Triathlon is arguably the UK’s fastest growing sport. Some of the world’s top triathletes are becoming global sports stars. In the UK we have had some of the greatest triathletes to ever walk the earth and this has inspired so many to get involved in the sport that changed my life.
With increasing numbers of athletes taking up the sport each year many see triathlon as the ‘next thing to have a go at’. This approach worries me and brings with it many hazards. There are many activities that having a good level of fitness will allow you to simply ‘have a go at’, enjoy and possibly do quite well in. Recently lots of new semi competitive activities have appeared on the scene that are great at helping build up an individual’s self esteem and sense of accomplishment. Many of these only require that you are fairly fit and are specifically designed to allow you to participate without any specific preparation or a long term training plan. Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that triathlon is not fully inclusive, in fact that is one of the things I love about tri, however, triathlon is a serious sport that should not be tackled without adequate preparation, especially if you are considering iron or half iron distance tri. By preparation I do not mean swim a bit, bike a bit, run a bit. What I mean is: completing a carefully structured training plan consistently over an adequate period of time (although a dynamic approach around a basic structure and key sessions can work fabulously well too if you know what you are doing); owning the right equipment maintained well enough to do the job it is designed to do; understanding your equipment and taking ownership of its condition; consulting a physiotherapist prior to starting your training plan to ensure that you do not develop avoidable injuries further down the line as your training volume and intensity increases; eating a well balanced diet; getting enough rest; understanding race dynamics; understanding race and training nutrition; setting realistic goals based around the right motivation; knowing when to rest…. The list goes on.
As a coach it is frustrating to see athletes fail at races, or worse still before the race, because they failed to prepare adequately. There is absolutely no excuse for this. If you don’t have the knowledge or know how to use the information out there to prepare properly then find someone who does to help you.
So for those of you considering getting into tri in 2018 (yes 2018, you may already be too late for 2017) then here is a guide to help you consider if it is for you and if Passion Fit maybe the community to guide you.
FIRST AND FOREMOST: CHOOSE YOUR ATTITUDE
We can debate for hours about what percentage of success is decided by an individual’s attitude. Whatever you believe, there is no doubting that it contributes to a huge part of a successful and enjoyable journey. Many things impact on how we feel and subsequently the attitude we demonstrate – nutrition, sleep, relationships, work, health etc. – but ultimately you have a large amount of control over the attitude you adopt. You can choose. Triathlon takes passion and perseverance, this is otherwise known as grit. Grit is largely regarded as the differentiating characteristic of success people. Who do you want to be?
TRIATHLON IS A SINGLE SPORT, IT IS TRIATHLON, IT IS NOT SWIM + BIKE + RUN (with some changing in between)
You maybe wondering what I mean by this. ‘Are they not the same?’, you ask.
I regularly race against athletes that are always stronger across all three disciplines in training or individual races of swim or bike or run but when it comes to a triathlon cannot cut it. It is no good being able to run a 1:15 half marathon if come your middle distance tri you are struggling to run under 1:30. Who cares if you can smash out a 1500m pool swim if under the strains of open water mass start racing you get dropped by those you drop in the pool? What does it matter if you have all the KOMs on Strava (we won’t discuss what I think about Strava yet) if you cannot bike well between after tough swim and then run?
Triathlon is a sport in it’s own right and you have to prepare for it as such. This does not mean that you should not be fast in each discipline but how fast you are across all three combined is what really matters on the day.
The balance of how you train for each in connection with the others is just as, if not more, important than the individual discipline preparation.
This is arguably the first part of the triathlon journey but is also the part many budding triathletes get very wrong. Get this bit wrong and the journey can become stressful and disjointed. You may have heard the term ‘SMART goals’. Despite the simplicity of this model it really does work. However, you may still need some guidance on completing this process as it can be easier to misunderstand what realistic goals look like if you are new to the sport.
You may see some varied interpretations of this model, like SMARTER, but I have used SMART effectively throughout my whole sporting and corporate career.
S = SPECIFIC: make sure that the goal is concise. ‘I want to be faster’ is not specific. However, ‘I want to improve my time 400m swim time by 12 seconds over the next 6 months’ is.
