Long Course For Life: Finding Longevity In Ironman Racing

  • By Kim McDonald
  • Published Feb 6, 2013
  • Updated Dec 30, 2014 at 9:04 AM UTC
Photo: Kris Mendoza

For the Love of Training

One of Glah’s closest friends, Brooks Clark, a former pro who’s trained with him since the 1980s, says he thinks Glah’s ability to stay in the Ironman game for so long comes from the simple fact that he loves to train, be outdoors and interact with people. “Triathlon is a natural extension of that love,” he says. “Ken strives to be fit and fast and to win, but if he is in less than great shape, he has no problem participating and simply finishing.” He’s also consistently fit. “He has been in good or great shape 12 months of the year for his entire life,” says Clark.

Glah advises other Ironman athletes to stay engaged by finding ways to enjoy training. He says he’s always puzzled by people who tell him they love racing but hate training. “I have no idea why they’re in the sport. Even if you were to race 10 or 15 times a year, you’re spending 95 percent of your time training. If you don’t enjoy the training, why would you do something you don’t enjoy 95 percent of the time, just to enjoy it 5 percent of the time?”

Glah admits he’s a bit of an addict when it comes to exercise and his love of long training days. “I’d rather be out training eight hours a day,” he says, “but it’s just not what my life is now, and I respect that. I can go out and do a 10-hour Ironman instead of an eight-and-a-half-hour Ironman and be really happy with it because I know how little training I did.”

Physical maintenance is another key. Glah advises people to take care of injuries when they happen and to get regular body work to prevent injuries.   “I used to get a lot of bodywork. It was really important when I was making a living at the sport, but even now it’s equally important when I’m 20 or 30 years older,” he says. “You’ve got to spend a little money to make a little money when you’re a pro. But even when you’re an age-group athlete, you’ve got to spend a little money to continue doing it for the rest of your life.” Glah recommends self-massage, regular use of a foam roller and, if you can afford it, getting a deep-tissue massage weekly. “It’s worth it. People will go out and drop 10 or 12 grand on a bicycle and then they’ll say, ‘I’m not going to pay $70 for a massage.’ That to me just doesn’t make sense.  When you’re younger your body can compensate for some of those imbalances, but when you’re older, especially if you’re not training as consistently, the last thing you want are muscle imbalances that will accentuate the possibility of getting injured.”

Because most of us tend to pack on the pounds as we age and trim our training to fit our family and work responsibilities, Glah recommends religiously monitoring your weight and eating a healthy diet. “I don’t eat as much junk calories as I used to simply because I don’t need them,” he says. “Back in the day when I was doing a 10- or 11-hour training day, I’d have to eat 4 or 5 hours straight or I’d wake up the next morning so light I couldn’t train. Now I have to be careful about what I eat. As you get older you don’t need as many calories, so you need to focus on getting better calories. Rarely do I drink calories anymore, whereas before I used to do that a lot because it was a simple way of getting calories in. Now I drink a lot of water and, unfortunately, some diet soda, but I don’t drink a whole lot of juice or sodas with sugar anymore.”

Glah says it’s also important for athletes to take a break each year for four to six weeks to recharge mentally and physically, and  to find ways to include their families in their passion by doing some of their training with them or basing races around places family members want to visit.

As a full-time pro racing from April to November, Glah would typically take Decembers off with the exception of two or three weight training sessions a week. Then he’d add short runs and indoor trainer sessions in January. By early February, he’d be back to regular training. “By then, I was mentally going crazy from lack of training, so I was hungry to get back into things,” he says. “When I started racing Ironman New Zealand in March each year, I would usually stop training and racing soon after Kona so my big break was from mid- to late October until early to mid-December.”

Soon after his daughter, Reanin, was born, he and his wife Jan did training runs together using a baby jogger. When his daughter was older, “I would base a lot of my swim, run and strength training around taking Reanin to gymnastics and volleyball practice at different YMCAs,” Glah says. He also made efforts to make traveling to races a family affair, bringing along not only his family but also his parents to two or three races a year.

Glah also thinks it’s important for athletes, particularly those training for their first Ironman, to do sprint- and Olympic-distance races. He says he’s not a big fan of people who do the Ironman as a one-time thing.  “This is a great sport and I’d rather see people do this as a lifestyle—not something to walk into the office and brag, ‘Yeah, I did an Ironman,’ and never participate in another triathlon again.  The people who embrace the sport really stay in for the long haul. If that means never doing an Ironman because it doesn’t fit in with your schedule, that’s great—do sprints- and Olympic-distance races and occasionally a half-Ironman. That’s wonderful.”

His response provides me the opening to finally ask: How many Ironmans does he ultimately plan to do in Kona? And is he looking forward to completing 30 straight at 50 years of age next October? “I still have to finish this year to get to 29,” Glah replies with a laugh. “I never count them until I do them.”

I try another approach and ask how much longer he thinks he can race Ironman Hawaii. “I hope that I am motivated and physically able to keep training and racing for years to come,” he says, much too diplomatically. “If for some reason I miss a year, I don’t think that means I would just walk away and not race Kona. As I said, I love training and racing.”

So I turn to the triathlete who knows him best, his close friend Brooks Clark, who gives a simple yet brilliant answer to my question of how long Ken Glah can continue to race Ironman Hawaii. “That question,” says Clark bluntly, “is the same as ‘How long will he live?’”

Ken Glah’s 10 Tips for Ironman Longevity
1. Change your expectations to fit your training.
2. Be consistent in your training.
3. Make the training fun and enjoy it.
4. Get bodywork to prevent injuries.
5. Take care of injuries when they happen.
6. Watch your diet and maintain a healthy weight.
7. Take a break each year for 4 to 6 weeks to recharge mentally and physically.
8. Find ways to include family by doing some training with them or basing races around places they would like to visit.
9. Be a triathlete for life, not a one-time “bucket list” Ironman.
10. Mix it up with sprints and Olympic-distance races.

Winds of Change

How the Kona pro field has changed—and stayed the same—since the ’80s

Returning to Kona year after year for nearly three decades has given Glah a unique perspective of the race and the changes that have occurred. “When I look at the pros now, what I see, despite all the advances in nutrition and equipment, is that the front end of the field is not going any faster from what people were doing 20 years ago,” he says. To him, this demonstrates the quality of the training and racing that he and others were doing back in the 1980s and 1990s. “But the difference is the depth of the field in Hawaii. Twenty years ago, if you were in fifth place in the run at 20 miles and the bottom fell out, and you really struggled the last 5 or 6 miles, you might get passed by three or four people. Now, if all of a sudden you slowed down a minute or a minute and a half per mile from what you were doing, you’re going to lose two or three places a mile—so you’re going to end up losing 15 places.”

Notable Ironman Hawaii Finishers
Ken Glah – 28 consecutive
Missy LeStrange – 24
Fernanda Keller – 23 consecutive
Lyn Brooks – 20 consecutive
Scott Tinley – 20 consecutive
Cherie Gruenfeld – 17
Tom Warren – 17

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FILED UNDER: Features / InsideTri / Ironman / Race Tips / Training TAGS:

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