If you're over 50, you may not have considered competing in a triathlon — even if you're a runner, swimmer or cyclist — thinking that they are too difficult or only for buff 20- or 30-somethings.
As a 53-year-old who recently finished an Olympic-distance triathlon — and competed in her first (sprint-distance) triathlon at 51 — I can assure you that's not necessarily the case.
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In fact, "more than 50,000 people over age 50 in the U.S. currently participate in triathlons," says Caryn Maconi, spokesperson for USA Triathlon, the national governing body for the sport.
Triathletes 50 and over have taken part in the National Senior Games (aka the Senior Olympics) since 1991. "The triathlon is now one of our signature sports, due to public interest in its complexity and athlete versatility," says Sue Hlavacek, director of events and programs for the National Senior Games.
A triathlon is composed of three sports: swimming, bicycling and running. The most popular competitions are the sprint and the Olympic or international. The distances vary from race to race, according to USA Triathlon:
- Sprint: a 0.2- to 0.6-mile (0.4- to 1-kilometer) swim, followed by a 5- to 18.6-mile (8- to 30-kilometer) bike ride and a 1- to 3.9-mile (1.6- to 6.3-kilometer) run
- Olympic/International: a 0.7- to 1.2-mile (1.1- to 2-kilometer) swim, followed by a 18.7- to 31-mile (30.1- to 50-kilometer) bike ride and a 4- to 8-mile (6.4- to 12.8-kilometer) run
The distances in the triathlon event at the National Senior Games fall within the sprint category: a 400-meter swim followed by a 20-kilometer bike ride and a 5-kilometer run.
The Benefits of Triathlon Training for People Over 50
Getting regular exercise is crucial to good health. But as we age, we need to be more careful with it, because we are more prone to injury.
One way to reduce exercise-induced injuries is to cross-train, which simply means mixing it up by doing different types of exercise each day, according to Michigan State University. Cross-training is considered a form of "active rest" because it gives various body zones proper time to recover and repair between workouts, preventing overtraining and therefore, injury, according to the Hospital for Special Surgery.
Training for a triathlon is de facto cross-training: The three segments of the sport work different bones, joints and muscle groups, so theoretically, there is less risk of injury from repeated stress. This is great news for over-50 athletes.
Before You Start Training
Still, there are a few caveats that older athletes should heed. The first almost goes without saying: Get medical clearance from your doctor beforehand.
It helps if you're already comfortable doing at least one of the three triathlon sports before you attempt a race. In my case, I began training for — and finished — my first 5K at age 50, so I was already a confident runner before I started training for my first triathlon. While I technically knew how to bike and swim, I wasn't as experienced with those activities. So I focused more of my pre-triathlon training time on them.
And speaking of pre-triathlon training time, you'll likely need to devote five to eight hours per week to it. Make sure your schedule can accommodate that.
How to Train for Your First Triathlon Over 50
Signing up for your first triathlon is a great way to get motivated to train. I recommend signing up with a friend or local triathlete club, as it will help you stay motivated. Choose a date that's far enough in advance to give you plenty of time to train (which typically takes three to six months).
There are many sprint-triathlon training schedules available online, often through local triathlon clubs, like this example from USA Triathlon partner Training Peaks.
You might also want to enlist the guidance of a triathlon coach, who can provide you with an individualized training plan and support. To find one near you, check USA Triathlon's database of certified coaches.
The first part of a triathlon is often the most challenging, perhaps because it's the most difficult to perform properly. "Swimming is 85 percent technique, 15 percent aerobic," says Justin Chester, a USA Triathlon level-two certified coach based in Lafayette, Colorado. "Strength cannot overcome bad form in swimming."
This means that even if you think you know how to swim, you might need to improve your form before competing. You may want to consider signing up for a U.S. Masters Swimming program for adults. Local swim centers and triathlete groups offer similar programs, and intermediate and advanced classes are often available. You can work one-on-one with a swim coach if you'd prefer to have individual support.
It's important to note that the swimming portion of most triathlons takes place in oceans or lakes. Swimming in a pool won't prepare you for the experience of swimming a long distance outdoors in open water, so in addition to pool swimming, you'll want to practice open water swimming (OWS). For safety reasons, be sure to practice OWS with a buddy or group. Many local triathlete groups hold OWS sessions.
