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In Training for Triathlon

By Steve May

Following almost 10 hours under the merciless Hawaii sun, the 1982 Ironman competition has reached its breathless, sweat-drenched climax. After completing the required 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike leg and all but the precious, last few yards of the concluding, 26.2-mile run, Julie Moss, a college student participating to gather research for her exercise physiology thesis, appears to have run away with the race.

And then, smack dab in front of cameras recording the feat for ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” she hits the wall. Her leg muscles totally exhaust the glycogen they so depend on to move, or even stay taut, and they turn to jelly. She staggers dramatically, then collapses. Moss remains on the ground for a moment, then rises again, staggers a few meters, and collapses. This happens several times, painfully, until she is within 10 yards of the finish line. When she cannot conjure up the strength to rise again, Moss begins to crawl, using her arm muscles to pull herself forward. Even after second place competitor Kathleen McCartney passes her and wins the race, Moss crawls. She does not stop until she drags herself across the finish line.

When it’s aired repeatedly across America, the image of Julie Moss willing her defiant, defeated body across the finish line becomes a touchstone for a young sport badly in need of an identity. In the 80s, the decade in which physical fitness made the great leap from popular movement to national obsession, triathlon became its golden chalice: the ultimate test against both nature and one’s physical limits.

This is still the case today, but a funny thing happened in the 20 years that have passed since Moss’ meltdown. Somewhere along the way, triathlons became more accessible to regular—albeit healthy and fit—people. While the dauntingly long Ironman or ‘long-distance’ competition has remained the sport’s ultimate test, triathlon events have clearly grown more populist, their ranks expanding to include such varied competitions as the ‘Olympic’ level—which includes a more reasonable .9-mile (1.5k) swim, a 24.8-mile (40k) bike ride and 6.2-mile (10k)run— and ‘sprint’ events—which boast a relatively modest .5-mile swim, a 12 to 15-mile ride and 3.1-mile run.

The health payoff that comes with training for any of these events can be quite a bonanza, according to Richard Izzo, a chiropractic doctor who is board certified in sports injuries, and also the founder of the Westchester Tri Club. “Triathlon requires cross training, so participants are not only less likely to get injured, but become more balanced,” Izzo says. “Training for triathlon is a very well-balanced program to keep a strong upper body, a healthy cardiovascular system, and a balanced lower body. It used to be that people got into it because they were injured in one sport and were cross training to avoid the stresses and strains that were on them. But people eventually realized triathlon is a lot more interesting than a single-sport competition, and a lot more fun.”

How Hard Can It Possibly Be?

Just because triathlon has become realistic goal for non-Ironmen and women it does not mean that the sport is a simple walk in the park. And anyone who thinks they can just breeze into one of these events after a few weeks of training is in for quite a surprise. Those willing to accept the challenge of even the shortest of triathlons must be willing to train hard and dedicate themselves to the task. “The first thing I do with people interested in triathlon is try to talk them out of it,” says Mark Wilson, a USA Triathlon (USAT) certified coach with Total Immersion Swimming, in New Paltz, New York. USAT, the national governing body for triathlon and duathlon in the United States, has 30,000 members and sanctions up to 700 races a year.

Triathlon challenges participants’ bodies in ways they just wouldn’t be challenged in single-sport competitions, according to Neil Cook, a USAT-certified coach and founder of New York City-based SLB Coaching and Training System. “You have to use different muscle groups,” says Cook. “You have to be able to get off a bike you’ve been riding for a while, and run. It’s not the same as running the second half of a marathon, it’s much more difficult. The neuromuscular pathways are firing in a different order, and you’ve got to switch ‘em.”

When Cook speaks to prospective triathletes, he focuses on a somewhat peculiar question given the sport’s usual focus on running and biking. That is, “How well can you swim?”

“Swimming is the most technical thing you will do in triathlon, and it’s the only stage you do in an environment in which people don’t naturally belong,” Cook says. “And you’re going to be faced with anywhere from 100 to 1,000 people running into the water, wanting to swim in the same spot as you, and the tide, the current, the wind, chops, waves and water temperature. So even if you know how to swim, you need to improve your technique, and you either need to get into the open water or simulate it.” Once an individual in decent aerobic shape has reached a comfortable intermediate level of swimming—capable of doing 100 yards without stopping—they’re ready to start thinking about at least a sprint-level race, according to Cook.

At that point, Wilson says, it’s necessary to set a goal and pick a target race. The internet, which characteristically ambitious triathletes colonized long ago, is the easiest and best place to start. Both www.active.com and the USAT website (www.usatriathlon.org) serve as a good introductory sites. In general, the race season in the United States lasts from early spring to early fall, with the vast majority of the contests coming in the summer. Wilson recommends picking something relatively local to start, and something modest, like a sprint-distance race.

Training as Daily Life

Rich Barken will tell you triathlon can be done, because he has done it. Barken, a 37-year-old former bank operations manager from Long Beach, Long Island, admits marching band was his favorite sport in high school. Then he got interested in swimming when he was in college, and not long after, got into running, and eventually marathons. Three years ago, he took an interest in triathlons.

“Triathlon was amazing,” Barken says. “If you’re good at one sport, and mediocre at two others, you can do well. Me, I’m the first one out of the water, and then the whole field passes me on the run. But I’m improving. When you train for triathlon, you train your weaknesses.”

