Until I was 40, I was a recreational athlete. What I mean by this is that I exercised without specific competition in mind. I ran and lifted weights and rode a bike (mostly indoors at spin class), but I didn’t really consider it “training.” I wasn’t racing. I didn’t even wear a heart rate monitor or track my workouts at all.
I just worked out. I liked working out. In fact, if someone had called me an “athlete” five years ago, I would have laughed.
Yet as my kids got older, and I found myself with a little more time (emphasis on the word *little*). I started running with other people. I joined a local running club. I swam with our tri club. I signed up for a few small races, including a sprint triathlon.
And like many of us who have found their inner athlete later in life, racing and training created a profound shift in my identity and my outlook on life. I also realized that if I were going to commit to racing and training, some things needed to change.
Over the past five years, I’ve worked on becoming a better athlete. Aside from being consistent with my training, here are the five things that I did to make me fitter, faster, stronger, and healthier.
Hire a coach. I realized two things pretty quickly. a) I had no idea what I was doing b) I had no idea how to fit in whatever I was supposed to be doing. With a full time job and two kids who needed rides, food, and a mom to be around sometimes, I needed help. I hired an awesome coach. I joined Training Peaks, got a decent heart rate monitor, and put myself in his hands. At first it was strange not planning my own workouts, then it became one of the biggest gifts. Less time planning equaled more time for other things in my life. Also, my training now had purpose and precision. Hard days became hard. Easy days became easy. I became faster and more resilient. [Side note: If a coach is too expensive, you can still find really good training plans online].
Prioritize Sleep. As my training became more focused, I started to notice that I couldn’t skimp on my sleep. I know that if I get 9 hours, I am a superhero. If I get 8, I am good. If I get 7, I am functional. If I drop to 6 hours, you might find me crying in the kitchen because I can’t get the jam jar unstuck. When I am tired, little inconveniences become major catastrophes. Then, inject a hard workout into the mix, and things go south pretty quickly. Also, for us athletes, sleep is when growth hormone is released, which helps with muscle repair and growth, bone building, and fat burning. Not to mention, when you sleep more, you are more alert and have better reaction time (bike safety, anyone?). If you can’t get 7+ hours of sleep a night, learn to take a cat nap. 20 minutes and you are back in business.
Eat more protein. This is one of the very first changes I made and I immediately saw a difference in my body composition. I lost fat and gained muscle, which made me stronger and faster on the run and on the bike. Much like sleep, protein helps with muscle repair and strengthening. I am not a huge meat eater (I mainly eat meat or fish at dinner), so I increased my protein with protein shakes, eggs, greek yogurt, and nuts. Protein is especially important for women over 40 and if you need to learn more about why, I strongly suggest you pick up a copy of Dr. Stacy Sim’s book, Roar.
More prehab = less rehab. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. It took me one hamstring injury to realize that if I didn’t start doing more prehab strengthening exercises, I would be in PT for the rest of my life instead of training for my next race. Now, I spend 5 minutes before every run activating my glutes. I incorporate triathlete specific strength training during the whole year. I still have times when I might feel a twinge or need to take a rest day because something feels off, but I am always working on being stronger and more resilient. Lately, I have been focusing on my mobility. My number one goal for each season is to be injury free.
Control the controllables. One of my favorite books is The Brave Athlete by Simon Marshall and Lesley Patterson. They write about your professor brain, your chimp brain, and your computer brain. While your professor brain and your computer brain are the more rational, functional parts of you, your chimp brain is the part of you that can FREAK OUT and PROTECT YOU AT ALL COSTS. I am writing in ALL CAPS because THIS IS WHAT MY BRAIN WANTS TO DO WHEN I GET CLOSE TO A RACE OR HAVE A BIG WORKOUT COMING UP. To be fair, we need our chimp brain; yet it has the ability to bully the other parts of our brain into submission. I have spent the past couple of years taming my inner chimp brain by repeating the mantra: “Control the controllables.” I can’t control the weather in a race, nor the water temperature, nor how fast the woman next to me is. I don’t know if I will be able to finish the last hill repeat or if I will get a flat on my long training ride. But here’s what I CAN control: I can bring the right gear in case it’s raining. I can learn how to change a flat. I can make sure I am hydrated and rested for the hilly run. I can control my attitude, my effort, and my focus. By trying to control my chimp brain, and focus on what I can control, I have become mentally stronger.
In the end, the answer lies in what is right for you as an athlete and what works for you. We are all works in progress, and small progress is still progress.