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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It’s like riding a bike

I had warned R that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d ridden a bike. Ok that’s not strictly true, there was the tandem we took out on my birthday the year before last, (which I crashed), and I vaguely recall cycling in Centre Parcs as an adult, although whether that trip was five or ten years ago now I really can’t be certain. Anyway, the point is, I’ve not ventured beyond the stationary bikes in the gym for quite some time now. Moreover, anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing me behind the wheel of a car, go-kart or quad bike will know that me and vehicles that require steering just don’t get on all that well.

But despite all of this, the thing is, I really do want to cycle more regularly. It’s a great low-impact exercise, it allows you to get outside (my favourite thing) and you can cover some serious distances in a relatively short amount of time when compared to running. In the back of my mind I have this romantic vision of me and R cycling along country lanes, picnic hamper at my handlebars, bathed in the sunshine of an endless summer, a slightly unrealistic dream, I know. And, of course, there is the idea that all that stands between me and a triathlon is the bike element. And it’s not that I want to enter a triathlon necessarily right now, but I want to know that, should the mood take me, I could.

Anyway, it was with all of this in mind that we took the opportunity of this weekend’s sunny Saturday to take out some Boris bikes and cycle in Battersea Park.

I had requested that my first foray into cycling didn’t involve any roads and, as it instantly became apparent, this was for the best. On the bike I felt a lot further from the road than I can remember feeling, and I struggled to reach the ground when I stopped (possibly we should have lowered the seat a little more!).

As it happened, we were not the only ones to have the idea of cycling on that sunny Saturday, and the park was full of children meandering wildly, other people negotiating the clunky Boris bikes and more adept cyclists whizzing past us as we went. And then there were of course the dog walkers, pram pushers and pedestrians all trying to share the same pathways.

Although not the pastoral idyll that I had initially imagined, after a couple of laps around the park I felt comfortable enough to let R ride alongside me rather than in front, and I was happy to skirt around obstacles rather than stopping in front of them.

It seemed crazy as I cycled regularly as a child, but it took some serious laps to get my confidence back and I was still a fair way from feeling I could tackle the London road system.

Still it was lots of fun and I felt a certain pride and satisfaction as the rain came and we swapped our bikes for drinks in a nearby pub while we waited for the downpour to cease.

I’ll be back in the saddle again soon I don’t doubt; it’s just like riding a bike you know.

Birthday blog

Last week was my birthday.

This year, somehow, from not having organised any festivities and being consumed by the usual denial and panic of yet another year passing with terrifying rapidity, I seem to have experienced the best birthday on record.

It began the Tuesday before with a night of fizz and gossip with one of my oldest friends, Katie.

All things sparkling - Prosecco and a new ring
All things sparkling – Prosecco and a new ring

Despite her working in London three days a week and being a fellow runner, thus offering every excuse to get together, we don’t see each other anywhere near as often as we should, or as I would like.

It was the loveliest of treats getting to spend an evening with her and amongst other things we discussed running the Copenhagen half marathon together and as a result this has quickly made it onto my ‘must run’ list.

A blissful evening of catch-ups and cocktails with my good friend and former colleague Nina promptly followed on the Wednesday.

Cocktails
Cocktails and chat

We enjoyed two-for-one on a selection of delicious cocktails at the Lost and Found Bar in Balham and it was only the fact that I had been running earlier in the day that permitted me to indulge without too much guilt!

The venue itself was cute and cosy and the cocktails were a total bargain; definitely worth a trip if you are Balham way.

I had booked Thursday (my birthday) as annual leave way back in August, with the intention of spending a good few hours at the gym/pool, a further few hours drinking tea, reading the paper and doing the crossword and maybe going to a gallery to see an exhibition.

IMG_0133My boyfriend, however, had other ideas.

On Wednesday he had requested that I pack an overnight bag, complete with evening dress, which he would collect from me at my convenience.

As it happened, he met me from the office and exchanged my bag for a cup of tea and a hand-crafted crossword with clues to be solved throughout the course of the following day (when instructed) with each revealing the location of an activity to take place.

