Why Are So Many Professional Triathletes Racing Into Their 40s?

Retired two-time Ironman world champion Tim DeBoom, who competed until the age of 41, gives his take.

Photo: Paul Phillips

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With professional triathletes racing into their 40s, how are they doing it—and why? What are the long-term repercussions? Why do some of the greatest keep going—or walk away early? Retired two-time Ironman world champion Tim DeBoom gives his take.

Are today’s professional triathletes racing too long? It’s fitting that I was tasked to answer this question since I raced professionally to the grand age of 41. The answer is not black and white, because the question can be interpreted in many ways. Are professional triathletes hurting themselves by racing into their upper 30s and 40s? At what age do they become pack fodder that can’t compete with the younger generation of athletes? Are they simply hanging on too long?

The question is being raised because there are more “old athletes” on the start list of increasingly more races. This phenomenon is not isolated to the sport of triathlon. Chris Horner won one of the most prestigious and hardest cycling races in the world last year, the Tour of Spain, at the age of 41, and he vows he is as strong as ever. Peyton Manning was football’s MVP this year and played in the Super Bowl at 37 after neck surgery. He plans to continue again next year.

The point is that professional athletes continue to perform at very high levels as they age. They are pushing the limits that age previously dictated. Thus, there are better questions to ask related to aging and professional triathletes than, “Are they racing too long?”

To begin, why are they racing later and later into their lives?

One of the hardest decisions professional athletes will make in their careers is when to hang up their racing shoes and call it quits. When I was 25, I could not imagine racing past 32. When I got second place in Hawaii in 2000, I thought, “If I can win this thing once, I will walk away a happy man.” When I passed a kidney stone running for a third world title in 2003, I vowed to never do it again. Eight years later, at the age of 41, I was finally done.

Why didn’t I stop earlier? It’s easier to look back now and understand why I kept going. It was a combination of several things that probably keep many of today’s athletes racing too. I truly loved the sport of triathlon. It is hard to imagine another job that would have pushed me to new limits, both physically and mentally, on a yearly and even daily basis.

There is probably some complacence and fear as well. The emotional tie to a sport I had given my life to was so strong that moving on was a tough proposition to even confront. I know I did not have another passion to put my energy into, so continuing to race was an easier choice than stopping. Most pros’ lives and identities are defined by the sport, which can make it hard to let go. I relate it to getting a divorce from a 20-plus-year marriage.

However, for me, and probably every professional athlete, the biggest reason I continued to race was for “one more.” One more great performance. Whether it ever came or not, and whether I would have even recognized it when it happened, the desire for “one more” is the period with which all pro athletes hope to end their careers.

Another good question to ask: How are the “old athletes” able to push the age boundary and still perform with the younger generation of athletes?

Being a successful triathlete is a combination of so many ingredients. Strength, speed, endurance, proper training, nutrition, ability to recover and race experience are just a few. As we begin to approach 40 years old, raw strength and speed are known to decrease, but endurance tends to hang around longer. How much longer? That’s the limit the older athletes seek to discover by doing everything they can to turn back the clock on their aging bodies.

The most crucial adaptation the older athletes have to make is to their training load. As I entered my late 30s, I stretched my weekly training schedule from seven into 10 days. I was still able to complete the same key workouts I needed to be competitive, but with 10 days to complete them, I allowed myself more time to recover between hard efforts.

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Older athletes must also use the latest recovery tools and techniques. I added a second deep-tissue massage to my schedule every week. I treated sore muscles with ice baths, and I wore medical-grade compression boots, sometimes before and definitely after every hard workout.

Finally, older athletes must continually refine their nutrition and optimize their equipment, because every year their bodies change, and adaptations may not be as easy as when they were younger. I had my bike fit analyzed every year, even if I was not having any problems. I was also constantly testing new protocols in training and staying informed of the latest developments in sports nutrition.

This leads to one last question about older professional triathletes: Is racing to 40 the new normal? Are more of today’s 20- and 30-year-old triathletes going to compete into their 40s and beyond?

I finally began to “feel my age” around 35 years old. That number is not important because, as the saying goes, age really is just a number. What’s more vital is what I call “race age.” I had been racing triathlons for 15 years when I turned 35—more importantly, racing Ironmans for all 15 of those years. Most of the older athletes today have a relatively “younger” race age than I did. Most have been racing just as long, but did not add the longer distances to their schedules until their late 20s or early 30s. Their relatively young “race age” allows them to compete against the younger athletes in the longer-distance races.

Unfortunately, just as the older athletes have lengthened their careers from racing fewer 70.3 and Ironman races, younger athletes are racing long distances more frequently and therefore aging more quickly.

During the bulk of my career, the Ironman 70.3 series did not exist. There were only two half-iron-distance races on the pro circuit—Wildflower and St. Croix—and they fell on the same weekend. We were limited to mostly Olympic-distance races, and an Ironman or two during the year. Olympic-distance racing is taxing but not even close to half- and iron-distance racing.

WTC has definitely changed the game with the 5150, 70.3 and Kona qualifying points systems. I’ve watched athletes race two, three and even four 70.3 races in as many weeks, and then also compete in two or three Ironmans in a year. I have to wonder if they have any respect for the distances, their bodies or their longevity in the sport.

Also, there is no off-season in the sport of triathlon anymore. Not a month goes by without a big race on the calendar. The scramble for points or validation toward a championship starting spot is a continuous, never-ending cycle that leaves little time for the large blocks of recovery needed to stay healthy, motivated and competitive. Every other sport I can think of (including the ITU, with Olympic spots on the line) has an off-season built into the year. I definitely extended my “race age” with a two-month, unstructured off-season every year.

The younger athletes have their work cut out for them if they want to race as long as some of the current pros. Maybe they don’t care how long they will compete or what shape their bodies will be in when they end their careers. What’s certain is that if they don’t reduce their taxing race schedule, no compression boot, nutritional miracle or new bike fit will help them race into their forties.

In the big picture, at what age a pro retires is not the real issue. Finding the right time, on your terms, to end a career is more important. It is a decision that plagues everyone. Some will time it perfectly and hang it up after hitting one last “dinger.” I think Mark Allen’s final appearance and victory in Kona at the age of 37 was a perfect ending to his Ironman career.

Others may try for “one more” and miss the mark. Craig Alexander had an amazing run of races in 2011 and 2012, winning the 70.3 world title, his third Ironman world title and the inaugural Ironman Melbourne title all in record time. The effort required for those wins, however, may have pushed Crowie’s “race age” past the point of no return.

Chrissie Wellington walked away when most thought she had several more world titles in her. Maybe all her races were so incredible and taxed her so much physically, mentally and emotionally that she reached her maximum “race age” in the few years she competed.

Every athlete has a limited number of great performances in them. It is a finite number and it most likely decreases with every race you do, not just your great ones. I am sure the athletes who race into their late 30s and 40s are thankful to make it that long. I know I was. However, I was also thankful when I finally stopped, even without the satisfaction of the “one more” I dreamed about. Some say I may have raced too long, but I would say I raced just long enough.

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