Why Not Tri?
Whether you’re ready for a new racing challenge, or you just want to become a fitter athlete, triathlon training is the answer
|Triathlon is hot. In the past five years, participation in the sport of swim-bike-run has increased by more than 30 percent in the United States. It’s estimated that nearly 500,000 people in this country will dive in the water, hop on their bikes, then change into running shoes all in a single race this year. Who are all these folks, and why should you join the crowd?Many triathletes are runners looking for something new to do. And once they try triathlon or triathlon-style cross-training, they often get an unexpected result: They become better runners. Ron Rogowski, 35, a market analyst from Palo Alto, California, says he was an “underachieving runner” before he took up triathlon. “I should have been running sub-three-hour marathons, but I just couldn’t get there on running alone,” he says. “Tri training gave me the stamina and confidence to do longer training runs.” Ten weeks after completing his first triathlon, Rogowski finally broke three hours in the TKNAME marathon.For runners used to putting one foot in front of the other, going multisport can be intimidating. Swimming and biking require technique and all that gear. That’s why we’ve put together this triathlon-training guide for runners. Whether your goal is to do your first triathlon or just improve your running through cross-training, these expert tips will help you reach any finish line faster.
SwimSwimming is perhaps the perfect athletic complement to running because the two sports are so different. “Just about everything about swimming is exactly the opposite from running in terms of stresses on the body,” says runner-turned-triathlete Joe Friel, author of *The Triathlete’s Training Bible* (VeloPress, 2004). “Swimming tends to stretch you out, whereas running tends to compress you.” Running, of course, is a high-impact, primarily lower-body activity, while swimming is a full-body activity that’s both nonimpact and non-weight-bearing.As a less natural and more technique-dependent sport than running, swimming requires a different HOW TK training approach. “For beginning triathletes, the path to swimming improvement is not to make more energy available through training, it’s to waste less energy by improving your stroke,” says Terry Laughlin, whose Total Immersion swim camps specialize in preparing inexperienced swimmers to compete in triathlons.
There are a number of ways to swim, of course, but unless you’re Olympian Michael Phelps, you’ll be swimming freestyle. While proper freestyle technique is relatively simple compared with the butterfly (see “Reach and Pull,” direction TK), almost all beginning triathletes need to get feedback on their stroke from a knowledgeable observer. “Find a friend who is a good swimmer, or a local swim coach, and ask if they would look at your stroke,” says Siri Lindley, a former triathlon world champion and now a coach in Boulder, Colorado. One or two tips from a keen observer will save you weeks of struggling on your own.
Experts also advise beginning swimmers to first forget about speed. “Swimming slowly is the best way to begin developing habits of efficiency and economy,” says Laughlin. “Racing the clock-or other swimmers-will only cause you to thrash and splash.” Instead of trying to get across the pool faster, count your strokes per lap and try to reduce the number.
Drills can also help you improve your swimming technique because they allow you to break down the freestyle stroke into parts, so you can focus on improving one or two aspects at a time. Lance Watson, a Canadian triathlon coach who mentors athletes ranging from total beginners to Olympic champions, recommends a drill he calls the “Pause One” to improve body rotation, the first element of good freestyle technique. To perform this drill, swim freestyle, but pause for one second after each stroke in a fully rotated position, with one arm extended ahead of you. To learn other drills, consult a coach, books such as *Total Immersion* (Fireside, 2004) by Terry Laughlin, or videos such as *Swim Power* (Total Training).
Whether you’re serious about racing your first triathlon or you just want to do some cross-training in the pool, there are two types of swimming workouts that offer the most benefits for runners. The first is swimming laps, or endurance swimming, where you simply swim for a predetermined amount of time or complete a designated distance at a moderate intensity. Lap swimming is a great form of active recovery after a hard run, while it also prepares you for the rigors of a triathlon’s open-water swim by requiring you to swim for an extended period without rest.
Swim intervals are the second important workouts to include in triathlon training WHY TK. A typical session would start with a few easy warmup laps, followed by some drills to improve your technique. For example, pick four drills and do 25 yards (typically one lap) of each drill with a 10-second rest after each lap. Next, do a set of higher-speed intervals to develop efficiency, such as swimming six times 50 yards a bit faster than your normal lap-swimming pace with a 20-second rest after each 50-yard interval. Finally, cool down with a few more easy laps.