M = MEASURABLE: Can the goal be measured? ‘I want be better’ is not measurable. How will you measure better? Do you mean find things easier? Be faster? Looking more relaxed? Better is subjective. ‘I want to improve my time by x’ is measurable. Strangely also ‘I want to improve my technique’ is also measurable. Many people imply that this is not. However, though observation from an experienced coach this can be measured.
A = ACHIEVABLE: Is the goal realistic? This is one that can really frustrate coaches. The summer is awash with athletes asking coaches if they can get them ready for an Ironman in 3 months or get them ready for a 1500m swim in 4 weeks. Is your goal realistic? Can it genuinely be achieved? For example, it is unlikely that you will be the next winner of the triathlon Olympic gold medal if you are taking up tri in your 40s regardless of how much you may want it.
R = RELEVANT: if you are setting a goal make sure that it is relevant. That cross fit competition you fancy doing, that OCR race with your mates or ultra marathon are unlikely to benefit your build to a triathlon. Multiple goals are sometimes healthy as they add variety but as a coach they can be extremely disruptive at times. You cannot do it all. If you need to be involved in everything then ask yourself what you motivation for doing all these things really is. Intermediate goals are always easier to work towards if they are part of a structured bigger picture.
T = TIME: Do your goals have a time scale in which you want to achieve it? This also links to ‘achievable’ as the time you give yourself to achieve a goal will also determine how achievable it is. A time scale also helps you plan your training and preparation and incrementally measure progression towards the goal.
I also see many athletes plan their races months out. Planning to do a race that far out is sensible and giving yourself adequate time to train to process rather than train to deadline allows a coach time to develop you to achieve your potential. However, if you pay for a race early then you run the risk of losing that entry fee if for some reason outside of your control you cannot race. Even greater care is needed for destination races that comes with additional accommodation and travel costs. So much can happen in the time you need to prepare for a triathlon – injury, personal problems, financial problems, career changes. Avoid creating extra pressure and be patient. If you need to enter for the motivation then you really need to ask yourself if this is right for you and if you want it enough. As a coach you rarely feel more pressure than trying to prepare and athlete for a race they should not be racing but insist on doing because they have paid for it. Some races do sell out early like Challenge Roth and for these you may have to bite the bullet and take the risk of entering early, for other races take the pressure off yourself and enter when you know that you are going to be ready to do yourself justice.
While we are taking about goals let us touch on that ever popular application, Strava. Now, I am not against the principle of Strava but the use of it in training in the wrong way can negatively impact on your long term success. It is a great tool for recording and tracking training and comparing how you perform against the best out there. However, there are many caveats:
- You never know the conditions under which a time was set
- You do not know if the time was even genuine
- It does not matter who is fastest on Wednesday 7th July at 2pm, only race day counts.
- GPS data is unreliable
We prefer our athletes not to use it at all as even if you think that it doesn’t impact on your training approach, subconsciously it still might.
WHAT IT MAY TAKE – A FEW THINGS TO CONSIDER:
When considering taking up triathlon (and in particular middle or long distance) there are some important things that really need to be considered:
Can you dedicate adequate time to training for your goal? For example, Ironman may require up to 20 hours of training a week for a year. Critical training load varies from athlete to athlete but understanding an individual athlete’s needs takes a coach time. However, going into tri hoping you can get away with doing less than is necessary may indicate that it is not really for you and may well end in you failing to achieve the goal you set out to.
Are you an organised person? Can you plan your life well enough to get all the training you need to done? I used to TNT a suit to meetings 50 miles away 2 days out so that I could bike to the meeting later that week and bike home to get the training in.
Do you have a supportive family? Triathlon can be a time consuming sport. Will you have the support of those around you while you head off to train every Saturday and Sunday for 9 months?
One of the keys to triathlon success is patience. We see far too many athletes setting themselves up to fail by simply not giving themselves enough time to achieve their goals. For example, preparing adequately for an Ironman could take over a year, preparing to reach your full potential may take many years. Consider that your last key long weekend of training for an Ironman that may include a swim over 3k, a bike over 100 miles and a run up to 18-20 miles may need to be 4-6 weeks out from your race so you are unlikely to succeed if you only give yourself 12 weeks in total to prepare from scratch. How will you possibly train safely to swim, bike and run this far in just 6 weeks or so?! It is no good putting yourself under pressure by setting unrealistic deadlines and expectations. A good coach should be able to guide you but be prepared for the long game if you are taking this seriously. Further more, if you can’t swim or your swimming is really poor it could take you a year or so to even learn to do that in a way that will not compromise your long term swim development. We cover this a little more below.
