Monday, June 30, 2014

Advice to a Would-Be Triathlete

Hey R_____, 

It’s good to hear from you.  Let me apologize in advance for how long this note is liable to be.  You’ve kind of touched a nerve with this.

You’re a West Point graduate, a talented athlete, and you’ve already run a marathon, so if you really want to run a half-IM, I’m sure you can.  I don’t doubt it for a second.  I’m not telling you not to.  However, I confess that I’m a little annoyed that you want to “try” triathlon, and your first thought on the subject is “I need to do an Ironman-sponsored race.”

It’s unfortunate that the Ironman corporation has succeeded so magnificently with its campaign to market itself synonymously with the sport of triathlon.  Triathlon is a great sport because it’s a combination of all our childhood loves all rolled into one.  What does a kid do on a Saturday afternoon?  She swims, she rides her bike, she runs around.  This is triathlon.  It ought to be an egalitarian adventure.

Instead, Ironman has pushed a specific ultra-distance philosophy as the ultimate in endurance racing, marketing it to 40- and 50-something man-children in the throes of mid-life crises.  I grant you that it is very impressive to see the pros race eleven hours at 85% effort, but the difference between what the pro do and what weekend warriors do is VAST, and the percentage of the populace for whom Iron-distance is appropriate is vanishingly small.  There are a LOT of people out there who’re doing these races who would be better served training differently.  A LOT.  My standard advice for people who’re contemplating their first IM is that their first step should be finishing a marathon comfortably in under four hours.  If you can’t do that, I don’t know why on Earth you need to train for an eleven hour ultra-distance multi-sport race.

With that said, last time we talked you were on pace to run a four-hour marathon, so maybe this makes sense for you.  However, even a Half IM is still more than two hours longer than a marathon, and it’ll take a lot of time for training.

A Half is not the best entry-level distance.  I would strongly suggest entering a few Sprints this year and at least two Olympics before taking on the Half-IM distance.  In fact, I’d use the rest of this year to get comfortable Sprinting, next year focus on Oly’s, and set your Half-IM goal for 2016.  Plenty of people do that and succeed.  A lot fewer jump straight into Iron-distance racing and come out in one piece.

I personally race Oly’s because of limitations on my time, and I find it to be both a competitive and fulfilling experience.  After you get over the “I wanna prove to myself that I can do this” phase of triathlon, most folks adopt either Oly’s or Halfs as a distance that offers a sustainable lifestyle.  Races just keep getting longer, so at a certain point you have to decide what kind of athlete you are and be that.  It’s also worth considering that your Division I days are over.  No one cares if you miss a day of practice anymore or if you have an off-day in competition; you’re just out there for you.  That’s important because you can pour yourself bodily into the sport of triathlon, and if you’re not careful, you’ll never be seen again.

Triathlon training is tricky because you have to balance three disciplines—plus stretching and strength training—and they’re all different.  That’s good because it’s a little easier to do three things and avoid overuse injuries.  But it’s bad because your body breaks down very evenly.  You feel great… right up until the point when you collapse from overtraining.  If you were just swimming, biking, or running, you’d feel all that wear accumulating in your muscles and joints, and you’d know that you needed a break because you were super-sore.  Since you spread it around in triathlon, it becomes systemic.  You won’t feel sore or stiff in any one place; you just wake up one day exhausted and pissed at the world.  This is overtraining.  It leaves triathletes especially vulnerable to athletic-induced pneumonia, especially if you’re not disciplined about keeping your effort level moderate in training.

Aside from all other considerations, this is important.
-- If you want to go fast, do Sprints.
-- If you like going long, but you also like to do speed work, do Olys.
-- If you can handle doing LOTS of aerobic work, but you want to do some intervals, do a Half.
-- If you never want to go fast again, but you’ve always wanted to live on your bicycle, do a full IM.

You can still train a lot and focus on Sprints.  It’s the triathlon equivalent of focusing on the 5K distance, and in running, no one thinks it’s weird.  We simply recognize that it’s a different thing than focusing on marathons.  I mention this because training for longer races requires a lot of focus and discipline.  You MUST work at a measured pace over time, or you are 100% guaranteed to get injured.  I myself HATE all that aerobic shit, which is another reason why I prefer the shorter races.  I like going fast.

To balance my training, I use a points system:

1 point = 100 yards swimming = 1 mile riding = ¼ mile running

-- A Sprint is going to take you 60 – 90 minutes.  You need about 100 pts/week; 5 to 10 hrs. 

-- An Oly is going to take 2.5 – 3.5 hours.  You need about 150 pts/week; 8 to 12 hrs.  (This is me.  I try to train 10 hrs/week in season, averaging 140 – 160 pts/week.)

-- A Half takes 6.5+ hours.  You will need about 220 pts/week; 10 to 13 hrs.  Everyone I know who’s done this complains towards the end about how much time it takes and how exhausting it is.

-- A full Iron-distance race takes at least 11 hours.  You will need 300 pts/week; 18 to 20.  Yes, that is the equivalent of taking a part-time job.

Triathlon is expensive; there’s no way around it.  Ironman corporation intentionally markets itself upscale, looking for lawyers and stock brokers in their 40s and 50s making $170K/year.  This is awesome corporate marketing, but they’re not making much effort to be inclusive.

This is another reason to start with Sprints, sooner rather than later.  Get a feel for the sport, and see if you like it.  If you do, go out and look at some bikes, and maybe get yourself a road bike.  If you finish the season, and spending two grand on a bike sounds reasonable (it definitely is if you like cycling), then go for it.  If you finish the season, and that still seems like a crazy idea, I’d shelve the idea of a Half for the time being and continue exploring the sport.

Last thing I’ll say is that there is a great entry-level Sprint in Milford, CT, in August.  My local YMCA is hosting it on the beach near my house.  I’ll invite you in a few minutes.  Certainly you could find a short race closer to where you live, but we’d love to see you, and anyway, if my wife can finish this race, so can you.

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