It’s inevitable. The human body changes with the passage of time. Around the age of 40, even the fittest and fastest of athletes can begin to struggle with muscle loss and fat gain—body composition concerns that are inextricably linked to the metabolic slowdown both men and women face as they enter middle age.
These age-related changes often inspire athletes to pursue training strategies that offer equal parts improved fitness and health. Their logic is sound: exercise can slow the hands of time. But not all exercise is created equal. Based on recent research it appears that less can be more when it comes to evaluating the body composition benefits—especially for middle-aged athletes.
While it’s widely known that long, slow distance training can stoke the body’s ability to burn fat for fuel, it does little to support muscular strength and development. Building lean muscle is ultimately more important, since it’s what drives and determines the body’s metabolic might. The stronger an athlete’s metabolism, the better his or her body composition, energy, and overall health.
Studies suggest that rotating two or three higher-intensity training sessions with lower-intensity efforts and some strength training may provide middle-aged athletes with a metabolic boost—a sound strategy for getting fitter, faster, stronger, and healthier as they age. Ideally, these workouts should include cross-training activities, which will challenge more muscle groups and reduce the likelihood of overuse injuries. In many ways, this is the perfect structure for sprint-distance training and racing.
According to Karen Smyers, former world-class competitor turned top-notch coach, “A good training plan for a sprint triathlon strikes a balance of high-intensity interval training, aerobic endurance work, and strength work with a time commitment that turns out to be an ideal recipe for both physical and mental health.”
Since going shorter and harder can benefit the health of older athletes, the sprint-distance might be the perfect medicine for athletes as they age.
In addition to its metabolic benefits, this less-can-be-more approach to training can help middle-age athletes:
Reduce their stress.
All forms of exercise increase cortisol—the stress hormone—but shorter, harder workouts create less of it. And they support the body’s anabolic response to exercise by increasing growth hormone, which is directly responsible for muscular development, maintenance, and repair. By contrast, longer, slower training results in a larger total cortisol load and a catabolic response, which can promote fat storage and accelerate age-related muscle loss.
When compared to lower-intensity efforts, higher-intensity training heightens the release of endorphins and serotonin—the happy hormones—for a greater feel-good effect. And when combined, this trifecta of hormonal benefits can add up to higher-quality sleep—the ultimate stress-reduction tool.
Rebalance their bodies.
Opting for short, focused workouts will open up more time for strength training, which can help even the most well-seasoned athletes recruit both their slow and fast-twitch muscle fibers for improved swimming, biking, and running efficiency.
Remember: strength training doesn’t need to be complicated; it doesn’t even require access to a gym. As long as you’re moving your limbs against resistance with the use of bands or weights (which can include your own body weight), you’re strength training.
“Full-body exercises like standing overhead presses, farmer’s carries, squats, and deadlifts all mimic everyday movements, many of which can counterbalance the repetitive patterns of triathlon training,” said Tim Monaco, a former pro triathlete who specializes in corrective massage therapy and conditioning in Bend, Oregon. “These repetitive training patterns can create a variety of muscular imbalances and physical limitations, unless they’re intentionally addressed.”
Reboot their brains.
Studies have shown that higher-intensity activity increases blood flow, along with essential oxygen and nutrients, to the brain more than steady-state exercise. Improvements in mood, memory, clarity, thought processing speed, concentration, and focus are just a few of the many cognitive benefits that have been identified.
And here’s an added bonus: Research shows that higher-intensity training might just make you look and feel younger by increasing levels of telomerase (an anti-aging enzyme) and nitric oxide (which improves cellular energy) in the body.
Of course, it’s always wise to talk to your doctor if you’re not sure how intense you should be exercising, especially prior to undertaking any new training program. And if you’re considering a switch from long- to short-course, be prepared to train a little differently.
“Being competitive at the sprint distance will require a lot more speed and high-intensity interval work, but with significantly less overall weekly mileage,” said Steve Polley, veteran age-grouper and founder of Fast Forward Tri Coach. “I have always considered sprint-distance training a foundational building block, even for athletes who aspire to longer events.”
Interested in giving sprint-distance racing a try? Consider reaching out to a certified coach for guidance. You can even search for a short-course training specialist by using the specialties tab found in the dropdown menu of USA Triathlon’s online coaching directory.
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Jackie Cruickshank Cohen is a certified health coach specializing in women’s sports performance. She is the founder of the Performance Prescription and author of “Get Back in the Game: Overcoming the Eight Obstacles to Optimal Female Health and Performance.”