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As a kid in the 80s, I remember exactly when I first heard the words “midlife crisis”. It was when our neighbor, Mr. C, started spending all of his time either running around the city in a pair of Nikes and a terry headband or washing the new Porsche 911 sitting in his driveway. Suddenly, he began every conversation with a series of numbers: a 4-hour and 15-minute marathon, 52 miles per week, 4.6 seconds for 0-60 mph. I had no idea what any of it meant, only that it must be bad because people usually responded to him with a scowl and derisive shake of their head. He was acting foolishly, was the message. Now, at 46, I have a hard time casting judgment on a guy who just seemed like he found a bit of disposable income and a desire to get in shape. The more I think of it, Mr. C looks a lot like me and a lot of my athlete friends (minus the Porsche), but is this a moment of “crisis?” Are we doing something wrong if we’re obsessed with triathlon and splurging on gear? Are we a total cliché? Or are we finding ourselves, gaining personal agency, and having the time of our lives?
What is midlife, anyway?
Using current data on life expectancy in the U.S. as a measuring stick, midlife refers to the time around the age of 38 when we find ourselves at the literal midpoint of our existence. In reality, “midlife” is more of a state of mind that can hit at any point between the late 30s to late 50s. As Kieran Setiya describes in his book Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, midlife arrives when “You’ve lived long enough to ask, ‘Is that all there is?’ Enough to have made some serious mistakes, to look back on failures with triumph and regret, to look sideways at lost alternatives, lives you did not choose and cannot live.” After a certain point, we start to hone in on those “lost alternatives” and our reactions run the gamut. From wistful acceptance to glum resentment, from hot irritation to rebellious motivation, no two people seem to have the same reaction to the realization that our time here is limited.
Why we’re drawn to tri in midlife
Triathlon may be uniquely attractive to those of us looking for a way to find those “lost alternatives” for both practical and socioemotional reasons. Dividing time between swimming, biking, and running works different muscle groups, beats boredom, and provides a challenge for folks who may have more experience in one sport than the other. The triathlon community can be a supportive and fun way to meet like-minded people, especially in midlife when it can be difficult to make friends. Races tend to be grand affairs, creating an exciting goal and sometimes even an opportunity to travel to an exotic location. All of that training tends to lead to improved biomarkers and even body composition changes for folks who had been less active in previous years. For those who have achieved a certain financial status, being able to purchase high-end gear and pay for coaching or nutrition support can feel incredibly satisfying. It’s hard to believe that there can be any downside to all of this when it feels like we’re doing so many things right. Paul Flannery sums up the appeal of sports like triathlon in a now-famous Medium article entitled, “Extreme Athleticism is the New Midlife Crisis” writing, “Extreme fitness is less about being young again and more about building yourself up for the years ahead. In other words, it’s getting better at getting older.”
There is no shortage of men who credit triathlon with changing their lives, but research shows that the sport might hold even deeper meaning for women in midlife. The act of focusing on triathlon training for personal growth is revolutionary for those of us that may have felt a sense of duty to care for others or otherwise sacrifice personal time. In a sweeping study on women’s participation in triathlon, Dr. Suzy Ben Dori outlines how endurance sports like triathlon redefine women’s ideas of aging, since their physical capabilities increase at a time when they see a decrease in their non-athletic peers. She argues that female triathletes defy expectations when they lean into competitiveness and focus on the self. They learn to see aging as a time for achievement and opportunity, rather than surrendering to the stereotypical decline in vitality.
The reckoning: Real triathletes in real (mid)life
No matter the gender, there seem to be two general categories of midlife triathletes: those who have been involved in sport for most of their lives and those who were relatively sedentary before jumping into triathlon. Within those groups, there is endless variation, but what they all seem to have in common is the fact that midlife brought a reckoning. There is an assessment of their current lifestyle and a need to adjust either to an increased focus on self and personal achievement, or an increased focus on family, work, and other obligations.
Hilary Topper is in the category of triathletes who were drawn to the sport later in life. A CEO of a PR firm and Adjunct Professor at Hofstra University, Hilary had gained career success but found that lingering insecurities still held her back–until she discovered triathlon. “I was always put down by my parents–my mother in particular. My teachers in high school told me I would never amount to anything. I wanted to constantly prove them wrong and to this day I’m still trying to do that in triathlon.” The sport has given her a renewed sense of purpose and even motivated her to write a book about her triumph over trauma in the hopes that she can encourage others to push through self-imposed limits. “I practically failed high school gym class and was never athletic, so for me to be able to do a triathlon and finish it always amazes me! Anything is possible!”
For some, stepping away from training as other obligations become more important in midlife is bittersweet. Andrew Owen, a lifelong athlete, coach, and founder of the Life of Tri website and YouTube channel, says that starting a family a bit later in life has meant making different decisions about training. “I tried to do another Ironman event in 2019 when my daughter was a year old but I simply could not fit in the training. At this stage, I decided to reduce my commitment to triathlon and consider short distances and maybe just one or two of the disciplines.” He admits to struggling to maintain fitness since his priorities have shifted for the time being but believes that accepting and adapting to change is the key to navigating this moment in life. While he hopes to have the opportunity to be competitive again in the future, right now he says, ”It’s more about being the best I can be.”
