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Training For Triathlons at an Older Age

Posted by: on March, 4 2015

Found on NYTIMES.com and written by Elizabeth Olson

LAST year, at 66, Jenny F. Scott was not an obvious triathlete. A retired special education teacher, she had suffered a stress fracture running decades ago and took up serious bicycling only when she was 64 years old.

But Ms. Scott, of West Columbia, S.C., and a friend decided to “bite the bullet last year, with no expectation other than we wanted to live through it,” she said of the swim-bike-run training needed to participate in the triathlon held locally each July.

“I didn’t win any prizes,” she said of last year’s race, adding, “I’m not about speed, just about finishing.”

She signed up for training again this year, and like growing numbers of people in their 50s and 60s — and some older — she has found a new challenge in triathlons and other sports that test discipline and endurance. Some opt to train for competitive swimming, or the senior tennis or golf circuits.

“There’s a dramatic shift taking place because more older people are adopting the attitude that I can — not that I’m unable because I’m older,” said Colin Milner, an expert on aging, who urges physical activity to stave off disabilities that often trouble seniors.


Ms. Wilson, 61, recalls her first triathlon 11 years ago: “I was by far the oldest, but they were very supportive.” CreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

“Too many people spend much of their last decade of life with restricted daily movements like not being able to get up from a chair or walk short distances,” said Mr. Milner, the founder and chief executive of theInternational Council on Active Aging, an association that promotes wellness for aging adults.

For those who are not accustomed to intense physical activity, experts in aging urge getting professional advice during the training process. Middle-age and older people should build endurance with activities like walking, jogging, swimming, biking and even raking leaves to increase heart rate and breathing efficiency.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation for 2.5 hours of weekly exercise and some strength training, he said, has helped make older people more aware of the need for exercise and helped to encourage taking up competitive sports. Such rising interest is driving participation in contests like the annual National Senior Games, informally known as the Senior Olympics.

An estimated 12,000 such athletes are expected to take part in the games this July — up from about 2,500 when they were started in 1987. The sports, which are as diverse as horseshoes and the tennis-like game called pickle ball, will be held in the Minneapolis area, according to the National Senior Games Association, the nonprofit operating body. Senior athletes first compete at the state level to qualify.

Contestants will also battle in the National Senior Games’ triathlon, which is one of more than 4,000 local and regional race events held annually around the country. In the last decade, the interest has driven up the number of older adults joining USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, by about 230 percent, to 27,069 members from 8,278 in 2005.

To compete, basic fitness and minimum equipment work just fine. But more intense competitors need to have the wherewithal to travel to different cities for qualifying races or to take part in distant bicycle or running meets, and to afford specialized gear. While such equipment is typically less expensive than taking an overseas trip, certain gear can still be costly, especially because the triathlon requires being outfitted for three sports.

Aside from the essentials like a swimsuit, bicycle, helmet and running shoes, triathlon competitors also may want cycling gloves, biking shorts and shoes and triathlon shorts and tops. The triathlon bicycle, however, often dwarfs the other items in expense. According to a 2009 USA Triathlon survey, its members spent an average of $2,274 for a bicycle. In addition, members annually pay $564 in race fees, and they spend $524 on bike equipment and $370 on training, running and athletic footwear, according to survey data.

In pricey sports like golf, lessons and clinics can climb into the five figures, especially for those who try to qualify for the elite seniors circuit. But there is no reason multisport pursuits like triathlons cannot be much cheaper, especially if athletes stick close to home for their training and racing, said Kris Swarthout, who coaches USA Triathlon’s Team USA. The team will participate in the world championships, where competition is in five-year age divisions, in Chicago in September.

“The older competitors have less of an eye for the new gizmos and fancy equipment that younger people tend to buy,” he said. “The older generation wants to put a lot of earnest effort into a training regimen and doesn’t care if a bike is 15 years old.”

Ms. Scott did not have fancy equipment last year when she joined the triathlon training offered by Still Hopes Episcopal Retirement Communityin West Columbia. The community’s fitness center trains interested residents and those in the surrounding area who are 55 and older.

The program, which had eight participants when it began four years ago, has grown to 20 this year, said Denise Heimlich, the center’s wellness director. They are coached three times a week, for $22.50 a session, by Stefanie Cain, a USA Triathlon certified coach who is the center’s fitness program coordinator.

Most participants are in their 60s, with the oldest 68 years old, said Ms. Cain, who trains them for the shortest distance, a sprint triathlon, which includes a half-mile (750 meters) swim, 12-mile (20 kilometers) bike ride and 3.1-mile (5 kilometers) run. (The standard race includes a 0.9 mile swim, a 25-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run, and there are also longer distances.)

Some senior athletes like Catherine S. Wilson, of McLean, Va., a community college career counselor, take up triathlon training on their own.

“When you’re going to be 50, you realize you’d better get on it,” said Ms. Wilson, 61, who had been a biker, swimmer and runner before she decided to investigate triathlons. After an online search, she found the local DC Triathlon Club , a $50-a-year membership group (with a $150 training fee), to guide her through the training and preparatory races.

“I was by far the oldest, but they were very supportive,” said Ms. Wilson, who completed her first triathlon 11 years ago. After her initial training, she joined various local bike clubs and went to triathlon training camps in Florida and Pennsylvania.

Two years ago, she wanted to improve her skills, so she hired a USA Triathlon certified coach, Julie Billingsley, 56, of Chevy Chase, Md. Ms. Billingsley, who is also a triathlete, created an individual plan and practice schedule to fine-tune Ms. Wilson’s training.

“You get a lot of little aches and pains, and Julie is there to tell you to stop or to back off or to go to the doctor,” said Ms. Wilson, who squeezes in three hours of swimming, three hours of running and five hours of biking into a week when she is training.

Ms. Billingsley, who advises by email, phone and in person for $200 a month, recommended that Ms. Wilson join a U.S. Masters Swimming class to improve her skills.

“A structured workout for the swim makes it a little easier to do the bike and run training on one’s own,” Ms. Billingsley said.

Such swimming is a three-day-a-week commitment, often at 5:30 a.m., but the camaraderie is well worth it, said Ms. Wilson, who won sixth place in the 60- to 65-year-old age bracket in a triathlon held last year in Edmonton, Alberta.

“A lot of the older generation are able to be very competitive because of their work ethic,” said Mr. Swarthout, of USA Triathlon. “They just don’t quit.”