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The Triathlon Challenge: It's Not Just for the Young

Nearly 18,000 Americans over 50 are testing their endurance

By Matthew Solan | June 13, 2012
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Matthew Solan is a health and fitness writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla. His website is www.matthewsolan.com.

Every Thursday night, I spend two hours swimming back and forth across the 25 meters of my neighborhood pool in Tampa Bay, Fla. I work on extending my body like a Stretch Armstrong. I strive to quit dragging my left hand during my finish stroke, to get more body roll, and to follow the advice of my gruff coach, who constantly reminds me: “Keep your head down!”
 
I do this because I have no choice: I've signed up for the St. Anthony’s Triathlon and the clock is ticking. Soon I'll have to swim one mile in the choppy water of Tampa Bay, make a 24-mile bike sprint around downtown St. Petersburg, pedaling until my thighs burn, then pound out a 10K run — all while my body begs me to stop.  
 
In my late 40s, maybe I should be taking yoga classes and walking on a treadmill. Instead I’m training for one of the most intense physical endeavors imaginable. And I love it.

Why Do a Triathlon
 
Triathlons are a true test of endurance, all-around fitness and mental strength — which, as I age, I need more than ever.
 
I am part of a rising trend. Triathlons represent one of America's fastest-growing sports, and people my age and older are increasingly eager to sign up. Recent statistics from USA Triathlon, the national governing body that oversees more than 3,500 tri events, show the number of participants age 50 and above has more than doubled in recent years, soaring to nearly 18,000 in 2010 from 8,278 in 2005 — a 117 percent increase. And nearly 4,000 are in the 60-to-69 age range. Those 50 and over make up a growing 14 percent of USA Triathlon membership.

Why are these people stuffing gray hair into Speedo swim caps and squeezing spare tires into spandex shorts just when their bodies naturally become slower and more fragile?

The reasons have to do with age — and it's not just that the older participants want to stay young and fit. “Life circumstances dictate what we can do, and around 50 we tend to have more free time to try something new,” says Pat Brighton, 62, a USA Triathlon Level 1 certified coach who has competed in more than 30 triathlons since turning 50.  
 
Triathlons appeal to many longtime runners, Brighton says. “Some have been running for 20-plus years and find they can’t run as hard and long as they used to,” she says. “Triathlons allow you to add non-impact exercises like swimming and cycling to your daily exercises to improve overall health and fitness.”
 
There are other cross-training benefits as well. After 50, people need exercise more than ever, but performing the same gym exercises, week after week, can become a dull routine. With triathlons, you mix it up — in the pool, biking around town and on trails, running outdoors. “This approach can actually reduce injuries by working different muscle groups, and is very beneficial for older adults who have some physical limitations or require a longer recovery period between training.”

And don’t forget the impact of exercise on the mind. Pat Butler, of Ann Arbor, Mich., did her first triathlon at age 71. Now 75 and gearing up for her fourth race. she calls the swim-bike-run pattern the ultimate brain exercise. “I have to constantly think in a different way and be always mindful of what I am doing,” she says. “I have to focus on balance and stability, my body movements, pacing so I save myself for the end, and proper nutrition along the way. I can never just zone out.”

 
An Inexpensive Pursuit

You can spend a lot of money on triathlon gear and training if you choose to, but it's not essential. For most who take up this sport, it requires a relatively modest upfront investment: good running shoes, a bathing suit and goggles, and a bike. You can even dust off that mountain bike in the garage, or borrow or buy a second-hand one.

 
Triathlons are a great do-it-yourself sport, since you can easily find training schedules online. (“You don’t even have to think — just get a schedule and follow it,” Brighton says.) But joining a swimming class, running group or cycling club is also part of the experience. This gives you the opportunity to meet other aspiring triathletes, and you'll be surprised how much you have in common.  
 
You can't dabble in triathlons; they require firm dedication. This is no doubt the hardest part for people who are not used to consistently exercising four days or more a week, with little time off, for months at a stretch. On the other hand, the target of race day keeps you motivated and laser-focused.
 
All that time and hard work really pays off when you finally snap on your cap, adjust your goggles, and check the timing chip around your ankle one last time. When the starting horn blows and you dash into the water with your fellow triathletes, you'll inevitably ask yourself: Why did I wait so long?
 
Tri Sizes

Triathlon races vary in distance. There are four main categories:
  1.  Sprint (750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike ride, 5-kilometer run).
  2.  Intermediate, also referred to as “Olympic distance” (1.5-kilometer swim, 40-kilometer bike ride, 10-kilometer run).
  3. The Long Course, also known as the Half Ironman (1.9-kilometer swim, 90-kilometer bike ride, 21.1-kilometer run).
  4.  Ironman, the World Series of triathlons (3.8-kilometer swim, 180-kilometer bike ride, then a marathon — a 42.2-kilometer run).
Sprints are the ideal starting point, Brighton says. “With enough time, most people can take on that distance,” she says. Some triathlons are even shorter than Sprints. To find races in your area, check out these sites:
 
www.beginnertriathlete.com/

Tips on How to Prepare 
 
Here's what Brighton recommends:
  • If you're starting with a Sprint triathlon, select a race three to four months out from the date you begin training. This will give you plenty of time to get in shape for the race and to manage any setbacks that result from work or family obligations.  
  • Take it slow and be patient during the base phase of training (the first month or so).
  • Focus on your weaknesses. If swimming is a challenge, add an extra day to your schedule. And don't just go through the motions of training; make every session count.
  •  Set small goals along the way so each workout is a challenge. For example, one week your swim goal may be a 4 x 100 (four 100-meter swims) with 60-second rest intervals. The next week, reduce your rest to 55 seconds, and so on. This fuels both fitness and motivation.
  • Always remember to have fun and enjoy the journey. It’s not about your finish time; what matters is the overall effort.