Make yourself a triathlete

Ready for something new? Here’s all you need to make the transition to tri – and reap the rewards of refreshed motivation, greater fitness and an injury-free runner’s body



by Ruth Emmett

Looking for a thrilling new challenge, a fat-stripping workout or just an excuse to buy a ton of new kit? Then ‘tri’ out the UK’s fastest growing sport. Triathlon England says its membership base has shot up by more than 200 per cent in the last 10 years, most notably among people aged 35-44. But these aren’t all aspiring Ironmen, keen to tackle the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile cycle and 26.2-mile run that comprise the toughest tri on offer. Many are amateur athletes who’ve run themselves into a motivational plateau (see case study 1, overleaf).

‘The bored or frustrated runner has much to gain from taking up triathlon – and it’s great for the injury-prone too,’ says physio Alison Rose of Coach House Sports Physiotherapy Clinic (cspc.co.uk). ‘The three disciplines – swim, bike and run – involve different muscle groups and movement patterns, and as less time is spent on one single discipline, rates of overuse injuries tend to be lower.’ (See case study 2.) The good news is that if you’re already a runner, you’ll have the stamina, base cardiovascular fitness and robust musculoskeletal system a triathlete needs. 

The better news? It is possible to master two new sports without breaking the bank, or overfilling your training diary. Here’s how.      

Conquer the swim

Stroke of genius

Count the number of strokes it takes for you to swim a length. ‘The number is usually in the
region of 18-30 for a 25m pool,’ says Lerwill. As you become a more efficient swimmer, Lerwill says this number will drop to about 12. This is a simple, handy test that’s great for helping you track your progress each week.

Good form

It’s not uncommon for new ‘tri-ers’ to breaststroke – or even doggy paddle – but for a fast time, front crawl is the way to go. Total newbies will need to be properly analysed, ‘ideally by a video analysis with a swim coach’, says Sam Hale of the Triathlon Centre in Peterborough (advanceperformance.co.uk). Avoid common mistakes, as identified by Lerwill above.

Chop and change

‘You need to get used to crowded, choppy water,’ says coach Kim Ingleby (energisedperformance.com), who did last year’s Ironman UK in 14:45:45. ‘Ask your local tri club where they do their outdoor swim sessions – you’ll find them at britishtriathlon.org/clubs/index.php – or as weird as it sounds, swim when aqua aerobics is on at your local pool.’ 

HIP ACTION

Kick from the hips, not the knees, moving your whole legs alternately. The straighter your leg, the more powerful the kick.

POSE OF LEAST RESISTANCE

Keep your torso horizontal, ‘as flat as possible’, says Lerwill. A droopy lower body creates drag, slowing you down.

HANDS DOWN

As you bring your arm round for each new stroke, don’t ‘flag’ it and risk unbalancing yourself with your hand higher than elbow level. Instead, keep your hand hanging down.

AIR CONDITIONING

Make sure you practise breathing on both sides. In open water, you don’t necessarily know which side the waves will be coming from. Breathe through your mouth by turning your head to the side of your incoming arm.

ARM’S LENGTH

After bringing your hand round and back under the water in an ‘S’ shape, don’t cut your stroke short by bringing your arm out of the water before it’s fully straightened. ‘This is the most powerful part of the stroke,’ says Sean Lerwill, author of Triathlon Manual (£21.99, Haynes).

Master the bike

Neat cleats

‘Use cycle shoes with cleats – it’s the single easiest way to improve your times,’ says Simeon Pereira-Madder, bike buyer for wiggle.co.uk. In ordinary trainers you can only apply pressure to the pedal in a downward plane, like a piston, but cleats fix the foot to the pedal giving a more even distribution of power through the entire pedal stroke. Pereira-Madder says, ‘It brings massive performance benefits – and a better cardio workout.’

Building bricks

Ever heard triers talking about mid-race ‘jelly legs’? They mean the weird and potentially jarring sensation of switching from the bike to the run. A weekly ‘brick’ session – a back-to-back cycle and run – is the best way to get your body and brain used to the feeling. These can be very simple – go on your bike, get off and run for 10 minutes – or more technical: Ingleby says you might try two or three sets of a 10K hard cycle, then a 10-minute run.

Keep your cadence

‘On the bike, you’ve got a closed kinetic chain – a fixed pattern of movement,’ says Ingleby. ‘When you then switch to the open chain of running, you’ll perform better if you channel that strength you’ve built up by matching your cycle cadence (wheel revolutions per minute) to your run cadence (steps per minute).’ For example: 90 reps on the bike, 90 steps per foot (180 overall). Still, don’t expect to smash your 5K PB – even elites run five per cent slower in a tri than a pure run of the same distance.

RISE TO POWER

Towards the top of the cycle, flex your ankle so you’re kicking forward with toes pointing upwards – you’ll roll into the next power phase with more force.

THE RIGHT ANGLE 

The angle between your torso and upper arm should be 90 degrees –  more, and you’ll waste effort holding up your body, says Lerwill.

GET AHEAD

Change gears early – you’ll probably want a lower gear for hills. If it’s tough, try a set of revs while sitting, then a set out of the saddle. Breaking it up can help psychologically and physically.

SHOE DOWN

Coming to the bottom of your downward push, angle your shoe like you’re trying to scrape gum off it, says Lerwill. This increases the ‘power phase’ of each revolution.

Click here for our definitive eight-week training plans. 


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