It may be faster when done well…but also uses more energy than a 2 beat kick. If a triathlete needs to manage energy across 3 sports, why not use kick timing as an energy management strategy and opt for a 2 beat kick more often?

Why not spend time developing both a 2 and a 6 so you have choices? After all, you train in more than one bike gear too, right?

Triathletes Should get Confident with Multiple Patterns for Maximum Choices while Racing.

It seems like the same coaches who advise against a 2 Beat Kick are also gung-ho for the “band” swimming drill.  In this drill an elastic band is placed around the ankles to remove the kick, and force the athlete to focus on balance and the front end of the stroke.  I think it’s also an excellent drill…especially when it can be done as a no-kick drill withOUT the band! Learnign to control the legs adequately and keep them closely streamlined without having a restricting band, also teaches the swimmer how to control the legs while kicking in any pattern.

If the kick is a progression of frequency from no kicking to a rapid flutter kick, then a 2, 4 & 6 beat kick all fall along this spectrum.   It’s incongrunent to prescribe band drills but proscribe the two beat kick.    Practice all types and expand your options while getting faster as well.

Some examples of Elite Swimmers & Their Kicks…

Here’s a fast female with a 2 beat kick from what I can tell… honesty with a tempo that fast I don’t know how she’d fit in 4 or 6 beats.  This is the incomparable Janet Evans, a 5’0″ powerhouse champion.

 

Here is Katie Ledecky, World Record Holder in the 1500m at her performance in the 2015 World championship.  This is a great video to wtach because she displays a variety of kick patterns including 2, 4 & 6 beat.  her 4 beat kick is an asymmetric 1-3 kick, which means it resembles a 2 Beat kick on one half of the body and a 6  beat kick on the other half.   Take a look and let me know what you see…

Here’s a great one of Katie Ledecky & Simone Manuel competing in the 200m race.  Simone Manuel who I have written about before, is racing at the long end of her competitive ability, and Katie Ledecky is racing at the short end.   Who do you think will win? Both are using 6 beat kicks here the entire way as far as I can tell.    This shows that the distance can help determine the kick pattern.  In the 1500m Ledecky kicks less often.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

What are your thoughts on the best kick timing for triathletes?

Image by <a href=”https://pixabay.com/users/tpsdave-12019/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=79592″>David Mark</a> from <a href=”https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=79592″>Pixabay</a>

10 Questions to Ask When Interviewing a Triathlon Coach

Choosing a triathlon coach is daunting whether it is your first time or your fifth. Knowing what questions to ask is hard when you’re not even sure what you are looking for.

Use these questions as a guide not only for interviewing a coach, but also to ask yourself if you are considering self-coaching.

  1. Where can I read or hear about examples of your past coaching? Experienced coaches will have a ready list of past clients, write-ups on their own websites and often the athletes will write their own race reports that give credit to their coach.  Don’t get enamored by coaches of celebrity triathletes. There are only so many Chef Gordons, Apolo Anton Ohnos or Hines Wards to be coached.   There are hundreds of thousands of athletes you many have never heard of who have been coached by excellent age group coaches. 
  2. Who is your favorite triathlon coach and why? The answer can reveal a lot about the coach’s training style and philosophy. It’s probably that they aspire to coach in a similar way to the coaches that they admire. 
  3. What training technologies do you use and why?   There are so many new technologies out on the market today, and you can’t expect to be an expert in all of them.  Coaches, however, tend to either stick with their tried and true technologies or be early adopters of new gear and gadgets.   You’ll want to make sure that your personality matches your coach’s use of tools and gadgets. And if you’ve invested a lot of time and dollars into a power meter, for example, you’ll want to make sure your coach is comfortable and experienced using it for her clients as well. 
  4. How will you optimize my training for my goal race?   There are a handful of common methods to plan a season, and then dozens if not infinite ways to manipulate basic training ideas.   Some elements of optimization don’t change from person to person, such as the principals of frequency, intensity, specificity, progressive overload.  However, there are a number of ways those elements are combined and emphasized during the season is one thing that makes a certain coaching style unique. 
  5. What kind of experience do you have for my *unique situation*?   This can be any kind of unique situation.   A medical condition like diabetes or a history of a heart attack or pacemaker,  a cancer survivor or even current cancer treatment, recent or remote surgery, limb amputation, visual loss, hearing loss… the list goes on and on.   If you have a unique situation that you think may disqualify you from being a triathlete, think again. I guarantee there is a coach who has worked with someone like you before.  And if not, coaches are trained in how to modify training, bikes, swim workouts, etc to accommodate special people. Find out if your potential coach has experience or has connections to another coach who does. 