Nearly all triathlon swims take place in open water and in a big crowd, which is very different from cruising along in your own lane with the black line on the bottom of the pool to guide you. So all beginning triathletes need to learn to swim in crowded, rough conditions. “One of the hardest parts of swimming in a triathlon is the nervousness you feel knowing you have to swim among hundreds of other people,” says Lindley. “Confidence, therefore, is key.”
To build this confidence you need to experience a little contact with other swimmers while training. You can do this by gathering some friends and swimming together in a single pool lane. As you get more comfortable swimming in traffic, increase the contact you have with the other swimmers by intentionally swimming over the top of each other’s legs, which is a common occurrence in triathlon swims.
It’s also important to do some of your swim training in an open-water environment so that you can get comfortable with the poor visibility, cooler water temperature, the need to “sight” (look ahead at a buoy or landmark every few strokes), and the lack of walls to push off (or rest on). When choosing a training site, make sure it is a designated swimming area and always work out with at least one partner. “Open water workouts are also a good opportunity to practice starts and exits,” says Watson. Practice running into the water from the beach, diving forward, and swimming hard for 30 seconds, as you will have to do in a triathlon. Then turn around and practice swimming toward shore until your hand touches the bottom, standing, and running back onto the beach.
The five elements of proper freestyle technique
Body position. The optimal body position is to float high in the water, as it minimizes drag. Beginners tend to allow their hips and legs to sink. To avoid this error, concentrate on pushing your chest toward the bottom of the pool. This will naturally cause your hips and legs to rise.
Rotation. By rotating your entire body from side to side with each stroke, you swim more narrowly and can slice through the water with less drag. As you extend your leading arm ahead of you, rotate your body from the hips about 60 degrees toward the opposite side (as though you’re reaching to pluck an item off a high shelf). Be sure to keep your neck and head neutral.
Arm cycle. Your leading hand should pierce the water about a foot in front of your shoulder. Once you’ve reached full extension with your leading arm, rotate your shoulder and elbow so that your hand and forearm form a single “paddle” that pulls backward toward your feet. A proper pull is often described as feeling as if you’re reaching over a barrel. Be sure to pull all the way back until your arm is fully extended toward your foot. Your hand should exit the water next to your upper thigh. Your arms are always at opposite points of the arm cycle, so when one hand is entering the water, the other is leaving it.
Kick. Kicking too hard creates more drag than it does propulsion, so swim with a tight, “flicking” kick that uses minimal energy. “Imagine you’re kicking a soccer ball gently with the top of your foot,” says Roch Frey, who coaches triathletes through multisports.com. Kick twice with each leg for each stroke you make with your arms.
Breathing. Turn your head to the side and inhale through your mouth when your leading arm reaches full extension, then turn your head toward the bottom of the pool and exhale forcefully. You can inhale on one side every second or fourth stroke, or on alternating sides every third stroke.
1. Smear a small dab of baby shampoo on the inside of your swim goggle lenses to keep them from fogging up.
Like swimming, cycling provides a great cardiovascular workout and burns lots of fat and calories without any impact. But cycling is far more like running in that it is primarily a lower-body workout. In fact, the quads and calves in particular work even harder on the bike than on the run, making cycling an effective way for runners to better develop these muscles.
Because of the similarities between the two sports, the fitness gains you obtain from cycling will have a direct, positive impact on running. In a Purdue University study, runners who added three weekly cycling workouts to their training schedule improved their 5-K race times as much as runners who added three additional runs to their weekly regimen. So whether you’re hopping on your bike to prepare for a triathlon or just to diversify your training, you can expect to become a better runner as a result.
To reap all the benefits of cycling, however, you first need a bike. Will that old Schwinn Varsity in the back of the garage cut it? Most experts agree that it’s okay to do your first triathlon or a modest amount of bike cross-training on just about any bike you already have. “Once you’ve done a triathlon, and liked it, then maybe it’s time to start looking at a road bike instead of a mountain bike or an old clunker,” says Friel.