FINANCIAL POSITION –
It is realistic to race tri on a budget but the sport is arguably one of the most expensive sports outside motor sport to take part in once you start looking at racing more often or searching for those marginal gains.
Ironman branded races may cost between £200 and £400 to enter. Even smaller long distances races upwards of £100. Before you know it you can easily spend £1500 a year on race entries alone. Then consider buying a bike (and keeping that bike maintained), wetsuit, trainers (maybe 2-3 pairs a year), travel to races, hotels – it all adds up.
REST & RECOVERY –
Is your lifestyle conducive to quality down time and nutrition. Rest and recovery is all about adequate sleep, good nutrition and consistent hydration. Eating well often means time spent preparing.
SWIM ABILITY –
For 90% of triathletes this is their weakest discipline and many never tackle it adequately enough to achieve their potential. You need to be prepared enough to get out of the swim feeling fresh enough to tackle the bike and run ahead. If just finishing the swim alone is not a controllable certainty is this really the way you want to start the race?
For most adult onset swimmers you could be looking at 3-6 swims a week to make significant progress with regular input from a coach (in most cases on a one to one basis possibly as often as every week). Swimming requires both conditioning in the same way as the bike and run but the technical development is more in depth than the other disciplines. The majority of athletes we see can’t understand why 3 lots of 30-45 mins a week aren’t making them better swimmers. Well, these sessions are normally made up of both tech and conditioning. If you take Ironman, it is hard to be ready for a swim of over 1 hour if your conditioning training is only 20-30 mins 3 times a week.
You may hear stories about athletes that winged it on minimal training but these are the more talented and naturally gifted athletes (or may have some swim backgrounds as juniors) and in the minority, what you don’t hear about are all the athletes that get pulled out on jet skis or do not make it past T1.
If you are considering Ironman first ask yourself this…..
Can you swim well enough now to train to 3800 m or do you need to learn to swim properly first?
Can you commit to 3-6 swims a week?
If you aren’t sure you will make cut off easily and you are able bodied then you have made a choice to not prepare adequately (I understand things happen that get in the way of training) but, trust me, if you get the right coach and commit enough time you can go from non swimmer to sub 90 mins for the swim in 12 months. The cut off is 140 mins!!
You might be able to run well but this is not the same as running after a swim and bike. For those thinking about Ironman do not believe that just because you have run marathons that you will be able to run well off the bike. Even professional runners that can run under 2:20 for a marathon have failed terribly at Ironman due to their lack of ability to run adequately after the swim and bike. Training to bike for 112 miles or run a marathon is relatively straight forward and can be achieved with a fairly manageable amount of training. Even training for both of these can be done together with relative ease. This does not mean you are ready to finish an Ironman.
If you decide to work with a coach then communication is key. We would always recommend a coach that you can work with locally. It is the relationship between you and the coach that really adds the value. You can get adequate enough online plans for free to get you across the line. The best results and most enjoyable training programmes will be bespoke to you and designed around your individual needs and lifestyle. This will not come cheap as a dedicated coach will commit a considerable amount of time and energy as well as emotion to helping you achieve your goals.
However, remember, you have a key part to play. The coach is there to facilitate your journey, not to take responsibility for you achieving your goals. Ultimately, it is you that has to make it happen. A key part of this is how you communicate with your coach. Most top coaches will expect daily updates and in turn will appraise your sessions daily. They will expect information on how the session felt not just a link to your Garmin data. Over time they will also likely want input from you on the training structure and for you to develop an understanding of the principles and standards they work to. Do not panic, you do not need to become a coach yourself and acquire all the knowledge they do but the more you begin to understand the more effective your training will become.
Never be afraid to challenge your coach. If you do not feel that they are aligned with you then make sure you tell them (in the right way of course). If you feel that something about your training could be changed let them know but make sure you have a ‘why’ and ‘how’. It is no use just presenting problems. Conversely, a coach should ALWAYS be able to give a ‘why’ to any thing they ask you to do. They should also normally be able to give a ‘how’ too but the best athletes make a contribution to ‘how’ they will achieve their goals.
