How to build the ultimate triathlete

Which sporting background brings the best chance of triathlon success? We compare swim, bike, run and team sports to find out

Building the ultimate triathlete – feature

“Whoever finishes first, we call him the Ironman.” The immortal words of naval officer John Collins during an awards banquet for the Waikiki Swim Club in 1977. Collins and his wife, Judy, wanted to settle the age-old argument of who were the toughest athletes – swimmers, cyclists or runners?

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On 18 February 1978, 15 competitors, including Collins, came to the shores of Waikiki to take on the inaugural Ironman challenge. The first winner, Gordon Haller, trained in all three disciplines but never raced them back-to-back and certainly skewed his training to the run. “I ran 100 miles in the build-up week to Hawaii,” the American has said since.

To this day, age-group triathletes contend that their sporting background created the strongest foundation for future triathlon success. A strong swim can have you exiting the water before your competitors reach the halfway buoy; cruising in the aero position past a disjointed cyclist is always a satisfying experience, both performance-wise and for the ego; it’s a feeling eclipsed by running through the competition who whizzed past you on their five-grand Cervélos.

Over the next five pages, we examine the performance, physiological, psychological and cultural pros and cons of entering multisport from either swimming, biking or running. We also investigate how team sports like football and rugby can positively (or not) impact on your subsequent triathlon career.

We’ve looked at the elite, age-groupers and Ironman athletes, who have different issues but are united by one common goal – to race fast. We’ve also had our stats team corroborate the anecdotal and the science. It was beyond the scope of this piece to analyse the background of every age-grouper in the UK, so we chose the leading age-groupers of the 2014 Windsor Triathlon as a representative example.

Time then, to start our analysis, beginning with the broad shoulders of swimmers…

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We continue our look at what makes the ideal multisport background…

Broad shoulders, technique and discipline. But are the chiselled physiques of swimmers suited to tri?

The good

When Simon Whitfield exited Sydney Harbour en route to winning triathlon’s maiden Olympic gold medal in 2000, he mounted his bike 34 seconds behind swim leader and multiple ITU world champion Simon Lessing. Fast-forward to 2014 and the chances of Gomez letting the Brownlees carve out such an advantage is unthinkable.

“Looking at the increasing talent across the board, from ITU to age-group racing, it’s hard to get away with a weak swim,” says six-time Hawaii champion Dave Scott. “If you’re losing time because of an incompetent swim, it’s hard to make up, though there’s a touch more latitude in Ironman.”

Scott’s right. When Gwen Jorgensen won the world title in the Grand Final at Edmonton, she registered 18:52mins for the 1.5km open-water swim, or 15.7% of her total race time. Hawaii winner Mirinda Carfrae spent just 11.1% in the water, despite a relatively slow swim of 1:00:14.

The shorter the distance, the more swimmers come to the fore. Athletes like Alistair Brownlee set a fast initial pace and then maintain that speed through the first discipline. The advantage flows into T1 and the bike, where the draft-legal format means the leaders can form a drag-saving pack, leaving the slower swimmers scrambling to reel in time.

That’s anecdotal, but the labs agree. Researchers Bentley and Burgi examined the impact a strong swim leg has on Olympic-distance performance and noted the “start and first 500m of the swimming leg appears to be a major determinant of triathlon performance because of how it relates to the position after the swim stage”.

In fact, take the top five from the men’s ITU World Series last year – Gomez, the Brownlees, Mario Mola and Joao Pereira – and all competed to a high standard in swimming at an early age. “When I was five and Alistair was seven, we worked under a coach called Shouty John, who scared me rigid,” says Jonny Brownlee in his and Alistair’s joint autobiography, Swim Bike Run: Our Triathlon Story. “From there we were spotted and taken into the system at the prestigious City of Leeds club.”

Those swim foundations forged two superstars of triathlon and, according to top middle-distance athlete Emma-Kate Lidbury, who was a national-level swimmer from the age of 11 through to 18 before her triathlon career, there are numerous reasons why coming to triathlon from swimming pays dividends. “As a school kid, learning to rise every morning at 4.45am taught me about discipline and commitment,” she says, from her new home of San Francisco. “Importantly, it also created an almighty engine that’s served me well in triathlon.”

A strong swim background also helps you to draft, which at age-group level is the only time you’ll benefit from slipstreaming because of the non-drafting bike leg. Studies have shown that, intuitively, high-level athletes swim within 60cm of their immediate competitor. Whether that’s beside or behind, keeping within this wake increases speed by 3.2–3.7%. So, if you’re a swimmer, you can create an even greater gap over your floundering competition.