If you’re sticking with your old bike for the time being, you still need to make sure that it fits. Riding any bike that doesn’t fit you well, whether it’s a dusty hybrid or a high-tech performance racer, can make your training less productive and increase your risk of injury. To get properly fitted for your bike, it’s best to take it into a bike shop and have fit experts take a look at you on the bike.
Even casual cyclists have to master a few basic skills. “Cycling is a more technical sport than most people realize,” says Troy Jacobson, founder of the Triathlon Academy in Baltimore, Maryland. “Runners tend to assume that they’ll be able to cycle effectively because of their leg strength and cardiovascular fitness, but that’s rarely the case.”
Beginning bikers often make two common mistakes. The first is “pedal stomping,” where you put all your effort into pushing the pedal down in the first half of the pedal stroke and then fail to actively pull the pedal upward in the second half of the pedal stroke. To correct this flaw, Jacobson suggests practicing pedaling with just one leg on a stationary bike while concentrating on using your muscles to lead the pedals in complete circles.
The second common flaw is called “mashing,” which means you’re using too big of a gear with a slow cadence. “To avoid mashing you need to learn to pedal the bike with a high cadence,” says Friel. A good rule of thumb is to try to maintain a pedaling cadence of at least 80 revolutions per minute on flat terrain. If you can’t keep up that cadence you should shift to an easier gear.
It’s also important to learn how to descend hills and corner. Gale Bernhardt, coach of the 2004 U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team, recommends a monkey-see-monkey-do approach to building these skills. “If you need to work on your cycling skills, get in with a group of cyclists who are a little more experienced than you are,” she says. “You can learn by imitating them.” To find cycling clubs or riding groups in your area, call your local bike shop.
The types of bike workouts will sound familiar to runners. There are easy rides, long rides, tempo rides, hill repetitions, and intervals. But whether you’re training for a triathlon or taking up cycling to improve your running, it’s best to stick with easy rides for the first few weeks to give your body a chance to adjust to the new activity.
When you’re ready for more challenging rides, Bernhardt recommends hill repetitions to build leg strength. A good beginner hill workout could include four hard hill climbs lasting two minutes apiece, with three minutes of easy pedaling between climbs. If you’re training for a triathlon, do hill repetitions once a week for several weeks, then replace this workout with a weekly tempo ride: a steady effort at race intensity lasting 10 minutes or more, sandwiched between a warmup and a cooldown.
To buy a bike, or not. That is the question. For those not quite ready to plunk down a lot of cash on a brand-spankin’ new triathlon bike, there are a couple simple-and relatively inexpensive-modifications you can make to your current bike for more comfortable and productive training.
If your bike has a kickstand or reflectors [JH: see this add. Okay?], for instance, take them off-they just add weight. Also, consider adding a clip-on aerobar such as the Fort?1 ($80) to your bike. This will enable you to ride in an aerodynamic “time trial” position that saves a lot of energy by reducing wind drag. Finally, consider replacing your flat pedals with a pair of clipless pedals and bike shoes. This combination will allow you to produce greater force throughout the pedal stroke. Expect to pay roughly $60 for entry-level pedals and another $60 for basic cycling shoes (see “Gearing Up,” direction TK).
Once you’ve decided it’s time to buy a real triathlon bike, use the following checklist from *Bicycling* magazine’s deputy testing director, Mike Cushionbury, to guide you through the process.
>>>Contact the closest triathlon club and ask them to recommend the best local bike shop that specializes in serving triathletes. For a better deal on a new bike, buy in the mid- to late summer, when many shops slash prices on last year’s models to make room for new models.
>>>Don’t expect to see major differences among the various entry-level triathlon bikes, which usually cost $1,700 to $2,000. “Most of these bikes are very good,” says Cushionbury. “Try a few and buy the bike that fits best and is most comfortable.” The Trek Equinox 5 and the Specialized Transition Elite are two bikes that score especially high marks among triathlon newbies.
>>>Put most of your money into the frame. “You can always upgrade to lighter wheels and better components later,” says Cushionbury. Examples of entry-level tri bikes with quality frames that can “grow with you” include the Felt S32 and the Quintana Roo Kilo.