Here is the equipment you'll need for the swimming portion of a triathlon:
- Swim cap
- Swim goggles
- Earplugs (optional, but helpful for anyone prone to ear infections or swimmer's ear)
- Bathing suit
- Wetsuit (allowed for any races with water temperatures that are 78 degrees or below, according to USA Triathlon)
Any bicycle that meets official specifications can be used in a triathlon. USA Triathlon's specs lay out rules for bicycle length (two meters or less), width (under 76 centimeters) and more. Consult the rules for your specific event beforehand, and measure your bicycle to make sure it doesn't break any of the requirements so you don't risk being disqualified later.
Even if your current bicycle meets the basic requirements, you might still want to consider upgrading to a lightweight bike that's more aerodynamic and investing in clip-in shoes and pedals. Wearing sunglasses or goggles and padded shorts will make training — and competing in the actual race — much more comfortable, too.
Come race day, you'll need to feel safe and comfortable cycling in a group of people. Beginner-level bicycle and/or triathlete clubs in your area can help you get accustomed to this.
Chester created a cycling clinic for that very reason. "When I learned that a lot of beginners were having trouble grabbing their water bottles from their bikes during a race," he says, "I decided to create a bike-handling clinic for beginner triathletes."
In addition to helping aspiring triathletes learn how to grab their water bottles mid-race, his annual clinic teaches them how to pass, how to ride in a straight line, how to turn and how to brake in an emergency. See if a local tri club offers a similar type of clinic.
Running after age 50 can be challenging. "The key is not to worry about how fast you run," says Graham Wilson, a 67-year-old USA Triathlon level-three certified coach who trains many triathletes over 50. "Start slowly, and increase the distance you run each time."
Whether you're new to running or have been doing it for years, the running portion of a triathlon can be challenging because it comes last, i.e., after you've already taxed your muscles and expended a lot of energy swimming and biking. Staying hydrated and getting calories from energy powders, gels or chews — especially while you're on the bike — is crucial to having the stamina to complete the running portion. (You'll want to practice eating and drinking during your training rides to prepare for race day, too.)
Wearing proper running gear is important for anyone training for a triathlon, regardless of age. Well-padded socks and running shoes that provide ample support and cushioning will make your running experience more comfortable and help reduce your likelihood of injury.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults ages 18 to 64 should do muscle-strengthening activities at least twice each week, whether they're training for a triathlon or not. (The guidelines are the same for those over 64 if "their abilities and conditions will allow.")
Wilson agrees with that recommendation. "Strength training for triathletes over 50 is essential, [thanks to] bone loss and muscular atrophy due to declining estrogen and testosterone levels," he notes.
To build strength, he recommends twice-a-week sessions with low reps and weights that get progressively heavier. "If you get to the point where you can't lift a certain weight, stop," he says.
Try this low-impact strength-training workout for over-50 athletes.
Every good training routine should include time to rest and repair. "Senior athletes can be prone to training too hard and/or too often without providing adequate recovery in between sessions," according to the authors of a January 2016 study in Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation. "The time needed for recovery increases with age, so taking enough time between intense workouts is essential."
One way to achieve this is to do leg-focused workouts (running and biking) and arm-focused workouts (swimming) on alternate days. Warm up before your exercises, stretch afterward and factor in one or two rest days each week.
And always pay attention to what your body is telling you. "If you're feeling really achy on a day when you're scheduled to work out, take the day off," Chester says.
The Finish Line
Triathlon training over 50 will offer you challenging fitness experiences, new friends and a fun goal to achieve. Once you finish your first triathlon, take a minute to bask in the glory of accomplishing something really special. Then, like many of us, you'll start thinking about the next triathlon you want to sign up for!
- Michigan State University: "The benefits of adding cross training to your exercise routine"
- Hospital for Special Surgery: "Overtraining"
- USA Triathlon: "Race Distances Defined"
- USA Triathlon: "Wetsuit Rules"
- USA Triathlon: "Cycling Conduct: Bicycle Specifications"
- HHS: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation: "Fall History and Associated Physical Performance Measures in Competitive Senior Athletes"