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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
This is a response to a forum post over on Beginner Triathlete about so-called “Hypoxic Breathing” swim drills, and originally appeared on my retired blog, exercisephysiologymd.comon January 17th, 2007
I’m a huge proponent of using terms that accurately reflect the underlying physical changes that occur on a biochemical level when training for triathlon swimming. The words I use as a coach transmit meaning to the athlete that may help reinforce what the benefit is.
That’s why the term “Hypoxic Breathing” does not belong in a swim or triathlon coach’s lexicon. If you ask swimmers, triathletes and many coaches what hypoxic breathing drills are, they’ll respond with answers like:
Holding your breath
Swimming Underwater (as far as you can)
Swimming a length while minimizing breathing
Swimming with increasing time between breaths, eg. every 3, every 5 or every 7 strokes
I want to address the first two responses primarily, but principals apply to the latter 2 answers as well.
Firstly, holding your breath prevents CO2 from escaping your lungs. Our body is constantly consuming oxygen and producing CO2 as a waste product. The CO2 builds up much faster than the oxygen is consumed, and needs to be released through the lungs. Holding your breathing causes the CO2 level to build up in your bloodstream. So these sets should really be called “Hypercarbic” sets. “Hyper-” meaning elevated and “-carbic” relating to the carbon dioxide level.
The build-up of Co2 in the lungs while holding your breath stimulates the brainstem and diaphragm to breath. This is the sensation you feel when you hold your breath without exhaling. The lungs start to burn and the urge to breath is irresistible. Breathing is usually involuntary, meaning we don’t think about it and when not thinking about it, don’t have control over it. Our brainstem, spinal cord, and diaphragm will keep the bellows moving no matter what.
But when we voluntarily decide to hold our breath, we are overriding the built-in mechanisms. We can continue to override those mechanisms even when the urge to breath crops up. When trying to stay under the water for a long time, some swimmers and divers will hyperventilate first, in order to lower the CO2 level and delay the urge to breathe. This means that the oxygen in your bloodstream drops lower and lower while the CO2 level takes longer to build up.
However, people have died doing these drills. There is no physiologic benefit from doing them. The name is a misnomer. If you want to swim uninterrupted without worrying about breathing, use a snorkel. The benefit of using a snorkel is that you don’t have to break form when breathing, and can focus on other parts of your swim stroke comes from not having your form break down when you roll (or don’t roll, or lift your head, or claw your way to the surface) to take a breath.
A far, far better solution is to have someone work with you to learn how to breathe properly. The number of strokes you take per breath is irrelevant. There is no right number. You need what you need. The body’s need for oxygen consumption and getting rid of carbon dioxide is dependent upon how much energy you are using and in what form you are using it (aerobic/anaerobic, etc). When I start my swim warmup, I will frequently swim 7 to 9 strokes without breathing only because I am swimming smoothly, I have not gotten my oxygen consumption up by working hard, I am not generating a lot of waste products due to the low effort. When I have the urge to breathe, I breathe. When I am doing long endurance sprints, I may breathe every 2 strokes. When I am rested and doing a single 25-yard sprint, yes, I can do it with no breaths. But not because I am forcing myself to do it. It is because 15-20 seconds of maximum effort requires little oxygen.
A novice swimmer who uses all the energy they have just to stay on the surface of the water will need to breathe every stroke because of the amount of energy they are using.
Do not play with the basic needs of your body.
There is a mantra in Emergency Medical Services:
Air goes in and out, Blood goes round and round Pink is good and blue is bad.
That’s all an EMT, Paramedic or Emergency Medicine nurse or physician needs to know in order to resuscitate a patient. If it’s good enough for these professionals, it’s good enough for the recreational swimmer.
Air goes in and out.
Don’t forget it.
Practice it daily. Frequently. You’ll get really good at it.
Is Training by Heart Rate Better than Training by Effort?
Do you use a power meter or heart rate monitor for every cycling workouts? Do you know your training zones by heart? Do you regularly execute a threshold test set every 4-6 weeks throughout the year as your fitness improves? If so congratulations are in order…or are they?
