With the growing amount of people involved in the sport, being a triathlete will naturally mean different things for different people, for some it will be a one-off event, they are not even sure of the order they should do things, for others a lifelong pursuit or series of adventures. Yet, when I get asked, mostly in the gym, “What are you training for? What’s your sport?” I often stumble. I presume they ask this by the way because I have usually surpassed the average gym goers level of exertion and will be a conglomeration of sweat, vomit and escalating heavy breathing. It might seem a very obvious answer, a triathlete, someone who swims, cycles and runs in immediate succession over various distances. However, I think I hesitate because I have competed at many sports in my time but also because I almost never do all three sports in one training session, although I do more frequently cover all three sports over a couple of sessions in one day. As I move into race season I have been thinking a bit more about these onlookers’ queries and what being a triathlete means for me.
So, quite an existential question, but what am I? I race triathlons and I can do all three of those aspects pretty well, but does that make me a triathlete on a daily basis when someone asks? After all there is also some degree of normality and Average Joe at play here – doing an Ironman or a half Ironman has become a popular event on the bucket list of the reasonably fit looking to raise money for charity in recent years, dressed in a pink frilly tutu, or not. Thus, most of us can swim, bike and run to some degree if push comes to shove or if we are being chased by a growling dog. There’s also several varieties of physique on display at a triathlon that illustrate that it doesn’t have a standard or ‘ideal body type’ like with some other sports. For example, someone 7 feet tall is a candidate for a basketball player perhaps, oversized and built like a brick, maybe a powerlifter or rugby player, stick thin without an ounce of fat or muscle then they might be an endurance runner. When it comes to triathletes they come in three or more categories. If the athlete is predominantly a runner then they will have skinny calves, shoulders and triceps. If they are mostly a cyclist then their quads will be tree trunks and if a swimmer then broad shoulders, very strong lats and generally big legs will be present, somewhere between that of the skinny runner and powerhouse of a cyclist.
Indeed, some people are a mixture of all of these things and I certainly fit that bill. My game has always been built on power, earlier a cyclist and swimmer and thus I carry a significant amount of muscle on my quads and shoulders, back and arms. I also consider lifting weights my fourth sport which is unusual for a triathlete and therefore have a more muscular build for that reason too.
So, if I am saying a triathlete cannot be defined simply by its label or the apparent physique of the athlete, then what is the alternative? For me it is the general being of an athlete itself. Usually understood as someone who is proficient generally in sports and physical exercise, having physical strength, agility and stamina. It requires having a number of skills, managing three sports, but also the basic requirements of an athlete and the organization of their life that those combined sports bring.
In addition to managing a multitude of sport aspects (training, racing, recovery, physio, food) and a full-time job, physiologically and in a race situation, the notion of a triathlete resides with the transitions and the ability to transit the body and mind from one discipline to the next. This is where the saying that the transitions are the ‘fourth discipline’ comes into play, although most assume it is because this is where they need to be efficient in the process itself and not loose time. They don’t consider the underlying process of what it actually means beyond doing it as fast as possible. For me making the transitions are where many skills combine and are a key part of the general fitness of the triathlete. There’s two timed transitions in a race, T1 (swim to bike) and T2 (bike to run).
T1 goes like this – climb out of lake/sea (with or without the weeds), rip goggles and swimming hat off and simultaneously slide them into sleeve of the wetsuit (always my left), pull zip from back of wetsuit to start undoing it to waist level, then take left arm fully out, then right. By this point I should have run a few hundred feet, stood on several stones and located my bike amongst at least a thousand others. Next is helmet on as it’s a disqualification if I touch my bike without it. Once that furious fiddling is over its dancing to get the rest of the wetsuit off whilst also drying my feet on the towel I have left prearranged (note, not a bright colored towel because that is considered to give me an unfair advantage). Bike shoes and race belt on, gel in back pocket of tri suit. Run in bike shoes to mount line and I’m away cycling.
Despite being soaking wet and freezing cold, T1 is actually far easier on the body than T2. Above anything else, T2 is what makes and defines triathlons. By time exercising alone, it is now getting hard, on a full Iron distance triathlon I will have already swam 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles and will be several thousand calories and sore muscles down. T2 goes like this: off the bike before the dismount line, run to my ‘station’ where my kit is in transition, rack bike on the rail before taking helmet off, get my bike shoes off if I haven’t already managed that whilst riding, socks on, running shoes on, press start on running watch and go.
During and directly after T2 is physiologically critical, but also dependent on athleticism requiring an efficient heart and lungs and well-trained muscles to make that transition possible immediately. As I run out this is when I have to manage the discomfort from shifting from biking to running before I can then assess how my body is really feeling during the race, as opposed to just dealing with the transition. If anyone wants to do a triathlon, then this is the bit that carries the greatest fear and requires the most work in my opinion. It is very important to begin running at a reasonable pace, at least until the first feed station (circa a mile), however much it hurts. This is also a place in the race that can warrant a strategic advantage, catching up those who haven’t made the transition so well or racing ahead if all is well. The shift itself involves quickly using different muscles and energy stores and feeling the blood in my legs moving to different places, as this happens it’s not uncommon to feel very sick and shaky. It’s getting through this and managing it that is key before I finalise my run plan. Psychologically the thought of running at all, without even sitting down, let alone 26.2 miles requires some resilience, stupidity and a general belief that you have a fit body.
Unsurprisingly then the most important session of my training week is a brick session – 75 minutes on the Wattbike immediately followed by a 20-40 minute run on the treadmill simulating race conditions and pace. Whilst I only run a short distance in these sessions, it’s where I visualize the run for race day. It doesn’t matter that its short, the important point is training to get past those first ten minutes that will happen in any race and once I’ve done that I know I will settle into the zone whether I need to run for 1, 2 or 5 hours. I also like this session because it’s a big training load that requires me to execute a good recovery with correct fuel in the ‘magic hour window’ after it. If I have got that wrong, those are the days I will be seen a little big groggy at work by 11am and looking to eat everything in sight followed by a nap. I like that I have to work extra hard at this to avoid it impeding my academic working day.
So, there you have it, I might be a triathlete, and that’s important, but for me it’s also about generally being a well-trained athlete who takes pride in managing all of the aspects required for success. The transitions are the places that execute and show general athleticism. I enjoy being versatile and physically fit enough to turn my body to most things, including having fitness for reading books and writing. Having several sports to choose from gives me a fair amount of freedom and also means I can fit my training in around work, including when I am away and engaged in different tasks.
Get building those bricks then!