Basic principles that govern success in the sport of triathlon.
Imagine you’ve been in the sport of triathlon for a year or two. Then imagine you’re asked to give a presentation to a group of newbies (first-year triathletes) – a group of ordinary people about to start their journey to do extra-ordinary things. What lessons would you share about what you’ve learned and the knowledge you’ve gained from your time training and competing in triathlons?
Would your list look a little like this?
1. Rest and recovery
It’s easy to get triathletes to work hard. In general the challenge of swimming, riding and running fast and hard over long distances is what draws most people to the sport. What’s more difficult is to convince triathletes to take at least one day off every week.
Right from the start – as a first-year triathlete – get into the habit of not training at all at least one day a week.
Having a day off every week will not make you any less fit – but it will help you to stay healthy, injury free and feeling relatively fresh week after week.
2. Skills, Skills, Skills
It’s logical to think about triathlon as a ‘puff-and-grunt’ activity where the best athletes are the ones who work harder and more often than anyone else. While there’s no doubt that success in triathlon depends on your commitment to completing consistent hard training, just as important is the development of skills in all four legs of the sport: swim, bike, run and transition. More specifically, it’s developing ‘fatigue-resistant’ skills that enable you to perform at your best in races.
Swimming skills including:
• Swimming with correct technique
• Learning to ‘feel’ the water and keep pressure on the water throughout stroke
• Open-water swimming and navigation skills
• Swimming in a pack
• Accurate and precise pacing skills
Cycling skills including:
• High-speed cornering and braking
• Climbing and descending
• Riding in a bunch (etiquette)
• Changing gears at the right time and in the right way
Running skills including:
• Running fast yet relaxed
• Running uphill
• Running downhill
• Running in a pack
• Running fast off the bike
• Running with correct technique when fatigued
Transition skills including:
• Correct set-up of your transition area
• Swim to bike transition T1
• Bike to run transition T2
3. Eat well…consistently
One of the great myths of triathlon is that all the hard training and tough kilometres in the pool and on the road give you permission to eat anything, anytime, anywhere.
Trained triathletes are ‘high-performance people’. They do things that most people can’t even imagine. The average triathlete swims further each week than the average person walks.
Have you ever seen a Formula One car drive into your local service station and fill up with unleaded fuel? Don’t put low-performance fuel in your high-performance engine (your body): eat well – consistently – and turbo charge your next triathlon race performance.
4. Make the most of every training moment
Success in triathlon is not about meaningless miles or counting the kilometres.
No one doubts the toughness, commitment, dedication or sacrifice of triathletes. But it’s so much more than just setting the alarm, riding for hours on long, lonely roads and falling asleep in front of the TV at 7:30pm.
These days, everyone is time poor. Work, kids, study, social commitments, family and a rigorous training routine are an incredible physical and emotional load on every triathlete.
In this context, it makes sense to get more out of every training moment…every swimming stroke, every hill climb, and every 400-metre track repeat. Every moment is important as you try to find more efficient and effective ways of training.
Don’t count the laps…make every lap count.
I was at a ‘Hawaiian’–themed fancy dress birthday party recently where a very fit-looking man in his 40s arrived wearing a Kona finishers t-shirt.
Now, finishing any triathlon is a great achievement. And finishing an Ironman is an outstanding personal milestone – and Kona, wow, really something to be proud of.
But to watch this guy all night walk from person to person, wait for the inevitable “OMG, Are you a triathlete?” question from some poor unsuspecting party guest and then listen to him tell the same story over and over about his training, the heat in Hawaii, his new wheels, what he ate for breakfast, what’s wrong with the sport, how he got his photo with Macca at the finish line, etc. was a bit much.
By all means, be proud of your triathlon achievements – you are amazing – but take time to smell the roses and enjoy all the other aspects of life.
6. Develop endurance and speed and skills
Speed is the single most important element of most sports – even triathlon.
Triathletes go through three phases in their competitive life:
• Phase 1 – personal achievement: doing enough training to finish a triathlon
• Phase 2 – performance: training to achieve a specific performance outcome, e.g. a specific time, a qualifying position, etc.
• Phase 3 – peak: training to achieve the best possible outcome – to realise the full extent of their personal potential, e.g. win the age group competition, win the overall race.
