‘I started functional training at 68, now I'm fitter and stronger than ever’

‘I'm 70, and in 2 years I became fitter than ever'Instagram

At 70 years of age, Celia Duff has broken two world records with her finish times in one of the world's toughest fitness competitions, HYROX. Last year, she was crowned World Champion in the Women’s Singles category for her age group, and between her first HYROX event in 2022 and her fourth race last year, she has shaved 15% off her finish time. No-one is more deserving of her moniker (and IG handle): Badass Gran.

Duff has always led a pretty active life, but it was when lockdown hit that her routine changed.

‘I’m a retired doctor; I’ve worked full time all my life, and I have two children and two grandchildren,’ Duff tells me. ‘I retired in 2017, and I love it. My life has gone from professional and busy, to peaceful and quiet, living in a village in Cambridge.

‘I studied at Cambridge University, during which time I joined the rowing team, alongside attending the occasional step aerobics class. In the nineties, I joined the Territorial Army, and started to run and go to the gym. I would go to choreographed weightlifting and boxing classes fairly regularly. This then petered out, and it wasn’t until I was 68 that things cranked up.

'It was lockdown 2020, and I thought, "I can either sit here and watch Netflix and eat chocolate", or I can start moving again. So, I started running, around three times per week in the local field with my dog.'

Come 2022, when restrictions had eased, Duff’s daughter, Alice, became a keen HYROX fan. Duff would routinely babysit her grandchildren while Alice and her husband attended competitions, but a change of plan led Duff to spontaneously secure herself a ticket.

‘My daughter said her children were going to stay with my son, Richard, so she suggested that I tried HYROX myself, while I had a free weekend. I’d seen her competition photos, and I’m always up for a challenge, but I bought my ticket (before the event became more popular and it wasn’t so hard to get one) before I fully understood what it was. Once I did some research, I worried what on earth I’d committed to.

‘I only had three months to prepare, but I think my daughter wanted me to show myself that even at 68, I could do this, and my pride wouldn’t let me back out. I wasn’t going to give up before I tried, but I knew I had to take training seriously if I wanted to finish without getting injured. When I do something, I do it to the best of my ability.’

Duff’s daughter, Alice, suggested she compete in HYROXInstagram

Two years on, and Duff says following a structured fitness routine and competing in HYROX has changed her life. ‘I walk taller both physically and mentally,’ she says. ‘I’m proud to show that ordinary people can do extraordinary things, but graciousness and gratitude are incredibly important.’

As she begins to share her story, she caveats, ‘I hope that when you write this, it doesn’t appear that I’m seeking any kind of glory.’ She may not seek it, but I’ll bet you a HYROX ticket you can’t read this without marvelling at her accomplishments.

Duff’s 19 training tips, for HYROX and later life

1.I rely on others for motivation

Duff prefers to train in group classes, or with a PT Instagram

I’ve only ever attended gyms or studios with classes, because I don't have the motivation to train on my own. I’m not self-driven enough and I find it very difficult to go into a gym and make myself do a workout. I’m much more likely to remain consistent and work hard in a class or when I’m being supervised by a PT.

That said, I also discovered that it's really easy to cheat in a class if you find easier workarounds for each exercise. But you can’t do that with a PT, which is why I committed to having one, once a week since 2022. That one-on-one time really helped me to improve on whatever it is I want to work on at that time.

Previously, I might have said, “You know what, I want to work on my leg strength”, or “I've got a dodgy left shoulder”. When I first started competing, it was that I had a HYROX event booked for October 2022, and I wanted to feel ready.

I find my focus, and then I entrust my PT to motivate and train me to achieve that goal. With HYROX, however, I did make it my responsibility to read up on the event, to understand the elements of the competition, but it has always been class instructors or a PT that have kept me motivated, and that’s okay.

2. I do specific forms of strength training and running, optimised for my goal

With my first PT, who I began working with ahead of my first HYROX in 2022, we started by looking at what HYROX entailed, and how I would go about building strength in the relevant parts of my anatomy. HYROX is all about functional fitness, so we made sure to include exercises that would increase this. There were three main elements of training that we agreed I needed to work on.

First was my running. HYROX is 50% or more running; it's a sport that plays to the endurance athletes. There are often former triathletes and Olympic cyclists taking part and cleaning up the field. In my opinion, it’s a runner’s sport, not a CrossFitter’s sport.

Secondly, I knew I needed to learn the movement standards. Each exercise is judged by an adjudicator who determines whether you’ve performed it correctly, so I learned these rules and practiced them. For example, you have to squat low enough between each wall ball for the rep to count.

Thirdly, I needed to become fitter and stronger. This sounds pretty general, I know, but it’s easier said than done, and you need to follow a structured training programme, rather than just going to the gym and doing spontaneous workouts.

