Going the Distance

By Lindsey Townsend

Congratulations. You’ve worked hard to make exercise a regular part of your life, and you’re committed to it for the long haul. But let’s be honest: running and cycling around the block all the time is getting a bit, well, boring. You need a goal…something you can work towards achieving. So why not tackle a triathlon?

Believe it or not, you don’t have to be a superhuman athlete, nor must you sign up for the Ironman to compete. All you need is the proper training and a little dedication. According to USA Triathlon, about 80,000 people a year sign up for at least one of 700-plus amateur races that are held every year. “There are so many kinds of triathlons out there that it really need not be intimidating,” says Jonathon Bender, physical therapist at the Chicago Institute of Neurosurgery and Neuroresearch, Outpatient Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Department in Chicago, Illinois.

Triathlons may be getting more popular due to the fact that the sport that this relatively new sport is growing up. In Sydney, Australia, next year, the event will make its official debut as an Olympic event, featuring a 1.5K swim, a 40k ride, and a 10K run. Before you go for the gold, though, you’ll probably want to start off with a mini-triathlon, perhaps one of the more manageable distances such as a 1K swim, a 20K ride, and a 5K run.

“Triathloning is a fantastic physical sport, because it gives you so many health benefits: increased cardiovascular capacity, improved muscular strength and endurance, weight control, stress reduction, and more. And you won’t find a better way to burn calories,” says Troy Jacobson, member of the USA Triathlon Coaches Committee, Ironman athlete, and president of Troy Jacobson Multisport LLC in Baltimore, Maryland.

The great thing about participating in triathlons is that by varying your activities, you cause less trauma to your body than you would if you focused strictly on one event. “Because you’re utilizing the principles of cross-training, you have less of a tendency to overdo any one sport and injure yourself,” says Steve Black, PT, ATC, CPT, and owner of Sports Performance in Boulder, Colorado. Plus, the variety you’ll get from training will keep things interesting, too.

To get started, all you’ll need is a bike, a swimsuit, and running shoes. Some triathlons take place in cold water, so a wetsuit is also a good idea. Because swimming is the most difficult event for most people, it’s important to learn how to use proper technique and to vary your strokes, because each places a different emphasis on the major muscle groups. “The first thing that the novice triathlete needs to learn to do is swim properly,” says Jacobson. To find a certified coach, call USA Triathlon at (719) 597-9090; to find a triathlon club in your area, visit the USA Triathlon website at www.usatriathlon.org. You might also want to pick up a copy of PC-Coach, a software program available in most computer stores that offers sample workouts and advice on how to train.

While you’re training, a good rule of thumb is to spend 25 percent of your time swimming, 50 percent biking, and 25 percent running. It’s not necessary to do more than one event per day, but most experts suggest that you aim for one “brick” workout every couple of weeks. A brick workout is a stacked workout, meaning you will go for a bike ride, for example, then immediately follow it with a run. “It's good practice for your transition and gives you the feel of running on “bike legs,” says veteran triathloner Kara Thom. In the last six years she’s finished 25 triathlons, three of them half-Ironmans.

To help avoid injury, as in any sport, stretching before and after exercise is essential, and remember that “less is more.” “The one thing I recommend for everyone is to start out slow. The most important thing is to do it regularly. If you can’t do 30 minutes at a time, it’s still better to do 10 or 15,” says Dr. Kim Griffin, assistant director of the Cardiac Surgical Care unit at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, New York and a champion runner. According to Dr. Griffin, some of the most common injuries in triathloning, including tendonitis, Achilles heel problems, and shin splints, can be minimized by using proper technique and running on soft surfaces. To stay healthy, remember to always progress moderately with respect to frequency, intensity, and duration. “Never increase any one of those three by more than 10% a week,” says Black.

When you’re just starting out, you may want to join a local roadrunners club and walk a few races to get the feel of things. An organized program such as the Avon Running Global Women’s Circuit, a series of 10K runs, 5K walk/fun runs, and workshops for beginning women runners and walkers, can serve as a useful stepping stone towards triathloning. “So many women, in particular, don’t envision themselves as athletes when they get into their 30s and 40s. Get out there with a friend and have your first experience in something like an Avon race. When you’re out there with 5000 other women, it helps you understand that you really can do it,” Dr. Griffin says. “There’s nothing greater than seeing a 70-year old woman out there walking a race.” More information about Avon running events nationwide is available at www.avonrunning.com.

Although triathloning is an exciting sport, it does have two potential downsides: expense and time commitment. It can be a rather expensive sport, if you travel to other triathlons frequently and purchase a top-of-the-line bike. Plus, “If you don’t have enough time to train, it can be very frustrating and become an additional stressor in your life,” says Black. One manageable way to squeeze training into a busy lifestyle is to train just three to four hours during the week, saving the longest and the “brick” workouts for weekends. Although many tri-athletes do resistance training and flexibility work during the off-season, Jacobson warns: “The bottom line is if you want to be a triathlete, you need to spend your time training in the sports that you’re competing in: swimming, biking, and running. It’s really important to develop those skills.”

Finally, don’t get frustrated by comparing yourself to others, and don't worry about how fast you are going. Your training should fit your needs, not someone else’s. Set a goal of just finishing a triathlon, then go for it! “Don’t watch the pros,” says Jacobson. “Go watch a race with real people in it. Once you see all the different types of people who finish, it will give you the confidence that you can do it, too.”

  • Benefits: Great cardiovascular benefits; total-body workout; increased stamina and endurance.
  • Cons: Can be time-consuming and expensive; risk of injury when over-training.
  • Must-Haves: Swimming instruction, bathing suit, wetsuit if swimming in cold water, bike, helmet, and running shoes.
  • Cost: Swim lessons, from $5 a lesson to $60 a month; swimsuit $20-$75; wetsuit goggles $20; swim cap, $5; wetsuit $200; bike, anywhere from $100 used to $5000; helmet $100; bike shoes $75-250; bike gloves $20; cycling shorts $30-$75; running shoes $100.
  • The Triathloning Personality: Successful Type-A professionals, most often in their 30s and 40s, who want new challenges, enjoy achieving goals, and don’t like downtime.