Saturday, January 25, 2020

Getting started in triathlon – stop making excuses and get started!

This summer’s London Olympics has certainly raised the profile of triathlon to new levels, both in the UK and beyond.  In fact, according to the British Triathlon Federation (BTF), some 4.7 million UK viewers tuned in to watch the Brownlee brothers (Alastair and Jonny) take Gold and Bronze in the men’s race – not to mention the hundreds of thousands that lined the race course or congregated at the open air sites to watch the racing on huge screens.

Unsurprisingly, race organizers are expecting record entries at triathlons of all shapes and sizes next year as a result.  But if the idea of a triathlon still scares you silly, fear not.  I’m here to dispel some of the myths and common misunderstandings that put people off taking the plunge and entering their first triathlon.

1. I can’t ever imagine swimming 2.5 miles, cycling 112 miles and running a full marathon – all in one go!
a. The distances above relate to a form of triathlon commonly referred to as ‘Ironman’.  For many, an Ironman race (or if you’re completely insane, double and triple-Ironman distances) is the pinnacle of triathlon.  But it’s only one form of triathlon.   Typically, triathlons follow one of four distance groups – Sprint, Standard (sometimes called Olympic as this was the format adopted for the Olympics in 2000), Middle-distance (also referred to as half-Ironman or 70.3) and Ironman.
A typical Sprint distance race is just 750 metres swim (or 400 metres if the swim is in a pool), a 20km cycle and then a 5km run. Even to a beginner, you’ll be done in less than 90 minutes.

2. Triathlon is too expensive!
a. I won’t deny triathlon can be expensive! You can easily spend upwards of £3,000 on a bike and associated triathlon kit. BUT you don’t have to!  Let’s face it – with the exception of a bike – there’s not too much expensive kit to buy.  A pair of trunks and goggles, a pair of running shoes. Yours for less than £100. You don’t even need to have a road bike for your first race(s). A mountain bike, commuter bike or hybrid is fine for getting your first taste of triathlon.  If you do want to buy a road bike, £500-800 will get you something perfectly usable for training and racing.

Race entry fees are becoming more expensive in the UK, however. Something that I hope race organisers will address as the number of competitors increases.

3. Anything that isn’t Ironman is second-class
a. Let’s put this to bed once and for all. Ironman is just one form of triathlon racing – with its own particular demands. It’s the longest – taking up to 17 hours to complete – so you need to be very aerobically fit to keep going that long. But I would never say an Ironman athlete is automatically superior to an Olympic or Sprint distance athlete. Don’t take my word for it – listen to Chris McCormack, a two-time Ironman world champion who returned to Olympic distance racing in 2011-12 trying to earn a slot on the Australian team for the London Olympics.  He left no-one in any doubt that the new breed of Olympic distance athletes are the best he’s ever raced against, at any distance.  The demands of the different distances are very different – for an Ironman it’s all about pacing, strategy and nutrition, make no doubt there’s a lot to factor in.  In contrast a sprint distance triathlon (for a professional or top-level amateur) is about 55-60 minutes of sheer gut-busting effort, running as close to 100% as you possibly can.  No nutrition, little in the way of ‘strategy’, just ‘balls to wall effort’.   Just as many Ironman athletes will confess they hate Sprint races for how much they hurt as Olympic racers will say they hate long distance because there’s too many factors to consider.

It’s quite normal for amateur triathletes to start with short-course racing and move up in distance as they catch the triathlon bug. I fall into this stereotype myself – after two years racing Sprint and Olympic, I did my first half-Ironman this year and plan to continue ‘going long’ in 2013 as a new challenge.

4. The thought of swimming in open water scares me silly
a. You’re not alone. Most amateur triathletes don’t come from a swimming background and thus the swim section (whether in a pool or open water – i.e. lake, river or sea) holds the most fear. If that’s you, then read on.

First, swimming isn’t as difficult as people make out. That’s not belittling anyone who can’t swim – but it is firmly saying that with instruction you will learn to become a competent swimmer very quickly.  You won’t match Phelps, but you won’t drown either!