I have one rest day per week now, which leaves me six days of training, during which I aim for eight sessions. This includes a PT session once a week, four gym classes and three runs per week. Two of these gym classes are usually very slow, heavy weight training classes; the third class will be conditioning; and the fourth is at a HYROX-specific gym for a very full-on cardio conditioning class.

My son is a director of sport at Loughborough University and taught me that for running, going for trots around the field with my dog wasn’t enough; I needed to incorporate interval training and sprint training. So, I mix up every run now, but they’re not easy.

3. I combine slower, longer runs, with harder, intense intervals

I do one very long, slow run per week. Something I've learned recently is that you need to build the base of your cardiovascular engine if you want to endure harder workouts for longer periods of time. This is something called zone 2 training. It’s tough as you get older, to go out and run for 60-90 minutes, particularly in the winter. But I make it my goal to do one of these types of runs a week.

Besides that, I do one steady 5k with my dog, and try and make the final kilometre my fastest pace. For my third run of the week, I try and do intervals or hill repeats. That’s where I really have to push myself. It’s hard, but my workout week is designed specifically to increase my cardiovascular endurance, to allow me to produce bursts of speed under pressure, and to increase my strength. It’s helped me to avoid injury, too.

Duff's top HYROX tips for beginners:
You must be able to run distance
-Get a good PT/gym
-Don’t be consumed by the overwhelming advice from self-appointed "experts"
-Don’t focus solely on the HYROX movements; be functionally fit and strong, the movement standards will come easily after this
-Learn the rules

4. I incrementally increase training intensity to reduce injury

I've never been injured. Is that because I'm not working hard enough? Or is it simply that I've been careful? I don't know. What I do know is that I learned very early on not to build up (speed or intensity-wise, through how much weight I’m lifting, or the volume of reps or sets I’m doing) too quickly. The general rule I’ve learned is to increase intensity through progressive overload, by 5-10% a week.

For example, you would increase the weight you lift for a certain exercise by 5% per week. As an older person, I've taken that very seriously, and it seems to have paid off.

No one is too old to exercise, and although it does slow down the ageing process and keeps us safer, healthier, happier and socially engaged, rest and recovery days are also increasingly important as you age. This has definitely helped stave off injuries for me, and I take it very seriously.

5. I give myself months to hit my goals

Some people would recommend an eight-12-week lead time to prepare for a HYROX competition, but I've always given myself much longer than that. A lot of people are doing competitions once a month, or once every two months, but my body couldn't stand it. I'm quite sure I would start to get injured, so I'm sticking to two solos per year with long periods of build up between each.

6. I identify my training weaknesses and make these my focus

When it comes to programming my workouts with my PT, I always share anything I'm worried about, such as a particular HYROX element that I’m finding difficult. My PT then devises a session that will train the body parts needed to improve on that exercise.

Something I feel quite strongly about, is that I practice more than just the HYROX exercises themselves. I also want to do other exercises that support those HYROX moves, and I feel that this is what helps get me the strongest, most mobile and injury-free body to perform my best in HYROX competitions.

Duff's top tips for training over the age of 65:
-Incrementally increase intensity
-Have at least one full rest day per week
-Eat more protein
-Remember your exercise heart rate is not comparable to that of younger athletes

7. I lift heavier weights and take more rest

Duff trains with heavier weightsHYROX - Hearst Owned

When I first started weight training, I used low weights and performed a high volume of reps during the 45-minute strength classes I did at my gym. Now, I use way heavier weights. I also perform each exercise more slowly and take more rest between sets, which I’ve learned is important for building strength as your muscles have more time to recover, so you can generate more force when you go again. Your muscles therefore become much stronger over time.

My approach to running has also changed. Before I started following a HYROX-specific workout plan, I was doing slower runs of four or five kilometres, three times a week in my local field. Now, after a friend of mine who I train with (and who was a member of the relay team that we put together for last year’s HYROX), took me aside and explained the importance of zone 2 training for cardio, I do one of these runs per week, plus the aforementioned intervals.

8. I keep track of my progress, and don’t compare myself to others

Each session, I keep a note of the heaviest weights I lift per exercise, or the fastest run pace I manage. This keeps me accountable as I can look back and see that I’m running faster and lifting heavier, which motivates me to progress. But it’s important to put these numbers into context.

I was chatting to the father of a friend of mine about training, and I told him I was really proud of myself because I'd gone for a long run, and I’d completed the last kilometre in around five minutes and 40 seconds. I was really proud, even though it felt way slower than younger people – my daughter, for example, paces four minutes per kilometre. His response was, “That's a bit slow”. I was absolutely crushed. But I went home, and I thought, “This is ridiculous. Put it into context. You’ve done that at the end of a long run.”

So when I think about how much weight I lift, I put it into context of two things: how many reps I’ve done, and how many sets I’ve done. I don’t practice one rep maxes, so this is best for me.

