For the majority of medical practitioners and families who have doddering grandfathers and sedentary, beer-bellied fathers, the answer is definitely “No.”
But don’t tell that to the increasing number of aging men and women taking up the sport, competing in races ranging in distance from sprints to the full Ironman.
Don’t tell that to Sr. Madonna Buder, the 87-year-old nun from Spokane, Washington, the oldest person to ever finish the Ironman, the ultimate test in long distance triathlons that consists of a 3.8-km swim, a 180-km bike, and a 42.195-km run.
Described in a recent video as “a powerful role model for active aging,” Buder has competed in hundreds of triathlons, including more than 45 full Ironman races.
Don’t tell that to this senior writer, either, who in 2016 staked his claim to being the oldest Filipino to finish a full Ironman, a distinction he is bound to lose when a number of his elders in the local 65-to-69 age group compete in the first ever full Ironman race in the Philippines, the Ironman Philippines in Subic in June.
And don’t tell that to Canada’s John Wragg, who is joining the 65-69 field in Subic in June on the heels of a 2017 season that saw him compete in a grand total of 15 full Ironman races all over the world, which he finished in an aggregate time of more than 212 hours. This included three Ironman races in September alone in the run-up to the world Ironman championship in Kona, Hawaii, in mid October. In six years, from 2012 to 2017, he competed in 90 full Ironman races—an average of 15 a year—and this included three trips to the world championship in Kona, the Mecca of Ironman triathlons.
You see, seniors, triathletes especially, are an obstinate lot. They’re in denial of their mortality and their physical limitations, if not of their advancing age.
The death of a 62-year-old triathlete in the swim leg of an Olympic-distance triathlon early this year has raised some concern about the safety of seniors participating in the swim-bike-run multisport event. But most of the recorded fatalities in the sport were triathletes much younger than 60.
The recent one is probably the first recorded casualty among senior triathletes in local races. Of the three fatalities in eight years of the Cobra Ironman 70.3 events, two died in the swimming leg, and none of them were seniors.
Recent incidents in swimming in the local triathlon races have also prompted Sunrise Events, organizer of Ironman-brand races in the country, to require registrants of Ironman Philippines to show proof that they have finished the half-Ironman distance in the past two years. Those who could not provide such proof were given full refunds of their registration fees.
Having lived through at least six decades, a senior by now should have learned that life is not a sprint. It’s a long-distance race where one goes at his own pace.
Triathlon is much the same. It is more a test of willpower and endurance than a contest of speed and strength. It is more about the mind than the body, and a measure of one’s endurance and humility. Which is why most younger athletes generally don’t have the patience and the maturity to train and race as triathletes. When it comes to sports, the young have a shorter attention span.
It’s no wonder that, according to the demographics in most major races worldwide, there are more seniors than teenagers participating. And there are more triathletes in their 40s than there are in their 20s.
One of the reasons is economics. Aside from having more time to train, seniors have more disposable money to burn on training, equipment, registration fees and travel. Triathlon is not an inexpensive sport, but senior athletes find hospital and other medical costs more prohibitive. If they have money at all, the young would rather party than train.
The fitness movement sweeping across the globe is particularly engulfing the older athletes, who are consumed by the growing sense of mortality and an urgent desire to live longer. The three-sport triathlon appeals to seniors; it’s easier on the legs than pure running, and relies less on physical prowess and more on mental strength.
Here are some practical tips for senior triathletes:
Get a checkup: See your doctor, have him run some tests, and get his clearance before embarking on an extreme sports activity like triathlon. Electrocardiograms and treadmill stress tests will give him an idea of how your heart performs under stress, especially during hard training.
Expect no discounts: There are no senior lanes in triathlon. No senior discounts, either. So don’t expect the race distances shortened by 20 percent. In training, however, you can cheat and your coach, if you have any, will look the other way. Watch what you eat. Fuel your training and races with lots of carbohydrates, then recover with lots of protein.
Save your legs: The vigorous and powerful kicking in breaststroke is not going to make friends for you in the swimming leg, but it’s the most relaxed swimming stroke for seniors. Freestyle, however, is the more efficient stroke, and it’s best suited for triathlons. Don’t attempt to flutter kick like Michael Phelps; your aging legs won’t give you the propulsion commensurate to your efforts. Use your legs for balance and let your arms and upper body paddle through the water.
Keep calm: Swimming in triathlon is a contact sport, and the swim start is as crowded as a feeding frenzy in a koi pond.
If you go with the frenzy, you are likely to get kicked, elbowed, hacked or pushed under, and you will be left gasping for breath. According to the USA Triathlon, most triathlon deaths are caused by panic in the swim leg.
