Tri, tri and tri again: The reality behind triathlon training, kit and racing

With my love of running and swimming it’s amazing how often people have asked if I’d be tempted to do a triathlon. The honest answer is yes, but (and there is always a but). The crux of the matter is that I’m not the most confident cyclist, and although I’m trying to build up some cycling strength through spinning, arguably pregnancy isn’t the ideal time to take on a new discipline and seriously entertain ideas of triathlon glory.

Yet while I regularly put my triathlon aspirations to bed, they are periodically reawakened, most often by the Strava stats and pictures posted on Instagram by my friend, and amazing athlete, Nicola Kaye.

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Whether it’s during her training weeks in Lanzarote, on tours across Europe and South America, or even just her workouts in London, seeing and hearing about Nicola’s training and race schedule really makes me want to brave my first race. However, rather than taking all of the pictures at face value (which make triathlon training look like a very sunny and jolly swim, bike, run in the park), I decided to dig a little deeper into the reality of triathlon training to find out how Nicola entered the world of triathlon and to discover the kind of dedication it really requires.

When did you start competing in triathlon events and what motivated you to start?

I’d always been quite a keen runner before moving to London in 2006, and when I made the move to the big smoke I took an instant dislike to tube travel. A flatmate at the time suggested I look at the ‘bike to work’ scheme, whereby some companies offer employees the opportunity to buy a bike tax free through the company. I was delighted to see that it was something my employer offered and pretty soon I was covering my daily commute by bike.

London can be pretty intimidating to a new cyclist but I soon came to love my daily bike commute – wind rain or shine! My morning commute is still a favourite part of my day over 10 years later.

It wasn’t until 2010 that a colleague at work posed the idea of a few of us entering the London Triathlon. As a runner, I’d had a pretty frustrating few years with a number of injuries (including both knee and foot surgery) so I was a little apprehensive about entering a race. My first response was ‘but I can’t swim!’ and then when I thought about it a little more rationally, I realised that technically, I could swim, just not front crawl, which is the typically chosen swim stroke of triathlon, being the quickest and most energy efficient. Furthermore, when other responses such as ‘I’ve not been on a bike since I was 10’ followed, I realised that I would be in good (or rather, similarly inexperienced) company for my first triathlon. It was a great bonding exercise with my colleagues, as we trained for our first triathlon together and we all managed to complete it, but it was a very tough first outing!

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So you were you a runner before you started competing in triathlon? 

I’ve always loved running and having my knee and foot surgery a few years ago taught me to never take it for granted. I’m always grateful to be able to get out and run but these days I tend to limit it to about three times a week since I’m still quite susceptible to injury. I love the freedom running allows you and I love that wherever you are in the world, you can just lace up your trainers and get out there.

What’s your favourite of the three disciplines, or does this vary? 

Cycling is my strongest discipline by far, and I love the sport. It’s very sociable and a great way to be able to see places, so I often do a lot of cycling while I’m travelling. I was fortunate to be able to take a year out of work and I took the opportunity to cycle in South America, Australia and New Zealand. Cycling over the Andes from Bogota to Cartagena is probably one of the toughest things I’ve done to date but the experience was incredible and everyone we met, so warm and welcoming.

Swimming continues to be my nemesis, but on a good day, I love it. Unless you were a competitive swimmer at an early age, it’s quite tough learning and indeed become good at swimming as an adult. You need to put in a lot of work for very little reward! I’m determined to get better at it though so I keep chipping away.

What does a typical week of training look like a) in the lead up to a race b) between races?

A standard week is normally 3, 3 and 3 i.e. 3 sessions of each sport, although I’m trying to improve my swimming at the moment so sometimes there’s 4 or even 5 of those sessions in a week. The weekend is reserved for the longer sessions so I’ll normally do a long bike on one of the days and a long run on the other. Around each of these core sessions, I’ll then try to fit in a couple of mobility and strength sessions and stretching/foam rolling is key! The more the better really.