With single-arm overhead presses, I could now lift 15kg, after starting at 5kg. The weight I can lift has increased for every exercise, and almost doubled in some cases. My running speed has also increased, as well as my capacity to sustain running over long distances.

9. I tailor my nutrition to my goals, too

Women of all shapes and sizes can exercise and enjoy it and feel the benefit, but I think it’s important to reiterate that your nutrition should be appropriate for the level and type of exercise you do. I happen to have chosen to do HYROX, which requires me to be strong and to be able to sustain a long run, so I’ve adopted a high protein, high carb diet. As a former doctor, I also strongly recommend listening to your doctor if you have a concomitant medical condition that requires a certain diet, like hyperlipidaemia or diabetes.

10. I have increased my protein intake

Before I committed to HYROX training, I was pretty lazy with my nutrition. My fridge was probably full of pasta and pesto and salad, and you know what? Yes, I could cook, but I couldn't be bothered.

For the first six months or so of my HYROX journey, this didn’t change much. But over time, as I became more competitive, I considered calculating my macros (carbs, protein and fat).

My daughter pointed out that I wasn't eating enough protein, which I know is important for muscle recovery and growth, so I started adding in eggs and protein powder. I now have eggs for breakfast (from my hens at home); for lunch, I have a smoothie with protein powder (which immediately provides me with 28-30g of protein), or a sandwich or avocado on toast; for dinner, I have steak, chicken, or fish with vegetables, rice or potatoes.

I don’t count my macros on a daily basis, but having done the original calculations when I decided to take note of my protein intake, I now have a good idea of what I’m getting in an average day. Has it made a difference? I can’t say whether it’s purely the increase in protein, adopting slower, heavier weight training, or switching up the types of runs I do, as these are all new factors that I changed simultaneously, but I have seen a significant change in my endurance and strength. I can run and train for longer and lift heavier for sure.

11. I hydrate with electrolytes, not just water

I’ve become much more serious about hydration over time. I now make my own electrolyte solution – the World Health Organisation’s rehydration salt and sugar solution. I don't buy fancy stuff. This has certainly helped keep me hydrated, both during training and during races, as it replaces the salts lost through sweat.

12. I take race fuel seriously

Duff consumes jelly babies for energy during HYROX racesInstagram

During competitions, I consume Marks & Spencer’s jelly babies, which are delicious. I worked out how many grams of carbohydrate there are per jelly baby, so I know exactly how many to take; I take five jelly babies after the sled pull. And I take five jelly babies after the row.

About four hours before every race, I'll have a light but high protein meal, and then about an hour prior, I'll have a peanut butter and banana sandwich, and drink my electrolyte solution. I sometimes have a very small shot of strong black coffee, 20 minutes before the race.

13. I prep my mind, not just my body

Mindset-wise, I'm quite good at focusing on myself. For HYROX, the main mental prep I do is learning the rules. You also receive a layout of the venue ahead of the event, which I walk through in my mind several times during the week of a competition. That way, I know what everything is going to look like, how it’s laid out, and once I learn all of that, I’m not as anxious.

What hit me on my first event, was how huge it was. There are thousands of people- spectators, competitors, volunteers, all the judges. That's quite mind-blowing and overwhelming, and you have to kind of rein yourself in and go, “I'm just going to go in on myself and think about my own race”.

14. Like my training, I go into competitions with a strategy

Duff goes into HYROX races with a strategy for each stationInstagram

For that first HYROX event, I ran my first lap and completed the ski erg quite fast, forgetting that this is an endurance event, not a sprint.

I also timed myself on each exercise in the gym, during training. So, for example, I timed myself doing a 200m farmer’s carry, then compared my splits to others. I didn’t consider the fact that these times will depend on where in the race you’re doing that station. If you’re doing a farmer’s carry as the sixth station, for example, you’ll naturally be slower. Still, I wanted an idea of my splits before the race so that I could see if I had any chance of beating the existing world record, so I added 5-10% duration time to each exercise, and it didn’t look like I had a chance of taking a record.

On race day, I had no idea of my split times because I wear glasses and I couldn’t see my fitness watch clearly enough. But I prepped my son to show me his stopwatch at the lunge station, where I had one run segment and one final station to go. If I wanted to achieve a world record, I had 20 minutes left to complete one run segment, and the wall ball station. At that point, I thought, “I can do this”, so I pushed myself and it worked. I walked away with the world record!

Having that first time to work towards in subsequent races has been useful, and I am much more systematic about how I approach each station and how I will balance my time now.

I was a rower at university, and I have a pretty reasonable rowing technique; I can row at a low pace, but still pull quite strongly. This means it looks like I’m rowing slowly, but I'm technically rowing quicker because I have more power in my stroke. So, I now make that my fifth station, because it gives me a slight breather and I can gather myself for the final three kilometres and three stations.