Avoid the rush by staying in the back of your swim wave at the start. In 30 seconds, most of the swimmers in the wave will be too far ahead to bother you, and if you’re faster, you will be passing a number of them one by one, sooner or later.
Don’t be a hero: No coach can train a triathlete to be a superhero, and unless you’ve undergone life-saving courses, leave the distressed swimmer to the trained rescuers. You can’t rescue a drowning beginner if you don’t know how to, without risking both your lives. Call for help and keep on swimming.
(This senior triathlete once tried to help a beginner fix her goggles in the open water, only to be pulled under when she tried to grab him in panic. He went on to needlessly attempt similar heroic efforts in the same event and ended up being cut off in the swim leg).
Pray like you’ve never prayed before: Senior triathletes will be surprised to know that they have an infinite capacity to pray. The swimming leg is a perfect occasion to seek God’s guidance, give thanks for giving you the opportunity to even get to the starting line, and plead for more courage and strength to finish the race. And even when you doubt that He’s listening at all, prayer will keep you calm and focused throughout the race.
Keep your teeth: Don’t lose your dentures in the water. Keep them glued to your gums with a good dental adhesive. There’s a good chance they will break loose, especially if you exhale too forcefully, or you get hit in the mouth.
Vanity tells us that there’s no image more silly than that of a wrinkled creature with a bloated belly in a triathlon suit grinning toothlessly as it emerges from the water. That’s an ugly image you don’t want posted on Facebook.
Empty your bladder: Incontinence may not yet be a problem for senior triathletes, but it helps to plan your trips to the bathroom. Pee before coming out of the open water. That would mean one less trip to the loo.
And if you’re not squeamish and no one is looking, let it go on the saddle. But keep in mind that the paddings in your bike shorts or trisuit are for your comfort on the saddle. They don’t work well as adult diapers.
Don’t break a leg, or a collar bone: The worst thing that can happen to a senior triathlete is to crash on the bike. Your bones lose their density as you grow older, and in your 60s, they can become as brittle as a biscuit. In training, as in races, a bike crash can be a career-ending incident.
Protect whatever is left in your head and invest in a good helmet. Aging bones take longer to heal, if at all.
Have a good bike fit: Bicycles come in different sizes, and an ill-fitting bike is like an ill-fitting pair of shoes—they will hurt. When you buy a bike, make sure you get a good bike-fitting, one that will give the dimensions (frame size, saddle height, etc.) perfect for your body structure. Triathlon or time trial bikes (the ones with the aero bars) give you the body position that will minimize the use of your running leg muscles (mostly the calves) and save them for the run leg. But the aero position will be hard on the backs and hips of some arthritic senior bikers.
The alternative is a road bike, which requires less bending of the body and thus offers a more relaxed body position. (And for safety reasons, roadies give bikers quicker access to the brakes and gear shifters, ideal for seniors with deteriorating reflexes).
Save your legs for the run: Don’t mash the pedals; you don’t have the power of a 20-year-old. Spin at high cadence, especially when pedaling up the hills. Rest and free-wheel on the downhills but don’t fall asleep while doing it. Save your daily nap for after the race.
Mind your heart: A triathlete’s heart rate usually shoots up in the final leg of a triathlon—the run—when the heart is weary and the body’s fuel tank is close to empty. Heart rate monitoring, therefore, is a must for seniors. Get a sports watch with a heart rate monitor. (Garmin leads the technology in GPS-powered sports watches. Polar, Suunto, Timex and even Apple Watch are not too far behind. But less expensive and technologically sophisticated watches with HR features can do the job of heart monitoring just as well.)
Your heart rate is taken by a chest strap or a wrist sensor, which allows you to monitor it in real time and personalize your HR limit according to your age.
Drink up: Dehydration, or worse, heat stroke, is a common danger for older people, even for those in their rocking chairs. It becomes even more critical in races in a tropical country like the Philippines. Drink as much water as you want.
Sports drinks and gels will replenish the electrolytes lost in sweating.
Be careful with salt tablets, though. They might not go well with your maintenance meds for hypertension. Ask your doctor about it.
Don’t test your limits: Highly motivated younger athletes, driven by their competitive spirit and their desire to break personal records (PRs), sometimes go beyond their limits and survive the effort. But for seniors, the effort may be a life-or-death one, or at least may pose a serious risk to their health.
Walk if you must, but at least pick up your pace a little bit when you’re near the finish line. You want your finish line picture to show you running strong and in full stride, not shuffling or wobbling.
And when you’re done with a race, immediately notify your worried family and friends with this simple text: “I’m alive!”