Executing a workout well often means hitting prescribed training levels such as a target heart rate or power zone. But an even more powerful training skill to master is nailing the effort level without out prescriptive guidelines. Instead of having a pre-determined target to hit, you ride (run/swim) by effort following the guidelines of the workout and tuning in to your body’s response and signals.
How long can I sustain this effort?
Can I work at this level of dis-comfort for another 4 minutes without fading?
Can I repeat this focus level for another three sets of the same activity?
Is this recovery level easy enough that I can do another hard effort for the next eight minutes?
Nailing the workout intention when using effort alone means you’re in tune with how your body is responding to effort that day. But it takes practice!
Failing is a Step Closer to the End Result
The first time you execute a workout like this, you may, in fact, you will fail miserably. You’ll start too hard and won’t complete all the efforts. You’ll finish too easily and not hit the desired intensity. You’ll look at your heart rate tracing after the fact and see a line that looks like the profile of the Hilly Billy Roubeaux instead of even like the Sahara desert. In other words, your efforts were all over the place, rather than steady, even and repeatable.
You’re thinking, “But coach, just give me a power target and I’ll hit it”.
Success in triathlon is not always about hard work. It’s more often about being in tune with your body on a consistent basis and relying on that instinct you’ve developed on race day. Power training is fantastic, but there’s no substitute for your intuition about your own body’s performance.
There’s a recipe for developing this instinct. Given any specific task, complete the workout in a “practice” mode. You’re not trying to build fitness, nail a heart rate zone, get anaerobic, VO2 max-ish, or wherever the effort falls on a physiologic scale.
You’re trying to tune your instincts to hit the intention of the workout. ie “go hard for an hour”, “run easy for exactly 30 minutes”, “execute three evenly paced efforts with 2 minute rest at the maximum of your ability”.
Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Training
It may be hard to see how it’s different to hit a power range for three eight-minute efforts, versus doing the same effort without targets and going just by feel.
The first is “prescriptive”…your efforts are given by your coach or your spreadsheet of training zones. But your spreadsheet doesn’t know your body’s ability on that specific day, and your coach won’t know unless you are in a daily training environment or communicate intensively on a daily basis.
In the second example, the power is “descriptive”. You or your coach look at your power levels, effort or heart rate zones AFTER you complete the workout instead of before or during.
You improve your ability to understand your body while executing a practice session, rather than a workout. While practicing, you’re also developing the specific fitness needed to improve your fitness and master the pace, master the effort and tune into your body.
On race day, it matters less what your power or heart rate targets are…it matters more if you’re operating within your body’s ability to cross the finish line having used your energy wisely and finishing in the fastest time you’re capable of.
Fitness Follows Mastery
Once you master the workout you can learn to push your abilities while still maintaining the practice intentions. Maybe it takes you three ‘practice sessions’ to do an evenly paced 3 x 8 minute effort with 2 minutes rest. “But Coach,” you protest again loudly…”If you’d just give me a target, I can do it right the first time!” Right…but that’s not the point.
Building fitness is easy. Anyone can prescribe hard workouts. Online training simulators like Trainer Road, Zwift and Sufferfest can help you do testing sets, tell you how to crunch the numbers (or do it for you) and give you back more training sets to do. That’s algorithmic.
But coaching is an art and racing well requires practice…not just fitness.
Practice executing specific workouts by listening to your body. Repeat these efforts to do it “better”…more evenly paced within the workout guidelines. See what your heart rate and power were AFTER the effort is done. Are your efforts even or ‘hilly billy’? Is each effort similar to the previous or do they get less intense as you get more fatigued? Or is the first effort even and the second and third efforts ragged?
Practice Perfect the Push Performance
Photo: Nils Nilsen, Triathlete.com
Reread the workout guidelines and see if you executed it well. If you did, congratulations! You now have a baseline. Next time you try it, see if you can push just a little bit more. If the workouts are well designed, you’ll be building the fitness you need, but more importantly, building your reservoir of body sensing, pacing and confidence in racing.
