age is just a number


After writing my last few articles I decided I would transfer some articles which I had published on my older site. This blog was derived from my fellow club athletes after I gave them the opportunity to propose a few ideas. I had quite a good response, and quite a number of good ideas, which ranged from nutrition and money in triathlon, right through to training and racing over 40 years of age. On the flip side, I got some stupid ideas too, but friends will be friends, and banter will be banter, and you are going to need a bigger boat to catch me out!


Anyway, last summer, I sat lakeside with my coffee and post recovery snacks and chewed the fat among fellow triathletes, one of which is a 70+ gentleman who had recently completed The Outlaw triathlon (a full iron distance triathlon consisting of a 3.8 km swim, 180 km bike and 42 km run). He had complained about his arthritis playing up after 15 miles on the run which cost him his 1st place lead, obtained from being the fastest swimmer and cyclist in his category. opposing that, one of the other athletes discussed her mother who at the same age was sits armchair ridden all day doing crochet and knitting, telling her she is mad for doing triathlon.


Obviously this athlete isn’t mad, and thankfully we live in a society now that offers opportunities to people to be independent, and to fulfill whatever goal they desire, despite their age, sex, race or social background, and it’s just a pity the whole world isn’t like this. Gone is the era where my grandma stayed at home on a weekend cooking, baking, knitting and cleaning whilst granddad cut the grass and went to the pub – all the people I know of this age are now out training more than I am. But why has triathlon become so popular with the ageing athlete? What is it with this sport that makes it possible to achieve so many goals that other sports cannot offer?


My good friend and fellow GB age group athlete mentioned he competes in triathlons for several reasons:


“Triathlon gives me a platform for my competitive nature, it also allows me to focus my addictive personality in a positive manner. Finally, it allows me to partake in a sport that my ageing body could no longer cope with from my full contact rugby days. Well, apart from the swim start that is!”.

Straight away, the fact triathlon offers my friend, along with myself and all the other age group athletes, the opportunity to represent your country all over the world, no matter how old you are, or what distance they specialise in, is extraordinary. I really cannot think of many other sports that offer that. And it still amazes me to this day when I see athletes representing the 80+ categories – it is simply awe-inspiring, and they are true ambassadors of the society we should be living in today.


Furthermore, triathlons across the country offer age group categories so that athletes of a certain age can be recognised for their achievement against people in the same age band, so people can always be competitive, if they feel the need or have the fitness to do so. It’s not always about competing though – the long-term-athlete-development (LTAD) plan I designed for my club offers training for three types of athlete. Those who wish to compete, those who wish to complete, and for those who wish to develop. Because of this ethos, I truly believe we will always be a recognised club in Yorkshire that offers grass root opportunities for every demographic.


Throughout the latter stages of my degree, we really focused on one hot topic that the government are trying to tackle in the UK, and that is mental health in the elderly. We are now living through an era of demographic processes in which our society is developing an older age profile. There are now over 11 million people living in the UK who are aged 65 or over, 3 million of whom are 80 or older, and there are more pensioners than people aged under 16. Along with celebrating this fact of greater longevity for many people, we must also be very conscious of the challenges that it can bring for some people and for society as a whole. These include considerations of potentially greater social exclusion, isolation and loneliness for greater numbers of older people and, often interlinked, more challenging mental and physical health needs.


Many sports like those my friend used to play, such as rugby and football, are more significant to social exclusion and isolation to older people, as research has highlighted significant fallout rates in the contact sport sectors over non-contact sports due to the fact that older people simply cannot cope with the physical demands, so stop playing. But what kind of impact does this have on a person? Obviously, a large proportion of physical activity is now absent which can lead to a more sedentary lifestyle and the possibility of obesity, and more worryingly, increase the chances of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and other nasty illnesses we do not wish to have.


Compounding this, because these people are no longer turning up to training or matches, they are no longer integrating with fellow athletes and there is usually a reduction in socialising. Again, research shows that isolation is one of the biggest causes of mental health issues. That is why we urgently need to identify effective ways of addressing these challenges for the ageing athlete, and simple things like walking, yoga, botcha, and even social training in triathlon will help that. We do not always have to compete in triathlon to be included. In fact, by utilising the low impact activities of cycling and swimming, the ITU now offers Great Britain selections for the aqua-cycle championships – I know a local athlete born in 1943 who competes in this, and he is simply amazing!


So, from a coach’s perspective, how would I advise an ageing athlete?


Firstly, as I do with all my athletes, I would have a chat and discuss goals and objectives, then add screening protocols for flexibility and mobility. Secondly, just simply ask the athlete about their existing training, and what exercise carries the greatest implications from physiological exertion, prolonging recovery. I would then put the athlete on a maintenance cycle until we can either overcome them, or just simply get by on minimal training to get the athlete through an event. Unfortunately, there is no right or wrong answer, just like medicine, as every person responds to different training loads, techniques, or recovery cycles, but trust me, there is a way. Try writing down in hours or days after a training session, when you feel you could repeat the same session. If it is several days, try and include a light swim session in between those several days and see how you respond. If you do respond well, then try inducing another session alongside, and before you know it, you have a structured training plan and you’re ready for an event.


Once again, I would like to thank you for your time in reading my articles, and I hope I have inspired you to challenge yourself in sport,


Yours in health,

Coach Craig.

Photo credit: 80+ triathlete Garth Barfoot, taken by Philip Wong

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