>>>Consider buying a tri bike with a reversible seat post such as the Cerv? Dual, and/or a clip-on aerobar, such as the Cannondale Sprint. “These two features allow you to adjust your riding position between the low, flat ‘aero’ position that most experienced triathletes prefer and a more relaxed, upright position that most beginners find more comfortable,” says Cushionbury.
1. Always wear an ANSI- or a SNELL-certified helmet while riding. Entry-level helmets such as the Bell Furio and Giro Eclipse are priced in the $50 range. More expensive models tend to be lighter, more aerodynamic, and better ventilated. (giro.com)
2. For comfort, invest in some padded bike shorts. They usually cost $60 to $100, with the pricier shorts being more durable and more comfortable. Most bike shops stock reputable brands, such as Pearl Izumi (pearlizumi.com) and Nike (nike.com).
3. You can sometimes get great deals on secondhand bike accessories at local bike swaps and through Web sites, including eBay and Craig’s List (craigslist.org).
4. Clipless pedals and bike shoes increase pedaling efficiency and are essential for the competitive rider. There are two basic types of clipless pedals, which cyclists usually refer to as the Speedplay type and the LOOK type, although there are other brands in each category. Shoes must be bought separately and must be compatible with your pedal choice. Good options include Sidi and Northwave brands. ($50 to $230; sidiusa.com, northwave.com) Bicycle Built for You
To do an approximate bike fitting on your own, mount the bike without shoes and have a partner hold you upright. Then move one pedal to the bottom of its rotation and rest the heel of your foot on the pedal. Your leg should be fully extended. If you can’t quite reach the pedal with your heel, lower the seat until you can. If your knee is bent, raise the seat until your leg is straight.
Next, rotate the pedals until the crank arms are parallel to the ground. Drop a plumb line (a washer tied to a string will do the trick) from the kneecap of your forward leg toward the floor. It should bisect the pedal spindle. If it crosses the pedal more toward the front, move the seat forward. If the plumb line passes toward the back of the pedal, move the seat back.
Finally, place your hands on the handlebar brake hoods. Let comfort be your guide here. Your torso should feel neither stretched out nor scrunched up, but natural. You should also feel a comfortable distribution of your weight between your rear end and your hands. If not, adjust the height and fore/aft position of the handlebar for maximum comfort.
Here’s a no-brainer: When you add swim and bike workouts to your training, you need to adjust your running schedule. But more specifically: As you make room for these new sports in your training, you have to more carefully plan the types of running workouts you do so that your running will stay strong-or get even stronger-despite a reduction in mileage.
The secret, say the experts, is to cut the fluff from your schedule and retain only the more challenging runs, such as tempo runs, interval workouts, and long runs, since they are the real fitness boosters. “Most of your easy runs should be replaced with swimming and cycling,” says Lindley. Swim and bike workouts, in essence, help you recover from your hard runs in the same way that easy runs promote recovery.
The number of weekly runs you should cut depends on the number of swim and bike workouts you want to add. And this number, in turn, depends on whether you are training for a triathlon or just cross-training to improve your overall fitness. If you’re cross-training, add one swim and one bike workout each week. You can then run four times a week and take one day off. To ensure that your running stays strong with reduced mileage, make one of your four runs a long one, and include some high-intensity efforts in two other runs.
If you’re training for a triathlon, you need to do a more even mix of swimming, cycling and running. “Try to maintain a balance in your multisport program,” says Jacobson. “For a runner, that usually means cutting your normal run volume by anywhere from 30 to 50 percent and filling in the training time with swim training and cycling.”
Beginning triathletes need to swim and bike at least twice a week to develop adequate skill and fitness in these new disciplines. This leaves room for only two quality runs and one day off, unless you choose to squeeze in two workouts a day on one or more days. Many triathletes do so, but it’s not necessary or advisable for most beginners.
Along with paring down your running schedule to just a few quality runs per week, runners taking up triathlon also need to practice the transition between biking and running. Any experienced triathlete will tell you that running right after completing a bike ride is a completely different experience-your legs feel rubbery and dead. And you definitely don’t want to experience this for the first time in a triathlon. So several times during training you need to run after a bike ride to get used to the feeling.