It is critical you understand the ‘how’ too. Remember the training plan is not magic. Just completing it will not necessarily get you where you want to be. It is not what you do that counts but how you do it.
CONTROL THE CONTROLLABLE
You cannot possibly expect to have control over everything in your life. Expecting to be able to control all of the elements that make up your tri journey is simply unrealistic. However, to not take control of the things you can control is unforgivable. Some examples for you to consider:
You cannot control the weather but you can have a contingency plan for a training session should the weather turn bad. We also have good long range forecasts these days so if you know the weather is likely to be bad then chat to your coach about a back up alternative plan or at least take a coat.
If you fail to tell your coach about a working pattern or pre arranged personal commitment then this is frustrating as it can lead to a whole week’s training needing to be rewritten. We all have things come up last min but not planning for the things we know will be happening is not really okay.
Kit and kit maintenance. Years ago I was taught to ‘count’ my kit onto my bag from top to toe, i.e. In my hockey days, face mask down to Astroturf shoes. Have a system for this so you don’t forget anything important. Make a list if you need to. Maintain your kit. Don’t leave your bike dirty or your wetsuit damp in a bag. Kit failing because you failed to be responsible enough for looking after it is just not something successful people do.
Strangely, a little focused anxiety can actually be of value. It can help you not to forget things and mean you double check important elements. Although try not to let this escalate into panic and worry. The balance is key. Planning well ahead and having good attention to detail will help you stay composed. One controllable trick regarding kit, for example, is to take photos of your transition bag contents just before you hang them then if you worry later in the day about something you can no longer influence you can at least reassure yourself that your worrying is not necessary.
On the flip side try not to let the non-controllables affect you too much. There is no value in stressing about something you cannot control. I know this is a lot easier to say than do but mastering this can help you stay composed and lead to more effective problem solving when the problems arise.
INTENTIONS RATHER THAN GOALS
Now we have indicated that detailed goal setting is important, especially if you have a coach. Now we are about to contradict ourselves. Consider this…. you set a goal of finishing in a podium position in your age group, you prepare perfectly but on the day 5 ex-pro athletes that are easily 10mins faster than you turn up to race in your age group! Suddenly your well laid out plan and goal maybe out the window (of course it also may not as a lot can happen on race day). You cannot control all eventualities and outcomes. Most SMART goals by their nature are outcome based. You cannot completely avoid this, but what can you do? Set some process goals, these are based on intentions, controllable behaviours that are rarely effected by outside influences. That way you will almost always be able to measure how well you have done even if something else gets in the way of your outcome goals.
IMPORTANT DECISIONS & INVOLVING YOUR COACH
Your coach should be expert and you are paying them for their guidance and advice. If they do not have deep enough expertise in a specific area they should certainly be able to point you in the direction of someone who does.
At Passion Fit we are not big fans of forums or advice from your mates. This is not to say that you will not get good advice from these sources and that they do not have their place at times but filtering the useful advice out from the nonsense can be a minefield.
Avoid making big decisions without chatting to your coach first to at least get some input. Buying a bike because it is a bargain and your mates or a forum said it was good could be a recipe for disaster. Imagine spending a large amount of cash on a bike only to find that it is the wrong size, wrong fit for your physiology, type or just plain wrong for your race goal. Chat through your thoughts and why you want to purchase a specific bit of kit and make the final decision with your coach’s input.
Signing up for a race is a big decision. Not every course suits every athlete. If you have specific outcome aspirations this could be an important decision. If you are weak swimmer and on the heavy side Ironman Wales is probably not the ideal choice for you, or if you are a fast swimmer but less powerful cyclist you may want to avoid those flatter windy courses with calm lake swims. This is not always true but giving yourself the best chance of success will make your coach’s life easier and your journey more enjoyable.
THE JOURNEY NOT THE FINISH
If you are getting into triathlon to get the medal, T-shirt or to tell everyone on Facebook what you have achieved then I would question if this is the right motivation. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in your achievement and even wearing your finishers T in a Facebook photo but if this is your motivation then you may want to reconsider your goal.
Triathlon, and more specifically, Ironman is all about the journey. When you cross the line the reward is not in the finish itself but in knowing what you did to get there.
After the training is done the most difficult part is over, now it’s time to get rewarded for it.
