Update – are triathletes better today than they were 20 years ago?

Former Royal Marine and veteran triathlete Mike Harris reflects on his return to the sport

Update – are triathletes better today than 20 years ago?

Training for my first event in 20 years went reasonably well. I often trained twice a day for swimming and cycling, but due to a catalogue of consistent injuries my running was almost non-existent.


I finished 20th out of 202 finishers – very respectable, I think, for someone who’s 63 years young and a novice again. Having successfully completed a triathlon after all this time, I wallowed in a very nice feeling of satisfaction, but with a hint of frustration about what could have been.

After the finish the ‘what ifs’ began to materialize! What if I had swum with more urgency? What if I had normal transitions instead of fiascos? Above all, what if I could learn to run again?

Are today’s athletes better than they were in the 80s/90s? No, I’d say not judging by the four events I competed in this summer, using as I did pretty much the same equipment as I used 20-odd years ago. Excepting Alistair and Jonathon (who are absolutely special athletes) and perhaps a few more, I think the calibre of athletes is not dissimilar.

How does the equipment compare?

Just browse through any triathlon magazine of 2014, and the array of advanced equipment available is mind-boggling. Extolled and portrayed by models and athletes with their perfect lithe bodies, beautiful white even teeth and suntans.

In the 80s and 90s it would be fair to say that any gain deriving from equipment was frowned upon, ‘self help only’ being the triathlon philosophy. Though you always had people who could afford the best equipment, and those who had to make do.

Wetsuits were banned initially, I wonder if the large competitive fields of today would still be as large if wetsuits were banned, and you had to enter the water in trunks! When wetsuits were accepted they were initially (without the research) I think of dubious assistance. Now advertised as made-to-measure, lightweight, streamlined, flexible and so on clearly they are a major asset!

Bikes were bikes, Reynolds 531 steel frames, advancing to Reynolds 653 and then 753, with 6, 7, 8 freewheels on 52/42 front rings were the norm. No tri bars initially. My first proper bike was 23 and half inches – in hindsight miles too big. “I’ll have that one,” said I in the local bike shop, it cost £212 and left me wondering how I’d tell the wife!!

In running now, there is a massive array of running shoes. Shoes are advertised as ‘fast shoes’ with superb cushioning etc etc. We used shoes that allowed very fast times by the elite but presumably without the extensive research that time has allowed and facilitated, so I see little difference in shoes over the years (apart from cost!) based on results and times of then and now.

Are there fewer injuries now due to ‘better’ footwear? I have my doubts! We should also consider perhaps that many years ago marathons were won in quite spectacular times (which our best athletes today can’t match) in ‘Woolworths sand shoes’, and 25mile cycle time trials were covered by the best in many sub-50min times using the aforementioned 531 bikes without tri-bars, discs or aero helmets!


Then there are all the accessories – recovery drinks and magic foods, compression garments, goggles that can spot a catfish on the bottom of the ocean at a depth of three miles, and must-have computers that can almost ride the bike for you!

Do you need all the equipment and additional accessories to be successful? I think not! Clearly a lot of the above is purely a personal view and of course none of it makes me right, it’s just an opinion.

But I am perhaps one of, if not the oldest experienced competing athlete in the country. I had my first race at four years of age which I remember well, finishing somewhat embarrassed third from three (my sister beat me!) and I’ve never stopped since, although changed sports occasionally. In my 50s I won 75 open time trials.

I have never taken supplements, I only ever ate family food, mince and tetties (potatoes) and the like, don’t use a computer on the bike, have never taken so much as an aspirin in over 30 years, and as mentioned previously in the four events I have done this year in all but one I used the same stuff as I did 20-odd years ago.

I also never had a coach, was always self coached. In my last event in September this year I was 15th from 226 finishers – getting better, with a 21:15mins 5k this time. I recently did a ParkRun and did a 19:51mins (my date of birth) finishing sixth from 90 athletes. Encouraging!

For me everything started with a dream, and the dream was to be the best, so I trained incredibly hard, always alone. This despite having a full time job of 40 hours plus per week, and with two infant sons to nurture.

I trained consistently three times most days in the North East of England averaging around 25 hours a week. At work I never had a single day’s absence through sickness! Traveling all over the country to compete I always took my wife and family, often in a broken down old banger which I always feared wouldn’t make the trip!

Final thoughts

I have suggested that – apart from at the very highest level (that of the Brownlees, both of whom are phenomenal) – it’s my opinion that little has changed in terms of ability or times in triathlon. The sport was always colourful and remains so.

If you look at the winners of events in the 80s and 90s (and clearly there wasn’t a precedent, with no past to reflect on or learn from) most entered the sport having been very good in one of the three disciplines – Glenn Cooke, Robin Brew and others from an impressive swimming back ground of National and International class, myself entering from winning marathons and others no doubt from a cycling pedigree.

We used the very same training principles we’d been using in our previous individual sports (long slow distance, intervals, repetitions, fartlek, resistance work, etc) and simply incorporated those principles into our new multisport event.  It seems likely now that the vast majority of athletes enter triathlon (with there being so many now available) looking for something different that will be a worthy addition to their current sporting CV.

I have always said that triathletes, regardless of ability and finishing positions are all winners, and entitled at some point in the future (perhaps with a grandchild on our knee) to look back and say with a degree of pride: “By but I was fit then!” And so we were, swimming, cycling and running all in one sporting competition, that’s a bit special don’t ya think?

Next ambitions

And me? As daft as it sounds, following a return to triathlon this year and after such a lengthy 20 year layoff, I find myself getting ambitious again, yes even at 63! Ha wouldn’t you just know it?! Same philosophy as 1983 summed up by – “I wonder how good I can become?” Although of course I know I will no longer be winning events.

My wife says I need to grow up, get a pipe and an allotment, and my lads who sat in the back of our old banger all those years ago (on six and seven hour trips after school), bored rigid, looking to the heavens saying: “Ya are jokin, aren’t yi!” My struggle now is likely to be different from the past, same discipline, guts and determination, same pain tolerance, but different in terms of approach.

Clearly handicaps go with age, especially in running, and general flexibility, and getting to the race injury-free is probably the biggest challenge. If I hang around a while I’ll have to be clever and disciplined, particularly in terms of how much training, what type, and how hard!


I’ve simply never stopped ever since that first fateful race when I was hammered by my sister pre-school in 1955! My head must rule my heart now or I’ll simply end up watching events rather than competing. But once again I find myself both excited and intrigued. Wishing you all good luck and safe racing.