It may seem logical to shift attention away from triathlon as life presents different opportunities, but some of us reverse that idea and instead shift toward triathlon when life gets too complicated. “Sam” is a 48-year-old triathlete from somewhere on the West Coast that I spoke to under the condition of anonymity. His raw and painful journey provides a clear example of how midlife can live up to the stereotypes. Sam took a look at his life two years ago and decided that he was deeply unsatisfied with everything–except his financial status as CEO of a midsize company. An avid listener of the Rich Roll Podcast, he suddenly felt angry with himself for always thinking that he would never experience life like the endurance athletes and adventurers featured on the show. “I started to ask, ‘Why not me?’” He set his sights on triathlon a few weeks after his 46th birthday and immediately dropped more than $10k on a new bike, gear, a pool membership, and a triathlon coach. The more he trained, the better he felt, though it may be difficult to hear why. “I felt alive when I wasn’t home or at work. I didn’t have to be someone’s boss, dad, husband, whatever. I trained with people that were more like me. No one would ask me why I spent $300 on a helmet or why I wanted to ride all day Saturday.” As Sam’s fitness improved, he became more critical of those who didn’t share his new passion for healthy eating and performance. Eventually, he found it difficult to be intimate with his wife, citing “different opinions on physical attractiveness”, and didn’t want to socialize with the same friends that “sat on golf carts for cardio”. Sam left his house six months ago and is planning to move to a location that has a bigger triathlon community, but won’t take him too far from his teenage son. (“Divorce by Triathlon” is a thing, unfortunately, as reported by our Susan Lacke.) I asked him if he thinks he is experiencing a midlife crisis. “I think that my whole life before this was a crisis,” he said. “People don’t understand that I didn’t like who I was before and I don’t want to be that again.”
It is easy to be critical of any athlete for their choices in midlife, but those judgments likely have more to do with our personal hopes and fears as we age. Even research in this area is mixed, with some studies finding a decline in mental and physical wellbeing during this period and others declaring that “life begins at 40”. The athlete who steps away from triathlon in this period might be losing their identity or they could be realizing life-long goals in other areas. The athlete who becomes dedicated to triathlon in midlife might be discovering their true self-worth or completely losing sight of their priorities. To try to suggest that there is one lens through which to view midlife would be pure folly. The only thing we can do is to be prepared for our own reckoning and set ourselves up for a positive experience – by whatever definition.
The age-proof triathlete
The most explosive flashpoint of midlife seems to be centered on physical fitness. How well our bodies work, what we can or can’t do anymore, and how we look as we age become the salient topics for a population inundated with reminders that we are losing muscle mass, VO2 max, and sex appeal by the second. Research on fitness in midlife shows that those who exercise regularly are less likely to suffer from chronic diseases after the age of 70. A study linking cardiorespiratory fitness and physical activity found that both are associated with better functionality of the autonomic nervous system–an indicator that the body is resilient to stress and stress-related dysfunction. And many of us will be happy to know that there seems to be a link between sexual satisfaction and physical fitness after 50. All of this means that for those of us still able to train after 40, triathlon might have the power to keep us vital well into our 50s, 60s, and beyond.
Suzan Ballmer, a former professional triathlete and award-winning coach with over 30 years of experience, believes that triathlon can be a keystone of the aging process–as long as we’re prepared to approach training differently. She advocates spending more time strength training to avoid injury, focusing on recovery, and adjusting nutrition to support performance. As long as we can be honest with ourselves, the sky’s the limit. “The aging process requires self-reflection and self-knowledge which is both satisfying and confounding at times. What I see in my mind is my younger athletic self who could train for hours a day and feel fine to go again the next day. What I see in the mirror and feel in my muscles is the reality of where I am now. Sometimes it takes giving myself a talking to, but I still get better and stronger each year.”It’s clear that triathlon has the power to make us feel physically invincible, but managing midlife successfully means feeling mentally bulletproof as well.
Don’t run away from midlife
Experiencing turmoil in midlife is likely due to underlying issues that we have not wanted to or have not yet been able to address. It is not because we are triathletes, and triathlon is neither the sole problem nor the sole solution. Using the sport as the singular method to manage insecurities or existential fear in midlife will likely end in disaster. It’s easy to make poor decisions about training, time, and finances from a need to overcompensate for perceived failures. Each of us has to find our own balance, but research suggests that more training doesn’t equal better mental health – no matter how much we wish it did.
The psychologist authors of the recently published book, Updating Midlife: Psychoanalytic Perspectives, suggest that any possible upheaval we experience in midlife may not just be due to an identity crisis, but a lack of adequate coping systems for that crisis. It is therefore imperative that we consider seeking the help of a mental healthcare practitioner to navigate the reckoning with grace and keep training as an enjoyable hobby. Triathlon should be a welcome compliment to a life well-lived, not something that drives a wedge between us and reality. Midlife might be tricky, but it doesn’t have to be a cliché–and the Porsche is optional.
Suzan Ballmer’s Tips for Triathlon Training in Midlife (and Beyond!)
- Add sport-specific strength and flexibility work support and enhance endurance. Consider adding speed workouts to avoid injury in racing situations. “Older athletes need more recovery and need more focus on skills, technique, economy. We do things like use paddles in the swim, 1 leg work on the bike in a bigger gear, or running hill reps on grass.”
- Do what you can to mitigate wear and tear on the body. “For some people, I cut back a bit on their running, as it is the most injury forming, and add more cycling as a balance.”
- Consult with a Registered Dietitian to update nutritional needs. “We have to eat in a way that supports our new reality.”
- Be sure to include extra time for recovery and sleep, including extra days off.
- It’s good to be competitive, even if we’re competing against ourselves. “Although I don’t race anymore, I do have opportunities to express my competitive nature during group rides, or swim workouts with others, or by learning a new skill.”
- Embrace the social part of triathlon. Group workouts and racing are great community builders in midlife. “I have a group of older athletes that came to triathlon later in life. They travel together, enjoy each other’s company and have a great time!”
- Set realistic goals and be prepared to be flexible. “Be more careful about what you ask your body to do. If it can’t be done this year, maybe it will be the next one.”
Jill Colangelo is a writer and researcher of mental health and ultra endurance sport. She has a BA and ALM in psychology and is a former triathlete and ultramarathoner.