The bad

Swimmers look like Gods, but those chiselled physiques can become cumbersome out of the water. “Swimmers are highly muscular, which is fine in a weight-bearing discipline like swimming but, come the bike and run, that’s just extra weight,” says former Ironman pro and sports scientist Torbjørn Sindballe.

When you take into account 1kg of extra weight can equate to an extra three seconds per kilometre on the run, that certainly adds up, especially over 42.2km. And if you’ve previously faced a hilly bike, you’ve had to contend with gravity, which makes power-to-weight ratio so important. (Just look at the ascending speed of 58kg Nairo Quintana compared to 82kg Marcel Kittel.)

“Many swimmers also struggle with injuries,” says Lidbury. “I was no different and was riddled with plantar fasciitis and ITB syndrome in my early years.” That’s down to the swimmer’s muscular and joint structure lagging behind their cardiovascular base; in other words, the low weight-bearing nature of swimming means their skeletal system isn’t used to impact. And swimmers also need to lose the ‘more is more’ mentality. Carrying that over to the run inevitably results in further injury.

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We continue our look at what makes the ideal multisport background…

Cyclists have endurance, strength and power, but is cycling the easiest of the three for a newbie to pick up?

The good

On his Scott Plasma 5, crouched down with his Red Bull aero helmet channelling air smoothly over and off his Orca tri-suit, Sebastian Kienle stormed to a stunning 4:20:46 180km on his way to winning October’s Ironman World Championships. It was nearly 12 minutes ahead of second-placed American Ben Hoffman and 16:33 minutes faster than Jan Frodeno in third.

So good is Kienle’s bike leg that former training mate Chris McCormack once commented, “The guy is unbelievable. That’s why [pro cycling team] T-Mobile wanted him when he was a kid, but all he’s ever wanted to do is win Ironman Hawaii.” Though Kienle’s been in triathlon from an early age, cycling’s always been his trump card. That’s not to say his swim and run aren’t good, but when you consider his marathon time of 2:54:37 was slower than women’s winner Mirinda Carfrae, you can understand the importance of his huge wattage.

“You can compensate for a mediocre swim and run with a powerful bike,” says Dave Scott, “but only at Ironman.” It’s a point picked up on by Lidbury. “Those who come from a cycling background seem to make a seamless transition into longer-distance racing,” she says. “Look at Caroline Steffen and Karin Thürig. Having that aerobic endurance, strength and power from cycling has obvious benefits to the bike leg, but it transfers to the run too.”

In fact, the highest-ever recorded VO2max was in 2012 when Norwegian time-trial cyclist Oskar Svendsen registered 97.5ml/min/kg; a study of the GB national triathlon squad, in comparison, came in at a mean of 65.6. Yet aerobic capacity doesn’t simply transfer from one activity to another, with research showing cyclists registering 5.6%–11% lower VO2max on a treadmill compared to an ergometer. And evidence also suggests run economy is more important than aerobic capacity.

What is vital is pace control over the longest of the three distances. Varying cadence by around 5% while cycling uphill and downhill can help riders maintain an even pace, which is something tacitly taught over many miles of riding. Selecting the right depth of rim dependent on wind conditions, gear ratio, cassette set-up, stem length and saddle position can slash significant amounts of time, especially over 180km. Again, experience is key.

The bad

Head to Windsor, Bala and Hever and sit on your competitor’s wheel and you’ll be penalised by the draftbusters. The effects of drafting are huge, with research revealing that the power output of cyclists drafting in the Tour de France drops to as low as 98 watts – around 150 watts lower than required for a single rider.

That strengthens the argument for the non-drafting, über-biking age-groupers to make an impression at long-course racing like Kienle, but Sindballe argues otherwise. “Yes, if you spent hours on the bike, you’d have a good aerobic engine, but if I put any non-cyclist on a six-month training programme, we could make a big difference to their performance and how they maximise fuels.” He continues, “All the technical skills you train as a cyclist also won’t do you much good unless you’re on a hilly course.” That explains why strong biker Stuart Hayes’ sole ITU World Series victory came on the mountainous course of Kitzbühel back in 2010.

Then there’s the fat-burning element. Surely regular 4hr+ rides at a moderate intensity will forge fat-burning age-group machines, tapping into reservoirs of lipids that’ll pay off come the endurance challenge that is triathlon. “That’s wrong,” says Scott. “The stimulus of varying your pace creates a much higher post-metabolic burn.” In general, runners work at a consistently higher percentage of their VO2max than cyclists, so there’s an argument that runners are more efficient fuellers.

What’s also pertinent is that young short-course athletes seeking admission to British Triathlon’s Talent Programme are measured on swim and run. In England, for instance, at 12 years old you must be hitting 2:28:10 for a 200m swim and 3:34:80 for a 1,000m run. It’s the same swim-run template in Denmark, according to Sindballe. “Biking you can take up much later on and still become very good. Unlike running, the training is less taxing on the body and it’s less technical than swimming.”

