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Is coaching older triathletes any different than coaching younger ones? Clint Lien explains why it isn't that different.

— by Clint Lien

Recently I was asked how I coach older athletes differently than younger athletes. The answer might surprise some: not very much.

The Mercury Rising swim club in Victoria, where I coach, is home to a wide range of swimmers. On one end of the spectrum, I’ve got young people with dreams of winning big. On the other end, I’ve got mature swimmers, who also have dreams of winning big.

Related: The ageless Lynda Lemon

One of the most successful triathletes in the program is Valerie Gonzales, who has made it to Kona more times than most of us can remember. She’s in her 70s now and is as keen today as she was when she first appeared in one of my lanes almost ten years ago. She works hard, wants swim tips and is coachable. While Gonzales is the oldest swimmer in the program, I’ve got many others who are over 40, 50 and 60.

Valerie Gonzales putting her swim training to the test and coming out of the water at Kona 2017. Photo: Finisherix

Race results are broken down by age group, but swim lanes are delineated by ability. Age isn’t a factor. Gonzales will execute the essentially the same session as the swimmers in the fastest lane, but with less distance since she’s not as fast. Overall, though, she’s in the water for the same length of time and working just as hard. The one adjustment I will make is rest time. It has been my experience that mature athletes can work just as hard as younger athletes, but they require a little more rest to best execute a session or a program, so there’s more rest within the session and in general.

I’ve also found mature athletes benefit more from an increase in strength training. I encourage older athletes to swim with paddles a little more than the younger swimmers, but I don’t encourage the largest size of paddles. Small palm, or even finger paddles, are usually enough. A couple visits to the weight room with a well-designed strength program that utilizes sport specific movements can produce noticeable results.

Related: Bob Knuckey: Canada’s only world champion at Kona

Another factor with mature athletes is flexibility. Avila Rhodes swims with me. She’s over 60 and holds several age group world masters records. She’s a beautiful swimmer who’s been competitive most of her life. She’s incredibly flexible and executes a traditional stroke that’s a wonder to behold.

But not everyone has a lifetime of swimming under their belt – most of us aren’t blessed with that kind of flexibility. While it almost always helps to work on that flexibility with yoga and other well-planned flexibility routines, many will find it difficult to gain the range of motion that a teenager or someone like Avila has. Those swimmers need to adjust their stroke to accommodate. For most, this means a shorter entry into the water. When flexibility isn’t an issue, I instruct swimmers to reach for the wall, which can help them rotate. When tighter swimmers reach for the wall, they pull their hips out of alignment and you start to see “snaking” in the water. If they shorten their entry and thrust the hand quickly down to the pull position, they can maintain a more streamlined position. This maximizes power and minimizes momentum loss. For some swimmers, this means entering the water three to four inches past their head. But again, this is about flexibility and not necessarily about age. I will have younger, stiff-shouldered swimmers to do the same thing. They can extend their entries as they gain flexibility.

For two athletes, both age groupers, both with goals of making it to Kona, a base week might look like this:

And a set might look like this:

Denise and Jim will both spend 75 minutes in the pool.

Fitness, flexibility and experience are more important factors to consider than age when crafting a swim program. It’s important to remember that regardless of your age, you can work just as hard as anyone else, but older swimmers will respond better if they increase their rest, both within sessions and in the overall program.