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Published in GQ magazine, 2006

Pic: a swim-to-bike “brick” session, Sivota, Greece. By Will Whipple


Triathlon training for the aquaphobic amateur

Friends respond in a variety of ways when you tell them you're training for a triathlon: ‘you’re a brave man’; ‘rather you than me mate’; ‘best of luck’.

With good reason. All triathletes have a weak discipline, and I discovered mine 100 yards from the shoreline during a swim-to-bike ‘brick’ training session at the annual Adidas Eyewear Triathlon training camp in Sivota, Greece. I find swimming as about easy as flapping my arms and flying. Doing so in open water fills me with terror, and although it is technically very difficult to drown in a wetsuit, I gave it a heroic go one morning. In a textbook case of the self-fulfilling prophecy– I had spent the last 24 hours fretting about this - my front crawl stroke disintegrates into a blind thrashing panic of breathless bilge as the shoreline recedes and the seabed drops away. Front-crawling towards the buoy with a grim, unprofessional determination, I start to feel tired, my heart rate soars and nasty panic sets in. I’m waving and drowning, the safety launch zips over and I am ignominiously fished out of the water and sink into a black despair. I can’t stand swimming.

It goes without saying Triathlon is a viciously demanding sport. The distances speak for themselves: at the beginner’s ‘Sprint’ level, competitors swim 750m, cycle 20km and run 5km. The standard Olympic distance doubles all that, and many participants aim to graduate to the apparently masochistic Ironman races - a 3.86 km swim, a 180km cycle and then a 42.2km run. Triathlon is also cerebral and often solitary, requiring dedication to at least four disciplines: swim, bike and run, then the tricky but crucial ‘transition’ phases, and also, if you’re serious about competing, a some basic nutritional and sports science, and the strategic intelligence to ensure you don’t suffer in a race from time penalties, injuries, dehydration or having your goggles kicked off your face in open water.

None of which has prevented triathlon becoming one of the Britain’s fastest growing sports with around 15,000 regular participants. But nor does the fact that for fitness nuts aiming to broaden their pain portfolio, ability in one discipline transfers poorly to others. A Tour De France rider may flounder in 100m swim, while a cross-channel swimmer can be reduced to a nervous wreck by a steep cycle descent. The ability to swim efficiently, cycle fast and run hard isn't enough to get you through Tri. The ability to do one after the other, when your mind and body are militantly protesting and your lungs feel like they’re coming out of your eyes is what gets you through. It's called ‘mettle’ and the beauty of triathlon is that it can only be worked at instead of bought.

Not that I am any athlete, more Brillopad Bloke than Ironman in terms of my stamina and fitness, not to mention my hairstyle. I took up road cycling three years ago and can happily get on a bike and ride 100 miles, but my thrice weekly treadmill runs probably place me somewhere around the norm for the 34-year-olds with the usual CV of distractions, work-life anxieties and indulgences. In spring I began training  and the daring dream seemed within realms of possibility, but not without miles and hours of agony, frustration and several dark moments of wanting to abandon the whole thing and head directly to the pub by way of KFC.

The process begins in earnest at Adidas Eyewear’s rigourous and extremely instructive camp. Beautiful seaside resorts in mythological surroundings ordinarily produce in me an urge to laze around catatonically drinking strong cocktails in direct sunshine and eschewing anything more challenging than a game of Shithead.

Not this resort, or this week. The camp’s coaches inspired immediate confidence. The enigmatic Richard Allen is an Ironman elite who has held titles at all levels of British Triathlon. The wiry former tri elite Jack Maitland coaches Olympic competitors, while former paratrooper Ralph Hydes is expert in nutrition and core conditioning. These are impressive, accomplished ultrapeople who think little of swimming two miles around the adjacent island – for fun. Training with them makes you wonder what it must be like to ride with Discovery Channel, run with Kenyans and swim with torpedoes.

The learning curve in Triathlon is steep. Six days are spent in intensive sunny training running along the Greek Shoreline, grinding up the Greek hairpins in 35 degree heat and churning through the waves. We listen to lectures on nutrition, planning race seasons and training schedules and Ralph Hydes runs conditioning workshops where we do dynamic stretching, squats, lunges and jacknives with Swiss balls to condition muscles I wasn’t aware I had. The learning curve is also painful, as I discovered over the five-mile training runs at dawn and several 80km rides.

Tri rookies need to give an event a three-month run-up, beginning with high volume and low intensity, and tapering to lower volume to higher ‘race pace’ intensities. ‘Training needs to have structure and consistency for a minimum of 12 weeks out from a race,’ Richard Allen said. ‘That means a balance of easy aerobic training and harder anaerobic threshold work. Build the training up to a peak mileage and then reduce it down to very little before the race. Many new triathletes overtrain and do too much or don’t train at the correct heart rate intensity.’

