By Sarah Piampiano
When I was a young kid my family went on a week-long hiking trip each summer in the Appalachian Mountains. Each day I would bounce up the trail with the other kids as the adults hung back, lamenting over their sore and stiff bodies. I vividly remember thinking to myself that I would never be “that (sore) person.” I was going to maintain my youthful ambitions, energy and physical responsiveness forever. At least, this is what I thought as an idealistic eight-year-old. Now, as I approach 40 and am arguably in the best shape of my life—performing at my peak as a world-class Ironman—I have come to realize that no matter how fit you are, age catches up to you!
As I approach 40 I can feel my body slowing down. When I get up in the night to use the bathroom, my joints ache and I walk stiffly to and from my bed. When I start every run or ride, I have a level of heaviness in my body that I need to shake out. I can no longer fire on all cylinders immediately after starting my watch. My recovery after hard sessions takes longer, and I don’t respond as well to as many days of intensity or to as many hours of weekly training as I did in the past. And yet, despite all of this, I am performing both in training and races at a higher level than I ever have before. I ask myself the same question you are: How? Why?
Well, getting older DOES NOT mean getting slower. In fact, I have seen many world-class endurance athletes perform at their best in their late 30s and early 40s. Getting older simply means becoming smarter and more efficient with your training. You need to respect your body as it evolves, which often means changes in your warm-up, training and recovery protocols. Create the right environment, and you’ll enable your continued growth and development.
Here are the top six changes I have implemented to get better as I age:
Anticipate a longer warm-up—both in training and races.
Even though I’m turning 40 in 2020, I am swimming and running faster than ever before and putting out power on the bike that I couldn’t fathom five years ago. But it also takes me longer to get my engine going each day. Whether it be in the pool, on a run or out on the road on my bike, I have to factor in a longer and easier warm up. A run may start out at an 8:30- or 9:00-mile pace, or I may start each ride at around 100-130W and build up. Allowing my body time to get going is key.
Similarly, in races I sometimes allow up to 25 minutes of progressive warm-up running before I feel prepared to race at the gun. The good news is that once I’m warmed up, I’m ready to go!
Allow for some bigger blocks of training, but decrease overall volume.
Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that I respond very well to discrete blocks of larger training volume. But, on the whole, I’ve needed to decrease my volume. While I personally enjoy the process of large-volume training, my body simply gets too fatigued to respond well to the work. Now, my coach and I are evolving my training to place a bigger focus on the “on” days with much lighter recovery days in between.
Structure more recovery days between days of intensity.
Similar to volume considerations, I’ve noticed I do not respond as well to too many days of intensity each week. My body isn’t able to absorb the load and I’m not able to recover and respond to the next tough session. To get the most out of these important days of training, we have decreased the “on” days in a given week. Where I used to typically have five days of intensity (three hard, one easy, two hard, one easy) we have reduced this to two or three key days each week with the potential for a fourth day in certain blocks of training.
I also take two lighter days between each heavy day. This has allowed me to absorb the load, adapt and be ready to go again. As I mentioned above, my numbers are better than ever, and I continue to grow as an athlete—yet I work hard to remain within the parameters that will keep me healthy.
Nutrition, sleep, and overall well-being are essential!
When I was fresh out of college, I felt like I could eat whatever I wanted, survive on little sleep and still get up every day to perform. As you get older, that simply is not the case. The older you get, the more you need to treat your body with care. Things like proper nutrition/fueling, hydration and plenty of sleep become essential to recovering well and performing at your best. Take the time to read and understand more about the role these things play, collaborate with your coach, and be disciplined about eating and sleeping well.
Monitor your body with the latest, best and most precise technology
I’ve become much more attentive to how my overall “well-being numbers” look on a daily and weekly basis. I pay close attention not only to what my body feels like but what it can tell me in ways I can’t necessarily always feel, hear or see.
I use a device (the Ember by Ceracor Labs) that measures 10 key metrics in less than a minute using an LED light finger sensor. I use it twice a day to capture my hemoglobin, pulse rate variability (very similar to HRV), pulse rate, respiratory rate, pleth variability index, perfusion index, oxygen saturation, carbon monoxide, oxygen content, and methemoglobin. It also helps me track my sleep wellness and select my overall emotional wellbeing at the time of each measurement). This helps me flag if I am overtraining, possibly dehydrated, potentially getting sick, and also tells me how well I adapt to altitude training.
My Ember device has become a big help with gauging my recovery. I also get blood panels done regularly to make sure I am staying on top of any red flags such a low iron, vitamin D or calcium. Low volumes of these are common concerns with endurance athletes and can lead to other problems.
Increase body work
The older you get, the more attention and care you need to give to your engine and muscles to be able to get up each day and perform. I’ve noticed that I’ve needed to increase the frequency of my body work each week. In the past, I could manage just fine with a massage every other week and some active release technique (ART) treatments scattered in there. Now I try to get two or three massages and one or two ART treatments a week. Being proactive about staying healthy is key to preventing muscular breakdown and injury. And the longer you stay injury-free, the stronger and more resilient your body becomes.
Competing at the highest level in sport is an honor and privilege. It is also extremely hard work. Every ounce of yourself has to be committed to being your best; from the amount of sleep you get, to the foods you eat, to the way you exercise, to the way you recover. It is amazing and excruciating all at the same time. Being your best takes an almost incomprehensible about of dedication and focus.
But, getting older doesn’t necessarily mean getting slower. By properly caring for your body, adjusting your workouts, and using innovative technology, you may just hit your personal record AND your 40th birthday in the same year. Good luck!
About Sarah Piampiano: Maine-born Piampiano is a professional triathlete who now resides and trains full-time in Northern California under the guidance of purplepatch fitness founder and coach, Matt Dixon. Her career highlights include winning IRONMAN Western Australia in 2015 and IRONMAN Vineman in 2016 and Ironman Argentina in 2017. She is a sub-9-hour Ironman athlete, six-time IRONMAN 70.3 Champion and placed as the 7th overall female and 2nd American female at the IRONMAN World Championships in 2015 and 2016.