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Aiming for elite triathlon

30 May 2014

In a previous piece Tim Williams wrote about triathlon. If you’re new to triathlon, or from triathlon and new to cycling, we suggest that you read that before you read this next article from Tim – because this piece is aimed at those who have the triathlon bug and want to move forward.

Tim is one of the UK’s most experienced triathlon & cycling coaches, and he is also coach of Emma Pooley, World Champion & Olympic silver medallist.

As you’ve discovered, triathlon for children tends to involve swimming in a pool, cycling around a field and running. The balance of the three sports is quite even: strong swimmers take an early lead, strong cyclists can close big gaps during the cycle section, and strong runners can make up a lot of time near the finish. This is one of the things that makes it such a appealing sport.

Triathlon for juniors (age 16 to 19) and adults looks a bit different: instead of a pool the swim is in open water (a lake, a river, or the sea), the cycling is on the road and the run is… …well the run is much the same, except like the other two, it’s much longer. The words most closely associated with triathlon are “endurance” and “gruelling”. Triathlon is a sport for people who love training – lots of training.

There is another difference too: everyone in the race starts at the same time.

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Draft-legal and non-drafting triathlon

In my last piece I wrote that there are two distinct forms of triathlon: drafting (like the Olympic Games triathlon) and non-drafting. This wasn’t always the case.

In the beginning there was just non-drafting. Triathlon was a competition between swimmers, cyclists and runners – but most of all it was a personal test of fitness. Drafting, or slipstreaming on the cycle leg, taking pace off another competitor, was totally contrary to the fundamental ethos of the sport. It also wasn’t much of a problem because the fields were small, the races were long and the competitors were mostly amateurs.

However, several things changed. Triathlon became more popular, the races became shorter, standards improved and the gaps between the top competitors narrowed. With most of the competitors in top-level races finishing the swim within a few seconds of each other, and therefore starting the cycle leg together, it was almost impossible for them not to draft, and the rules to prevent and penalise drafting became impossible to administer.

So now we have draft-legal races for “elite” triathletes, but only over relatively short distances: All long distance races, and all races for non-elite triathletes, are still non-drafting.

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Elite triathletes & performance levels

What defines an “elite” triathlete? Simply, an Elite Triathlete is someone with the ability to compete effectively in draft-legal triathlon. That means being able to swim fast enough to stay with the pack in the swim. It also means being able to cycle well enough to stay with the pack throughout the cycle leg, and then to be competitive enough to race the run leg – but the swimming is so crucial that without it the others are irrelevant.

However good you are at cycling and running, becoming an elite triathlete without a strong swimming background is extremely difficult. I’ll give you some numbers:

The swim leg in most elite male triathlons takes around 17 minutes for 1500m. The women take a minute or so more. Anyone more than a minute behind the leaders is unlikely to get back up to the front of the race. Anyone more than two minutes behind is… … well, nobody is two minutes behind because anyone that far behind isn’t an elite triathlete.

So why’s that such a big deal for a young cyclist coming into triathlon? You’re not going to be racing the best seniors for a while are you?

The problem is that swimming isn’t like cycling. It’s an “early development” sport and it has little to do with power: Teenagers win Olympic medals in the swimming pool. The swimming speeds in youth and junior triathlon are similar to those in senior races, around 4mins 30secs per 400m for boys and 4mins 45secs for girls.

That’s top county swimming. Most elite triathletes trained as swimmers when they were children, and as teenagers and seniors continue to train most days in the pool – often 10 hours a week – with a squad and a good coach.

Great swimming and half-decent cycling gives you a good chance of being in contention at the start of the run – along with most of the rest of the field… To get a good result you now have to be able to out-run them. To do that you have to be able to run fast. Here are some more numbers:

The fastest men run around 30 minutes for 10km off the bike. The fastest women are now around 33 minutes.

Just like swimming, the running speeds are not much slower amongst the youths and juniors because running fast isn’t about power either: the best boys run around 8 minutes for 2.5km and the girls around 9 minutes. That’s top county running too.

Those numbers are pretty daunting. The standard of draft-legal triathlon in the UK is the best in the world. Unfortunately there is very little draft-legal racing (either in the UK or anywhere else) so the few races that there are attract the top racers.

It’s a very difficult sport to break into.

If you think that this all sounds a bit unfair to those of us from a cycling background you’re absolutely right. Many top elite triathletes are not great cyclists – they were too busy swimming and running as youngsters to think about cycling. I think that the situation is changing as more children take up triathlon and start cycling younger. But that won’t lower the standards of swimming and running.

The message is that if you want to be an elite triathlete GET SWIMMING!!

Simply going to the swimming pool isn’t going to help: you might be able to ride fast by pushing the pedals fast and hard but swimming fast, even for a very short distance, is a skill. It takes time to understand, time to learn, and time to practice. And you have to do them in that order – otherwise you’re probably not practicing the right thing and you’re wasting precious time!

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The shape of the sport

It’s time I restored a little perspective.

Draft-legal racing is a very, very small aspect of triathlon. For most triathletes, well over 99%, non-drafting triathlon is the norm. There are far, far more opportunities to race as a non-drafting triathlete from short races right the way up to Ironman distance – and in these races strong cycling makes a big difference.

Strong cycling makes a difference, but you’ll still have to swim and run well to get good results, so if you want to get the most out of yourself as a triathlete you’ll need to train properly for it.

Technically cycling is the easiest part – most courses are quite straightforward. You need to learn to sustain a high speed – that means learning to relax while you’re working hard and to pace yourself over the whole race.

I’ve already pointed out that swimming is very difficult to master. What about running? Surely running is easy – the most natural thing in the world? Wrong! Most people don’t know how to run. They can get away with it for 15 or 20 minutes, maybe even 45 when they’re fresh, but in triathlon the run comes after hard swimming and cycling. You’re running out of energy, your muscles are tired and your blood is full of lactic acid. If you want to run fast in a triathlon you have to run properly. See my comments above about learning to swim!

That’ll do for now: triathlon is a great sport – anyone can give it a go and, if you have a decent background in one of the three disciplines, you’ll probably feel that you could do OK. But remember that it is three sports and that you will have to devote time to all of them, especially your weaker ones, if you want to master it and get the best out of yourself.

Mastering one sport takes time enough. How do you find the time to master three?

We’ll take a look at that next time.

Tim Williams is the Eastern Region Head Coach for Triathlon England and the Head Coach at Cambridge Triathlon Club. He works extensively with talented youth and junior triathletes. Also an accomplished cyclist and cycling coach, he coached ex-triathlete and novice cyclist Emma Pooley to Olympic silver and World Championship gold.

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1 response to:

Aiming for elite triathlon

  1. Rick Eastwood
    July 14, 2014

    My daughter enters the NorthWest junior tri series and loves it…I agree with the article Swimming and Running are key but she is now turning her attention to the bike..she is age 11 and is looking for choices other than Islabike.A future article on sports nutrition would be good.

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