Of all triathlon’s requirements, open-water confidence and solid stroke technique is key. Most races are conducted in lakes, docks or the sea, and open water swimming differs from pool swimming in almost every respect. Although there are no rules on how to swim, but open-water also requires a combination of confidence and navigational skills. It is also highly tactical and involves techniques that just can’t be learnt in a pool. Breathing bilaterally is the best insurance against swallowing pints of brine, and competitors must also swim combatively, with other triathletes around and, at times, on top of you. The final key skill is sighting. Visibility in the water is usually limited to about six inches in front of your face and it is exhaustingly easy to veer off course in open water and swim much further than necessary. Competition triathletes lift eyes above the waves every four or six stroke to take a bearing. Combine all these successfully and you cut through the a pack of rivals like Jaws (in theory).

Jack Maitland teaches key transition techniques. Essentially getting undressed in a hurry between swim and bike, and bike and run, transitions require their own drills and training and competitors can win time back with efficient training. Rapidly sucking yourself out of wetsuit is infinitely more difficult than it looks. Moreover, the body hard struggles to adapt between disciplines: running out of the swim can be disorientating as blood surges to the head, and running feels biomechanically clumsy when you’re immediately off the bike.

Maitland also showed that the fastest technique for mounting is to lock your cleated shoes into the pedals and then perform a brave Zorro jump onto the bike as soon as it is across the mount line. We drill Jumpin’ Jack’s technique, which produces plenty of grazed knees and spectacular falls, but once perfected any other technique looks slow and awkward.

Richard Allen outlines a winner’s psychological strategy with five central Pillars: Confidence, Commitment, Focus, Distraction Control and Enjoyment. ‘We does this for fun,’ the Ironman deadpans. ‘It’s meant to be enjoyable, and you can lose sight of your goal because you're not enjoying it.’’

Over six days it becomes clear that triathlon training from a standing start is a process of gradually improving skills, lengthening distance and reducing times, of interval work at higher aerobic tempos balanced with slower but longer session on the bike, the treadmill or in the water. Tri training is both intense and lengthy, because that is what triathlon racing is like. But success ultimately comes down to the mental discipline:

‘Psychological training is vital,’ Allen says. ‘Triathlon is a challenge and you must convince your body that you can do it. It's all about being confident and if you have done it in training, you can do it in a race. Learning to stay focused on the race is key and this should be practiced in training. Top athletes will stay in the zone the whole race. Nothing will distract them from their race plan.’

Just about everything distracts me from my race plan – to complete a triathlon – but three months pass and my training miraculously coalesces into a focused, bristling fitness. The months are spent avoiding ducks, plankton and leaves in the Serpentine lido,and the sessions produce gradual improvements in my swim technique and endurance. I actually begin to enjoy swimming. My run and bike times shrink noticeably but open-water confidence remains problematic. I don't mind admitting I’m terrified. ‘Your fear of open water is holding you back, and that’s extremely common in triathletes,’ Richard Allen tells me. He suggests breaking up the race swim in 100m legs abbreviated with gaspers holding onto a safety canoe.

And after a monastic final month and a nervy ‘taper’ week of 60 per cent intensity training, I’m bobbing around Salford’s Erie basin. It is full of water, testosterone and 150 Sprint-distance competitors. The airhorn honks and the dock turns into a human-powered jacuzzi - we’re off. Including some backstroke, doggy-paddling and more than a few meters of freestyle ‘jazz’ swimming, my front crawl gets me through 750 meters in a predictably disastrous second to last. But I’m wading, then staggering and then running out the water and up the ramp with all the finesse of a piece of scampi, I wrestle free of the wetsuit and I’m onto the bike, the euphoric energy of achievement surges and my open-water demons are being torn to shreds on the chainring. Salford zips past.

This bit is fun. I claw back about 50 places, feeling raw and aggressive. Four laps later, I’m back in transition and then into the run.

I’m running, that is, like Mr Bean until my stride finds a rhythm and I’m locked into race pace. Rivals peel off or overtake. An hour and half passes in what seem to be five minutes, I’m over the line, someone hands me a medal and suddenly it’s like a kaleidoscopic midnight on New Years Eve. I expected to collapse, but I’ve never felt more alive. It is awesome because I Just Did It.

I bump into Alistair Campbell in The Lowry hotel and we talk about our times. He has just completed the Olympic distance. My final time is 1:34.54, with a slow swim, a fast bike split and a mid-table run. ‘Gotta do better than that mate,’ the spin doctor diplomatically observes.

Maybe he’s right. I was shattered after all the training, you see. Next year, Mr Campbell.


Richard Allen's tips for Tri success:
1. Train consistently. Don’t overtrain then have to have a week
off. Regular short rest days help you recover and
keep training.
2. Know your heart rates - most people don’t – and train at the right
3. Join a club. Particularly for swimming it’s good to have someone
else looking at your stroke.
4. Find races on the British Triathlon Association website and have a race plan for the whole year. Have key races that you want to perform in and  practice races Rest up for the key races and try new ideas in
practice events.
5. Speed work in your training for Ironman or Half Ironman is good for your muscle conditioning. Do some shorter races before an Ironman to get in shape. But make sure you are very well rested before the big day.

© 2006 Kevin Braddock


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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