This sounds like a fun way to spend a morning: Swim half a mile, dash out of the water and jump on your bicycle, bike 24 miles, then jump off and run another six miles. Why? Because you can.
We're talking about triathlon, a sporting event that combines swimming, biking, and running -- from the shorter "sprint" and "Olympic" distance triathlons, up to the brutal "Ironman," in which competitors swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, then run a marathon. Triathlon has exploded in popularity over the past 10 years -- novice participation in the sport has increased 94% since 1994, according to the national sanctioning body USA Triathlon, and next year more than 40,000 athletes will compete in some 700 sanctioned races.
If you watch a triathlon, you'll probably notice something. The competitors aren't all lean, buff, hardbody types. You'll see white-haired grandfathers, middle-aged moms, and a fair number of people who look as if the furthest distance they run is from the couch to the fridge. And as they approach the finish line, at least one athletic-looking guy will be eating the dust of at least one sweet-looking grandmother.
Endurance for Everyone?
Why does triathlon appeal to such a wide range of people -- many of them people you might not think of as "traditional" athletes, and many who have never thought of themselves as athletes before?
In part, says Margaret Hawkins, who manages the American Association of Retired Persons' "Tri-Umph" triathlon series for people over 50, it's the combination of sports. Putting swimming, biking, and running together means that you don't have to do one sport to exhaustion -- and in the time it takes to train for a marathon, people who can't imagine themselves running over 26 miles straight can cross-train and be ready for a middle-distance triathlon.
Tri-Umph, which began last year with six triathlons across the country, is sponsoring 15 races this year. Although most participants are in their 50s, a substantial chunk -- up to 30% in some areas -- are between ages 60 and 74. In addition to the benefits of cross-training, Hawkins says older athletes, and probably younger people of a less athletic bent as well, are drawn to triathlon because it calls on mental strength as much as physical.
"I think mental endurance and focus really play a role," she says. "It's not that they're streaking out to be the best runner, swimmer, or cyclist -- they're just determined to keep going. We even have participants walking the run course, but they're still competing and finishing."
"The goal for most participants in triathlon is not to beat the pack," agrees Fred Apple, MD, medical director of clinical laboratories at Hennepin County Medical Center. "You might have an individual person you compete against, and try to pass them at the finish line, but the competition is based on your personal record. Everyone's got their own personal best, and everyone's competing with themselves."
The world record for a particular triathlon might be two hours -- but if you finish in five hours this year and four hours, 58 minutes next year, that's an enormous achievement. "The goal is to endure and maintain, and the sense of accomplishment is tremendous," says Apple, who is also professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Minnesota.
The Maturity Factor
According to USA Triathlon, the number of triathlon participants aged 60-69 is fully twice that of athletes in their late teens (16-19), and triathletes in their 40s easily outnumber those in their 20s. More people seem to take up triathlon later in life and stay with it longer (one elite example: Sister Madonna Buder, a 71-year-old nun who's completed more than a dozen Ironman races). "I'd call it maturity. You recognize that you don't have to go out and kill yourself in the first five miles of a 10-mile race. You learn to understand your body better and recognize what it can endure," says Apple.
"A lot of people want to complete a race with their time for the second half better than their time in the first, even if it's just by one second," he adds, talking about what racers call a "negative split." "That's becoming quite common in all these races: to pace yourself and understand what your body can endure, to not push yourself to the edge all the time," Apple notes. "The mature competitor understands that approach."
"This particular demographic is very in tune with their bodies. They have the wisdom to pace themselves and to think more about what they're doing," says Hawkins of the Tri-Umph competitors. "Rather than risking things physically to come in first, they're going to pace themselves so they can finish."
Time for Training
Just because you don't need to look like Lance Armstrong or Marion Jones to complete a triathlon doesn't mean you can skip its tough training requirements, however. "People assume that training doesn't have to be as rigorous and you don't have to be as prepared to train for a shorter-distance biathlon or triathlon," Apple notes. "But if you don't appropriately train, you end up not finishing or getting injured. People sometimes view it as an easier way to the goal, but after the first try they take it more seriously."
Group training sessions available in many areas enhance the camaraderie of triathlon prep. Local triathlon clubs often organize training classes and coaching sessions for participants of all athletic levels -- as well as social events where participants can connect with other triathletes.