If you’ve made it to Kona, and you’re over 40, Mark Allen has the three components of staying fit—and getting faster—just for you. And if you’re in your 20s or 30s, make no mistake, your fastest Ironman racing years may still be a decade away.
My last year as a competitive swimmer was when I was 22 years old. When my final result was posted and the goggles were tossed into the back of my closet, I thought my days as a true athlete were done. Finished. I was retired for life. It was all downhill from there. You see, I had no role models to demonstrate what “older” athletes are capable of. I had no idea that nine years later I would be winning an Ironman world title or that 15 years later I would win my sixth Kona title at age 37.
We are seeing the limits of older age fall like leaves in the athletic world. Nowadays, 20 years old means you’re just getting started, not a year or two from your athletic grave. Thirty means you’re just hitting your stride, and being a world-class athlete at 40 is no longer an anomaly. We’d better start watching out for the 50-somethings. In a few years we may be seeing world records being set by those with ages that previous generations thought were heart attack territory.
The record books have been sprinkled with athletes bucking age barriers for some time. U.K.-born marathoner Priscilla Welch didn’t even jog until she was 35, yet she won the New York City Marathon at age 42. Rob Barel, one of our sport’s pioneers from Holland, was the oldest triathlete in the Sydney Olympics also at age 42. And don’t forget Dave Scott, who at 40 came within 12 seconds of overtaking eventual champion Greg Welch on the marathon in the 1994 Ironman Hawaii. Perhaps the most impressive example of excellence at an “old” athletic age is six-time Hawaii champion Natascha Badmann, who won Ironman South Africa in 2012 at age 45.
So what’s going on here? Why is this generation of athletes making 40 truly seem like just a number on a page while their machines are still humming along at world-class speeds? Clearly there has not been a significant genetic mutation in the human genome over the last 20 years that has suddenly made such performances possible. The genetics needed to do so have been around for thousands of years, but it’s only coming out now.
One could argue that the ability to make a living as a professional athlete is what is propelling the age standard to new heights. Certainly this is one part of the puzzle. Training, especially for an endurance event, is often a closed equation. There is only so much of the personal energy pie to spread around, and if someone is putting in 40–50 hours in the office, there is little chance that they will be logging another 30–40 a week into their training logs. But, if the results keep rolling in and sponsors continue to cut the checks, then suddenly that part of performance is taken care of and the freedom to continue to train and race full time is no longer limited by financial concerns.
But this doesn’t really explain the whole picture. When I retired from swimming there may not have been any professional swimmers who were supported financially to keep going as long as they could, but there were sports were that did happen. Golf was one of them, and certainly there were some older golfers with scores close to their ages. But in general, even in the sports that had outright professionalism, we saw few who aged up very gracefully. So what has made the shift now?
One of the biggest deterrents to consistent long-term top performance is poor planning in the recovery department. Poor recovery leads at a minimum to big-time burnout and in the extreme to a career-ending injury. Regardless of whether you are trying to be a world champion or just cross the finish line, if you don’t execute your recovery very consistently your body will start to break down. Then your racing starts to suffer, which leaves you with a zapped body as well as the frustration of knowing that all that training was for nothing. Problems caused by inadequate recovery were rampant in the early days of most endurance sports and certainly triathlon.
These days the scene looks much more tidy. We have more advanced exercise science, gadgets to measure your every heartbeat and breath, coaches who really know what they are doing, and the critical dos and don’ts that could only be built through years of trial and error by other athletes. Now all of these combine and the masses are finally tapping into a vast reservoir of knowledge about how to train smart. Recovery has gained stature and is factored into an athlete’s training way more than even 10 or 20 years ago. Suddenly careers are lasting longer that ever thought possible simply because fewer athletes are burning out before their genetics need to wind it down.
In our sport people are no longer throwing training theories against the wall to see what works and then paying the price for those harebrained plans that don’t. They can pretty much map out their years, then sit back and just do what is laid out with less apprehension about whether their training will do them right or do them in.
Throughout my career I thought I had the formula down, especially from 1989–1993, when the Ironman trophies started to add up. Race results speak volumes, but unfortunately they don’t always reveal the underlying weaknesses that are building up from training that is not matched with enough recovery—at least until the time bomb goes off, which happened to me after my fifth Kona title in ’93.
I was exhausted. After almost five years of inadequate recovery, the guillotine dropped. The short version of the story is that it took me a season and a half of pretending I was still a top triathlete before I went on a severely limited training schedule and finally started to revive the hope of putting in one more bid to win Hawaii. Others thought it was my age creeping up, but the problem was that 13 seasons into my triathlon career I had made rookie mistake number one: I hadn’t been recovering nearly enough. I was 36 and was coming back to win Kona at 37, something that had never been done before at the time.
We now know that this and more is possible. In 2010, at age 37, Macca used the field as a punching bag in his second Hawaii victory after cutting back his training load from previous seasons. Last season a 38-year-old Craig Alexander executed a perfectly planned season of racing and recovery to become the oldest male champion in the history of the race.
The final component
Opportunity and recovery are close to the complete answer of why we are seeing today’s 40-somethings still on top, but not quite all of it. The final component required to be “old and on top” starts with a thought. It’s either “I know I can,” or something like, “I think I might be able to and I just want to see if I can.” You just need a part of you to believe that your best days aren’t behind you.
My view of the world when I finished swimming—that all athletics were over—was limited. Probably many pro triathletes in the ’80’s had already seen themselves joining the age-group ranks sometime in their early thirties until they saw Dave Scott and me still at the top of our games at age 40.
Nowadays the belief is there for the “old-timers.” And maybe it’s not even about being a champ. Ken Glah has logged a finish in Kona every year since 1984 [Ed note: This year will mark his 30th time on the starting line]. He believes he can, so why not? Has age clipped a dream short for you before you even gave it a fighting chance? Maybe this is the year to tell yourself, “I know I can,” or at the very least, “I don’t know if I can but I know I can give it a try.”
This original article by six-time Ironman world champion Mark Allen appeared in the August 2012 Issue of LAVA Magazine. To subscribe to LAVA Magazine, click here.