It is not crossing the finish line that is the difficult part, it is those cold morning runs with nobody watching
– Patrik Nilsson, KMD IRONMAN Copenhagen 2016 Champion
IT IS ‘SWIM, BIKE, RUN’ NOT ‘SWIM, BIKE, WALK’ (read before you judge this)
No one is suggesting that you cannot walk on the run. I have done this many times. In fact I qualified for the World Champs in Kona after having to walk over a mile of the run in Wales as I got my nutrition all wrong. However, planning to walk the whole run is simply wrong. Using a run walk strategy (say walking the aid stations) is strategic, and walking if you have to because you have an injury (sustained in or before the race) is possibly unavoidable, maybe you have got your pacing or nutrition wrong, you are elderly or not able bodied to run. These things are all clearly things that can be the case for even the most prepared athlete and Ironman is extremely unpredictable. However, training to swim and bike within cut off and the just head out for a power walk because you could not be bothered to train properly for the run is just unacceptable and insulting to all those that did put in the hard work. I saw two athletes get booed at Ironman Wales for deliberately doing this and rightly so.
HOW COMMITTED DO YOU NEED TO BE? COMMITMENT CONTINUUM:
As a coach you can only do so much to get the best out of an athlete and help them achieve their goals. Ultimately you are only there to facilitate the journey and guide them. It is the athlete that has to do the hard work and put the time in. Only athletes with a certain type of mindsets are likely to be successful. Have a look at the model below. Which category do you fall into? For Ironman nothing less than ‘compliant’ will do and if you have a coach then you will get more out of that relationship if you function in ‘committed’ or ‘compelled’. There is one category missing though, ‘obsessed’, this is the type of athlete that ends up over training, stressed, tired and injured.
MOTIVATION AND SACRIFICE
If you have one your coach will likely be a passionate and highly motivated individual. They are there to help motivate you but ultimately this needs to come from you, especially if you are planning to race Ironman. It is essential that a coach is supportive and understands that not everyone can be of A1 personality type and compelled to do whatever it takes, however, if they are constantly chasing you to just do sessions they have prescribed then this could lead to frustration on both sides. Ultimately this can lead to a breakdown in the crucial relationship between coach and athlete. It is not unreasonable for your coach to expect you to be motivated enough too make the sessions happen. At times it will be hard for you to find this motivation. When you have to scrape the ice off your car in the dark, not just before your early morning, pre work swim, but after too then it can be appealing to just stay in bed. When you take 30mins just to get dressed for your long ride because it is freezing outside will you want to make it happen or will you just prefer to Netflix and chill? Your training can not always just be what you enjoy doing. If this is your preference then maybe some realignment of your goals maybe necessary
What are you prepared to give up? Many athletes take this to the extreme, that is not always absolutely essential. For example, many athletes rarely have an alcoholic drink during the season, some even avoid drinking in the off season too. To the highly motivated this is not sacrifice as they see it as part of the process to something they want more (I am not suggesting that the odd drink here and there is not ok, in fact there are some circumstances when this maybe a good thing). For lots of athletes these kinds of sacrifices are tough to handle. Are you happy to use your weekends and holidays to train? Can you be disciplined to get to bed early if you need to? Can you miss out on that stag do or 40th birthday night out? We are not saying that you can’t have any fun but you may not necessarily be able to just carry on like you did before. Training for triathlon is time consuming and may cost money, for most that means giving up something else you enjoy. Daly Thompson was once asked why he trained twice on Christmas Day, his answer was because his great rival, Jürgen Hingsen, only trained trained once.
MAKING VALUE ADDING CHOICES & THE 90%ers
We all love new kit and equipment and having the right equipment to get the job done is essential. However, will a £5000 bike and new £1500 race wheels plus that £500 elite wetsuit really make you a measurably better athlete in your first year? It is unlikely.
Training with mates or going to group sessions is also fun but is that spin class or circuits session going to add value to your goals? There is nothing wrong with enjoying group sessions within your plan but only if they are relevant to your goals or at least do not negatively affect them. As a coach I have had to stop coaching athletes that insisted on always only doing what they enjoyed and not what they needed to. It should be fun, of course, but it can’t always be if you are serious about your goals.
