Mastering Triathlon as a Masters Athlete with Karen Smyers | EP#102

 February 15, 2018

By  Mikael Eriksson

Mastering Triathlon as a Masters Athlete with Karen Smyers | EP#102

Karen Smyers is a coach, speaker and retired world class triathlete who raced professionally until age 49! She has won three World Championship titles, both ITU and Ironman, and placed in the top-5 and top-10 in Kona several times still in her 40s. Here she shares how she stayed so competitive in her 40s. 

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  • Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Karen's inspirational story, which has plenty of trials and tribulations.
  • How she trained to stay competitive in her 40's. 
  • Advice for masters athletes who want to perform in triathlon, but also balance a career and family.
  • Karen's thoughts on recovery, strength training, and nutrition for masters athletes. 
  • Being named "The triathlete most likely to be eaten by a shark at the Sydney Olympics" by Sports Illustrated.

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About Karen Smyers

1:10 - 

  • Karen raced professionally until the age of 49.
  • She has won 3 World Championship titles: 2 ITU, 1 Ironman.
    • The Ironman and ITU title came within two weeks of each other in 1995.
  • She has placed in the top 5 and top 10 at Kona several times while still in her 40's.
  • She came back from thyroid cancer to almost go to the Olympics when she was 39.
  • She has 7 national triathlon titles, 6 of which she won in a row.
  • She also has a national duathlon title.
  • She was in the inaugural USA Triathlon hall of fame.
  • Today she coaches and does motivational speaking.

Karen's early triathlon career

3:55 -

  • I was always a sporty person growing up, and I was a swimmer initially and then started running in college.
  • When I got out of college I was desperate to keep competing in sport somehow and found triathlon through a college roommate.
  • Back in 1984 I started it as a hobby. It was still the beginning stages of triathlon getting going in Boston where I lived. In one of my first races I would have come second but they called someone else up to collect the money. I went to ask why and they said "well you didn't enter the pro category".
    • So I asked how do I do that, and they told me which box to check next time. I started doing that and that's how I became a pro triathlete!
  • The beginning first 5 years I still held a full-time job while racing in the pro category, I was making progress but wasn't all in.
  • In 1989 I finally went full time and was able to attend the first world championships in France as part of the US team and finished fourth there.
  • From then on I kept moving up the ranks and managed to win the World Championship the next year in 1990, and one other ITU World Championship in 1995.
  • I ventured into long distance in 1993, doing my first Hawaii Ironman and made that part of my schedule for the next two years and finally managed to win it in 1995.
  • So I've done all the distances at the same time which is a little unusual, and won an ITU world championship and a long distance in the same year. I didn't plan it that way but it all worked out.
    • Looking back at the time I didn't think of it as being something incredibly hard or impossible, it was just the way my schedule was working out - I was going to give it a go.
    • Since then I've realised how difficult it really was to do that so I'm thankful that it worked out for me that year.
  • After I won Ironman I was excited to go back and defend my title. My nemesis at the time was Paula Newby-Fraser who I'd managed to beat in '95 but she had had a rough time with her nutrition that year. I passed her in the last half mile and she was stumbling and even running backwards at one point which helped me out a little!
    • She was meant to retire in '95 but decided not to after not having a good race so she came back in '96. I was in better shape and I was really fired up to have a good race but then I ended up having some nutritional issues! I was throwing up at mile 3 of the run even though I was thinking I could break 3 hours in the run that year.
    • I managed to pull it together and finish 3rd which felt good given how bad I was in the run.

