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December 22, 2010 | Triathlon Training Blog

The Good and Bad About Aging Up

For many triathletes the prospect of “aging up” into a new age-group, which happens in five-year increments, typically calls for more celebration than experienced by non-triathletes.

Some of us believe in beating the competition simply by living longer or persevering in the sport.

At age 56, Kim McDonald has the opposite problem: His rivals hope to outlive him to beat him.

A three-time Ironman World Championship participant (his PR in Kona was 10:54:29 in 2007); 2009  winner of the USAT age-group Nationals and ITU Sprint World Championships; two-time age-group winner of the 2005/2006 ITU Aquathlon World Championships, among numerous podium finishes in his nearly two decades of racing triathlons, McDonald still embodies the fountain of youth.

Yet, he claims, he’s noticed a change since turning age 50. Most notably, he says, the need for more recovery after hard workouts, an inability to heal as fast as he used to in younger years, and a decline in race performance or times.

In 2009, McDonald pulled out of Ironman Arizona with pain in his left calf, which turned out to be stress fractures in his tibia and fibula. His training partner, Kate Major, yes, “the” Pro-triathlete, reassured him that he’d bounce back in a month or two after his stress fractures healed. But he learned his incredible speed couldn’t match his recovery times. It took him six months to be back to ‘normal’ running.

  • Age-Related Physiologic Changes

Dr. Roger Freeman, a San Diego-based orthopedic surgeon, and elite short-distance triathlete, confirms the biological age-related realities.

“There are physiologic and anatomic changes that occur and it just takes more time to heal and recover,” Freeman says.

He says that most endurance athletes can perform well into their 40s, but at age 50 and beyond, the need for more recovery and decreased sports performance are a reality that most triathletes need to face.

The largest physical declines occur past age 65 due to connective tissues changes, declining lung capacity, and other changes. Menopausal women (starting in their mid-40s or early 50s) are at a higher risk for developing osteopenia, or reduced bone mass, or osteoporosis, a serious disorder in which bones become brittle, porous and easily fractured.

But aging is also about maturing and being wiser, especially when it comes to training. McDonald and Freeman offer their tips on how to train smart, stay healthy and still be fast past age 50.

  • Watch Your Weight

It’s pretty much inevitable.

During the off-season when most triathletes train less and enjoy life a little more, including Holiday treats, weight-gain is almost a given.

McDonald allows himself a 5-pound weight gain, but no more. Our metabolism declines with aging, which makes it more difficult to shed extra pounds. A little discipline goes a long way here.

  • Keep Training in All Three Sports

Unlike younger athletes, who can stop cycling, running and swimming during the off-season and come back strong, McDonald has found that by stopping his training completely, he lost functional strength and economy in all three disciplines.

Consequently, he continues training in all three sports, but “lightly,” during the off-season. He stays away from organized workouts and meets up with people he normally doesn’t train with to mix it up.

  • Focus on Strength-Training

Both men stress that while strength-training is critical for triathletes wanting to improve sports performance, regain lost lean muscle mass, and to prevent injury, it’s a must-do for athletes older than 40.

McDonald credits his regular functional strength-training sessions for keeping his good posture and the strength needed to race at the highest level.

A strong core is imperative for running, swimming and biking, because it is responsible for stable transfer of forces and movements between the upper and lower extremities. A well-conditioned core will also reduce incidences of back problems. Moreover, training functionality of the body helps strengthen weak links, prevents injuries and can raise performance.

During the off-season, McDonald incorporates free weights, the TRX system, medicine ball workouts and universal machines into his strength-training sessions to build muscle mass. But he prefers using his own body weight during the regular tri season to avoid injury.

During the off-season, McDonald performs three 45-minute long weekly sessions including planks, sit-ups with bent knees; Stability ball Russian twists; one-legged squats while pressing against a Swiss ball on a wall; single-leg squats on a BOSU; Wood Chops and Hay Bailers; lunges in all directions.  He also uses machines, performing lateral pull-downs, chest press, rows for variation.

Freeman feels that during the tri season, two 20-30-minute weekly strength-training sessions are plenty.  

  • Keeping Workouts Shorter More Often

McDonald has found that his body seems to recover better by performing two shorter workouts in any sport during the five-day work week, instead of doing one long session.

Mondays and Fridays are typically his recovery days, which means, swimming and lifting weights. Whereas before, he used to swim 1.5 hours in one session, he now swims twice a day for 45 minutes each session.

In his own words: “I think it also helps me to maintain good motor movements, because I’ve noticed that as you get older, you need more nervous system reinforcement to maintain your form.”

  • Use the Off-season to Focus on Good Form and Technique

Naturally, most triathletes enjoy spending most of their training at their best event.

However, the off-season is really the best time to focus on your weakest links, good technique and form.

McDonald uses the off-season to work on his freestyle stroke and pays attention to good running form. He noticed that many athletes focus on grinding out the mileage, disregarding good form, efficiency and economy of movement—all elements that ultimately separate the elite from the pack.

In his words: “It’s not about who can run the fastest 400 meters on the track or swim the fastest 100 meters in the pool. It’s about who is the most efficient in the three disciplines in a race that lasts from 1 to 12 hours (well up to 17 hours for some).” 


  •  Older Doesn’t Equal Slow

McDonald firmly believes that the key to being an aging fast guy is strength-training and incorporating   occasional bursts of speed to promote good form.

He feels that while too many older athletes ignore speed work altogether, he notes that triathlons, even sprints, are long endurance events (not 100 meter sprints).

Hence, athletes need to maximize the development of the aerobic system, not anaerobic system. Fartleks, long intervals up to lactate threshold on the bike, help maximize the development of V02 max and raise lactate threshold, which in turn, improves speed and promotes running economy.

  • Long Vs. Short Course

Are you ever too old for an Ironman?

Well, I guess it depends on who you ask.

Freeman feels that aging bodies need more rest and sleep. He prefers the Olympic and Sprint distances, because as a busy surgeon, that leaves him just enough time to pursue his passion without taxing his joints and muscles too much.

He feels that stretching especially after running, can also help prevent common running-related injuries. He also believes that most aging triathletes can enjoy the sport longer by going shorter.

Of course, there is always the exception.

At age 80, 20 time Ford Ironman World Championship finisher, Lew Hollander has been going long for a very long time. And there seems no stopping him now.

According to a recent article published by Ironman, Hollander still runs three or four times a week (about 20 miles total), swims four or five times a week (for about an hour), and bikes as much as he can. He also stretches 30 minutes a day. His secret: W-O-R-K.

In 2011, Hollander hopes to become the oldest person to finish the most famous triathlon.

A little closer to home, McDonald pushes on with his incredible work ethic, talent and speed, while also getting into the coaching business. He hopes to coach Olympic hopefuls this coming year.

An ACE-certified Personal Trainer since 2002, McDonald earned his USAT Level I coaching certification. He spent last year training under the mentorship of Justin Trolle, who recently served as the head of USA Triathlon’s elite athlete development.  

Under Trolle’s watch, Kim trained on average 25 hours a week while working full-time and balancing family life. Hollander jokes that most people his age are dead. Compared to Hollander, McDonald is just a youngster.

To me, aging up has never looked better, even if McDonald insists, it’s downhill from here.

By Marion Webb
Marion Webb

Marion Webb is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. Webb has worked as a longtime award-winning business journalist, covering fitness, small business, health care and biotech issues. A competitive age-group triathlete and two-time ITU Long Distance World Championship qualifier, Webb competes mostly in the Half Ironman (70.3 miles) and (140.6 miles) Ironman distances.

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