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I have a coach who helps to write my programme and this has really helped to structure my training. The week before a race, sessions tend to be shorter and sharper with longer recoveries to ensure you are in the best possible shape on race day. After a race, it’s very much about listening to your body. Every race affects you differently but you need to make sure you don’t do any high intensity work too soon or you risk injury.

And what does your typical diet look like? 

I eat a lot! My colleagues at work think I eat constantly, but then I think they sometimes forget that when I show up at work in the morning, I’ve usually swum for nearly an hour and cycled 30 mins to get there, while they’ve largely rolled out of bed and onto the train.

I’m lucky in that I love good, healthy nutritious food, so there’s definitely plenty of veg, salad and lean meat and fish in my diet. To be clear though, I love cake too and that very much features every week as well!

I try to keep my diet pretty varied, but breakfast is almost always porridge. Otherwise, it’s about maintaining a good balance of fat, carbs and protein and making sure you eat at the right times around training. Easier sessions can be done fasted but you need to make sure you’re well-fuelled for any of the high-intensity work, or you render the session ineffective.

How do you manage to fit in training around work and socialising?

I’d love to tell you that I’m super organised and that I manage it perfectly. In all honesty though, it’s a struggle. It’s become a bit easier since I changed jobs last year and I now have a much better work / life balance. Prior to that, my sleep almost always suffered. The problem is, the more you train, the more sleep you need, so making sure you factor that in is incredibly important. I’ve come to realise that sometimes, a bit more time in bed will benefit me more than getting to the pool for 6.30am.

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I try to fit in my training before work and at lunchtime wherever possible, but inevitably, it doesn’t always work out. Ultimately, I’ve learnt to be flexible and accept that on some weeks, I won’t get all of my planned training sessions done. It’s not the end of the world. In the lead up to a race however, I will often prioritise training over socialising. It means missing out on stuff, but it’s a choice I make and given the time and effort that goes into my training, I want to make sure that I do myself justice in each race.

Are you training for anything at the moment?

Absolutely. It’s how I stay motivated. I’d always get out for the odd run or bike ride if I didn’t have races in the calendar but my training wouldn’t be so structured as it is currently. My 3 big races this year are 3 half-ironmans in April, August and September respectively. September’s the big race  as it’s the 70.3 World Championships in South Africa, which is a race I qualified for in Estonia last summer. I also mix the bigger races with a number of smaller events too, to take the pressure off a bit, and to ensure I retain the fun element. I’ve a few local running events planned and a couple of bike sportive both in the UK and in Europe.

Have you ever had any equipment disasters during a race?

Oh yes, several! You have to take it on the chin and make sure you learn from the mistakes where you can. It’s also why it’s good to put a few races in the diary so that if one doesn’t go to plan, you’ll have other opportunities to make up for it.

I’ve had one DNF (did not finish) due to a double puncture (I tend to carry one spare inner tube but certainly no more than that). I also forgot to put on my ankle chip timer at one race and missed the start altogether. These days, it’s one of the first things I put on!

Do you have a favourite race and race distance? 

I started triathlon racing sprint and Olympic distance (750m / 20k / 5k for sprint and 1,500m / 40k / 10k for Olympic). I think I’m more of a diesel though and better suited to the slightly longer distance. Half-Ironman (70.3) is my favourite distance which involves a 1.9km swim, a 90k bike and a 21.1k run. The swim isn’t much longer than the Olympic, which goes in my favour as a weaker swimmer, and then I can get stuck into the bike and hopefully pick off a few of the swimmers who beat me out of the water. The run is then about trying to hold my position.

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I’ve done the London Triathlon four times. It’s not a particularly scenic course, but the great thing about doing a race close to home is that it makes it easy for friends and family to support and it’s great having support out on the course.

I’ve also done the Mallorca Half-Ironman twice and it’s a race I love with a really challenging bike course.

These days, however, what makes a good race for me is doing it with friends and family. Travelling together and being able to share the experience with others makes it really memorable.

