Whether you are a seasoned athlete in a single sport like running or are looking to take on a new physical challenge, triathlon combines three different disciplines into a single sport creating a natural balance between your mind and body. While the challenge of competing in a triathlon draws many in, it is the balance and diversity of training that keeps them in the sport. Many consider it more than a sport and refer to it as a lifestyle, one that offers a fun and social way of staying fit.
For the seasoned runner or cyclist, or for those new to endurance sports, training in three sports may sound like a lot. However, training in three different modalities (along with stretching, strength training, etc.) can turn you into a well-rounded athlete, both in mind and body. If you tend to be an injury-prone runner or are in a rut from just running, triathlon can give you a new spark of energy and motivation.
Here’s a closer look at how triathlon training and racing can benefit you.
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Triathlon training works your entire body while minimizing your risk of injury. Swimming has no impact, works mostly your upper body and core, and can be relaxing when you are feeling smooth. Cycling also has little to no impact and works your lower body and core. Long rides can greatly increase your aerobic ability while keeping your body from breaking down. Running has the most impact physically, but since the amount you run is limited, it is not as stressful as full time running. Plus, the physical impact of running can actually help increase your bone density.
The balance also exists in the day to day training. Swimming and cycling (and to some degree running) can be used as active recovery. The day after a long session or a tough weekend of long training, a light spin or easy swim gets the blood flowing to reduce inflammation while not adding to the physical stress on your body.
A good training program will also mix up the work between your aerobic system (think easy effort) and high intensity work (think wind sprints). Working in these different areas, typically referred to as training zones, works the full spectrum of your aerobic system, benefitting your heart and lungs.
Beyond the physical aspects, there are other reasons that even the most focused single sport athlete does some cross training. The biggest reason is to avoid mental burnout. The repetition of the same sport, done on the same routes can bring your motivation down over time. By mixing up the sports, the locations, even the training partners, you stay fresh.
You may compete on your own, but triathletes are well known for training in groups and there are 100’s of triathlon clubs across the country. Early morning swim sessions and group bike rides and runs on the weekend are a staple of many athletes training schedule. When you are surrounded by others who are pushing themselves and willing to suffer, it motivates you to do the same. Plus, there is something about shared suffering in pursuit of a goal that bonds people together. Club members often travel to races together, and of course celebrate together afterwards.
Another mental benefit is that should you become injured, you can often still train in one or two sports. For example, if knee pain keeps you from running, you may be able to still bike and/or swim. This allows you to continue working towards your goal while simultaneously healing up.
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The actual training will depend on your athletic history, age, goals, event length and more. No matter what your athletic history, the biggest key is to be consistent. A 20-minute run is better than no run at all. You must also be flexible. If the day gets away from you and you can’t fit in that 90-minute bike ride, try to get in a shorter swim or run. Your goal should be to get a minimum of two sessions in per sport per week. (For free training plans, visit this Training Peaks link.)
Swimming is the discipline that the majority of athletes struggle with the most. If possible, find a group that you can swim with to help guide your training. Don’t forget to include brick workouts (where you run immediately after a bike as you will do on race day). The run can be kept very short, but you want to know how it feels physically and mentally to go running after a bike ride.
Nutrition plays a big role in your success as well. For sessions under an hour that are not intense, water is all you need. For longer sessions, or for those with intensity, add in electrolyte drinks and calories in the form of bars, gels or blocks to meet your needs.
On the surface, triathlon may seem overwhelming to train for. However, the vast majority of participants are average folks with jobs and a family and they use their training as their way to de-stress. Like any sport, there is an initial learning curve, but other triathletes are quick to share their tips and advice to help you. While it does take some time management, and maybe a few early morning sessions, the truth is that anyone can be a triathlete.