Want to get better at triathlon? Think beyond swimming, biking and running

Training, September 08, 2020

When I started "aging" (I'm currently 56) I knew that drop in performance was inevitable but I was not satisfied with the general answer I kept hearing: "Well we are getting older now so that's how it is"

When I started "aging" (I'm currently 56) I knew that drop in performance was inevitable but I was not satisfied with the general answer I kept hearing: 

"Well we are getting older now so that's how it is"

As a coach, my job is to always find a way to improve people's health and to prolong performance. By coaching several "aging" athletes like myself, I need to make sure we all improve our health and performance somehow.

I started then analyzing results of all 70.3 and Ironman races trying to figure out when and what was slowing athletes down as they age. I could tell a same pattern:

1 - Good swimmers would remain swimming pretty good and mostly the same times they were swimming before. The bike got a bit slower but the run got MUCH slower

2 - Good runners would get MUCH slower swimming, a bit slower biking and for my surprise, almost as slow as the swimmers on the run.

3 - Good cyclists would be similar to runners with swimming, pretty good and almost same bike times as before, but also MUCH slower on the run.

The question is why ????

The answer involves skills, strength and most importantly mobility!

The Swimmer - Out of all 3 described above, swimmers are the one who have spent the most time developing specific skills (swim) in a sport that it's the most skilled of the 3. Because swimming is very skill based sport, swimmers will not lose much time in the swim, only a little due to less training volume (lose endurance, strength and speed) and loss of mobility.

But without specific strength training for the bike (most just think all they need to do is ride), they will not be able to generate same power output and will eventually slow down (slowly through the years). 

Note: Tight muscles will also work against strong muscles, can't work one without the other.

Now the big change will happen on the run. Swimmers had to work really hard to develop running skills, joint stability, muscle mobility and muscle endurance on the legs (specially for long distance races) and without consistent skill work, specific strength training and mobility, their range of motion and push off power will decrease substantially, slowing them down.

The Runner - Because most runners have poor swim skills and have relied their swim mostly on strength and endurance, when they get older, they will lose strength and mobility so the range of motion and power of the pull will decrease causing the athlete to slow down significantly. On the bike, it will be similar to the swimmer, usually a bit stronger due to running background and surprisingly the running will also suffer because, contrary to swim, most athletes with long distance running background have done very little skill work, having improved their running through training history (running for a long time), body type and mental strength (something you ac quirted well when road racing).

The Cyclist - The cyclist will slow down on the swim for the same reasons the runners do and it could be a bit worse if they have a strong cycling background that gives them heavier legs (compared to torso promoting more drag in the water). On the bike, due to many years of strength build and also a bit of efficiency (cycling is the least skilled of all 3 sports) they can maintain speed pretty close to what they have done when younger, as long as they keep the strength training going. On the run, differently than the swimmer, the tendency to a bad form due to tight hip flexors and quads, will be a major factor on their slowing down. Usually athletes do not do enough stretch work on the "front" part of their body and will generate bad posture, moving center of gravity forward, making legs heavier when running.

What to do then ??

The answer is simple but it will require a lot of work:

1 - Keep working on skills development specially if you do not have the background. Meaning increase frequency (not volume) of your swim and work on the technique aspects of your stroke. Do running drills (and leg speed) to keep your motor functions sharp for the run.

2 - Do A LOT of mobility work so you keep your muscles and joints mobile and lose the minimum range of motion possible. Also like I mentioned above, always have in mind that "Tight muscles will always overpower strong muscles" so if you only work on strength, you will not have the result you expect.

3 - Do A LOT of strength work, including sport specific (i.e. big gear on bike, paddles and stretch cords on the swim and hill repeats on the run) and overall body work to make yourself overall more "athletic" so you stay stronger and healthier !

Get to work and don't let the "Age" serve as excuse! If you want to beat the slowing down, it will require smart training and commitment!

Enjoy you week and stay healthy!