“Training is about teaching yourself to understand your boundaries and then slowly pushing those boundaries up. You need to know how to feel those and where they are!
I say go out and try to get in touch with your perceived exertion and your body rhythm at least a few times a week in all the disciplines of our sport. Most of the time in training, especially when I go to a new town, I often test myself by doing the following. I leave the hotel room for a run and check the clock before I leave.
I then say to myself, ok I am going to go and run for 1 hour. When I come back I try and see how close to that hour I actually was. I take no watch with me nor do I set any preconceived pace. I run freely and try and feel my way to understanding just how long I have been running by my surroundings and my pace and effort. Funnily enough, the fitter I get the better I am at getting very close to the hour.“
Ride “Blind” and Benefit
During your next training session, try putting black electrical tape over your power meter or heart rate monitor. Turn off Zwift and Trainer Road and go old school while listening to tunes, or watching a scenic youtube video. Learn to “practice” rather than “workout”. You’ll tap into a new set of skills needed for triathlon speed, success and enjoyment.
Photo removed at request of copyright holder, Associated Press. Image used according to Fair Use Doctrine.
You can learn something from 100m sprinter Simone Manuel or distance specialist Katie Ledecky, regardless of which one of these remarkable women is your hero.
Streamlining and drag reduction in the water helps us conserve forward momentum because water is 800 times denser than air. Anything you can do at any point in the stroke to become more streamlined, even as you’re trying to swim faster, will allow you to swim better, with less energy. Why? because slowing down is what humans do best in the water! Staying fast means paying attention to small details…for example, the “crossover effect”.
The Crossover Effect is Human
The Crossover effect occurs because of the way our shoulder joint is oriented, and the fact that we are used to operating in our daily lives with our arms reaching, holding, and manipulating objects directly in front of us. When we turn our upper body, we are usually still operating in the frontal plane, or the plane that divides your body into a front half and a back half. the shoulders lift the arms forward and typically our arms stay in front of us most of the time.
Picture things like typing, driving, cooking, cycling, having a conversation with someone (arms folded or hands in front pockets) as typical things we do. We carry this habituated position of the arms into swimming and as a result, while you don’t feel like you’re crossing your arms in front of you, the effect is that arms cross midline of your direction of travel.
This is a key point, and the reason it’s so difficult to correct…your arms are still in front of you when you crossover in swimming. The crossover effect is that you direct your energy diagonally instead of the direction you really want to go! How frustrating, right? Believe me, I know. But sometimes you don’t know you’re doing it until you see a video or photo of yourself, or have someone physically make that correction for you.
Olympians Eliminating the Crossover Effect (this is the slick arm trick)
Here are two examples from the 2016 Olympics, Katie Ledecky in the first photo, and Simone Manuel in the 2nd photo.
Photo removed at request of copyright holder, Associated Press. Image used according to Fair Use Doctrine.
Their arms are extended parallel to the lane rope, right? The arm is aligned, no crossover. The effect of arm aligned, is that momentum continues forward. However look at where their sternums are directed, and look at their body rotation.
Photo removed at request of copyright holder, Associated Press. Image used according to Fair Use Doctrine.
Now imagine those activities I mentioned previously…driving, typing, shaking someone’s hand. If Simone Manuel were autographing a gold medal photograph at this moment instead of swimming, her left arm would be pointed way over towards the right edge of the photo in a diagonal direction, right?
Her arms would be “in front” of her chest or directed to the right since her body is rotated to the right.
How does she do that?
When the body is actively rotating in freestyle (or backstroke), the lead arm aligned requires you to have the sensation that your arm is kind of off to the side a bit, even sticking out. Visualize yourself in their rotated positions in the pool…now hold your arm above your head and visualize where the surface of the water and where the lane rope would be. Can you get your arm lined up with the lane rope? It will feel far off to the side.
Avoiding the crossover effect is one easy trick you can practice while standing in the mirror so that you start to develop your Olympian’s freestyle stroke!
In the meantime, don’t try to sign any autographs while swimming, things will get messy and you’ll avoid the crossover effect!