Get a coach. Okay, so I may seem biased but I feel sad for athletes that I lap on a two lap bike course on £5k bikes. Has that bike really made them faster than the guy 20 miles up the road on a £1k bike. What really makes a difference is the right training programme over the right amount of time. If you don’t know how to put this together yourself then find someone that does. If most of the world’s top athletes need a coach what makes you think you don’t? My advice is find a local coach, as I have indicated above. I do not coach any athletes remotely, that is my choice. Although this does not mean that remote coaches cannot be as effective, I am just more effective when I can look an athlete in the eye regularly. Avoid basic cheap training plans. Quality coaching is not cheap but will be bespoke and personal to you. If you just want a training plan buy a book or download one for free.
Can you deal with injury? Injury is unfortunately part of the journey for many triathletes. If you cannot deal with injury and the set backs it causes this may not be the right sport for you. We often see athletes handle injury really badly. Here are somethings to consider if you are unsure if you could handle being injured.
ROOT CAUSE (not the symptoms) – are you prepared to take the time and follow a process that will lead to identifying the root cause of the injury. We often see athletes only address the symptoms. Ultimately this will only lead to a reoccurrence of the injury. Identifying the root cause is the first step on the road to long term, effective recovery.
PROACTIVE AND PURPOSEFUL RECOVERY – you have to be as compelled with this process as you are with your training. You need to establish a strategy to correct the root cause and stick to it. Remember just because the symptoms have disappeared does not mean that you should stop following the corrective process, this ‘prehab’ behaviour is critical. We see many athletes issues constantly reoccurring because they stop taking corrective measures as soon as the symptoms have disappeared. Even if you want to try an alternative approach or even debatable placebo type treatment then fine, as long as you are being proactive and are able to focus. This is important to keep you engaged and motivated to get back to fitness.
ALTERNATIVE OPTIONS (training alternatives, family, rest, work) – while you are injured what else can you focus on? Rather than wallow in self pity do something else that adds value. Maybe focus on another discipline, spend time with your family, volunteer at races, plan you races for the next season, mentor another athlete. Do something that enriches your long term performance or your life that you may not be able to while training injury free.
Triathlon is not Pat Sharp’s Fun House so don’t expect it all to be exciting and fun but it has to be enjoyable to you. The enjoyment from triathlon comes from the sense of accomplishment, the self discovery and the challenge. If these things do not float your boat then it will be challenging to stay motivated. Your coach may prescribe some fun sessions and even may suggest spin classes or other group exercise but this is not he basis of a tri training plan, especially as you approach the sharp end of your race preparation. If you want to go to body balance and circuit training with your mates and race a Tough Mudder every other week then this could make it difficult for your coach to get you to your goals. If you can’t handle 90mins in a 25m pool on your own or 2 hours on the turbo in your garage then you maybe in for a shock. Even the best athletes won’t relish these sets but they embrace them as they see beyond the moment and visualise what they will lead to for them. If what you need to do to achieve your goals is not fun for you then will you ever enjoy your journey. Remember ultimately this is our hobby, never lose sight of that. It has to be fun for you. If it is not why are you doing it?
The biggest consideration of all when considering getting into tri and especially Ironman is ‘why are you doing this?’.
You have to have a compelling reason to want to take on the journey you are about to face.
Why do you want this? Is it enough?
Reasons for doing triathlons I have often seen lead to failure are:-
- Doing because your friend needs motivation: this may, in some circumstances, lead to you finding you love it more than expected but if it doesn’t you can soon lose interest, miss sessions, cut corners and eventually not get to the start line.
- Doing it for charity: I am certainly all for people genuinely raising money for worthy causes but if you need this to keep you focused you are taking a risk and the stress of failure under these circumstances is even greater as it can be really embarrassing.
- Doing it for attention and praise: most people maybe impressed by your goal but do they really care? Many won’t and eventually after 9 months of you posting about your latest 5 hour bike ride they will be bored of telling you how amazing you are. That does not mean that you should not share your journey though. Many others maybe inspired. Just avoid doing it to boost your own ego. Be humble and proud deep inside.
Find your passion and inner motivation for wanting this. Be open and honest about it and never lose sight of it. The journey will be hard. No one really enjoys the 6 am runs when it is snowing outside, the rides in the wind and rain or the cold lake swims in spring but these are all things that you have to find the motivation to get done if you want to achieve your goal.