Getting comfortable interviewing a potential coach is vital for you to choose the right coach for you. You’ll receive 5 MORE questions to ask when interviewing a triathlon coach by downloading our 2-page infographic “10 Questions to Ask When Interviewing a Triathlon Coach” and have it immediately delivered to your email inbox.

What are some good VO2 Max Workouts?

Triathlete Cornering on Bike Course at Pittsburgh Triathlon

VO2 max is typically achieved in an all-out effort of 3-8 minutes depending on your genetics and fitness. Outstanding athletes may be able to hold their true VO2 max for a full 8 minutes, but most people cannot.

The whole idea of interval work (at any intensity) is to use shorter sets with rests to add up to a total of more work that you would otherwise, be able to do as a continuous effort. You can reach your VO2 max after about 30 seconds of starting an interval at the appropriate intensity, but after you stop or slow down, our oxygen needs diminish and your heart rate slows, and you are no longer at your VO2 max. When you start your next interval, your “bucket” has only partially emptied depending on the intensity of your rest interval (how low your HR or Power or Vo2 drops during the rest)…which determines how far you need to fill the bucket up again to be back at your Vo2 Max.

So if the goal is to get as much work in as possible at VO2 max
efforts, you can see how shorter, more intense rest intervals would
let you reach your VO2 max effort more quickly once you re-start a
given interval.

So if the goal is to get as much work in as possible at VO2 max
efforts, you can see how shorter, more intense rest intervals would
let you reach your VO2 max effort more quickly once you re-start a
given interval.

So the next question is how long should the intervals be?

Tabata intervals (10 sec max, 20 sec rest) will hit a component of VO2
eventually, but they are really best for anaerobic conditioning.
Billat’s intervals (30 at vo2 max-30 at “rest”) are great for an
introduction to VO2 max efforts for either newbies, or early in the
season, with little worry for injury. In addition, her work has shown
that after a 4-6 week block of VO2 interval work, only 2-3 minutes of
VO2 work per week are required to sustain your gains before they drop
off to far. So you can cycle your VO2 work early in the season and
see some benefits, taper them off in the spring time and resume them
prior to or during race season. Of course, if you can tolerate the
longer intervals (2, 3, 5 minutes or more) at your VO2 max power, you
will pack in the most time at VO2 max.

Finally, about what power to do your intervals at…since by
definition, your 5 minute power is going to be close to your VO2 max
effort (and could only be confirmed with expired gas testing in a
lab), you might as well use that 5 minute power as your target power
for your VO2 intervals.

There’s no right or wrong as long as you are applying physiology
appropriately. The most important part is to have a plan to follow
and be able to measure your progress. Ways of measuring your progress
could be to do a block of VO2 intervals for 4-6 weeks as part of your
regular training with a progression that makes sense, and then measure
either your all out 5 min power again, OR hold your 465W and see how
long you can hold it after the training block.

So if the goal is to get as much work in as possible at VO2 max
efforts, you can see how shorter, more intense rest intervals would
let you reach your VO2 max effort more quickly once you re-start a
given interval.

So the next question is how long should the intervals be?

