The Adult-Onset Athlete

By Don Rose | Aug. 28, 2017, 5:26 p.m. (ET)

don rose

Several years ago, I bumped into a friend of mine. He invited me to ride 50 miles on his birthday. “Fifty miles?” I said. “That’s how far cars go, not people on bikes!” But being in my 40s with extended love handles, doing something epic like riding 50 miles seemed a worthy goal. I went out a bought a bike, donned my Walmart windbreaker and took the plunge. The group looked innocent enough, although many had tight shorts bulging with muscles and smooth legs. What started out as a “ride” quickly turned into a race. I found myself riding alone. Having lost my cue sheet, I tried to follow the group from afar, but once they were out of sight, I was lost. Luckily, a sweeper came along and helped me find my way back to the start, cutting the route short. Nonetheless, I had ridden 35 miles at 13.5 mph pace, the longest and fastest I had every ridden a bike. What’s next?

Tri It Out

A few years later, a buddy of mine suggested I do a triathlon. The first association I had with triathlons was Kona and IRONMAN. I came to learn that triathlons span a wide range of distances and, more importantly, there were these things call “age groups” where you compete with people your own age. Targeting a local sprint triathlon, I swam some laps, rode my bike and did some running for a month or so to get ready.

I read as much as I could understand about tris heading into the race. Donning my borrowed wetsuit, I walked into the frigid lake water. The horn went off. Total pandemonium! Arms were flailing; bodies were bumping. But after a minute or so, things settled down and I found my stroke. Running, a bit off balance, out of the water, I thought, one down, two to go. A light rain was falling as we took off on our 13-mile ride. I came into the first turn with a woman closing in fast. She took the corner hot and crashed. WOW! This sport has some hazards. A few minutes later, the same woman went roaring past me, bloody leg and all. Double WOW! This sport has some tough competitors. The 5k run was solid but uneventful, but the hills are a lot harder when your legs are tired. I was so happy to have finished my first triathlon. I decided to stay and watch the awards. When my age group came up, they called MY name. What? There must be some mistake. Sure enough, I had finished third! Triple WOW!

Average to Epic

This first triathlon helped this athletically average person achieve, at least for me, epic accomplishments. The discipline of training taught me not only how to push myself, but also how to be mindful of my body so as to limit injuries. The variety of races permitted a stepwise progression from sprints to Olympics to half and full iron-distance races. And the formats kept things interesting. An XTERRA race put me in the woods racing a mountain bike. Escape from Alcatraz had me swimming in cold, shark-infested waters across the San Francisco bay.

Through all the training and racing, I developed basic rules for training for a wide variety of endurance sports. These became Dr. Don’s 10 Truths of Training:

  1. Every Body and Everybody is Different. One person’s training plan will not be suitable for another. One coach’s approach to training and racing may not be compatible for a wide range of people. Further, our bodies uniquely adapt to and recover from the stress of training in different ways and at different rates.
  2. Know thy body. Since our bodies are different, it’s important to know your body. Your body will change as it trains and races. It’s paramount to understand those changes; understand your limits, understand how to wisely approach those limits and understand when you’ve exceeded those limits.
  3. More art than science. The impact of technology on fitness has inevitably led some people to think because we can measure it, we can use it effectively for training. If it were only so simple. Training is an art, a dance really, between stressing the body in certain ways, allowing it to recover, and putting all of that in the context of the many other of life’s priorities.
  4. Know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em. Kenny Rogers had it right. Whether you’re gambling or working out, you need to know when to cut your losses. This is one of the hardest things for an intense, goal-driven athlete to learn. One part of you is saying “no pain, no gain,” and the other part of you is saying “this hurts and is pointless.”
  5. Recovery, recovery, recovery. This is another hard lesson to learn. As committed athletes driven to achieve, it’s hard to back off or to know when to back off. The body needs recovery time to overcome the stress of training and racing.
  6. Planning is important, flexibility is part of reality. Creating a training plan over many months for a big event or race is essential preparation. Executing the plan often bumps up against reality: Business travel, illness, sick kids, spousal plans and so on. Flexibility is required. Here, discernment is essential. Be it from an experienced coach or your own knowledge and experience, some of the workouts for a week can be considered key workouts and the others nice to do but not essential.
  7. Consistency is the key. Related to the previous point, too much flexibility can lead to inconsistent training. Incremental gains in fitness only come through a series of consistent workouts. If time is limited, it would be much better to get in a short workout and be more consistent than not.
  8. Find your training rhythm. One way to be consistent is to develop a training rhythm. We are all creatures of habit and constructing a training plan around a repeating (weekly) pattern can help with consistency.
  9. Avoid the middle ground. In most training plans, workouts typically focus on one of two buckets: long, slow, low-intensity workouts (Zones 1-3) and short, fast high-intensity workouts (Zones 4 and 5). The consensus among coaches is that most people don’t train at a low enough intensity for the low intensity workouts and don’t train at a high enough intensity for the high intensity workouts.
  10. Don’t use a workout as a measure of fitness gains or losses. This is the trap I fall into most often. I’ll finish a workout and don’t meet a target (slow lap times in the pool, can’t hold a certain power during an interval) and interpret that as an indication that my fitness is not improving. The fallacy of this interpretation is not accounting for any fatigue that’s accumulated from previous workouts. By the same token, crushing a workout may not be an indication of significant fitness gains.

My journey from being athletically average to conquering epic goals was ignited by triathlons. You too can take this journey!

Find Don Rose’s book “Average to Epic” on or your local retail outlet wherever books are sold. For more information about the author and book, please contact Thomas E. McLean @ CPG News & Information or visit

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