A training run immediately following a training ride is called a transition run. And it doesn’t have to be long-10 minutes will suffice-because it’s the transition from cycling to running that you’re working on. For runners, a second advantage of incorporating transition runs into your triathlon training is that it affords you a third weekly running opportunity without requiring you to do two separate workouts in one day.
Slightly longer transition runs can be beneficial for runners who are using swimming and cycling for cross-training rather than for triathlon preparation. “Longer transition runs can make a great substitute for traditional long runs when you’re trying to limit the amount of impact your body absorbs,” says Bernhardt. For example, instead of doing a 90-minute run, do a 60-minute bike ride followed by a 30-minute run. You’ll build almost as much running-specific endurance, but you will recover faster and lower your injury risk. Putting It All Together
Unless you do the right mix of swimming, cycling, and running workouts for your goal, your cross-training may quickly become cross-purpose training. Here’s how to add swimming and biking to your running routine if you have no intention of racing a triathlon and just want to reap optimal cross-training benefits:
>>Replace one easy run with an easy swim and one easy run with an easy bike ride.
>>Do your swim as the next workout after your hardest run each week for active recovery.
>>After a few weeks, you may add a second ride and/or swim or add back one or two runs as you see fit, but proceed slowly and pay attention to how your body responds.
>>Once you’ve cross-trained consistently for several weeks, you can keep doing swims and rides as recovery workouts or, if you want to maximize performance, you can start to experiment with some higher-intensity swims and rides. But the key word is “experiment.” While some athletes experience clear running performance benefits from high-intensity swims and rides, others find it’s just too much.
If you want to do a triathlon, and you have not been swimming or cycling already, you need to give yourself ample time to prepare. Even a sprint-distance triathlon means completing a .5-mile swim, a 12- or 13-mile bike ride, and a three-mile or 5-K run. To help you get to both the start *and* the finish line of your first triathlon, see our 12-week Triathlon Training plan, direction TK, and keep the following tips in mind:
>>Choose a triathlon that’s 12 weeks away or more-you’ll need at least that amount of time to train properly. Just make sure to sign up for the event well in advance, since many triathlons sell out weeks and even months before race day. Check out usatriathlon.org for a calendar of popular triathlons.
>>Don’t go overboard with your training since your body will need time to adapt to the new activities. If you’re fit and competitive, do slightly more challenging workouts instead of trying to do extra workouts.
>>Since opportunities to swim tend to be more limited, you’ll probably need to schedule your swim workouts first. And since running workouts are the most convenient, you can schedule them last. Just try not to do the same activity twice in a row.
>>Do mostly moderate-intensity workouts plus technique work in the first few weeks of your swim and bike training. Then add some high-intensity workouts to take your fitness to the next level. Just prior to a race, include more race-specific training, such as race-pace intervals.
Ready to Tri
Be prepared. Study the complete racecourse before race day. The transition area probably won’t be set up until race morning, so be sure to study its layout (where you enter and where you exit) when you arrive that day.
Watch the clock. Allow plenty of time to unload and set up your gear, arrange your transition spot (see “A Smooth Transition,” direction TK), put on your wetsuit if you’re wearing one, and warm up. Note that the transition area is usually closed 30 minutes before the race start.
Step aside. Start the swim to one side or at the back of the pack if you’re nervous about getting bumped around.
BYOB. Have a bottle of sports drink ready to go in your bike’s bottle cage and drink according to your thirst throughout the bike leg.
A Smooth Transition
The transition area of a triathlon is where you make the switch from swimming to cycling and cycling to running. A few point-to-point triathlons have separate swim-bike and bike-run transition areas, but most have just one place where both transitions are made. Triathletes can lose precious time on race day if their transition area isn’t set up to facilitate a smooth changeover. Keep these tips in mind when laying out your equipment on race day.
1. Put your bike in an appropriate starting gear before racking it. Place your bike helmet on the handlebar or seat so you can’t possibly forget to put it on.
2. Spread a towel on the ground next to your bike and arrange your other items on it: bike shoes, running shoes, sunglasses, socks, and race number belt with race number attached.
3. Place a water-filled plastic tray in your transition spot and use it to wash the sand off your feet before putting on your bike shoes.
4. Note exactly where your transition spot is in relation to the transition area entrance. Count bike racks between the entrance and your spot so that you can easily find it during the race.