A new challenge for older Athletes

26 Sep

A new challenge for older Athletes

A new challenge for older Athletes
Did you know that Ron Hill planned to take up duathlon at 63?
At the same time, I was trying to maintain my ‘elite’ racing status into my 40’s.
But forgive me, those of you new to the sport may not have heard of this living running legend who is in now in his 70’s and holds the world record for running every day for over 50 years, and he is still going strong. Ron has also completed another recent world record of racing in over 100 countries.
I met up with Ron to see if we could help each other out. After this catch up I briefly managed to get my ITU world duathlon ranking up to 2nd. Before retiring as a pro, and after I went on to win 5 masters world titles.
Although this article is now over 10 years old, it is well worth a read if you are starting out at a later age, or want to race fast as a masters athlete
Ron Hill and Mike Trees – article from 2004.

Ron Hill, born in Accrington, Lancashire, is synonymous with running and at 63 he is still setting world records. His past glories read like a role of honour. He represented Great Britain at 3 consecutive Olympics (Rome, Mexico, and Munich) and gained gold in the marathon at the 1969 European Championships and 1970 Commonwealth Games. Ron broke the world record for running at 10miles, 15miles, 20 miles and 25km distances. He was also the first Britain to win the Boston marathon. His best time for the marathon is 2hrs 9min 28.

Most people his age would be looking forward to a quiet retirement, but Ron knows no boundaries. His current world record for running every day started on Dec 21st, 1964. It now stands at over 37 years and is still being extended every day. His reason for starting was admirable. After a poor showing at the Tokyo Olympics, he set out on a mission to make himself the best athlete he could, pushing his physical capabilities to the limit. At 63 he still has not reached that limit. His current world record attempt is to complete a race in 100 countries by the time he is 70.

Mike Trees started out as a runner, on the roads around Darlington in County Durham over 30 years ago. He was inspired by runners such as Ron Hill, Brendan Foster, Jimmy Alder, and Dave Bedford. With the best time of 3minutes 45seconds for 1,500m, Mike has always been one of the quickest runners in multi-sport racing. In 2000 at the age of 38 in the Elite Race in the Duathlon World Championships, he came 18th. Major achievements in the 90’s include winning 3 National Duathlon and 3 National Triathlon Championships in Japan, as well as the inaugural British Duathlon Championships in 1991. As well as racing he did sports research at Tsukuba University and was employed as a professional triathlon coach during his ten years in Japan. To date, Mike has trained 5 Japanese national champions. Earlier this year the Trees family came back to England and now live in Reading.


Ron is contemplating doing a duathlon at a competitive level in 2004, and since Mike comes from a running background he is ideally placed to help Ron make the transition. On the other hand, Mike, at 41, aims to get a top ten finish in the elite category in the world duathlon championships. At 63 Ron is also perfectly placed to give Mike tips to help him cope with his training as he ages.

Ron and Mike have summarised their tips for everyone’s benefit. Ron’s comments are particularly relevant to older athletes trying to keep racing at their present levels even though their peak years may be behind them. Mike’s points, on the other hand, should help runners make a smooth transition to the sport of duathlon.

Training For the Older Athlete

Ron’s Tips

  • It’s all in the mind!

Athletes become “veterans” or “masters” at age 40plus. Age group races are very common in triathlon and duathlon events, but in the running world, from age 20 to 40 there is usually just one category, so for a runner, the change to the ‘veteran’ class at 40 is a big one. Not just in sport, but in life the big Four ‘O’, is usually considered a milestone. Do not forget 40 is just a number; nothing changes physically. Mentally some people believe this is the beginning of the end, but it isn’t!

  • Take heart from other veteran athletes.

At age 40, I ran a 2:19 marathon in Huntsville, Alabama and a 2:15 marathon in New Orleans. I was still using tried and tested training routines from my younger days, and I was still able to perform on the world stage. For an up-to-date example take Paul Evans in the 2001 Great North Run, He was still able to run 63 minutes for a half-marathon at the age of 40 and was the fastest British finisher that day, regardless of age. Further proof that masters runners are still fast, is that the marathon world record for a veteran is under 2:11. Closer to home for most readers is triathlon hero Dave Scott, who came 2nd at Hawaii Ironman World Championships at the age of 41. Even today at the age of 47, he is still a force to be reckoned with

  • Slow down as slowly as possible.

This may sound double Dutch, but as an older athlete instead of giving in to your age, just adjust your goals. Slowing down is an inevitable part of life, but if you rethink your approach to the sport, and keep setting yourself new challenging but attainable goals you will be able to slow down the loss of speed.

The maximum amount of oxygen the body can use is often expressed as VO2 max. researchers suggest that the bodies VO2 max declines by about 1% a year, after the age of 30. If this is true, then the average person will have lost about 10% of their VO2 max by the time they reach 40. Since most athletes could be much more economical with their usage of energy. Training the body to use less energy and be more efficient should help to compensate for the losses of maximum oxygen usage.

  • Beware of overuse injuries.

I thought I was invincible and that my body would be self-repairing forever until I had to have a knee operation at age 47. Although to keep my continuous running streak in tact I still managed two 1 mile runs the next day. Maybe if I’d had Mike Trees’ advice before this, and had used weights and substituted some cycling for running it would not have happened. All of us need enough rest to ensure full recovery and prevent overuse and this is more so the older we get.

  • New comers can expect 8-10 years of improvement at any age.

Novices to a sport can expect to improve at any age. I believe that coming into a new sport at an older age, there are still eight to ten years of improvement, When working on a ‘virgin’ body it doesn’t matter what age you start. For those of us who have been runners for a long time, the situation is different. Mike will have to listen to his body and be willing to adapt his training with time. This will mean cutting back when he can’t take the high work loads anymore. Although I still train every day, I too have cut back. From December 1964, for 26 years I ran twice a day, (but only once on Sundays,) without missing a run. In 1990, at age 51 I realised that all I was doing was tiring myself out and so at 26.2 years I cut back to once a day only.

