In the first in a series of three interviews, we speak to Dr Justin Roberts, a senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire who has been conducting a year-long study which aims to prepare "recreationally-active" people for their first Iron-distance triathlon: Challenge Barcelona.
Can you tell us a little about how you came up with the project?
This whole project really stems from my background in Ironman triathlons.
Since about 2006 I've been doing long-distance races, building on from years of sprint distance and Olympic distance events – not just Iron-distance triathlons but various ultra/extreme races such as the Marathon des Sables.
When I've spoken to people at these events about what kind of training they've done, I have been pretty gobsmacked with the answers to be honest.
What has worried me is that when you look at the increasing trends in incidents and fatalities at long-distance triathlons, it is often people that haven't really done the training – so without being stereotypical, your corporate businessman who has gone and done a challenge for charity or something and found themselves lying at the side of the road after about 10 miles into the marathon.
So it got me thinking about how do these recreationally-active people cope with the demands of training if they are given a structured programme, structured advice and are monitored.
We set about finding a fairly benign Iron-distance event – though I'm not sure if there is such a thing! – and after talking to several of my colleagues who have done such events, Barcelona came up as as a fairly flat, fast course, and one that took place towards the end of the season, giving us a longer run-up to it.
So we contacted the organisers of Challenge Barcelona and asked if we could run a study, and to be fair they have been brilliant, they have offered us whatever we wanted. Then the next stage was to find out what we could get in terms of participants.
When we first put this out, I honestly thought we would get perhaps 10 or 15 people wanting to give this a go, and the response I got back was phenomenal, I got emails from all around the world, not just the UK. At one point I didn't know what to do with it all!
How did you recruit the study's volunteers?
Around August 2012 we decided to do a two-phase approach whereby we asked people to come in for a pre-screen from October through to December last year, to find out if they matched our criteria and were classed as truly recreationally active.
They had to be men or women aged 18 to 50 years old, and the big criteria was they must not have done an Iron-distance triathlon before.
What we ended up with was about a hundred people who got through that first phase - they had a heart check, an ECG (screened by a cardiologist), a fitness test, and we had another screening questionnaire, and that determined whether they got through to the main testing.
So by about December of last year we had the entire cohort pretty much there. Interestingly, the cohort is entirely based within an 18-mile radius of the greater London area, with about half of them in north London and half of them in south London.
What are your main aims with this study?
The idea of the study was really to look at two things – how recreationally-active men and women cope with the demands of a training programme over a six-month period, that was stage one.
They all started in January of this year, and they all undertook a progressive training programme which I devised, based on not only the literature about training for Ironman but also my experience in building up.
From my perspective, I do read a lot of the books about training for an Iron-distance race, and one of the things I think they miss is the psychology of Ironman, and particularly the power of doing long bricks towards the end of the programme. I've read a few books where they talk about doing a four-hour ride and a one-hour run after it, but that's not going to touch what you experience in the race.
What I wanted to do is build the participants to a point where as they were growing with their fitness, they were also growing with the confidence and their self-belief. That's pretty much what's happened, and that's really good to see.
With just over a week to go until the event, we also recently spoke to one of the study's participants, Gary Smith, who told us that he has "no doubt" that he and the other test subjects will complete the race on 6 October, 2013.