Accidents and illnesses

8:58 - 

  • I was feeling pretty unfulfilled and was looking forward to going back and racing again a few times but in '97 I started a series of accidents and illnesses that kept me in and out of the sport for a while.
    • I was changing a glass storm window in June of '97 and the glass shattered while it was lifted over my head and a shard fell and sliced through my hamstring. I was supposed to race shortly after at a World Cup in Monte Carlo and I'd done all the training for doing an Ironman in Rhodes but instead I found myself in a cast with 6 months of rehab.
  • My husband and I then did a bit of strategising as I was getting to the age where we were discussing starting a family. The Olympics I knew where on the horizon so I was trying to figure out when to fit this in and so suddenly being faced with 6 months of rehab we decided well maybe 9 month maternity leave is a pretty good overlay!
    • We got to work right away and my daughter was born in May so it gave me time to rehab from that injury patiently.
  • In '98 after having my daughter I felt good, I was able to get back into training and thought I would be going back to the '98 Ironman.
    • Then in August that year I was out on a long training ride and I was hit by an 18 wheeler truck. Luckily he didn't run me over by he knocked me off my bike and I fell going down a hill and ended up breaking 6 ribs, separating a shoulder and a lung contusion - and a more lasting problem was a fear of cycling in traffic.
    • I came face to face with the decision of either overcoming that fear or giving up triathlon. My love of the sport got me back out there riding again, and overtime I've got to a place where I don't completely freak out if there's a truck behind me.
  • So that injury took me out the rest of '98, so '99 I was back to make a comeback. The Olympics were looming on the horizon - 2000 was the first time ever triathlon was in the Olympics.
    • After 2 years of not competing I needed to quickly get my ranking up so that I could actually attend the Olympic trials.
    • '99 became mostly about trying to get into ITU races, place well at World Cups and earn ranking points.
  • I got a 6th, 4th and a 3rd at World Cup races which was enough to get me qualified for Sydney Olympic trials, and I was able to do an Ironman at the end of that season in October and I finished second to Lori Bowden which felt like a great race given how many years I'd been out.
    • She actually had to break the run record to pass me so I'll take credit for that!
  • Unfortunately right before the Ironman I'd gone to the doctor for bronchitis that I couldn't get rid of and I mentioned that my throat seemed swollen.
    • He realised that it was my thyroid gland that was very enlarged and sent me for an ultrasound just to check.
    • Sadly the ultrasound showed a bunch of nodules, which as the technician told me, "probably means you have cancer".
    • I consulted with my doctor and was told I needed to get a biopsy to confirm whether it was cancer, but he knew I had an Ironman coming up so let me choose whether I wanted to wait to find out.
    • So my husband and I decided to tackle one thing at a time and I raced the Ironman knowing I might have cancer, but didn't have it confirmed until after Hawaii that year.
    • Another little wrinkle in the whole Olympic trials qualifying endeavor!
  • I went to one more World Cup race in Mexico after the Ironman to solidify my ranking.
    • It was draft legal and on the bike portion a girl in the US team, Lauren Jensen, just had a really bizarre accident where her pedal unthreaded from her crank as we were standing to go up a hill.
    • I was right behind her in a draft legal pack so she went down completely without warning in front of me. I toppled over her and landed on my shoulder and broke my collarbone.
  • I flew back in November from Mexico with my broken collarbone, had my biopsy the next day which showed I had cancer, and this was all 4-5 months before the Olympic trials.
  • I ended up getting my thyroid removed in December and could luckily combine the rehab from that operation with the healing of the collarbone.
  • I was finally able to start swimming in Jan/Feb but I had my work cut out for me. I gave it my best shot but wasn't able to make the Olympic team for 2000.
  • At the Sydney Olympic trials my issue was that the sport had started to change with the draft legal format. I was part of the first ever draft legal world championships in Cancun and actually managed to win that one!
    • However it was before people were learning how to work it to their advantage.
    • The fast swimmers weren't able to stay away and I was in a bike pack with Emma Carney who was a good rider and we managed to catch the front people and I just happened to have a great run that day - I think I was partly heat trained from being in Hawaii.
  • Since then, while I was out in '97 '98, the really fast swimmers started figuring out how to work together and stay away, and also a lot of the good bikers got discouraged and dropped out of the ITU format.
  • It soon became that if you weren't a front pack, or maybe a second pack swimmer with some good riders around you, you weren't going to ever get to the front of the race.
    • That is what happened to me in the Sydney Olympic trials. I was a third pack swimmer and I biked as hard as I could but just couldn't make up the ground on the people that were working so well together at the front.
    • I ended up having one of the fastest run splits - definitely the fastest American run split, maybe 2nd or 3rd overall, so my running was there even though I was getting a little bit long in the tooth.
    • It was primarily my swim that kept me out of the Olympics, which I think was my own fault for not getting the memo about how important the swim had become!
    • Also having some of the setbacks with the broken collarbone and the separated shoulder that impacted my swim a little more than I'd realised.