  • Never think “old”.

Look for new challenges. Athletes in their 40’s can still achieve a tremendous amount. For example, at 46 I decided I wanted to get to a total of 100 marathons. In February 1985 I ran three marathons. Then between March 24th and April 28th of that same year, I ran six marathons in just 5 weeks, including a 2:29 in London. In October of that year, I got to my 100th in Athens covering the original Olympic course from the town of Marathon.

A new challenge may be another sport, like the duathlon. I tried one last year using an ancient mountain bike. The experience was great but the bike ride lets me down badly and also gave me a bad back! I vowed I would be back but unfortunately, I have not been on the bike since. The reason for this is the pressure of time plus the unsuitability of the roads where I live for reasonably safe biking. I know I must make some time in the near future and am certain it will halt or slow the decline in my running performances. I look forward to using some of Mike Trees’ training tips.

Helping Runners to Cycle

Mike’s Tips

  • Power is the key!

At 10km race pace, runners only use about 20% of their maximum leg-muscle power. On the other hand, in a 40km bike time, trial cyclists will be demanding around 60% of the maximum power of their legs, to keep the pedals turning at race pace. This explains why runners don’t need big muscles to run a fast 10km. For a bike time trial on a flat, non-technical course, the fastest time will be closely related to the highest maximum leg power out put.

This explains why top runners can avoid doing power training, where as cyclists can not. Thus my first tip to Ron and other runners is to find a leg press machine and build up the quadriceps and hamstring muscles. An inclined leg press is time efficient because it works all the leg muscles in one go. If more time is available, a full weights programme should be undertaken 2-3 times a week.

  • Peak performance is related to the quality of carbohydrates consumed

Ron can run a fast 10km, but how will he hold up after a 40km bike ride. One problem runners will face, is that working at a high power out put on the bike will burn up massive amounts of carbohydrates. This will cause glycogen depletion in the muscles. In lay terms, the fuel tank will be running low by the time the bike ends and this will cause problems on the second run.

Most runners have done lots of long slow miles, during their years in the sport and so are usually very efficient at burning fats for fuel, consequently, they may feel they don’t need to take in much energy during a duathlon. This is a mistake. The bike section is the perfect time to keep the body topped up with energy, ready for the second run. I would estimate at burning about 1,000 calories during a 40km bike section.

The actual amount of fuel needed depends on many factors such as size of the athlete, his speed, the toughness of the course and how many carbohydrates were consumed before starting. It is always important to simulate a race in training to make sure you get your nutritional needs right on race day. Water soluble carbohydrate gels such as GU Energy, mixed with water or an isotonic drink, will satisfy both fluid and nutritional needs. Novice cyclists should also practise drinking from water bottles at race speed. Many first timers forget or are too frightened to drink.

(For more information on race fuel log on to www.guenergy.co.uk)

  • Run, Bike, Run, Bike, Run: Training!!.

A brick session is a term for back-to-back run bike training. Brick work is essential for the efficient transition from run to bike and bike to run. The athletes that I coach in Japan always pride themselves on the speed they cover the first mile after the transition. Duathletes who have practised transition training extensively will be at a distinct advantage over those who have not

I recommend doing the following brick session:

  1. Run 4x400m at 10km race pace with only one third rest.

(eg: If you running at 90secs per 400m gives 30secs rest).

  1. Bike 6x1km at a 10mile time trial pace.

(Try to keep the rest time to one-third of work time).

III.       Run 4x400m again

  1. Bike 6x1km again
  2. Run 4x400m.

The first few 400m’s may feel easy but don’t be fooled, the last 4x400m is murder! It is important to do the transition from run to bike and vice-versa, as quickly as possible. This simulates race conditions and will also speed up your transitions.

  • Devote up to 70 percent of your training time to cycling

Coming from a running background, Ron will need to do much less running than cycling. I would suggest he devotes 60 to 70 percent of his time to the bike. The trouble is runners feel the need to run every day, Ron, more so than most because he has not missed a day’s training in over 37 years. Even so, I suggest that he cuts down his running to the absolute minimum while he builds up the cycling.

  • Replace long runs with long bike rides.

To race successfully on low running mileage means replacing long easy running and short recovery runs with bike sessions. Try to limit running to speed work and stamina training. Luckily the heart and lungs can not differentiate between running and cycling. The heart and lungs only know how hard they are working. This is where cycling can demonstrate the benefits of so-called ‘cross-training.’ To develop endurance and promote fat burning, a long run is quite good, but 2 hours is about the maximum. On the other hand, a 2 hr bike ride is considered quite short. I recommend a 4 hr bike ride once a week. The benefits to general endurance and promotion of the fat burning system will be much greater than a 2-hour run. It also improves cycling ability.

  • Do speed work on the bike

After a minimum of 10 weeks pushing the leg weights and building up power. Ron will need to transfer his power to speed. In Britain, we have a tradition of mid-week time trials on the bike. The distance is usually 10 miles, with longer races at the weekends. They present an ideal opportunity to practice going at faster than duathlon race pace. Initially, runners always seem to suffer on these rides as they are so much more painful than running at race pace. When I complained after my first ride, I was bluntly told, ‘You have to learn to love the pain.’

Ron Hill has been a running legend and a hero of mine ever since I started running. But having met the man, my respect has grown even more, He is still young at heart and always ready to take on new challenges. Meeting him and discussing ideas and philosophies has increased my enthusiasm to attack new targets as I reach 40. I hope he keeps on inspiring others, by his example.

Never let age stop you from enjoying sport.