Wilson emphasizes heart-rate specific training as originally conceived by Dr. Philip Maffetone, a 20-year veteran of applied sports medicine and kinesiology, and author of the fitness bible, Training and Endurance. Following the Maffetone method, you start with a hypothetical heart rate of 180, and subtract your age. If you have experienced health problems, Wilson recommends subtracting another 10 points. If you’re in especially good shape, you may want to add five or 10 points. This number, which for a 30-year-old man in average shape is 150, should be the athlete’s target heart rate for aerobic training.

Wilson and Cook both recommend at least a 12-week buildup for a first sprint, and significantly longer for more advanced races. Both divide the typical buildup into three, four-week periods. During this time athletes should focus on eating a varied, balanced diet and pay particular attention to carbohydrates – especially after workouts. In addition, be sure to take in leaner proteins and, yes, fat.

According to Cook, you must first be able to reach the minimum distances for each event. Technique and endurance are critical, and it is important to pay attention to your weaknesses – keeping in mind that everyone has weaknesses. Wilson believes that a person training for triathlon needs to swim at least one or two days a week, for 30 to 40 minutes each time. The goal here is to get to the point where it’s possible to swim a half-mile efficiently, without stopping. Focusing on stroke improvement is key, as it’s better to swim well for short distances than badly for long ones. 

On the bike, Cook recommends three rides a week, two short and one long—building up to double the distance of the relevant race—for a combined weekly total of 50-60 miles. If possible, Wilson suggests riding with experienced bikers, and working on skills like breaking, cornering, descending and shifting. The same two-short, one-long pattern goes for running, with a target weekly total of 12 to 18 miles. It’s important to be patient – this sort of intensive training is not natural and easy. It takes time.

Cook says the second four-week period is a logical extension of the first. At this point, one should start running on hills and bike smarter, better and longer—up to 80 miles a week if possible. Swim training should consist of one to two miles a week, and you should focus on becoming comfortable and continuous. Despite the increasing intensity of workouts, Wilson insists that it is important to resist the temptation to over-train. Remember, triathlon takes time, especially for beginners.  

According to Cook, the third four week period of training should focus on preparation for the race itself. At this stage, athletes should think in terms of competition. Cook recommends swimming in open water if possible, but cautions to do so with a friend or workout partner. If that isn’t possible, an alternative is to wear a wet suit in the pool. Try competing in a 5k or five-mile race. To gain the experience of running in an event setting, enter so-called “BRicks”—which combine biking and running—is even better. Focus on finishing uninjured and encouraged, not winning.

As the race approaches, Cook recommends working on the transition between stages, something that athletes focused solely on the three parts of the triathlon often overlook. He advises individuals to do this in the living room if necessary. For instance: Put on a wet suit, get wet, get out of the shower, put bike clothes on, get ready to go, then turn around and put running clothes on. Those preparing for a triathlon should partake in this ritual at least four times prior to race day.

“You want to be comfortable,” Cook says. “You don’t want to get on your bike and forget your helmet, because you’ll be disqualified. If you don’t have your socks on right, you’ll get a blister. You can’t stand there and pull off your bathing suit and put on bike shorts, so find out what it feels like to swim in those. Find out what its like to ride with wet shorts on and to run in bike shorts. Try everything you’re going to do a couple of times before the race.”

Achieving Triathlon

When race day comes, even for the casual participant, Cook stresses nutrition. If Julie Moss had only eaten glycogen-replacement gel, she would have won that Ironman.

“Even in a sprint, you’re going to be pushing for two hours hard, so when you get out of the water, you need to drink electrolyte replacement fluids—Gatorade or something like that,” Cook says. “Keep your fluid balanced—especially your potassium and sodium.”

Cook recommends taking glycogen-replacement gel before the bike stage. Most training bike rides are done when an athlete is fresh, but the bike stage of a race comes after a swim that was probably very stressful. If possible, it’s a good idea to drink electrolyte-based fluids and eat more gel on the bike, and again before the run. Water will be provided for the run stage, but if it’s hot out Cook recommends carrying extra.

According to Wilson, high-rep, low-resistance weight training early on can pay dividends during the race by thickening bones, strengthening tendons around joints, preventing race-day injuries and giving even first-time participants a more solid base from which to work. Cook agrees, but advises against working out too strenuously with heavy weights.

“What you want to do with weights is build core strength, not bulk,” Cook says. “Do crunches. Focus on shoulders, upper back and chest. Do upright rowing, do triceps exercises, biceps and curls. What’s really important is abdominal strength.”

Barken, the former marching band virtuoso and banker in downtown Manhattan, is now himself a coach with the Total Immersion Training Method. He finished his first ironman-length race in 2001. And triathlon has been a revelation for him. “It’s basically freedom,” Barken says. “It’s a great challenge. It lets me get out and spend time do something I like doing. It gives me time to think. I know I’m staying healthy.”

For Dr. Izzo, who began participating in triathlon in 1990 and writes training schedules for the members of his club, the sport has done the impossible, and changed his life. “I’m 37 now, and I’m in far better shape than when I was 18, and I was in decent shape then,” Izzo says. “The main thing I’ve learned is just because we get older, we don’t have to age. It’s like a fountain of youth. It keeps our bodies younger and healthier. It’s a great stress relief. And while the individual achievement is good, it’s also a great thing to do in a group. You learn to together motivate each other. It becomes social and to the point where you can forget you’re training. And that’s what it’s got to be about. It’s got to be fun.”

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"Sweet Lightning Bolt" used by permission.