“If God invented marathons to keep people from doing anything more stupid, the triathlon must have taken Him completely by surprise,” concluded P. Z. Pearce, seven time finisher of the Ironman.
Leave it to the 1970s to occasion such divine bewilderment. Amidst the hullaballoo of Watergate and disco, the San Diego Track Club up and decided running wasn’t hard enough. The rowdy band of athletes took three separate disciplines — swimming, biking, and running — and stacked them back to back to back. In doing so, they claimed the notorious distinction of devising the first modern triathlon.
The triathlete, then, must be a master-of-all-trades, one who can transition — quite literally — from one event to the next, a Bo Jackson of sorts, unique not only in participation but in proficiency.
We’ve compiled a list of training and racing advice from local experts in the sports of triathlon. Because if you’re gonna do something crazy, it’s good to know people in the business — and to get them to tell you what they know.
Our Panel of Athletes
In addition to competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, professional triathlete and St. Louis native Sarah Haskins has over 33 professional wins to her name, including the 2011 Pan American Games Gold Medal, 2011 and 2012 Race to the Toyota Cup Series, and four-time champion of the St. Anthony’s, LifeTime Fitness, and Chicago Triathlons. Over the course of her career, she has coached over 150 athletes.
Jeff, a St. Louis resident, has completed six full Ironman distances, over 20 half Ironman distances, and countless Olympic and sprint triathlons. He is a certified athletic trainer, NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist, and a USA Triathlon certified coach. This year, Jeff will race his seventh Ironman, two half Ironman distances, and a marathon.
Renee Van Horn
Renee raced her first triathlon in 2009. In August 2012, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She trained for and raced Ironman Florida, her first full Ironman, while undergoing chemotherapy. Renee is now a USA Triathlon-certified coach and part owner of Swim Bike Run, a triathlon shop in St. Louis. She is currently training for her third full Ironman.
Swim Training Tips
Sarah: Invest in a pair of swim paddles, a buoy, or a band. The paddles will help you catch the water and achieve a better feel for your stroke. The buoy will help to get your hips in a better position in the water. The band (tied around your ankles) will help you engage your core and build strength while you swim.
Jeff: It’s imperative to pre-swim open-water courses. Open water anxiety has cost people not only race success, but also their lives. Knowing the water — its depth, current, and underwater obstacles, such as vegetation — and the sight lines of the course can help alleviate anxiety and keep you comfortable and relaxed in the water.
Renee: I didn’t grow up a swimmer. Learning how to swim in my 40s has been the biggest challenge of my athletic career. If your swimming has never involved a technical stroke, I would first and foremost recommend hiring a swim coach. Frequency trumps volume when you’re working on good technique. If you already know how to swim, never stop working on technique. Swim with friends or join a master’s group to push yourself. Learn how to implement good interval workouts to build strength, speed, and endurance.
Bike Training Tips
Sarah: Invest in a proper bike fit. A proper fit will allow you to apply more force to the pedals while in an optimal biomechanical and aerodynamic position, meaning that you’ll be able to go faster with less effort. Plus, a proper fit will be far more comfortable.
Jeff: Don’t rely on other athletes’ impressions of a bike course. It’s imperative that you have a good idea of the course terrain, so you can train accordingly, but pre-riding or, at the very least, pre-driving the course can significantly add to your success on the bike.
Renee: Train and race with a power meter. If a power meter is not in your budget, train indoors on a computrainer. Heart rate training is good, but your heart rate is affected by outside factors such as sleep deprivation, dehydration, medications, and fatigue. Power, on the other hand, is a precise measurement and is affected only by how hard you’re working. A power meter allows an athlete to train effectively for specific goals.
Run Training Tips
Sarah: Strength training is especially important for the run. By the time you reach the run portion of a triathlon, your body is fatigued. Strengthening your core, glutes, hips, and feet will allow you to maintain better form during the run, which will help you run faster and prevent injuries.
Jeff: Your training nutrition plan — both fluids and substance — should match your racing nutrition plan. Gastrointestinal issues can arise even for the most experienced athletes using their regular products. Use your training period to understand what does and doesn’t work for you.
Renee: We spend so much time sitting, which creates muscle weaknesses and imbalances. These weak areas become more prominent as we age and add volume and intensity to our training. Focus on specific functional strength and mobility work to protect yourself from injury during run training.
Athletes’ Picks: Their Favorite Triathlons
“My first race, the Quartermax in Innsbrook,” said Sarah. “I still talk about it as the toughest course I’ve ever done, even as a pro. It’s very, very hilly. It’s unique that the run course is so hard. The hardest part for me was getting off the bike. I was just wobbling. If you’re going to do the Quartermax, practice running hills. Work on proper technique running uphill and downhill. That’ll help you when you start to fatigue. And be strong on the bike. The stronger you are on the bike, the better you’ll feel in the run.”
“As hard as it is, I really enjoy the Ultramax Halfmax at Innsbrook,” said Jeff. “The run really separates the field. It is treacherous! I do a lot of trail running to prepare for the course. I focus on running a steady, comfortable pace uphill and accelerating my pace on the flats. On race day, I spend a little time running backwards in the transitions to release some of the tightness in my hamstrings and calves.”
“My favorite race will always be the Alligator’s Creek Triathlon in O’Fallon,” said Renee. “It was my first, and it was the one that hooked me into the world of triathlon. The swim is a short one, which lures a lot of newbies, but the bike and run courses are both hilly. My best advice is to train on hills to build strength in your biking and power in your running.”
Author: Amy L. Marxkors is an avid runner and author living in Pacific, Mo.
Images: Ultramax Sports