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We continue our look at what makes the ideal multisport background…

A strong third discipline is key for tri success. But do runners lack power in the water and on two wheels?

The good

Fourteen minutes and 30 seconds – that’s the time Mirinda Carfrae had to make up on then leader Daniela Ryf exiting T2 at Ironman Hawaii 2014. A record-breaking marathon of 2:50:27 later and the 33-year-old Aussie had secured her third Ironman World Champs title.

“I still think Daniela and Rachel [Joyce, who came third] gave it away, but it showed the importance on triathlon performance of a strong run.” The words of Dave Scott, who registered one of Kona’s fastest-ever runs in 1989.

In non-drafting ITU racing, the run’s perhaps even more important. Cue Alistair Brownlee’s 29:07min 10km at the 2012 Olympics and Kate Allen’s gold-winning sojourn in Athens, despite starting the final leg three minutes down on Loretta Harrop. Age-groupers, too, rely on a strong third discipline. You only have to look at last year’s Olympic-distance men’s race at the London Triathlon, where four of the top 10 broke the 35-minute mark.

GB elite Adam Bowden finished a personal best 15th in the 2014 ITU World Triathlon Series, justifying the 32-year-old’s decision to leave steeplechase at the end of 2008. “I brought over from running a strong cardiovascular background,” he says. “I think across most forms of triathlon, the sport comes down to a run race.”

Despite Svendsen’s ridiculously high aerobic capacity, many studies have reported run VO2max to be higher than either bike or swimming. This could be down to running recruiting a larger muscle mass than both cycling and swimming, primarily because a saddle and water supports the latter two. Aerobic capacity isn’t the only determinant of tri performance, but it certainly helps.

It’s also been reported that parameters of performance, like anaerobic threshold, enjoy a greater transfer from running to cycling than vice versa. And, of course, there’s the issue with structural strength that Lidbury referred to in the swim section.

It’s a point elaborated upon by triathlon coach James Beckinsale. “If you’re over-striding or not aligned correctly, it’ll drain your energy reserves or even leave you injured, especially over an Ironman marathon.”

But perhaps key to a triathlete’s overall result is run economy. Gregoire Millet, professor of exercise physiology, defines this as ‘the VO2 (in mL O2 kg/min) of running at a certain speed, and is usually expressed by the energy cost (EC) of running a distance of 1km (in mL/kg/km) calculated as VO2 divided by velocity’.

Essentially, the most economical runners use less oxygen at a given speed. Specific training, genetics, physiological and anthropometric factors influence this, with one genetic school of thought suggesting the reason East Africans are such good endurance runners is because of the efficient energy return in the muscle tendons of the lower limbs.

“We’ve seen it time and again,” says Beckinsale. “Cyclists and swimmers just can’t get away with being uneconomical runners. But it’s hard to train economy if your background isn’t running, especially when you’re then training for three disciplines.”

The bad

It’s not all good news for runners. Many age-groupers entering triathlon arrived from running… because of not running. “I came into the sport due to picking up so many injuries trying to achieve a sub-3hr marathon,” says age-grouper Thea Gudgeon, third overall at last year’s Windsor Triathlon. “I needed to have something to do while I couldn’t run.”

And then there’s swimming. Beyond the technical issues cited earlier, that traditional skinny physique, particularly the upper body, doesn’t lend itself to powering through triathlon waters. Running also leads to tight hip flexors, ankles and mid-back muscles, meaning a runner’s body position begins to drop in the water. “Some of them look like they’re swimming up a waterfall,” says Scott. And that lack of power is reflected on two wheels.

A further study by Millet noted that runners perceived greater levels of discomfort when completing an incremental cycle exercise at submaximal workload than cyclists who performed the same test on a treadmill. Within the race amphitheatre, that perception of fatigue would leave your biking teammate smashing you on two wheels.

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We continue our look at what makes the ideal multisport background…

Nearly 40% of UK triathletes don’t come from a swim, bike or run background. So what makes football and rugby players adept at taking to triathlon?

Of course, it’s not just goal-seeking individuals from swim, bike and run who pick up the triathlon baton – our sport is open to all. A 2013 survey from the Triathlon Industry Association noted that 37.9% of the UK’s triathletes came from a non-core background (swim, bike and run). Of those, 19.8% arrived from football, 16.5% rugby and 14% from the gym. Down at the bottom nestled boxing (0.9%) and basketball (0.9%).

And that’s a shame according to Dave Scott. “I’ve coached several basketball players and they’ve been pretty good, especially the female ones who weren’t too tall.” Scott’s rationale isn’t anti-largism, but rather the problems that bigger athletes have in dissipating heat.

