I was 16 when I attempted a biathlon. All I had to do was an 800m run followed by a 200m swim. I was capable of both distances so I had no doubt I would cope perfectly fine. What I did not realise was that doing either discipline on its own was totally different to completing both elements in succession of the other. I did finish the race but I was humbled. I realised that day that the world of multisport is on a very different level to the world of single discipline sporting events. Training and preparation for a multisport event, as anyone who has completed a duathlon, triathlon or any other form of multisport races will tell you requires sacrifices, discipline, consistency and perseverance. So, following on my not so-successful first attempt at multisports, how did I enter my first triathlon and go on to comfortably complete two 70.3 Ironman races?
Having never learnt to swim herself, my mother was adamant that we would not have the same handicap in life. She sent us to swimming lessons from a young age and by the time I was 6 years old I was competing in my first school and club galas. I did well and loved the sport. Swimming was and still is my first love and passion in the world of sports. By the time I was in University, the demands of an undergraduate and post graduate degree were naturally eating into the time available for social and sporting activities. Swimming took a backseat for a while as I found that a 45 minute functional strength, core and aerobic workout session was a much quicker way to stay fit and healthy.
As tertiary education progressed to the corporate world, the gym was the obvious and most convenient form of exercise. At the time, Spinning was making an entrance into the world of indoor fitness and I signed up for a few classes. The bug bit and I went on to buy a road bike and join a few friends in the world of road cycling. Weekends and weekday pre-sunrise mornings were taken up by this new passion. We did them all, the 94.7, Argus, Hyper to Hyper, Amashovashova to name just a few. When mountain biking started making an entrance, the logical thing to do was buy a mountain bike and start riding.
In the middle of all this fitness craze, children came into the picture and sport took a backseat for a while. Three years after my second child was born and weighing 10kg more than I’d ever weighed, I decided it was time to get back on the horse. I found a gym with a 20m pool and decided that two sessions a week would be a good start. I took another 3 days in the week to power walk for 20 – 30 mins. The first 3 weeks were tough – trying to claw my way to some level of fitness was hard. I could not keep my eyes open or my body moving after 3pm. But with 2 young children, I had no choice. The excess weight started to shift and my walking distances started increasing. Gradually I began to run during my walking sessions and with the help of a girlfriend, my walks turned into runs of about 5km at a time.
My first real challenge in the world of running came when my girlfriends entered the Great Wall Marathon in China. Being one who suffers chronically with FOMO, I wanted to enter too, except I had never run further than 5 km. I entered the 21km paid up and starting training for my adventure in China. It was well worth the effort. When we returned home the same group of girls decided to maintain our group’s fitness by entering an Olympic Distance triathlon, which they assured me I would have no trouble completing. I was not so sure. I entered anyway. I continued running short distances of 5 – 8km once a week, did the odd spinning session and continued with my core and functional strength training at the gym. A week before the triathlon, one by one the girls admitted to not having entered and were not training at all so they all backed out of the race. I was the only one who was paid up and committed. I arrived at the race, terrified. I stood at the water’s edge with tears in my eyes as I looked from one buoy to the next and realised just how far 1500m in the water actually is. One doesn’t think about it in the swimming pool where there is a wall and a lane rope to grab hold of if you need to. The race started and I was off, choking in the washing machine that is open water swimming. It took everything in me to keep going. With the swim behind me I got onto my bicycle and put my head down. I knew I could do the 40km distance and the 10km run that followed. All I had to do was focus on one aspect of the event at a time. Get through the cycle first and then worry about the run. I finished, exhausted, in some pain (undertraining will do that) but exhilarated that I had made it.
I decided I would enter more triathlons and started looking for my next challenge. I found one not that much later, a sprint distance, off-road triathlon. I trained some for this one, and although not nearly enough nor correct training was done, I managed to come 16th in my category.
I continued training in the three disciplines regularly as I had found that I enjoyed the variety that each discipline offered.
