Twenty-Three Seasons... and Counting

by Cherie Gruenfeld 11-time Age Group Hawaii World Champion

Preparing for #24!

Cherie Gruenfeld - Kona Ironman World Championships 2015

1992 was my first triathlon racing season. I was 48 and a total novice.

Flash forward 23 years and the good news is: I’ve had 23 great years. The not-so-good news is:  I’m now racing as a 71-year-old.

Clearly, I’m coming into the home stretch and can now see a finish line that wasn’t there when I was forty-eight. But, I’m not done with this adventure yet.

I’m coming back for Season # 24 and I’m all in.

A major key to a great season is consistency. This means keeping healthy and highly motivated throughout the year, which is much easier said than done.

Here are some of my approaches to staying in the game and setting myself up for a good season.

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Get Strong

Endurance racing is less about speed and more about strength. A strong body will move more efficiently over a longer period of time – getting to the finish line quicker.

I’m not a fan of the weight room and have given up on the idea that I might learn to like it. Rather, I use what I call  the “fitness by walking around” method. I keep balls, resistance cords, stretch bands, etc. around the house, and in between work and household duties, I stop and do quick sets. Throughout the day I do push-ups, walk up the stairs two at a time, carry 20-pound bags of ice upstairs for an ice bath, etc. All this keeps me working on strength and is a constant reminder of the importance of staying strong.

I also use sport-specific strength work:

-Seated biking up very steep hills, keeping your body still while pushing down/pulling up on the pedals, is an excellent strength builder, as is staying in your aerobars while riding up short, steep or longer, more moderate hills. Stay focused on using your glutes, which will develop strength and pay additional dividends by keeping your knees and hips healthy.

-Trail running or any kind of extreme hill where you have to lift your knees and keep your core engaged  will quickly make all body parts stronger.

-Swimming against the clock or other swimmers is a good upper body resistance workout and a lot more fun than pushing weights in the gym.

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Stay Healthy

A busy, demanding life sometimes has to take priority and it’s somewhat out of our control. But there are a couple of other things that can wreck a consistent training schedule and these we have a better chance of managing: illness and injury.

A well thought-out schedule will go a long way towards keeping you rested enough to stay healthy. And being strong is the antidote for many injuries. But sometimes stuff happens: a bike crash takes you out or you catch something from the kids. Whatever it is, there are two approaches you can take:

-Denial, pushing through it which usually ends up nudging you over the edge and recovery time increases dramatically.

-Bite the bullet, catch it early and be patient, which will usually get you back into action in the shortest amount of time. I’d say the best approach here is obvious.

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Technique, Technique, Technique

It’s pounded into us that swimming is a technique sport and there are hundreds of drills that, if done correctly, will help develop better swim form. But we sometimes neglect technique work in biking and running.

The first step is to understand that good biking form starts with a proper bike fit and safe running begins with the right pair of shoes.

The next step for me is using mental checklists during each workout.

On the bike: Shoulders relaxed; hands unclenched; using the right gear; pedal stroke up and over; spinning, not mashing;  finishing with a brushing-up motion.

On the run: Shoulders down; hands relaxed; heels lifting up; arms pumping forward, not across my body; light feet; turnover rate around 90 per minute; appropriate stride length for terrain.

I keep running through the checklist, particularly when fatigue sets in and maintaining good form becomes tougher and tougher. I also have a picture in my mind of Mirinda Carfrae running and I try to make myself look like her. Needless to say, there’s no way – but trying makes me run better.

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Have the Confidence to be Courageous

Even at my age, I’ve gotta believe!

Every time I complete a tough, aggressive workout, I build confidence. And the next time, I’ll be a little more courageous – pushing myself a little harder or a little longer. On race day, when I know that it’s going to require an extraordinary effort, I believe I can do it and am courageous enough to aggressively go for it.

I have a training partner (a young 48-year-old guy) who does a ride/run workout with me. After an aggressive ride, we start a 3-mile run – the first mile uphill. Obviously, he gets to the top of the hill before me, turns right and continues to run for another few minutes before turning around. I get to the top of the hill and turn left which now puts me in front of the “young buck.” At that point, the game is afoot! My goal is to stay ahead of him over the final two miles while his goal is to not let that happen. Usually, it’s a shoulder-to-shoulder sprint to the finish line. Regardless of who wins, we’ve both had an excellent workout for building strength, courage and plenty of confidence.

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Never Give In

Being 71 and having had a long, fairly success racing career, there’s a case to be made that it’s time to mellow out a bit. But that’s not gonna happen yet.

If we accept age, we get old. If we feel that we can’t do what we used to, we have no chance of exceeding expectations.

Clearly, I am aging and I can’t always do what I used to. But I still have some game.

I look back at my training log, but only to last year, and I go into every race with the goal to exceed last year’s time. Sometimes I accomplish that goal and sometime I don’t. But striving for it pushes me harder than if I gave into the “another year older and slower” mentality. And what a great feeling it is when I do exceed last year’s time!

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This is my strategy for the 2015 season – my 24th. What’s yours?

I’ll see you on the race course.

Good luck, Cherie