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Introduction to Triathlon

It’s common to see cross-training touted as a means to improve the performance of most athletes. Practicing multiple sports not only works a wider range of muscles, it keeps your body from becoming too inured to the requirements of your chosen sport and thus forcing you to work even harder to see improvements. Cross-training can also relieve the boredom of single-sport training and provide you with another form of exercise should an injury temporarily sideline you from your primary sport.

Perhaps the ultimate practitioners of cross-training are triathletes. These athletes train to compete in races that encompass three sports: swimming, biking and running. While each athlete will likely have a sport which she prefers or in which she is strongest, she’ll have to be competent at each to finish the race.

My introduction to triathlon was through the Alaska Women’s Gold Nugget Triathlon, an annual event held in Anchorage, Alaska for over 1,500 women. I hold claim to only the thinnest thread of real athleticism as an avid recreational and touring cyclist, but I decided that I wanted to challenge myself to this race. My goals the first year were modest: finish and not be last. I succeeded, loved it, and have been hooked since. Trust me when I say, if I can do it, so can you.

Triathlons come in four standard lengths: sprint, Olympic, long course and ultra distance. There are slight variations in the distances for any given race, but most fit into these general categories. Sprint triathlons (such as my first) are the shortest and include a 500 yard swim, 12 mile bike, and 3.1 mile run. Olympic triathlons fall in the middle with a 0.9 mile swim, 24 mile bike and 6 mile run. The long course consists of a 1.2 mile swim, a 55 mile bike, and a 13 mile run. Finally is the ultimate in triathlons, the ultra distance (the most well known is the Ironman): 2.25 mile swim, 110 mile bike and 26 mile run. Of course, you may find local fun triathlons that are any combination of lengths.

A triathlon is divided into five segments. First is the swim which can be either in a pool or outdoors (lake or ocean) depending on the location. Second is the first transition (T1) during which the racer moves from the swim to the bike and does everything necessary to transition between the two. Third is the bike ride, a standard bike race which will vary primarily on the terrain. Fourth is the second transition (T2) from the bike to the run. Finally, the fifth segment is the run which, like the bike ride, will vary mostly in terrain. Each of the five segments is timed and all count toward your overall time for the race. The fastest overall time wins.

Training for triathlons, especially if you want to be truly competitive, is a science (and art) in itself. There are a wide variety of books available on the topic covering beginners and seasoned athletes, training plans for men or women, and any other topic you can imagine. Triathlon-specific web sites are also available and often include on-line training plans and logs, forums, and other resources. Many areas also have local triathlon clubs which offer training and camaraderie for triathletes of all abilities, including beginners.

If you’re interested in challenging yourself and pushing your abilities, I highly recommend triathlon. Take the plunge, sign up for just one, and the high you’ll feel when you cross the finish line will carry you on to another and another. Remember, you’re not there to win, just to do your best. Just tri, you’ll see!

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