Two years after my first triathlon, while we were out cycling in the Cradle of Humankind, my swimming coach convinced me to enter a half Ironman with her. It took a lot of convincing. Whilst I knew I was able to complete the distances in each discipline on their own, I wasn’t so sure about completing all three in one day. It seemed like an impossible mountain to climb. But I had made a commitment, entered and paid a large sum of money that was non-refundable, so training was the only way forward if I was to succeed. I had 6 months to prepare, so I began with a 5 day training week, swimming twice, running once and cycling twice in those 5 days. The first 6 weeks were tough, my muscles ached, and my body was fatigued. But I had a goal in mind and I continued. As time went on, the training seemed to get easier, so I added an extra day to the training schedule (at this point I will clarify that I did enlist the help and advice of an experienced coach). My training distances increased and I felt healthier, fitter and stronger than I had ever felt before. With 8 weeks to go before the big race I came down with the flu, I was in bed for a week and unable to train at all, not even walk, for another 3 weeks. My coach suggested that I may need to rethink this race and perhaps enter another one as he was concerned I would not cope. I recovered from the flu and with 2,5 weeks left before the race I ticked my body over, as there was not much I could do by way of training at that point. Having missed out on the most intense part of my training programme, I prepared myself to hurt badly on the day. I began the race and as with all other races, I focused on getting through one discipline at a time. Conscious of the fact that the day would be a long one I made sure I was properly hydrated and nourished before and during the triathlon. Besides that, I set my mind to completing the race and enjoy the atmosphere that is Ironman. The adrenaline that surges during race day, the muscle memory that is stored up from all the months of training prior to my getting sick, stood me in good stead and I completed my race with only a slightly tender right glute.
As I ran up the red carpet and over the finish line, where my longsuffering and patient husband and friends were waiting for me, I realised that a triathlon is not just a race – it is a journey that is dotted with many obstacles along the way. These are not meant to break you, they are sent on your path to challenge you, force you to adjust your focus and continue moving forward, building you up as a person and bringing you to the realisation that you are capable of far more than you ever imagined yourself capable of achieving. The medal at the end of the race serves a reminder of this journey, not just the race.
Training tips for the non-professional triathlete
My journey towards completing my first 70.3 Ironman taught me a few things along the way.
Post training recovery is vital to a triathlete’s training schedule as much as the training programme itself.
The important elements of recovery are good nutrition, hydration, sufficient sleep and compression gear.
I cannot stress the importance of eating correctly before, during and after training.
I am not one to promote any products, shakes or meal replacements as this is a very personal choice for each individual. I am a firm believer though, of good old fashioned food, as it comes in its most natural state (protein, carbohydrates, fresh green and yellow veggies and fruit). Our bodies are designed to recognise food as a fuel source, our metabolic system is efficient in absorbing nutrients obtained from healthy natural food and we can relax and allow our body to do what it is supposed to do. Our bodies absorb nutrients optimally as long as the electrolyte balance in the system is stable and balanced – hence the importance of eating and hydrating correctly before, during and after training.
Eating a good breakfast 2 hours before a swim session will ensure stable blood sugar and energy to power your muscles through your swim set. Equally important, and something many athletes forget, is to hydrate during a swim session. One does not realise that the body perspires in the water given the effort exerted during an intense swim set and those electrolytes need to be replenished. A high energy snack such as dates and nuts or a simple peanut butter sandwich post swim will settle the inevitable hunger that always follows a hard swim and lots of water to rehydrate is vital for recovery.
