Times are Changing


Posted by Coach Mandi Kowal

Life continues to roll on, and with each year our experiences add up and our knowledge base grows. The beauty of getting older is that we get wiser. It’s a great feeling to have that confidence and composure that we were lacking when we were younger. However, the body begins to show its experience in many not-so-pleasant ways. Even though I consider myself young and grateful to be the athlete I am today, my body has started to send subtle messages. I’ve tried to ignore them or blame these changes on something else. Well the time came for me to start listening to my body and this coincided with the release of Joel Friel’s newest book, Fast After 50. In January, I finally had a chance to dig into it. Well let’s just say, it’s good to know I’m not crazy.  As I read it, I was relieved to learn in detail what was, and still is, happening to me as an older athlete. I found the information helpful so that I could understand as an athlete and coach what to look for and what to implement to improve longevity and maintain a high level of athleticism. Today I thought I would share with you some of the issues I have been experiencing lately, what I learned is happening to my body and what can be done to combat those changes. 


One of the first things I noticed regarding my training has been that I need more recovery time after big days. I noticed my entire body is unusually fatigued after these sessions. At first, I thought that I was either sick or out of shape. I found myself a bit frustrated and feeling down.  I did come to realize this was one of those unfortunate changes from getting older.  After reading chapter 7, Rest and Recovery, I learned that senior athletes are more susceptible to muscular damage from intense workouts. Our repair process is slower and our adaptation response isn’t as effective as it was when we were younger. As a result, we have to adjust for this when setting up our training plan. In addition, we need to prioritize our sleeping habits.

In terms of our training program, Mr. Friel suggests that some athletes might do better on a 9 day “week” allowing for more recovery days in between the dense workouts. I know I am still able to handle a typical 7 day week but find my Monday workouts need to be a recovery type session. I also do better on a 3 week mesocycle (2 weeks on/1 week recover) especially during the build phase.  However, I can handle a 4 week mesocycle during the Preparation and Base periods. This is a minor shift but enough to keep me injury free and consistent with my training.

Recently, while working with one of my top senior athletes we found he needed to be on a 9 day “week” and a 3 week mesocycle.  We also figured out that he needed two complete days of rest within a 7 day period. Once we made those changes we saw substantial shifts in his speeds and training rhythm. These adaptations created more consistent training blocks as he prepared for his Half Ironman. This took some time to tweak along with adjustments in dose and density placement within the 9 days. As you can see there are a multitude of ways to shift things around so take time to experiment with different approaches to see what layout is best for you.

Remember that athletes respond differently so I encourage you to communicate with your coach to find what sets you up for success.  As a coach, work closely with your athlete to find what layout provides the most effective and efficient training block for the triathlete.

Besides how we train and how we set up our training plan, we need to pay attention to our sleeping habits. I enjoyed reading the section about sleep cycles and what takes place during each cycle. For example during REM tissue building hormones testosterone and estrogen are being released to help the body recover. They help promote growth and repair tendons and muscles. Isn’t that a great visual? The only bummer is that only 20-25% of our sleep is in this phase. Clearly that’s a great reason to do what we can to protect this time and why he suggests that you need to wake up without an alarm clock. I know that sounds hard doesn’t it? But consider this quote from Mr. Friel “artificially shortening your sleep by awakening to an alarm clock may well diminish the release of hormones, thus hindering full recovery”. It’s definitely something to think about.

Another interesting fact is that our bodies experience a rush of growth hormones in the first hour after we fall asleep? And that nearly half of our growth hormone secretion for the day takes place at this time. I don’t know about you but I have a newfound appreciation for that phase.

When I have these visuals in my head it motivates me to make sure I make the appropriate steps to get a good sleep. Yes, we will have times that this is impossible but why not make this a priority?  The idea that good sleep makes me faster is great news so I say “embrace the bed”!

My Muffin Top

Last summer while preparing for Ironman Wisconsin I noticed that I had this little ‘muffin top’ over my biking shorts. I was a bit surprised because I didn’t feel like I was overeating, I was putting in 16+ hours of training a week, on my feet coaching most of the day and I have this little pooch, really?! I’ve never had that happen before with high training loads. I wondered if it was my new medication. Then I read his chapter on Body Fat and learned why this was happening. Basically the short version of this story is that the enzyme lipoprotein lipase (LPL) plays an important role in causing your body to store fat. When you are younger our testosterone levels limit our fat storing activity. As we age, testosterone goes down and LPL is allowed to stock pile fat more than in the past. So what do we need to do?

