She's Always on the Move
When Karen Smyers, 45, lines up each year at the start of the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, she competes against 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, the professional triathlete has stuck with it while raising two kids in Lincoln, Mass., with her husband and coaching other athletes. She recently offered some tips on balancing exercise and the rest of life.
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 was the first time that I didn't have an organized team, and I found 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 did well enough to 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 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 after college. All the research says you've really got to do that as you get older.
Has your diet changed over the years?
I try to eat foods as close to the source as possible, and base my meals around 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; to 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 fresh fruit or veggies to convenience food to enhance the nutritional value. You can add bananas and strawberries to your cereal, fresh broccoli to red sauce, or some peppers and tomatoes to bagged salads.
You've taken time off over the years to have kids and after a bout with thyroid cancer and a bike-vs.-18-wheeler crash. How did exercise help you bounce back?