Handling challenges

18:08 - 

  • The one time I was closest to quitting was after the truck accident, which was partly because I was a new Mum. I had this little 2-month old girl waiting for me at home who was relying on me to be there so all of a sudden I realised it wasn't just about me anymore, which scared me a lot - how close I'd come to getting killed.
  • I had to examine how much it meant to me and whether it was worth the risk.
    • Ultimately I decided that there's risk in everything you do. The chances of me actually being killed - if I can walk away from being hit by an 18 wheeler, then maybe I had my close call and I'd be okay!
  • I changed a little bit when I ride, who I ride with and what roads I ride on. I was already a pretty conservative rider but I became even more so.
  • Once it came down to that decision though, I became even more committed because I realised how much this sport means to me.
  • Through the other injuries it never occurred to me to quit. I had so much more I wanted to do, I was not burnt out in the least and I loved being able to make a living at what I still consider is a fun hobby. It's a dream come true.

What kept Karen's career long and motivating?

19:55 - 

  • A big part of it is living here in New England where we have a pretty significant winter.
  • It forces you to cycle your training so you're not just trying to stay in shape all year round. I have to at least back off in the winter - mostly just doing a little bit of biking indoors, trying to maintain a little quality.
    • It's probably a good 8 hours of training that I don't do in the winter, which makes you hungry for it when the spring rolls around and the weather gets nice. You're reborn and excited to get going again.
  • I would never want to follow the summer to Australia, or even do training camps in the winter. I found it worked for me to back off a little.
    • I'd do occasional races but usually I'd be hanging on to fitness from September/October.
    • I would sometimes race into November, after Ironman I found I could always get a couple more races out my system without training that hard.
    • I would sometimes go to Chile in January and do a race but that was more for fun.
  • The other thing is surrounding myself with people that I enjoy training with that keep it fun. I found a triathlon club, Team Psycho, that started in the early '90's, a few amateur guys that were really good for me to train with.
    • It's part of my social life as much as anything - so when I'm training I don't feel I'm missing out on things.
  • My husband has been a huge part of this journey as well, he used to train with me a lot in the 80's-90's and even 2000's when he competed in Hawaii too. For us it's been fun going on the trips and stuff.
    • It was like our way to see the world together. I've never felt like I was putting the rest of my life on hold while I pursued this dream.
  • I think of lot of people that have nowadays gotten into it right out of college have never got the chance to pursue a career of another kind, and sometimes barely making money, and racing so much in order to get ITU points or Kona qualifying points, and it become more of an all-encompassing job and you have to exclude everything else to get it done.
    • I think things have changed so it might be hard to make it the way I used to make it!
  • This can be applicable for age-groupers: taking time off, not fretting about not doing big weeks in winter and reducing the volume can bring motivation in spring. 

