Faster at 45
A friend recently reached out to ask for advice. He turns 30 this year and was seeking my counsel, as a 40-something, on how to prepare for the ‘inevitable athletic slowdown’.
My first reaction was indignation.
“I’m not slowing down,” I thought to myself, “my race times are just as good as they were 10 years ago!” Okay, I’m willing to admit to myself that I’m not getting much faster, but I’m certainly not ready to slow down. And, what’s more, my friend still has plenty of runway to improve too, even at the far side of 30!
I’m currently in my mid-40s and my race times continue to compare well with my personal best times achieved a decade ago, so my friend’s question forced me to ponder how I’ve achieved this. Here’s what I came up with:
Experience counts for a lot
The first race of each season always makes me feel like a rookie, but I recognise that 16 years of racing have provided a tremendous wealth of knowledge, insight and even instinct that serve me well every time I toe the line. After one of my first Ironman 70.3 races, when I had just started working with a coach, the coach asked me post-race how it had gone.
“I didn’t feel good coming off the bike,” I told him, “so I took it easy until I began to find my legs after five or six miles and was able to run my goal pace.” I remember that he looked at me baffled and then practically screamed at me: “IT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO FEEL GOOD! Just commit to race pace on mile one, and the body will come around.” That feedback has stuck with me ever since, and nowadays I get off the bike prepared to hit my stride and goal pace immediately, even if the legs are protesting… experience has taught me the legs will come around quickly this way.
Miles in the legs
Unsurprisingly, I’ve lost count of the number of metres swum, and miles ridden and run over the last 16 years of training and racing. I grinded out a lot of mindless miles in my early years of training as my enthusiasm for this newfound sport of triathlon got the better of me. While my training has shifted and become more focused over the years, and the volume of the swim, bike and run has fluctuated depending on my race plans and goals, I find that my fitness and endurance return very quickly after my annual season break. As much as I kick back, de-train, eat pizza and drink wine,
I can’t fully undo the miles that have accumulated in my legs over the years.
You are what you eat
The mention of pizza and wine is the perfect segue into the topic of nutrition. Personally, nutrition is a challenging topic for me as I was a little ‘chunky’ as a kid.
I spent my teens and early 20s being very careful about what I ate to lose or maintain weight. A dinner of carrots and hummus was not unusual. Don’t judge me! Discovering triathlon signalled the dawn of eating more but with a penchant for burgers, French fries, pizza and of course, wine, the quality of calories was not always optimal for performance.
Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of fruit and vegetables mixed into my diet, but I did not pay particular attention to the overall mix or timing of what I ate. In the last two seasons, I’ve worked with a nutritionist to review and overhaul
my eating plan. I hate the word diet!
The most significant change has been to increase the quantity of protein, upping my intake to 160-180g per day, to support appropriate recovery from the stresses of training and daily life. The results have been dramatic with improved sleep, less muscle soreness and greater energy all around. I may have been able to get away with an 80% healthy diet in my younger years but to stay healthy and be able to maintain training for iron distance races in my 40s, my margin for error is much smaller. I would have graded myself B or B-minus for healthy eating in the past, but I’m solidly an A-grade student these days – though, wine will likely prevent me from ever scoring an A+!
Triathlon is a challenging sport given athletes need to schedule time for swim, bike and run workouts, in the midst of a busy work and family life. It’s all too easy to give strength training the short shrift.
I did so for many years, never wanting to forgo a swim, bike or run workout in favour of a session at the gym. However, my current coach, Matt Dixon of purplepatch fitness, considers strength training critical, in particular for female endurance athletes. As he explains, “Lower muscle mass in women combined with the fact that oestrogen stalls anabolic growth and progesterone exacerbates the breakdown of muscle tissue means strength training is particularly important for women throughout their athletic career.” Since committing to functional strength sessions a couple of times a week over the past two years, I’ve seen tremendous benefits with respect to injury prevention as well as feeling stronger on the bike and run. I used to experience a nagging ache in my right hamstring after long runs, particularly if the course included hills. Strength training has helped to alleviate the pain by activating and strengthening my ‘lazy glutes’. My butt was the missing component, as other muscles such as the hamstrings and quads, had been compensating for all the years of just riding and running. It’s taken me a few years to prioritise strength training but following a functional strength program, keying in on exercises to align with swim, bike and run, is invaluable to keep the body in harmony as I age.
As much effort as I put into my own training to perform my best, I owe some credit to the technological advancements made within the endurance sports industry over the past 16 years to allow me to retain my ‘speed’. Speed, of course, being a relative term! Everything from a wetsuit with more flexible rubber allowing greater range of motion and more natural feel while swimming, to a coated chain on the bike to reduce friction and save precious watts over 180km of cycling.
I’ve even added a new race suit to this season’s arsenal, one that is more aerodynamic than my own skin.
My husband claims that all of this technology is ‘free speed’ on race day, but as the banker in the house, I had to remind him that it’s far from free, as many of these advancements have a hefty price tag attached!
I’m two days out from my first race of 2017, Ironman South Africa, and I firmly believe that I’m capable of one of my fastest times yet so I’ll end with a “three cheers” to not slowing down in my 40s!
N.B: Jordan finished Ironman South Africa in 10:42:31, winning her age group (45-49) and earning a slot to the 2017 Ironman World Championships in Kona.