Whereas the diminutive Carfrae enjoyed the Kona advantage of a more favourable large surface-area-to-body-mass ratio, larger athletes will have to sweat more and utilise more energy in order to produce the same heat loss at the same speed. It’s the same template for excess body fat: that acts as an insulator, which means you have to work harder to cool down in hot conditions.

Perhaps more pertinent to the UK crowd, Scott’s also trained soccer (football) players, describing them as having good aerobic engines because of the miles they cover each game. Though at pro level, Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini recently completed over 12km of running against Chelsea. While that might not sound like a huge amount over a 90-minute match, much of that was spent at speed – he recorded a match-high 70 sprints. “That’s why they have good anaerobic engines too,” says Scott.

That’d come in handy when accelerating from your comrade near the finish line… but, according to Sindballe, you wouldn’t have the developed engine to make an immediate splash in triathlon. Then again, he does concede that working in a team is a useful asset in triathlon. “Soccer players may potentially learn to swim well quicker because they’re used to a more technical training environment.”

However, from analysing the top-five overall men and women at last year’s Windsor Triathlon, it’s rugby that fares best. Winner James Hockin and fifth-placed finisher Conor Richardson both reached semi-professional level, with Hockin citing the mental toughness of playing in a team of particular benefit when training becomes difficult.

Richardson adds that rugby teaches you to deal with physical distress. “Sticking to a gameplan transfers well too,” he says. “The All Blacks are the best rugby team because they stick to a gameplan, no matter how exhausted or how much time is left on the clock. There’ll be times in triathlon when you just want to stop, but that’s when you need to be mentally strong and carry on.”

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Our tour of the three disciplines suggests we need to divide our assessment into short course and 70.3 and above, into age-group and elite. However, this is a point contested by Dave Scott.

“Whatever level of athlete you are, you must have top-end speed. Racing Ironman isn’t a licence to go slow; not developing fast-twitch muscle fibres is a big mistake. I do speed work with my athletes all-year round because I know that transfers well to excellent submaximal speed – and you certainly need that for Ironman.”

Ultimately, much of that top-end speed can lie in your DNA. “Despite my work ethic, I never had the top-end track speed that elites have, so I moved to tri,” says Sophie Whitworth, top age-grouper at Windsor 2014.

From analysing the research and interviewing the experts, it’s clear that cycling’s the least important of the three disciplines over draft-legal ITU racing. That’s not to say the second leg can’t significantly impact the race but, unlike the swim and run, you can conceal weaknesses on the bike.

But what about the non-drafting format of age-group short-course? Roger Barr, third age-grouper at Windsor, cites much of his triathlon success to a youth spent cycling, including “winning the Lancashire Youth Time Trial Champs as a 17 year-old”. It’s certainly true a strong bike will set you up for a good race but, as the 2014 Windsor Tri results show, only Barr out of the men’s and women’s top five enjoyed a significant cycling history.

The longer 180km of Iron-distance racing is where a strong bike background elicits greater rewards. Just look at Sebastian Kienle’s winning bike split at Ironman Hawaii in October. Then again, research shows that an ectomorph body type (sinewy and skinny) is ideal for long course, especially on the run. Years of cycling often send the lower limbs to mesomorphic proportions, which can hold back run speed and economy.

Exit bike, enter run

That leaves swim and run as the favoured backgrounds, with our experts split on which is more important. “Very few top ITU elites won’t have a strong swimming background,” says Sindballe. “It’s so technical that it must be trained early on or you’ll struggle.”

Then again, there are few top ITU athletes who are successful without run speed trained from a very early age. Just look at the Brownlees and their fell-running past. It’s the same at age-group level, with 2014 Windsor victors, James Hockin and Whitworth, maximising rugby and cross-country running backgrounds, respectively.

“It’s a tough call, but I’d have to go for the run as the most vital,” says Scott. Kleanthous agrees. Research shows that running has the greatest crossover of fitness, it strengthens your structure for the extreme training load of triathlon and builds a huge aerobic capacity. And that’s why we agree that the run is more likely to forge world-class elites and age-groupers at all distances.

As for the ideal weight of our (male) running triathlete, Sindballe suggests that the lighter the better for short-course athletes, with around the 68–70kg mark the ideal. “That said, in terms of looking after yourself over a 180km time trial and being able to run afterwards, that requires some muscle mass to stave off injury,” Sindballe adds. “So maybe 70–72kg for long-course.”

Whatever your background or current ability, consistency of training will send you toward your goals and greater enjoyment. And, ultimately, that’s why we spend half our lives in Lycra…

(Images: Remy Whiting / Delly Carr / Rich Cruse)

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What do you think is the ideal multisport background? Let us know in the comments!