You may not feel hungry whilst doing a long 4 – 5 hour session on the bike and an electrolyte drink may seem sufficient. A pro-triathlete will tell you that food before, during and after training are critical. A good meal of oats or scrambled eggs and a banana or any fruit and a shake before your training ride will serve as the fuel you will need to sustain you. An electrolyte drink whilst riding, to hydrate and maintain the electrolyte balance in your system, is vital to avoid dehydration due to the loss of salt through perspiration. Water, especially on a hot day, is not enough to keep you hydrated – electrolytes need to be replaced. A “meal” or snack such as a banana with some nuts and dates or a bar to fuel your muscles serve as a quick energy release during your ride and is a must, even if you’re not feeling hungry. Here’s the thing, what you eat on the bike is not for fuel or sustenance on the bike – that you get from your breakfast – the snack on the bike is the start of your nutritional recovery once you get off the bike. It is the process of replenishing glycogen* stores in your liver so that your body can begin to absorb calories to feed your muscles and begin recovery. Following a session on the bike, whether it is a 2 hour easy spin-the-legs ride or a hard 5 hour endurance ride, a full meal within an hour of completing your session is vital. Remember to keep drinking fluids to replenish lost water. Your body needs the fluids to flush out the lactic acid that builds up in the muscles giving you that heavy leg feeling the following day.
*glycogen is the way our bodies store glucose for later use and is the most accessible form of energy in our cells
Breakfast, before your run, even if you’re only planning a short 5 – 10km is not negotiable. A small bowl of oats, a smoothie or a banana will allow you to get on the road within an hour of eating. Remember, you are eating to fuel your muscles for recovery post exercise and not necessarily during your run. Your body needs to be in top form for the next training session. Your current session is being fueled by the nutrition you have put into your body the day before. Food and rehydration post run will replenish those “all important” glycogen stores.
Compression and Recovery
Compression clothing provides biomechanical support as well as reduction in soft tissue vibrations during swimming, cycling and running. Designed to increase blood and lymphatic flow to the specified limb, compression wear is said to improve performance and shorten recovery time in both athletes and workout warriors when used post exercise.
The evidence may not be entirely conclusive with regards to the science of how it all actually works, but studies do exist in which an increase in oxygen uptake to the working muscles, a reduction in blood lactate levels and improved warm ups have all been seen when compression gear is worn post exercise.
There are many reputable brands of compression garments available and really it is a matter of personal choice. My preference in compression gear, which has become a mainstay in my athletic and travel wardrobe is Compressport, here is why:
During a long run inevitable fatigue sets in and support to the glutes, hamstrings and the your body’s core prevents injuries due to muscle strain from incorrect biomechanics setting in. Some people (I am one of those) tend to retain water post training and compression gear, in my experience, minimises and reduces the painful swelling that is associated with water retention. This element of compression gear has seen my Compressport socks become a critical part of my travel wardrobe, especially when flying.
Compressport socks offer moderate to high compression with an arch support band and 3D. dots designed to grip the insoles of a shoe and ribbing for a close and comfortable seamless fit. They offer great support to the smaller muscle groups in the foot that can become inflamed and painful after many and repetitive long runs and bike rides. The knee high Compressport socks provide a gradual compression – being tighter in the lower leg to looser up the calf thus preventing vibrations and fatigue in the calf muscles.
Compressport calf sleeves can be used for race and recovery (R2), which is why triathletes wearing these calf sleeves both during a race, whilst training or just recovering is a very common sight. The top and bottom of each sleeve has a band of slightly looser material to allow the transition between tight compression to bare skin thus preventing circulation cut-off issues.
Compressport arm sleeves, not as popular as their calf counterpart, offer moderate compression. These are commonly used as arm warmers on the bike or run but I believe they are ideal for post swim recovery following a hard swim session.
Having eaten well, trained hard and taken your post training recovery seriously, the final and most important aspect of your training regime is a good night’s sleep. Sleep is the body’s way of healing and restoring its vitality. Do not deprive yourself.
To quote Timothy Don when asked what advice he would give anyone wanting to follow in his footsteps: “Consistency is key. Do the fundamentals right and don’t get caught up in the hype of being a pro. Keep it simple and love and enjoy what you do every day.”
Tim Don, 3 times Olympian and world champ in triathlon and duathlon, more recently know as “The man with a halo”
Article by: Ioanna Zografos