Racing in your 40's

24:20 - 

  • It was partly just not wanting to give it up because I liked it so much!
  • Watching what Dave Scott was able to accomplish at 40 and 42 helped, and there was a revelation going on that especially in endurance sports, you didn't need to be ending your career in your late 30's.
  • I knew some women were peaking in their late 30's so I was trying to keep an open mind in terms of how much age had to slow me down.
    • The motivation was there to ring the living daylight out of my pro card, I just kept going!
  • I soon realised that I couldn't do the race schedule that I used to in terms of racing over and over and travelling, especially because I had a second child in that time and didn't want to be away from my family as much as I was at the height of my career.
  • I started cherry picking a bit more if I knew there was a pro race that had a small pro field, I'd be like "oh good I can solo prize money"!
  • Going to Hawaii and finishing top-10, I look back on that with more fondness than I felt at the time. At the time I felt I should be top-5 and was demanding more of myself.
    • A lot of it is about what your expectations are of yourself.
  • If you let it get in your head that 'I'm 40 now, I'm going to start to suck' it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead if you're of the mind of 'I'm just one year older than last year and I felt good last year so why should things change?'
    • Part of it's an attitude and part of it is being good about listening to your body.
  • I haven't ever really been coached, but I do listen to my body constantly. I don't force myself to do things because it's on a piece of paper.
    • If I go to the track one day and start doing a workout and feel like 'oh boy this isn't happening today' I just walk off the track.
  • I think there's a lot of people where their mental strength comes from them doing the program that was on the paper, and I feel like that's a little bit of a weakness actually. You don't have the intuition to coax your body to it's best by doing what its capable of.
  • I think by backing off when my body told me to back off, and working hard when it was ready to work hard has kept me in the game longer and maybe prevented some overtraining or overuse injuries that other people end up getting.
  • It's not lost on me that the same people who fight their way through every workout are the same people that often in a race quit. I don't quit in a race because that's where you're supposed to not quit!
    • I think sometimes it's good to save that real inner resolve for when it really matters.
  • They're not giving out awards and prize money in training - the training is supposed to be a vehicle to get you to your best at race day.
    • I'd like to make sure that people are at their toughest mentally on race day.
  • Also to discern the intention of the workout: if I'm supposed to be doing a quality session but I realise that I'm not doing quality intervals anymore then the purpose of the workout is defeated already so it's better for me to stop and do it on another day when I can actually hit the times I'm supposed to hit.
    • Whereas when you're out on a long ride and you're just feeling bonky, maybe that's when you've got to figure out how to get through this because you're going to have to get through this type of thing in a race. That's maybe a time that you do learn to push through.

Changes to training for masters athletes and busy people

31:16 - 

  • I gradually started spreading things out a little bit more - a quality session maybe took a little more recovery.
  • Racing-wise I realised I had to spread my races out a little bit more.
  • The hard part for me in my 40's was as the prize money and sponsorship wasn't quite as good as it had been in the height of my career I was doing more to bring in income such as speaking engagements, and I'd started to coach. 
    • I found I didn't get as much sleep in that decade compared to when I was only a pro triathlete.
    • I'm not an early morning trainer, which must be hard for people who work full-time because it's a key slot for getting a workout in. It's a big thing that separates pro triathletes from age-groupers because as a pro you can sleep in and train when your body feels at its best.
    • I found this inhibited my recovery because my life was so much more busy and I wasn't getting my 8-10 hours of sleep like I was previously. Also family time was busier.
  • Being creative in terms of time windows is important.
    • For example, I used to have to drive my daughter to a soccer game. I have to get her there in time for her warm-up but I don't need to watch that, so I'd take my running shoes and go for a run while she's warming up and be back in time to watch the game. Or sometimes I'd bike to the game and my husband would drive her.
    • Figuring out time saving windows that might be available, or using your commuting to get your training in can definitely be helpful.
  • When my kids were really young I'd often get a run in with her in the jogger. I would sometimes run to the track, she'd fall asleep in the jogger and I'd do my session while she was sleeping.
  • You have to make sure you that you still make it one of your priorities in your life.
    • I've seen in people I used to coach that maybe their job becomes more important if you get a promotion, and triathlon goes by the wayside.
    • I had this one guy who was CEO of his company, and I'm like 'you are setting the standard ay your company. What is it saying that your job takes priority over all your health needs. You should have an hour in your day to train and everybody in your company should also have an hour a day to spend on their health'
    • If the work culture is such that it doesn't allow for that, you've got to change the work culture.
  • Maybe this is easier said than done sometimes, but making sure you realise it should be a priority. Even if you're not training a high level in triathlon you should always have an hour a day for exercise or strength training of some sort just to lead a productive, healthy life.
    • You end up being more productive at work if you do get that hour of exercise is, your brain has a lot more blood flow.