Tabata intervals (10-sec max, 20-sec rest) will hit a component of VO2
eventually, but they are really best for anaerobic conditioning.
Billat’s intervals (30 at vo2 max-30 at “rest”) are great for an
introduction to VO2 max efforts for either newbies, or early in the
season, with little worry for injury. In addition, her work has shown
that after a 4-6 week block of VO2 interval work, only 2-3 minutes of
VO2 work per week are required to sustain your gains before they drop
off to far. So you can cycle your VO2 work early in the season and
see some benefits, taper them off in the springtime and resume them
prior to or during race season. Of course, if you can tolerate the
longer intervals (2, 3, 5 minutes or more) at your VO2 max power, you
will pack in the most time at VO2 max.

Finally, about what power to do your intervals at…since by
definition, your 5-minute power is going to be close to your VO2 max
effort (and could only be confirmed with expired gas testing in a
lab), you might as well use that 5-minute power as your target power
for your VO2 intervals.

There’s no right or wrong as long as you are applying physiology
appropriately. The most important part is to have a plan to follow
and be able to measure your progress. Ways of measuring your progress
could be to do a block of VO2 intervals for 4-6 weeks as part of your
regular training with a progression that makes sense, and then measure
either your all-out 5 min power again OR hold your 465W and see how
long you can hold it after the training block.

I hope that gives you some more ideas on how to design integrate VO2 max sets into your training.

This article originally appeared on my retired blog, exercisephysiologyMD.com in January of 2009

5 Ways to Become a Better Hill Climber – Bike Training

Make Climbing Hills fun by training specifically for your race or adventure!

Image by moerschy from Pixabay

Recently an athlete asked me the following question:

I’ve noticed that I can pretty much keep up with people on rides. Except when we hit a hill, I hit a wall.  Thank god my descending skills are great otherwise I wouldn’t catch up with the pack!

Any recommendations in terms of training for climbs?  I would like to work on those at least once a week.

Here is my answer:

You can do several things to train for climbs.

#1 More Overall Power equals Better Climbing

The first is to climb, climb, climb!  Climbing is all about strength to weight (or power to weight) ratio.  So the more overall power you have the better you will do on climbs.  Thus any sort of training that raises your threshold will help with climbing (sweet spot, threshold, VO2).

#2 Climbing Short Fast Hills

Shorter climbs are frequently about anaerobic efforts and the ability to recover from them quickly.  Especially in Pittsburgh most hills are only a few minutes long or shorter.  This taps into anaerobic energy stores.  So doing hill “sprints” at various lengths from 30 seconds up to 3 minutes with FULL RECOVERY will add an aspect of fitness.

#3 Training to Recover from Short Efforts

As far as recovery from hill-climbing, doing sprints with short recovery will help you learn to “tolerate” lactic acid and keep riding when your legs are cooked. So you can craft a number of different workouts to improve at hills.


#4 Overall Leg Strength Work (Bodyweight Training)

I think it is also beneficial to work on sheer muscular strength with bike-specific leg work in a weight room or with body weight.  Lunges, Bulgarian split squats (rear leg up on a chair, other leg forward, squat down and up, step-ups, deadlifts, one-legged deadlifts, etc).

#5  Develop a Solid Core for Climbing 

Don’t forget solid core work.  When climbing the upper body often comes into play and without a strong core to transmit energy and stabilize the upper & lower body with one another, you’ll just be a floppy noodle on the bike.  Sue’s “Core and More” exercises are great for this. (She also covered the good leg work).

Mixing it all together

I would do core 2-3 times per week, bodyweight leg strength 1-2 times a week, even progressing to some plyometrics, and finally at least one day a week focusing on on the bike climbing and strength work, with at least one long hilly ride on the weekend.

That’s enough workout ideas to keep you busy for a while. Finally, I’ve talked to many cyclists who simply say that “one day” they were suddenly good climbers.  It comes as the years of riding add up and you get stronger and more efficient. Unfortunately, there is no fast way to become a better climber, but if you are consistent in your training you will get there!

This article was original published on my retired blog excersice physiology, MD on March 18, 2009