I had a very clear strategy around this when I competed in Glasgow – my most recent HYROX race, when I had just turned 70. I had a plan in my mind of how I was going to approach the race, which I hadn’t done before. I don’t know whether it was this plan, or simply that I had become fitter since the race prior, but I sliced an amount of time off my previous time. I've competed in four HYROX races: three solos (and one relay). My first solo time was 1 hour, 55 minutes; World Championship time (my second race) was 1 hour, 50 minutes; and my third and most recent was 1 hour, 42 minutes.

15. I’ve taught myself not to give up

Duff finds the sled pull most challenging of the HYROX stationsHYROX - Hearst Owned

One of the stations in a HYROX race is a sled pull, and it’s a nightmare. For my first competition in Birmingham in 2022, everyone told me to train heavy; just pack the weight onto the sled, they said, but this didn’t prepare me for it. On the day, I remember I managed to push it, but when I got to the pull, it literally wouldn’t move. My technique went to pot, and I just thought, “I can’t do this”. But I turned round, and both of my children were there to support me, screaming at me to carry on, and I told myself I couldn’t give up.

Somehow, I managed to pull it. My time was appalling because my legs were shot at that point, but the relief of having done it was huge. After that came sandbag lunges. You have to carry the sandbag around your neck, and I actually thought I was going to faint. I was really tired. But I told myself, “You’re not going to faint. You will be alright.” I powered through and I made it.

Crossing the finish line at that first event was awesome. I almost didn't believe it. I ran over the finish line, collapsed in a little heap, and wept a couple of tears while my daughter hugged me.

16. I want to show other women my age that exercise is for everyone

Duff competed in a relay with other women over the age of 60Instagram

Achieving a world record in my first HYROX race felt like the first step to putting older women in the UK on the map. Then came the Birmingham 2023 UK and NI relay World Championships. I put together a relay team of women aged over 60; we met on a Facebook group, and we were the oldest combined age team of all, beating about a third of all female teams that entered. Those women have become my firm friends; we now have a WhatsApp group.

To me, taking part in HYROX and all the training I do is my way of saying to older women, “Come on, we can do this. We can be fit; we can be strong”.

The expression about standing on the shoulders of giants comes to mind; if someone else leads the way, then someone else will do it better.

We shouldn’t just leave this to the youngsters; you don't have to be young and fit and beautiful. Maybe I shouldn't say that. But I want older women to know that we can be ourselves, and I want to show them how to be the best we possibly can be.

For me, I remember feeling as though people were looking at me at HYROX because I was older, but I had won my place there just as much as those in the younger age groups had. We’re all equal. We've all done well in our own area. That’s the message I want to give.

17. I exercise – and compete – for enjoyment

In my first HYROX competition, I did enjoy it, but not as much as I have subsequently. I wasn’t allowing myself to; I was just thinking, “I've got to finish this”.

But I want to be kind and gracious to people. There are so many people – strangers who support and cheer, and the judges and volunteers are lovely. I want to take the time to smile at people. I want to have time to give somebody who's struggling on the track a pat on the back and to support them.

I will tell you a story about the World Championships: I was on the run track at the end of the final solo female race of the day, when the mixed doubles for the youngest age group were released from the starting pen. This elephantine herd of competitive birds literally pushed and shoved me out of the way, which left me really shaken. I ended up slowing down because I didn't feel safe. I made it to the farmer’s carry and was staggering my way up, when a young couple came up behind me. The guy slowed right down to walk with me, even taking the longest route and letting me cut the corner.

I've no idea who they were; they didn't need to waste seconds of their time, but they taught me the importance of kindness.

18. I exercise for longevity

Duff says she exercises to futureproof her bodyInstagram

There is a point at which you have to recognise that injury becomes increasingly likely with age. But I've set my foundations, and I hope to continue experiencing the benefits of exercise and functional fitness as I age, like easily being able to get out of a chair; get off the floor if I fall down; maintaining good balance. I want to keep fit and strong for as for as long as I possibly can, to futureproof my body.

19. I don’t put myself into a box when it comes to exercise

Duff and her daughter will compete together, in a women’s doubles teamInstagram

Recently, my daughter Alice suggested that we do the pro doubles race. At first, I thought she was joking, but when Birmingham released a third round of tickets for 2024, I got some. We’re doing it.

I’ve teased Alice that I’m just going to stand around and pose for the camera, while she does the heavy lifting, but I’m kidding. Of course, I’ll train very seriously for it; the weights are ridiculous, but luckily Alice is a regular in the pro individual races, so she could complete it on her own anyway.

We’re not taking it too seriously; our thinking is that we want to prove that HYROX is for every body. It doesn’t matter who you are, you can do this. HYROX allows you to combine age groups, too, and you can split the stations how you like – it’s the perfect event.

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