Training and Competing as a Masters Athlete
by Debbie Sayers
The word that comes to mind when I think about training and competing as a masters athlete is “gratitude”. Gratitude that I have the support of family and friends to train and race, the opportunity and means to compete, and the physical health and coaching support to be able to continue to challenge myself physically.
Different stages of life present different opportunities and challenges; life as an athlete is no different. You trade one challenge for another, and those challenges limit or make more difficult what you hope to accomplish. Balancing endurance training with the demands of work, family, friends, and church make for a juggling act that is different than the demands I faced in my twenties, thirties, and even my forties. I’m more tired. I don’t sleep as well. My muscles are less flexible. I have daily aches and pains. I’m not as strong as I used to be. The leg power and speed of my youth are gone. I get injured more frequently. I have more doubts about my physical ability to do things. I can’t eat everything I want and still maintain my weight. I don’t recover as quickly. I’m always sore. I can’t wear fancy heels because I will throw out my back or make my hammertoes worse. I will never again PR in a 5k, 10k, half-marathon, or marathon. This is not whining; this is the reality of life as an aging athlete. And I expect it to get worse.
Why keep going? Because I can. With smart training, ample recovery, strength training, creative time management, realistic goals, time, and patience….a masters athlete can do just about anything he or she wants to do. I took up triathlon six years ago because of running injuries that kept popping up every couple years and promptly fell in love with triathlon. In the fall of 2012, I tripped and fell while trail running. I tore my hamstring from my pelvis and was facing an end to running, biking, and swimming. I opted for surgery and spent the next eight months in physical therapy. Four months later, I rolled my ankle and fractured it while trail running. I spent another six months in physical therapy. I wanted to run again. I chose not to compete for a year, focusing instead on strength training and re-establishing an aerobic base through running. I joined Fleet Feet for tri training during the summer of 2014 with no expectations for performance. I was grateful to be running, swimming, and biking again. I took August through December easy – three weeks of no running and then regular strength training sprinkled with running and biking as I felt like it. I wanted to rest my body and work on my limiters.
The following year, I joined Fleet Feet to train for Raleigh 70.3 and USAT Age Group Nationals. My first half. I wanted to see if it was possible. I was tired. I was sore. I sometimes took both Thursday and Friday off before our long bricks on Saturday. I needed the extra rest. I ran/walked every training run that was longer than 45 minutes. I knew I would need to walk during the race and wanted to be able to start running after walking when I was tired. Would I have done that as a younger athlete? Probably not. Again, I took mid-August through December easy. Three weeks of no running and then regular strength training with two to three runs or rides each week. I wanted to rest and recover.
Last year, I signed up for Tri All Year with Fleet Feet. I wanted to do Chattanooga 70.3 but was worried about my work as a grade level principal with seniors who would be graduating days before the race. My decision was a wise one; I ended up with walking pneumonia in April. More rest and recovery. Strength training when I felt better. I decided to do Steelhead 70.3 in August. My shoulder had been hurting since February so I took three cortisone shots several weeks before the race. The race was great except for terrible leg cramps from over-reaching on the bike. PR by 35 minutes, running 5:50. I took the next three months easy with physical therapy for my shoulder, strength training, and easy running and biking. I wanted to rest, recover, and heal.
My 2017 goals included a marathon, two 70.3s (Chattanooga and Augusta with Fleet Feet), and a century ride. I didn’t do the century ride. My best friend’s daughter was having a baby shower; her first. There will be many more opportunities for century rides. I am old enough to know there are more important things than riding 100 miles. I ran/walked the marathon as planned, finishing in 4:20 with leg cramps. Not an all-time PR. Not even a post-40 PR. But a post-hamstring, over-50 PR. Shahin told me once that athletes with longevity get to determine their own PR rules. I followed the race with a month of recovery, strength training, more physical therapy for my shoulder, and easy walks, runs, and bike rides. Then began the training for Chattanooga. I kept showing up and doing my workouts, but I was so tired. I could not wait to taper. It wasn’t just training. It was life plus training on a fifty year old body that was draining me. The race was great. I measured my effort on the bike and was rewarded with no leg cramps on the run. Not a PR but I will take it. Because I just finished my third 70.3. At 54.
I decided to get a personal coach to help me prepare for Augusta. I wondered if a time-crunched approach with more intensity and less volume would help with the chronic sense of fatigue I felt. My only caveat was that my training plan needed to include Wednesday morning swims and Saturday bricks with Fleet Feet. The support of like-minded training partners and friends keeps me going when I’m tired and discouraged. Shahin has been good to help me understand the unique physical demands years of endurance training place on a body.
There were more intense workouts. Sometimes I didn’t think I could do them. Often I struggled. I hung in there as best I could. I was committed to trying something new. Recovery days were shorter and lighter. I needed them. In a weird way, I felt more rested with the shorter, more intense workouts. We spend every weekend at the lake with friends during the summer. On several Saturdays, I chose to do my long ride on my bike trainer, setting up on the front porch or driveway so I would still be subject to heat, sun, and humidity. I did Sunday long runs early in the morning. The adjustments gave me more time with my husband and friends. The long runs were miserable. Six minutes running and 30 seconds walking. Zone 3. There were many moments where I didn’t think I could maintain the pace. It’s harder to run fast when you are older. Maybe that’s because you can’t help but remember how fast you used to run.
And then came Augusta. A PR by 17 minutes (5:33). Successfully executing my race plan, even making deliberate decisions about hydration, cooling, and cramp management mid-race. Running through some very uncomfortable moments by focusing on feel and thinking back to those miserable Sunday runs. Not looking at my watch AT ALL but rather focusing on the task at hand. Remembering that PRs and podiums aren’t what have kept me running for 40+ years. I train and compete because I love it. There’s something empowering about finishing a triathlon swim and rising up out of the water, years of life etched on your face and body, knowing that you will finish. Because you’ve done the same thing in life. Years of training and racing have taught me that almost anything is possible if I focus on what I CAN do rather than what I cannot.