Success in triathlon is all about balancing your efforts across three sports rather than just one. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and will usually find they struggle with one discipline. Yet there are always ways to get a little more from yourself and in our swim-bike-run masterclass, Emma-Kate Lidbury shows you how.
Triathletes are probably best described as ‘jacks of all trades and masters of none’. Learning to not only balance the training demands of three different sports, but three different skill sets as well means improvements in performance will only come with the right approach. And quite often focusing on skills and techniques specific to each sport will yield the greatest gains, particularly with novices.
Swimming is the most technical of the three sports so if you are not a strong swimmer, it is worth investing time in learning the correct technique and stroke mechanics. Front crawl is by far the quickest and most efficient method of moving your body through the water.
If you haven’t already, find out about adult lessons at your local pool or make enquiries at your local swimming or triathlon club. Most triathlon clubs have qualified swimming coaches who will be able to analyse your stroke and give you drills to practise so that you can remedy any poor stroke technique and ultimately become a faster swimmer.
By making the most of your pool time and improving your technique you will save yourself seconds, if not minutes, when it comes to the opening leg of a triathlon. Moving through the water is all about taking the line of least resistance and creating minimal drag. You should be flat in the water and not have your legs dragging beneath you or your head held too high.
The latter should be positioned so the water line hits your forehead just above your goggles and below your swim hat. Don’t fix your eyes directly beneath you, instead look forwards, but no more than 45-degrees ahead.
Breathing is obviously a crucial part of front crawl swimming and many new swimmers often struggle with it. The key to efficient breathing – and front crawl swimming – is body roll and rotation. With every stroke you should rotate your body about 45-degrees – this means turning your head to breath is one smooth fluid movement.
If breathing to the right, for example, your left eye/side of your face should stay in the water. Leg kick should be initiated from the hips, not the knee and you should aim to keep a steady two or fourbeat kick per arm stroke cycle throughout a triathlon swim. This will save your legs for the bike and run to come.
Making it triathlon specific
If you are taking part in an open-water triathlon it is also worth practising sighting and navigating. It is obviously best to practise swimming in open water, but if this isn’t possible there are drills you can do in the pool.
Using a marker or object at the far end of the pool, swim towards it and lift your head every two or three strokes and focus on picking it out and then returning to your normal stroke. This should get you used to lifting your head out of the water as you would if navigating outdoors.
If you are new to cycling, the good news is that with plenty of practice and miles in the saddle there is no reason why you won’t see huge improvement gains. As cycling accounts for the largest part of a race, it is well worth focusing on improving not only your bike fitness but your bike handling skills too.
If you are keen to get the most out of your cycling, consider using clip-less pedals. Unlike toe clips, these are pedals which you clip cycling shoes into and the power transfer is considerably better, making for a far more efficient ride.
They can take a bit of getting used to though, so it is always worth practising on grass where the landing will be softer should you fall off! If you would prefer to keep things simple, stick to using your running shoes on the bike and think about upgrading later.
When it comes to pedalling, there is some technique involved – it’s not as simple as sitting on the saddle. You should make sure your legs apply most pressure during the downward phase of the stroke.
Make your efforts smooth rather than stomping on the pedals and producing a jerky, counterproductive action. When your right foot is at the 3 o’clock position you should be close to exerting maximum pressure as the left foot recovers on the upward stroke.
Making sure you select the right gear to suit the road you’re riding on and your effort level is something which certainly comes with practice. Optimum cadence lies between 80 to 100 rpm (revolutions per minute) for the majority of cyclists. You can fix a cadence sensor to your bike, which will tell you your rpm.
Remember that spinning too much while cycling on the road will do nothing but tire you out. Conversely, grinding too hard in a gear will just sap your legs.
The golden rule with cornering is to always lift your inner-pedal so there is no risk of it coming into contact with the ground. Press the outer foot into the pedal at its lowest point to steady the bike.
Try to look through the corner and lean the bike rather than steer the handlebars. If you slow too much you will have to work hard to regain your speed once out of the corner, but approach a corner too fast and you could come off.
Of the three sports, running is the discipline most likely to cause injury. The impact running places on your body means doing too much too soon can have nasty consequences.
When you are just starting out as a runner or triathlete, the cardiovascular gains you make are generally quicker than muscular and skeletal ones. For this reason it is important you do not increase your training volume by more than 10 per cent week-on-week. Keep a training log to monitor how far and how often you run and never run through niggles or injuries – this is a sure-fire way to make them worse.
It is important you run in the correct shoes for your feet and running style. Seek a specialist running shop for advice on which shoes suit you best (see our triathlon show test in our last issue). Experts vary in their advice, but running more than 500 miles in the same pair of running shoes is asking for injury. If possible, alternate your running shoes to prevent your feet getting used to the same pair.
Novices should approach triathlon training with caution. Doing too much too soon can result in injury or burnout. The amount of time you can dedicate to training will be dependent on your work, family and social commitments, as well as your sporting background. Those with little or no previous experience of endurance sport should ease into training slowly.
Keep a log of what you’re doing so you can monitor progress. Strength and conditioning is an important part of triathlon training and helps prevent injuries, especially in high impact sports like running, so try to include a gym session each week.