*** many thanks to Vicky Arscott for this blog post ***

Triathlon (a swim, then a bike, then a run) is one of the fastest growing sports – and there are good reasons why.  Races are challenging (but not impossible), the training is varied and enjoyable, and the atmosphere at events is one of inclusiveness and participation (rather than closed groups of elite athletes).  If you can swim a little, cycle a little and run a little, then like many other people you can take part in your first triathlon.  Indeed, some of the local races (like the series of triathlons and aquathons that are being put on at the Jebel Ali Golf Resort over the winter - see www.race-me-events.com) even have “novice” categories within their races, so that newcomers to the sport can win prizes even if they aren’t the fastest athletes on the day.

But how do you go about training for your first triathlon?

Before participating in the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon earlier this year, my short lived training regime lacked structure and consistency and resulted in a less than perfect race.  Marshals in kayaks along the swim course had to usher me in the right direction as I ventured off course.  The transition from the swim to the bike saw me lose my timing chip off my ankle and the Garmin watch off my wrist, as I wrestled to get the wetsuit off.  Part way through the 100km bike course, my legs began to shake and I thought back to all the times I substituted a long ride with my triathlon club, TriDubai, for a lazy lie in.  Normally I would say that running was my forte, but on this occasion, dragging what felt like blocks of concrete around the 10km circuit was not exactly a walk in the park.  Perhaps those Wednesday night “brick sessions” (where you practice the transition from bike to run) at the Autodrome were important after all!!

But I’ve learnt that it doesn’t have to be that hard.  (Unfortunately I found out the hard way – but you don’t need to!)

Whether you are looking to compete in a super-sprint distance triathlon or sprint distance triathlon (either of which I’d recommend as a good distance for your first triathlon), the aim is to be prepared yet remain injury free.  Your training plan will be key to achieving this goal.  

As a novice to triathlons and living in Dubai you may think that the period one can train for a triathlon is very limited due to the nature of the climate.  That’s not the case, and I, like many other enthusiastic beginners are finding out that training continues all year round.

Every training plan will differ as it shall need to take into consideration the race profile (in terms of distance, climate, location, elevation etc) and the athlete’s profile (athletic background, age, ability, health considerations, personal commitments etc).  Training plans are progressive and are devised to build strength, endurance, speed, and efficiency. The plan will show a progressive upward trend both in terms of hours and/ or intensity, before you taper off before your race day.

Periodically you should incorporate a rest week to enable your body to recover and adapt.  A “rest week” is not a green light to dismiss training altogether – rather, it is a week of lighter training to allow your body to recover and be ready to adapt to your next block of harder training.

Consistency in your training is very important so be realistic about the time you can set aside for training.

A couple of tips before you get going with your training plan:

  1. Get a proper bike fit - Numb feet, back ache, pain across the shoulders, knee injuries:  I’ve experienced them all, until I got a professional bike fit.
  2. Get a swim analysis – if your technique is wrong, it could result in injury and your performance will be limited, no matter how much time you spend in the pool.
  3. Get a foam roller – a valuable piece of equipment that can iron out some serious muscle tension.

Swim

Attending group sea swims, where you can simulate race conditions is extremely valuable.  This will accustom you to mass starts, drafting (swimming immediately behind someone, which makes it easier for the person behind), sighting, and exiting from the water.  Aside from the group sea swims, Dubai has numerous swimming venues open to the public, providing a controlled environment for practicing your technique and performing time trials. Distance training and sprint work is important to improve your stamina and speed, so combine some interval sets with longer distances and aim to exceed your race distance in your training.

Bike

Depending on the profile of your bike course (whether it is predominately flat, undulating or laced with steep mountainous climbs), it’s important to start off with getting some base miles with low intensity under your belt to build your strength and endurance.  Later on these may become your recovery rides as your strength and fitness improves.  These base miles are best done in a group with others.  Often other people can be your biggest motivators, and can help push you harder than you might otherwise have trained – and it’s nice and social as well! 

Interval training, where you alternate between fast and slow speeds for set periods of time, also help improve your overall speed and endurance and should be incorporated into your plan on a weekly basis.

Hill training is essential if your course elevation resembles the heart beats on an EKG.  There are some challenging climbs up Jebel Hafeet and through the Hajjar mountains, which you can use in order to prepare yourself for a particularly hilly course.

Run

As with the bike training sessions, long “slow” distance runs will give you aerobic efficiency and endurance, whereas the interval sets will be used to improve your overall speed.  Incorporating inclines into your run sessions builds additional strength and stamina.

Another important feature to incorporate into your training sessions are combined bike-run sets known as “brick sets”.  This trains your body to adapt quickly to the change in discipline and allows you to perfect your transition routine.

In order to limit the incidence of injury and improve your strength and flexibility it’s wise to incorporate some weight training and core muscle exercises and stretches as part of your training plan.

Taper

A couple of weeks leading up to the race, you need to allow your body to recover from the peak training period. Progressively begin to reduce the intensity and duration of your training. Three days prior to the race is reserved for active rest or even total rest!

Preparation for Race Day

Familiarise yourself with the course.  Make sure you clearly know the route you will take in and out of each transition zone.  Locate landmarks you will use for sighting during the swim and mounting/ dismounting the bike, as it is often hard to see the buoys during a mass swim start or temporary signs at the side of the bike course.  At the start of the swim, position yourself to give you the best advantage.  That does not necessarily mean at the front, as you may not be the fastest in the field, it could mean positioning yourself behind someone who is fast enough to draft off his/ her feet.  Finally, ensure you take on enough fluids and nutrition to fuel your body throughout the race (although for your first triathlon, which should ideally be a super sprint or sprint distance race, this shouldn’t be much of a concern).

Train hard, race smart, but most of all enjoy it.  But be warned:  triathlon is addictive!

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