Changes to nutrition 

38:15 - 

  • I'm 56 years old now, and I noticed a big change after age 50 that I felt like maybe menopause changed my metabolism and the way my body was processing things, so I've actually paid more attention to it now than I had to in my 40's.
  • In my 40's my body didn't really change that much, I remember reading about how strength training was important but not doing as much as I intended to do - but I do think it's important.
  • I find now that I'm losing muscle and accumulating a little more to my muffin top than I thought I would, and I'm reading a ton about different diets but I haven't been able to take the plunge!
    • I'm taking the principles and trying to eat a lot less of the 'simple carbs' which is hard because it's been a big staple for me - it's how I've always cooked, you always have either a pasta, rice or tortillas etc.
    • I was pretty good about including protein and vegetables with every meal but I find it really hard to cut out the carbohydrate. I think that's probably what my body is asking for at this point.
  • It's a work in progress - I've had a bagel with almond butter for breakfast almost everyday of my life for about 30 years so it's really hard to change that habit!
  • I think that there are some body types out there that do really well on certain diets and other body types that don't. I can't believe that I'm the type of body that needs to cut out all carbs because I've lived on them for years and done well, but I know I need to be a little more careful with the volume I eat and the empty calories.
  • I'm not going to cut beer out of my diet!
    • We have a ton of good breweries - it's the home of Harpoon and Sam Adams. People know I'm a fan of drinking beer, I really like Stella and I drank Foster's for years - I like just a nice lager or pilsner that's not too hoppy.

"Most likely triathlete to be eaten by a shark"

  •  You were name by Sports Illustrated as the triathlete most likely to be eaten by a shark at the Sydney Olympics - what was that about?!
    • Well that was all about me trying to make the Olympic team and I got latched onto by the media as a 'good story' because of the thyroid cancer, and then the 18 wheeler, and then the glass slashing the hamstring. I had a little media frenzy for a while when I was trying to qualify and Sports Illustrated read about all my trials and tribulations and they named me the triathlete most likely to be eaten by a shark because of the bad luck I'd had getting there. But I foiled the sharks by not making the team! 

Rapid fire questions

48:42 - 

  • What is your favourite book, blog or resource?
    • I really like DCrainmaker.com. I'm terrible about staying on top of new developments so I use his website to gain knowledge and give clients answers when they ask for recommendations. 
  • What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success?
    • Listening to my body and being resilient - being able to pick yourself up from failure and setbacks and just keep trying. Not looking back at where you were but concentrating on moving forward from where you are now. 
  • What do you wish you had known, or wish you had done differently, at some point in your career? 
    • I don't think I could answer than in 30 seconds! Looking back I was a little afraid to start racing some of the big races when I was still working full time in '84, '85. I kind of wish I'd taken the challenge a little bit earlier and turned pro, but it all turned out into a nice long pro career so I can't complain too much! I wish I upgraded my equipment earlier - I raced for 5 years with training wheels on my bike because I thought I'm such a terrible biker I don't deserve race wheels and I think it probably cost me quite a bit in terms of prize money and placement when I realised that it does make a difference even when you aren't a great biker.

Key takeaways

  • Perseverance - if you think about all the things that Karen went through, most would have given up a long time ago. She persevered and had so much success, which is something we should all try and emulate. 
  • Love for the sport is what allows you to do that. We do this because we love it! So remember that and keep that perspective. 
  • Not necessarily having to kill yourself in your workouts but saving that really deep effort for your races. We often hear athletes and coaches say the complete opposite (e.g. Malcolm Brown discussing the Brownlee's training who attack their workouts every time) but this shows how individual training can be. Find what works for you and work with a coach that enriches this. 

Links, resources & contact

Links and resources mentioned

Connect with Karen Smyers

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Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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