Getting good sleep will help because of what I explained above in addition to regulating ghrelin and leptin levels. The interplay of these hormones throughout the day helps balance our energy; meaning energy intake equals energy output.

The other ways to affect the release and production of androgenic hormone production is through high intensity workouts and lifting heavy weights. Both have been found to not only increase hormone production but reduce the storage of fat.

Finally, Mr. Friel addresses “the elephant in the room”…our diet. Being honest about what we are putting in and our relationship between what we eat and how much body fat we have.
As a result, I decided to start tracking my food intake, decrease my fruit intake to 1-2 servings a day, cut back on junk food, and increase protein. Since this shift a month ago, I have seen a decrease in the size of my muffin top and fat in my legs. More importantly, I have more energy and have been healthy since adopting this change. I also have been experimenting with refueling after my early morning workouts. Instead of spreading out my calories for the day, I work to replace those calories spent from the big workout within an hour of finishing my session. These aren’t what I call, garbage calories but a good mix of protein and healthy carbohydrates. As a result, I have fewer hunger pains during the rest of the day and I eat less. I’m still fine-tuning my diet and plan to hire a nutritionist who has experience with female Ironman athletes who are post-menopausal.  I want to continue understanding how to adjust my diet to combat these physiological changes.

I encourage you to play around with your refueling plan to see what works for you. If you don’t feel comfortable, seek out a good nutritionist who understands and has experience with your specific needs.

Those dancing triceps – oh boy

Last summer I was coaching at the pool and while demonstrating I noticed and momentarily became horrified by my jiggling triceps. I have to say I was a bit taken back. I thought, I’m training more than 12-16 hours a week and I have dancing triceps. What’s going on?

Again, it’s the unfortunate decline in hormone production. Men see a drop in testosterone, women see a serious dive in estrogen and as a result there is a significant loss in muscle. Mr. Friel also goes into detail about what’s happening at the cellular level, addressing ways to measure how old someone is involving telomeres. I won’t go into detail but the description for me is a great visual to keep these babies long. As he states, Telomere length is directly related to activity level. Great stuff. 

Now that I know what’s going on and I’ve seen this drop change with my body I am making it a priority. Since my new commitment to lift weights I have seen a substantial strength difference after 8 weeks. I have seen how my strength creates a much better platform to execute my three disciplines. I can now actively engage my glutes/core on the bike, and utilize core for more effective swimming. Oh and my Triceps seemed to have lost their ability to dance, which makes me happy. They are now better able to help me finish out my swimming stroke.

I would like to share this observation about my Dad. He just turned 83 years old and I have to say he is incredibly mobile and healthy. He is not a cardio guy; he lifts 3 times a week. These sessions are very short in duration but he has been consistent with this activity most of his life. I provided a picture of him from our Father’s Day Brunch. He’s an example of "use it or lose it." Reading this book only confirmed what I seen with my Dad every day because he prioritizes sleep, diet and lifting. I hope to be that mobile when I’m his age.

Learn More!

It’s hard to cover all that was presented in Fast after 50 so I encourage athletes and coaches to check it out.  There’s a lot more to see than covered here and certainly areas of interest to you and/or your athletes.

I leave you with this “Many of what we consider inevitable changes of aging are things that we have some control over.” So it’s up to you to USE IT OR LOSE IT.

Good luck, go fast and have a blast.

Coach Mandi Kowal is a USAT Level I and Youth/Junior Coach, an ASCA Level II certified Coach and recently completed the Hunter Allen Power Based Certification. She has 31 years of coaching experience and has coached athletes to success at the regional, national and world level. After coaching for nearly 28 years in collegiate rowing, she started up her coaching business instructing 100’s of youth and masters swimmers, runners, and triathletes. In addition, she opened up the only CompuTrainer studio in the area. As an athlete, she has numerous top finishes in many sports including triathlon, collegiate rowing, and running. She is motivated by working together with her athletes to help them achieve their goals. "My mission is to have you TRI-Umph today so you can excel tomorrow." Coach Mandi can be reached at Mandi@TeamMPI.com. 

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