Q&A: How a 40-something Triathlete Stays on Top
Karen Smyers was born at the tail end of the baby boom. But when the 45-year-old professional triathlete lines up each year at the start of the World Ironman Championship in Kona, Hawaii, she competes against gen X-ers and gen Y-ers. And she beats most of them in the race, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. (In 2006, she was the 12th female overall, finishing in 9 hours, 39 minutes.)
In a sport that rewards heavy training and routinely leads to mental and physical burnout, she's kept going while raising two kids in Lincoln, Mass., with her husband, coaching other athletesand planning her next race at Kona.
While the average boomer isn't training for the Ironman, Smyers's tips on training can help anyone trying to balance exercise and the rest of life. She spoke recently with Senior Editor Katherine Hobson about overexercising, balance, and beer.
Did you have a grand strategic plan for your career that involved pro racing at age 45?
Not at all. At first, I thought it was a hobby. At Princeton, I swam on the team and ran track. After college, it was the first time that I didn't have an organized team, and I didn't have an anchor without an athletic event in my life. A friend did triathlons, and we started training together. It was a lot of fun and a good way to meet people.
In 1984, I was an amateur, but at one race I would have won $500 if I had entered as an elite, so in 1985 I started racing pro. In 1989, the computer company where I worked went bankrupt, and I started doing triathlon full time. I saw that with sponsors and prize money I could make a living at it. Back then, I really thought I was in the prime of my career!
How have you changed your training as you've gotten older?
I don't want to do the same thing every year. There are certain workouts I need to do to get in Ironman shape, but I'm trying to find ways to change things so I don't get stale and hit a plateau. I've added in strength training, which I never really did since college. All the research says you've really got to do that as you get older. [View Smyers's weekly training schedule.]
Has your diet changed over the years?
I try to eat things as close to the source [as minimally processed] as possible and base my meals on good healthy food and lots of fruits and veggies. But my overall diet philosophy is all things in moderation except for beer and chocolate-chip cookies. Those are in excess.
Any dietary advice for active folks?
I think it is important to get a balance at every meal; make sure you get some protein and fat along with the carbohydrates that many athletes crave. For people who don't have a lot of time to cook, I recommend adding some fresh fruit or veggies to convenience food to enhance the nutritional value. You can add bananas and strawberries to your cereal, add fresh broccoli to red sauce, or some cut-up peppers and tomatoes to bagged salads.