In the ‘personal achievement and performance’ phases, training is focused on endurance and completing enough hard work to get across the finish line.
However, to realise ‘peak’ personal performance standards, other factors including speed and skill become increasingly important. Don’t kid yourself!
Triathlon is not just an endurance sport – it’s as much about speed, skill, technique, tactical abilities and race strategies as it is about VO2 max, threshold training and four-hour training rides in the mountains.
7. Master your mind
Your body is an amazing machine. It can learn to swim, ride, run, sprint, tumble-turn, run up hills, corner at high speeds…it can learn to do just about anything.
But, when all is said and done, your body is a ‘slave’ to your mind.
Your body has limits and the stresses and strains of pain, fatigue, pressure, dehydration, glycogen depletion and injury can bend and break even the fittest of triathletes.
Your mind on the other hand…has no limits.
The human mind is capable of the most incredible, remarkable, astonishing things: and for all intents and purposes…it has no limits – except for the limits you place on it.
At every training session, as you switch on your muscles, take a moment to switch on your mind. During each training session, challenge yourself with this question:
What can I learn today that will make me a better triathlete tomorrow? Think more – learn faster – improve sooner.
8. Prevent preventable injuries
The only thing that has been proven to improve triathlon performance is consistent training.
There are a lot of gimmicks and gizmos in the triathlon marketplace that all promise to give you fast results with less effort. But in reality, the only thing that really makes a difference is that you get out of bed every day and train to the best of your ability.
So, logically, the most important aspect of your training is to avoid avoidable injuries and prevent preventable illnesses.
A great way to remember this is to think S.W.E.A.T.E.R.
• Stretch and loosen up.
• Warm up progressively and get ready to train.
• Exercise to the best of your ability.
• Achieve your training goals.
• Take stock – evaluate your body for any signs or symptoms of injury, stress, soreness or tightness and take the appropriate action.
• Eat, drink and refuel immediately after training.
• Recover, repair and regenerate in preparation for your next training session or race.
9. Find a coach
Students need teachers to help them learn maths, science, reading and history. Martial artists need instructors to teach them the art and science of fighting. Apprentices need masters and skilled, experienced senior tradespeople to show them how to build, create, fix, design, develop, repair and construct. And triathletes need coaches to help them realise their full personal performance potential.
While there are a multitude of self-help books, DVDs, videos, programs and systems in the market designed by some very clever triathlon gurus, nothing can take the place of working with a skilled, experienced, motivated triathlon coach.
The next time you spend your hard-earned on a piece of equipment or you pull out the credit card to purchase the latest and greatest ‘guaranteed to take two minutes off your next triathlon time’ all leather, Italian-designed bike seat, why not put a small amount aside to pay for an hour or two with a qualified, experienced triathlon coach.
All triathlon gear and gimmicks, fads and fantastic equipment wear out. What’s great this year – is gone next year.
But the skills, techniques, knowledge and expertise you can gain from spending time with a swimming, cycling, running or triathlon coach will last you a lifetime.
10. Take a long-term systematic approach – manage the emotion of the moment
It’s easy to get all bound up in the excitement of this great sport and it’s perfectly natural to want to spend time with the amazing, motivated, positive successful people in your club and training group.
And it’s also natural to want to fast-track your triathlon training – to rapidly increase training’s big three: volume, intensity and frequency – as quickly as possible in the belief that the more you do, the faster you’ll improve and the sooner you’ll be a seriously competitive triathlete.
Relax! Control your enthusiasm and manage the emotion of the moment: the moment where the excitement of the possibilities ahead for you in the sport become overwhelming and you just can’t wait to work harder and harder.
As a general guide, a beginner triathlete should start their triathlon journey with one training session in each leg every week then add one session per week in one leg every three months.
• Start training in June: One swim training session per week/one ride training session per week/one run training session per week;
• September: One swim/two rides/one run;
• December: Two swims/two rides/two runs;
• March: Two swims/two rides/two runs.
Over that first year, you’ll improve more than you can imagine; you’ll get fitter, faster and achieve some remarkable things but…you’ll do it safely, with limited risk of illness and injury and with every possibility of laying the foundations of a successful, long-term career in triathlon.
Photo credit: Delly Carr