What is your greatest sporting achievement?
Representing my country as an amateur at both the European (ETU) and World (ITU) Championships in 2015 and 2016 was pretty special, particularly my first outing in Geneva where my parents came to support me.
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I think, however, that finishing my first Ironman race (a 3.8k swim, 180k bike and a 42.2k run) in 2016 is what I’m most proud of, because I know how hard I worked to get there. The last half of the marathon was a real struggle and at that point, it very much becomes a test of mental strength. Crossing the finish line is still so fresh in my mind and still brings tears to my eyes nearly 2 years later!
All of the equipment can often be intimidating to athletes thinking of going into the sport of triathlon, what advice would you offer to them?

Triathlon is still a very new sport, relative to most other sports, which means that there have been some huge technological developments over a relatively short space of time. Triathletes love kit and love spending money on new kit that they very definitely don’t need and I’m no different to that. It’s very easy to convince yourself of a ‘need’ for something new to the market.

That said, because of the rapid developments in equipment, it means you can pick up the stuff you need without spending a fortune. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there, so definitely take advantage of it.

Wherever possible, you should try before you buy. If you’re going to be doing races that have an open-water swim, for example, then you’ll need a wetsuit. It’s possible to rent wetsuits for a race or even a whole season and there’s a number of outdoor lakes which will let you test out different models so you can see what works best for you.

In terms of a bike, the best advice I was given is to buy the best frame you can afford. All of the components (gears, wheels, etc.) can be upgraded at a later date as and when you can afford to spend a bit more money on it.

The internet is also a great source of information. It can be a little intimidating at first because there are many (often contrasting) opinions flying around, but it can be helpful to see what works for others and may just work for you too.

What kit do you use? 

For swimming I have a HUUB wetsuit and I swear by Zoggs Predator Flex goggles which I find comfortable, don’t steam up and are available Polarised for outdoor sunny swims. Real swimmers all use those tiny little eye-socket goggles that I find unbearably uncomfortable!

I have 2 sets of running shoes that I currently use – the Saucony Kinvara for my longer runs, which are lightweight but also really cushioned. For racing I use the Adidas Adizero. For shorter distance races, most people don’t wear socks and then you want to look for a tri-specific run shoe which tend to be seamless and ensure you don’t finish the run with feet covered in blisters. It’s also important to use elastic laces, which save a lot of time and energy in transition.

As for the bikes, there’s currently 3 in the family! I have a beautiful steel road bike from Condor on which I commute each day and do a fair number of miles on in the Winter. My second bike is a Felt aero-road bike which I love. The geometry of the bike is somewhere between a normal road bike and a time-trial (TT) bike making it a decent choice for both road cycling and triathlon. I also put aero bars on it during triathlon to get myself in a more aerodynamic position. The bike is nearly 10 years old; I bought it second hand from a friend about 5 years ago for an absolute steal! I’m not sure how many kilometres have been ridden on that bike, but I did 10,000km on it just last year!

This year I welcomed bike number 3 into the fold; I finally bit the bullet and bought myself a TT bike. Over longer distances, it can save you quite a bit of time due to the aerodynamic position it allows you to adopt. It’s a Cervelo P3 with Di2 (electronic) gearing and cost me a small fortune. I may not own my own house, but I do have a very pretty new bike!
Who are your fitspirations? 

I’m surrounded by inspirational people. I run with Serpentine Running Club which is full of talented individuals and seeing the successes of members within the club, week after week, inspires me to get out there and keep pushing myself.

I think that 2012 really inspired a nation of cyclists and I too was probably caught up in that. It’s great that as a country we’re doing so well in the sport of cycling and it’s fantastic that we have so many strong women at the top of the sport.

In triathlon, boundaries are being pushed every day and records are continually being broken. There’s so many strong women in the sport, leading the way, and what is particularly nice to see is those that are taking time out to have kids and then returning to the sport as strong as ever.

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If I need to name one person though, it’s probably my Mum. At 65, she swims with a Masters Swim Squad 3 or 4 times a week, and on a Saturday morning, heads straight to Parkrun after. She’s also a regular on the triathlon circuit and regularly wins her age-group. She often plays it down by saying she was the only one in her age group, but she always beats me out of the water so I don’t buy that! I hope I’m still going strong in 25 years!
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