Triathlon attracts a huge number of people from other sports. Get chatting at a race or at the club and you’ll hear about everything from football to orienteering, and kayaking to mountain biking. It seems that after years of specialising in one sport, swim-bike-run is just the sort of challenge some people are looking for. But how helpful are their former sports when it comes to doing well in triathlon?
We asked seven triathletes from different sporting backgrounds to sum up their experiences: which sports gave them clear benefits, what baggage held them back, the biggest differences, and their verdict: help or hindrance?
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Susan McCann rowed in a coxed four for Sons of the Thames, at Hammersmith, in the 1980s. Her interest in triathlon began when she worked in Bermuda for a year.
Benefits: Rowing demands incredible fitness if you’re going to be successful. My crew’s training schedule was full of running, circuit training, and hard sessions on the rowing machine, so I was well prepared to train for three disciplines. Rowing also prepared me for the open water - you can’t have any fear when you’re sitting in a rather flimsy boat in the middle of a deep, dark river.
Baggage: In triathlon you have to get used to motivating and pushing yourself as there's no cox telling you what to do. It’s so much easier to obey someone else’s instructions, even if it hurts, than to make yourself dig deep when it would be far easier to stop!
Biggest difference: When I took up the solo sport of triathlon, it was a relief not to have the group politics you get when part of a small team – arguments over who’s catching crabs, who’s not putting in the training.
Verdict: Very helpful. On face of it rowing and triathlon have little in common, but I can’t think of a sport which would have prepared me better for the rigours of training for multi-sport. The Olympic rower James Cracknell may agree – he’s been very successful at triathlon.
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Martyn Green was a competitive bodybuilder for five years and was British Junior Champion in 1988. He’s now a top regional age-group triathlete in the South-West.
Benefits: In some ways bodybuilding set me up well for triathlon, with strong muscles which support my joints and help protect me from injury, and good core strength. It also taught me about self-discipline in training, nutrition, and I am able to diet to a target bodyweight.
Baggage: Quite a lot really! Useless muscle mass on the chest and arms - I am constantly battling to lose muscle mass to keep my weight down. Poor basic aerobic fitness because bodybuilders neglect it in order to gain weight. Ex-bodybuilders also carry the wrong kind of muscle fibres - lots of fast-twitch muscles when what is needed is slow-twitch. This can lead to a tendency to cramp easily and poor strength endurance which is needed while cycling and swimming.
Biggest difference: Triathlon is a much healthier sport and far more enjoyable!
Verdict: Help and a hindrance - bodybuilding proved useful, although no more than any competitive sporting background would have been, but there are definite disadvantages too.
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Maddie Parrott played for a number of clubs, including Next Generation in Bristol where she competed in the county league. She is now a long-distance triathlete and cyclist.
Benefits: Mainly psychological. I loved to win the very close, long matches which required patience, concentration and determination. That’s what you need to succeed in triathlon, especially over longer distances where you need to pace yourself.
Baggage: My squash background has never hindered me in triathlon, in fact it worked the other way round. I started running to improve my fitness in long matches, but running inhibited my flexibility and I started getting injured on court. So I gave up squash, continued running and from there moved into triathlon.
Biggest difference: League squash required commitment to certain times every week, with matches on a Thursday evening, practice and training in the gym on Monday. Triathlon is a far more flexible sport.
Verdict: Helpful - there was a lot that I took from squash to triathlon, like discipline in practice and training, setting clear goals, and the routine of a dynamic warm-up before exercise and cool-down stretching afterwards.
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Aerobics and Gym
Sandra Webber spent years keeping fit at aerobics classes and gym sessions until she took up triathlon. Now she’s a dedicated triathlete, with experience at every distance from sprint to Ironman.
Benefits: Core stability is massively important in triathlon, a strong core is vital in order not to strain weak parts of the body like the back and knee. When I think back, the aerobic exercises we performed on the floor were strengthening this area although I didn’t realise how important it was at the time!
Baggage: An obsession with weight control. It’s even worse when you join a tri club. What counts for slim in an aerobics class is average in a club full of stick insects!
Biggest difference: Triathlon is much better for fitness – the three sports complement each other to give a toned body shape, and fitness is taken to a higher level.
Verdict: Hindrance - aerobics and gym sessions didn’t prepare me for the triathlon race culture which makes you train a lot harder. I can’t see myself going back to classes though!
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Jacqueline Wood played on the wing for Richmond Ladies in the 1980s, when women’s rugby was relatively new. After several seasons in triathlon, she now competes in duathlon.
Benefits: When the team went on fitness runs we used to dodge lamp-posts, road signs and litter bins at the last moment, to simulate dodging tackles. Years later I still do it while out training because it helps build core strength on the run.
Baggage: A dodgy foot from an injury sustained during a tackle! It always plays up when I’m doing long runs in the winter and I have to ease off for a few weeks. In some ways it was a price worth paying though. I loved the abandoned physicality of rugby - charging at someone to knock them down, or running at top speed with the ball. Triathlon is far more restrained.
Biggest difference: I wasn’t a very good team player because I couldn’t think fast enough on the run to link up with other players. Triathlon suits me much better because I just have to worry about myself.
Verdict: Hindrance - that foot injury has never gone away.
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Adrian Savery played American football as a student at Birmingham University. He now relishes the challenge of triathlon, from the tough Hellvelyn Tri to Upton’s long party weekend.
Benefits: Mental strength and stamina - we trained to keep going even when we were completely exhausted, with endless sprint repetitions. We also worked on explosive speed - good for sprint finishes - through resistance and interval training.
Baggage: The organisation around our football team was very strong. We spent a lot of time analysing performances and identifying weaknesses and were educated about what to do before game day – nutrition, easy exercise, stretching, strategy. I now have to get used to the fact that in triathlon there’s no-one else to rely on – you must think for yourself.
Biggest difference: A big part of American football was team camaraderie which I enjoyed. The best way to find this in triathlon is to get involved in a lively club, which I have at Clapham Chasers.
Verdict: Helpful - especially when compared to cricket, another sport I enjoy, which essentially involves standing in a field for long periods of time and then drinking cider - neither of which are particularly useful!
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Garry Slater raced 125cc, 400cc and 600cc bikes from 1990 to 2005. He competed as a ‘privateer’ in his spare time. After being part of the MV40 team which came fourth at last year’s National Tri Relays, he now concentrates on duathlon.
Benefits: To race motorbikes you need guts more than anything else, confidence at speed and good handling skills. This set me up very well for the triathlon bike leg. It gave me an eye for the racing line (I chuckle to see the lines some cyclists take) and my speed is good on descents.
Baggage: I’m lucky to have walked away without any! Most of my motorcycling friends had their legs pinned and walked with limps - they certainly couldn’t run, so I was fortunate to go for as long as I did with only a broken collar bone.
Biggest difference: Motorcycling is far more dangerous than triathlon. Ironically, though, I suffered the worst accident of my sporting career while out cycling earlier this year. I ended up in a ditch with a bad shoulder injury and a punctured lung and had to be rushed to hospital. I’m now recovering and certainly won’t be afraid to get back on the bike - that’s another thing motorbikes taught me.
Verdict: Helpful - without a doubt.
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