Rookie Tri ambassador talks about training for triathlons after 50
Steve Mallett, a Rookie Triathlon ambassador, began participating in endurance events at the tender age of 52. He talks about the benefits of cross-training and how it has helped him reduce injuries. Steve participated in triathlons 20 years ago, but he has since brought it back into his life. Below is a firsthand account of how he approaches training and competing in triathlons after 50. It’s never too late!
by: Steve Mallett
In January of 2015, at the age of 52, I started marathon training and racing with a well-known Austin running team. I immersed myself into a group of athletes and coaches searching to find the limits of speed and fitness. It was exhilarating and I hung on to my coach’s every word. I started going to the gym a couple of times a week and I even attended some yoga classes to try and build muscle strength and improve my flexibility. Someone recommended that I have a look at some online yoga courses but I was so busy preparing for the race, I knew I wouldn’t have time! Training for a triathlon meant I barely had any free time. After six months I set a lifetime PR for the marathon. My fitness, I thought, was as good as it had ever been. I would later find out that my body could only handle that intensity for so long.
In late 2016, after months of 50-60 mile weeks, 3-4 marathons a year, and pushing myself to faster times, my body started to fail. Later that year, I developed a nagging and painful condition in my lower abdomen, later diagnosed as a pelvic fracture from overuse. I was devastated. The doctor’s recommendation was six months of no running. That’s like telling Rachel Ray to get out of the kitchen. I struggled to come to terms with this new reality.
Bring on the recovery
A few months into recovery I was cleared to start elliptical training. While in the gym I noticed other runners doing strength training and weights. Strength training is a type of physical exercise that is set out to help improve an individual’s strength and endurance, so you could say that it is perfect for triathlon training. But I had never considered adding this to my fitness regimen. Running 60 miles a week was hard enough. How could I add in 3-4 hours of weights and strength training per week?
When I was cleared to run again I was cautious. I wanted to be fast again, but didn’t want another injury. Six months without running had taken its toll on me emotionally. I didn’t want to pull the scab off that wound. I started with some shorter runs and then finished in the gym with 30-45 minutes of whole-body strength and conditioning. As my running form came back, I noticed big changes in my strength and my running times.
I registered for the Cap10K before my injury and decided to run and get a baseline for my recovery. I ran the fastest Cap10K I have ever run and felt great doing it. My running decreased, but I was getting faster. The time in the gym and the intensity of my shorter runs was making me a stronger runner. I ran very few “junk” miles.
Time to add cycling
In the following months, I added cycling to my fitness regimen. I was already swimming three days a week as cross training for my running. After a 20-year hiatus, I began signing up for triathlons again. My goal was to compete again. However, I knew my body couldn’t handle the high mileage needed to run a fast marathon. Triathlons would give me my competition fix.
I read The Time-Crunched Cyclist: Race-Winning Fitness in 6 Hours a Week, by Chris Carmichael and Jim Rutberg. I took many of those principles to heart. You can get faster and stronger by doing more intense, shorter workouts. But you have to compliment that with strength and weights.
As you train for any race shorter than a Half Ironman, don’t focus on mileage for the sake of mileage. Some of the long, slow rides and runs are like counting your steps when you take out the trash. Yes, you got in some steps, but did they really count?
Many sprint triathlons have such a short run that any training run over 6-8 miles is wasted. You are better off doing four weekly runs. Long runs, speed-work/track days, fartleks, and tempo runs and drills can increase your speed.
In the pool, break your workouts into sets. Try to push yourself. 2000 slow yards with a pull buoy may impress your friends on Strava, but 6×100 at race pace (after a warm-up) will actually make you faster on race day.
One day a week it’s okay to go for a slow ride and enjoy the scenery. On other days, focus on pushing up your watts or climbing hills near your max heart rate. Those types of workouts will improve your speed and strength.
To prevent injuries, don’t neglect your strength and weights. There are many places online to find whole body strength/conditioning and weight lifting plans for runners and triathletes. Start slowly and build.
You should read Unbreakable Runner: Unleash the Power of Strength & Conditioning for a Lifetime of Running Strong, by Brian MacKenzie, the founder of Cross Fit. His program teaches you to be strong first. Then the speed and endurance will follow.
If you choose a coach, try to find one who understands aging athletes. Trying to keep up with the 30-year-olds is a recipe for disaster. Find a coach that will push you, but not break you. You will have to shift your paradigm to believing that shorter, harder workouts will make you faster. A coach will help when you start to get tired and lazy. You want to avoid going through the workout motions at a lower intensity.
If you are doing longer races, you will need to spend some time doing long, slow miles. When you hit age 50 the longer races are not so much about speed, but about mentally preparing for hours of racing at an elevated pace.
Too many triathletes fall into the trap of miles for the sake of miles. Your workouts should focus on quality, not how far you can go. As we age we need to be very smart about how we train and treat our bodies. Junk miles don’t lead to fast races, they lead to broken bodies.
Bio: Steve competed in his first triathlon in 1984 in Key West, Florida. He has done more than 50 triathlons, 12 marathons, eight 50K races, and has finished the Rocky Raccoon 50-mile Trail Run twice. He is a real estate broker who lives in Dripping Springs, Texas.