One of the things that drives me bonkers is being told I’m too old to do something. I’m not old. I might be ageing up this year. I might be hitting 45 then too but athletically I’m not 45. Athletically I’m probably more like 5 or 6 years old so really I’m only a young fella.
What do I mean by athletic age? Surely 45 is just 45 and I should accept that I’m getting older and get over myself. (By the way I’m not 45 yet…)
So what is athletic age?
Athletic age is how old you are counting the number of years you’ve been an athlete. I took up cycling in my late 20’s having never done any sports before and after stopping a 12 year 2 pack a day smoking habit. So by the time I hit 30 athletically I was only about 3 years old. I did my first triathlon in 2003 but really only started training and racing regularly in 2005. I moved on to Ironman in 2008 but again it was only in 2011 that I really started to train seriously. I count this as the start of my “competitive athletic” age. Starting from that point I’m probably somewhere around 5 years old now (I quite like this measure as I’m just getting younger and younger)
Reaching athletic maturity
I think it’s generally accepted that it’s normal to take at least 10 years of the correct, consistent training to reach “athletic maturity” Another way to look at this is that regardless of what age you are when you take up sport you could potentially still be improving and getting faster for 10 years or more. Of course you would need to be training correctly and consistently for this to happen but it’s not at all unusual to see age group athletes who take up competitive sport later in life get faster into their late forties and through to their fifties.
Bonus content: Free Ironman swim, bike and run workouts
Of course this doesn’t apply across all sports. We aren’t likely to see 45 year old 100m sprinters win Olympic gold but luckily for all of us “slowtwitch heads” it does apply in endurance sports and Ironman is a very good example of it.
40 is the new 30
In Ironman Arizona in 2014 Irish athlete Owen Martin placed 4th amateur overall. It’s also worth noting that 5th, 6th and 7th in the same race were also in the 40-44 age group (looking at this I’m sort of glad I age up next year and hopefully wont be racing all of these guys) To have four of the top ten athletes be over 40 years old is a testament to the age defying aspect of our sport but it also should serve as inspiration to the rest of us not accept that just because we hit a certain age that we accept the traditional belief that 40 or 45 or 50 is “old”
Age is a number that applies very differently to non athletes and sedentary people compared to athletes and in particular Ironman athletes. 40 might be a scary number for most of the population and one that signals the start of a physical decline that we have been told to expect that should come with the onset of “middle age” but for most Ironman athletes who often only take up the sport in their thirties. Turning 40 for us is just a chance to be the youngster in the next age group. We can look forward to many years of improvement and all of the health benefits that come with the exceptional fitness that comes as a result of the training that is required to race or complete an Ironman.
It’s never too late to start
But what if you’re 50, 60 or older and are looking at that and thinking that it’s ok to think 40 is young and a grand age to start. That chance passed by 10 or 20 years ago and now you’re really looking at the decline that comes with getting older. Not always.
I have personal experience of seeing a 71 year old take up running for the first time in his life starting out with 1 minute walk, 1 min run for 15 minutes then stretching that to a walk-run for 4-5k and gradually building to running 5-6k straight through in only a couple of months.
The person in question is my Dad and when he got to this stage he kept on adding a kilometer a week to his long run until he was doing 14-15k on the weekend. It was at this point that the idea of doing a half marathon was put forward and he decided to enter the Dublin half marathon.
Running a debut marathon at 71
He picked up a copy of the Irish Runner magazine which had a training program in it and started to follow it religiously. The only issue with this plan was that it was actually a full marathon program he was following so with a couple of weeks still to go to the half marathon he was already running more than 20k each week in his long run. When he told us this we immediately suggested that he go for the full marathon in October. He seemed a bit dubious but sure enough a couple of weeks later he told us he had entered.
Only 10 months after he had taken up running at the age of 71 Dad cruised across the finish line of the Dublin Marathon in just over 5 hours with a huge grin on his face. He was for the most part finishing with people less than half his age.
Fast after 50: Joe Friel
Coach and athlete Joe Friel is also a big proponent of not letting age get in your way as an athlete and as he heads into his seventies is still racing and training regularly. He’s also written a very interesting book about how to adapt your training as you get older and surprisingly he doesn’t subscribe to the idea that everything you do as you get older should be easy, rather he’s a big believer in strength work and intervals to maintain VO2 and muscle mass.
The flip side of this argument is the athlete in their thirties who’s been around for a couple of decades having started sport in school and maintained it right through the intervening years. How does it apply to them?
Old man strength
A good friend of mine who also happens to be one of our coached athletes talks about his time playing rugby back in college. He tells the story of when they came across guys who were a little overweight and well into their thirties, initially the young guys would think we’ll flatten these “fat oul’fellas” only to have the “oul’fellas” push them over again and again. John calls it “old man strength” and it comes from the accumulated years of training and playing sports. Despite being much less fit than the younger athletes the strength built up over them or more years is very often greater.
In Ironman the accumulation of years of training coupled with the experience that comes from decades of racing means that the accepted retirement age of our champions is being moved all the time. Cam Brown won Ironman New Zealand for the twelfth time this year at the age of 42 in the process beating a number of up and coming pro triathletes in their twenties.
Three time Ironman World Champion Aussie Craig Alexander was still winning 70.3 races in 2016, which in theory is a distance more suited to younger “faster” athletes. Alexander has come out of retirement and in 2016 was 42 while also beating much younger athletes.
One of the most attractive aspects of our sport is the fact that you can compete at a much older age than almost any other sport. We can continue to get faster way past the point that conventional wisdom would have us believe that we should be shuffling off the race course.