Sprint triathlons start with a swim as short as 400m in a pool. That’s just 16 lengths – in a pool where a wall is no more than 25 metres away, probably less! And you can take as long as you need, sprint triathlons typically start in ‘waves’ where swimmers of similar ability are put together to avoid carnage in the pool.

Swimming in open water in wetsuit is a lot safer than you think, for two main reasons. First, forget what you already know about the wetsuits used for scuba diving and surfing. Triathlon wetsuits are nothing like that. They’re often incredibly buoyant, specifically designed to lift the athlete’s body so that they can cut through the water more efficiently. This buoyancy has the added benefit of making it harder to drown!  Triathletes will tell you the effort required to keep your head above water while wearing a wetsuit is minimal, simply roll onto your back and you will float.  Second, the safety standards at races with an open water swim are ridiculously high (and I mean that in a very good way), with a veritable flotilla of safety kayaks, boats and boards shadowing the swimmers throughout.

5. I don’t have enough time to train for three different sports
a. It’s true that if you’re going to compete in triathlon, you have to be prepared to put in a certain amount of training.  But while a professional might put in 30-35 hours a week, beginners can get away with as little as six hours a week (OK, you can’t do Ironman training on six hours, but you definitely can do Sprint and Olympic training).  There’s plenty of free training plans available on-line that will get you started, or you can get yourself a coach and personalized training plan for as little as £50 a month.  Unless you need to concentrate a disproportionate amount of time address a weakness (learning to swim, for example!), it’s not unusual to structure your available training hours to reflect the time you will spend on each discipline in your chosen race (e.g 25% swimming, 40% cycling, 35% running).  A good amateur triathlete (with a day job!) will typically spend 12-16 hours per week training.

6. I don’t know what my goal should be
a. One of the best things about triathlon is the sheer amount and diversity of goals you can set yourself! From simply finishing your first triathlon, to setting a target time, to qualifying for the national age group team (yes really, see below) or even earning a place at Kona (home of the Ironman world championships).
For those that become serious about triathlon, but will never be professionals, the sport is relatively unique in that amateurs have a series of international championships they can qualify for.  The International Triathlon Union (ITU – one of the two main governing bodies for triathlon) holds an annual amateur (‘Age Group’) world championships. Each participating country holds its own domestic qualification races and can send up to 20 athletes per sex/age group to the championships. Last year, the world champs were in Beijing, China and this year they are in Auckland, New Zealand.  There’s also a ‘Long Course’ world champs, which is the ITU’s version of Ironman-distance racing and amateurs can qualify in a similar manner.  Make no mistake, qualifying is tough! But it can be done by mere mortals.

The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), which owns the Ironman brand, also has world championships for both full and half-distance racing.  Qualifying for these is undoubtedly tougher than the ITU races (there are no national allocations – it’s just the best of the best from around the world), but again it can be done and every year age groupers from around the world line up against the best long-distance professionals at Kona (Ironman) and Las Vegas (70.3).

7. I still don’t believe you!
a. In late 2009, I entered my first duathlon (run/bike/run – it’s too cold to go from a swim onto the bike in winter!) having been a couch potato for the best part of seven years. I ended up finishing right in the middle of the field. I was hooked.

In 2010, I knuckled down and started to ‘learn’ how to race triathlon, mostly at Sprint distances.  I trained 8-11 hours a week, self-taught.  In late 2010 I got a coach and upped my training to 12-14 hours a week ahead of the 2011 season.  In April 2011 I qualified for the Great Britain Age Group team for the European Duathlon championships in Limerick, Ireland.  Three months later and I had also qualified for both the Sprint and Olympic distance races at the World Triathlon championships in Beijing.  Just 15 months after starting triatholon, I got to wear the blue ‘GBR’ suit twice in 2011.  And this year I did it again, qualifying for the Olympic distance race for the World Triathlon championships in Auckland, New Zealand later this month.

Yes, I train a lot. Typically I will do at least 12 hours a week (in peak season), but then I’m also in full time employment and a single parent.  It isn’t easy to juggle all those different balls – but it is possible and I have a massive sense of achievement in earning my place on the GB team two years in a row.

If I can do it – so can you!

So what are you waiting for?  No more excuses; it’s time to give triathlon a try!


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