Winter brings icy roads and even icier open waters to the UK, which means triathlon is really only suited to our self-styled summer. But that doesn't mean your competitive juices have to dry up when the cold settles in - the UK hosts a growing number of off-road duathlons, and the tricky conditions only add spice to these events.
Taking part in the occasional grimy, frosty duathlon will leave you primed for next season. But you have to know what you're doing.
A Shoe In
Appropriate footwear is essential for off-road running. "Trail shoes give you good grip and good grip gives you confidence on what can be an otherwise uncertain surface," says Chris Robison, a former GB cross-country international. "There is a wide range of quality shoes on
the market. Shoes with solid-rubber studs on the sole are great for a variety of conditions."
Spencer Barden, another GB cross-country international, stresses that your shoes should match the terrain.
"One challenge with cross-country and other off-road terrain is that you are running on an uneven surface, so you need to prepare your body for that," says Barden. "If you were to do all of your training on the road, you might initially feel OK in a cross-country race, but your body will fatigue a lot quicker as it's not used to the surface."
Barden offers Paula Radcliffe's experience in the marathon at the Beijing Olympics as an example of what can go wrong. "She had not done much road work - she was forced to cross-train due to a leg injury - and she suffered because of that."
Barden says that some of your sessions should be off-road. Try a long run of 70-90 minutes in the park, on forest trails or undulating countryside, and a faster 45-minute session, including a speedy 20-minute segment "to get your legs used to turning over at race pace".
To replicate the type of terrain you'll be racing on, Robison suggests incorporating both uphill and downhill training sessions into your preparations: "Try to find a stretch of road or trail that is steep enough that a car could just about drive up. Run up it for 60-80 seconds and jog back to repeat. Start by doing about six repetitions and build it up week by week.
"A lot of people neglect downhill reps but it is well worth incorporating them into your training. This is something that many hill racers do and it is an important skill that can make a big difference in races."
Away from the hard sessions, Robison offers another handy tip: "Whenever you get the chance - and it is safe to do so - walk barefoot on the beach or on grass.
It will help strengthen the muscles in your lower legs and feet."
Find out what the race course is like, either by visiting it or by research, and tailor your training accordingly. And stay sharp on race day, or all your careful preparation and hard training will mean little. "During the race, course awareness is critical because of the ever-changing surface underfoot," says Robison. "You need to have your eyes on what is close so you know where your feet are landing, but also check on what is coming up, so you can plot your route.
"Try not to run right behind someone. If you are, then you might not see a pothole approaching and if you are as few as two strides behind someone, you won't have time to react. Instead, run alongside someone or further behind."
First Things First
You need a mountain bike with a set-up that suits you, says Phil Dixon, the British Cycling Federation's Olympic Mountain Bike Coach. "It's worth going into a shop and asking them to help you get everything just right. On a mountain bike, the key is stability and balance rather than being aerodynamic. So the seat might be about 4cm higher than the handlebars, which is much less than it would normally be on a road bike."
Dixon also recommends buying a set of tyres that have what he calls "serious grip". And he advises a low tyre pressure. "You should also look to keep the tyre pressure to about 29-33 PSI. If the tyres are pumped up as much as they are on roads, you will just ping off obstacles.
"The same helmet is fine, and get some clear shades to keep the mud out of your eyes. Full-finger gloves are a definite. If you haven't got them and you fall off you can rip your hands to bits."
"Mountain bikers do basic conditioning work," says Dixon. "Riding on the roads for two or three hours at a decent pace puts a bit of speed into your legs." But, as with running, tailoring your training to the demands of off-road racing is vital.
"The off-road terrain changes a lot quicker than on the road, so training is more interval-based," says Dixon. "Try a session where you do 10 seconds hard, 10 seconds easy, 20 seconds hard, 20 seconds easy, all the way up to 60 seconds and back down again."
This session can be done on a gym bike, a turbo bike or out on the road. Another option is a session in which you set up a little circuit, using a mountain bike or a road bike. Climb up a hill, then have a three- to four-minute recovery ride back to the start point and go again.
"If you do that a few times for 40 minutes you will have had a really serious workout. The other critical thing you need to do is just get out there, be 16 again and just mess around on your mountain bike."
As for technique and posture, Dixon advises "a nice 'U' frame with your upper body and chest out on show, and your knees outwards to give a little more stability. He suggests that you keep your backside fairly close to the saddle. "It's also very important to be relaxed
and let the bike feel its way." If your body is tense you won't enjoy the race and you're more likely to feel every bump.
"The most important part of mountain bike racing is getting gear changes right so
you have good exit speed," says Dixon. "It doesn't matter the speed at which you go into a section, if you come out fast you carry that speed into the next section."
"Generally, what people will do is go into a section fast, brake, change gear and then come out of the section at least 4kph slower. They then have to get out of the saddle and sprint to bring up the speed again. But if you get the gear change right, and brake going into a section, you will come out at a good speed," he says.
"People like doing a hard hour or two on the road bike because it makes them feel good," says Marc Laithwaite, a Level 3 triathlon coach (www.theendurancecoach.com). "But just a bit of playing around on a mountain bike can help you acquire the skills that will save five minutes in a race."
It's not necessary to do a killer session every time you leave the house. Laithwaite says weekly training should be evenly split between cycling and running "unless you are clearly better at one of them. If you are a good runner and are doing six sessions of running per week and only one of cycling, you are not going to become a better duathlete. You need to switch focus to your weaker discipline."
Duathlon - Transition
Depending on the distances and the athlete, it is possible to wear the same clothes - aside from the helmet - throughout an off-road duathlon, says Laithwaite. "If you are a confident mountain biker, it may be worth using mountain bike shoes with pedal clips if you think it will improve your time.
"But if you are a beginner, I would stick with one pair of shoes and flat pedals to give you greater confidence that you can get your foot down when required."
There are spin-off benefits for triathletes taking part in off-road duathlons. "Mountain biking will help you improve your short-term power to make you a stronger climber on the roads," says Laithwaite. "Cross-country running is also great for your core stability. It will give you a firm chassis, meaning you can run more efficiently using less oxygen."
Finally, Laithwaite says that off-road duathlons provide a psychological boost. "Anything new is mentally refreshing. You don't have to worry about how you do. Go along, compete, get covered in mud and come back with a big smile on your face."
Mountain-Biking Jargon Explained
Bacon: Scabs on a rider's knees (usually worn as a badge of honour)
Berm: A steeply banked corner on a trail
Chair: The saddle
Chicken runs: An easier alternate route to a tricky section. In races the chicken run includes a time penalty
Drifting: Sliding the bike around a corner
Drop-off: A really steep descent
Endo: A crash that involves a rider flying over the handlebars
Granny gear: Lowest gear on the bike
Kicker: A short, steep climb
North shore: Raised wooden trails over boggy ground
Ramp: Big, long soul-destroying climb
Savage: A particularly difficult and exhausting course
Single track: A trail that is only wide enough for one rider at a time
Stack: An accident in which a rider falls off
Switchbacks: Downhill hairpin corners
Table top: A jump in which the rider moves the bike sideways in mid-air