The first clue was to be fathomed that night to give me the location of our meeting point at 9:30am the following morning when I was instructed to wear clothes suitable for ‘mild exercise; no skirts or baggy trousers’.

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In tandem

Having solved the first clue, on Thursday morning I met him at Coffee Affair in Queen’s Town Road Station, Battersea.

Here we were received with a friendly welcome enjoyed a delicious breakfast of raw vegan porridge with strawberries and fruit compote and plentiful amounts of tea.

From here we wandered to Battersea Park where he had booked a tandem, to satisfy our joint love of all things outdoors and sporty.

With R on the front we rode easily. I was happy to just peddle and relinquish all control when it came to steering, (really not my forte), and R was adept at manoeuvring the bike around any corners and through any narrow gaps as required.

It was perhaps with a little too much complacency that we swapped seats and, within minutes, with me at the helm, found ourselves toppled into a bush. As a result my tenure in the driver’s seat was very short-lived and we quickly swapped back.

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Sporting a cycling helmet

Despite the fall (and resultant grazes), I loved the tandem ride and would go again in a flash! However, the time passed all too quickly and soon it was time for us to return the bike and for me to solve a second clue.

This took us to the South Bank (possibly my favourite place in London), and the Hayward Gallery, where we enjoyed an exhibition on love (slushy but appropriate), a much needed cup of tea, a spontaneous slide and a stroll to clue three, the National Portrait Gallery.

The BP Portrait Award, held at the NPG, is my favourite annual exhibition. It falls over my birthday every year and I normally go and see it with my dad.

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NPG for the BP Portrait Award

However this year he hadn’t been able to get into town during the run of the exhibition and I had been too sad at the thought of going it alone.

As such I was overwhelmingly pleased that R had decided to take me and he made the perfect exhibition companion, allowing me to make three circuits galleries and even playing along with my game of ranking the top five paintings (although we had to stretch to the top seven this year as the decision was tough).

With a cycle and two exhibitions under our belts we headed to clue four and lunch, which was at Moaz, the most delicious falafel café in London.

Pitta and falafel with all the toppings
Pitta and falafel with all the toppings

We stocked up our pittas with falafel, hummus and more salad that would really fit and I endeavoured to solve the next clue.

This took us to Mayfair and R’s club, where he had our bags ready to allow us to change, before enjoying Bellini’s in the bar.

I have to admit I was relieved I’d packed heels and a LBD as I don’t think my usual jeans and pumps would have cut it!

For pudding R had also managed to source a Toffutti stockist in London, (I have been craving Toffutti Cuties since my return from the States but have been unable to find them at the usual suspects – Whole Foods and Planet Organic) and had it not been for a slight melting incident, we would have enjoyed Toffutti ice creams

Hazlitts heaven
Hazlitt’s heaven

Full of champagne and 1930s style decadence we picked up our bags, hailed a cab and headed on to clue six, the most gorgeous boutique hotel in Soho, Hazlitts, where R already had my presents waiting.

He had bought me a new, superlight, running rucksack, complete with desired waist strap for my commuter runs.

As if this wasn’t all enough, inside I had the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse (my literary indulgence), and tucked inside the first page, next to a beautiful inscription, were two theatre box tickets to see Jeeves and Wooster! As you can imagine, at this point I cried.

With time to spare before the theatre, R suggested a bath in the beautiful roll-top tub and bought me a glass of wine while I enjoyed the bubbles.

We headed to the theatre where we had a box to ourselves with champagne and truffles waiting and a waitress to look after us for the evening.

Robe and red wine
Robe and red wine

The show was truly fabulous and full of fizz we headed out to a cocktail bar for one final birthday cheers before heading back to the hotel.

Just in case all of this wasn’t enough to make me fall absolutely, totally and utterly in love with him, he ordered us breakfast in bed for the next morning.

Over the weekend we headed up to my parent’s for a family weekend to celebrate mine, my dad’s and my Aunty Janice’s birthdays with a tea party.

We had made a last minute booking at Crewe Hall, which was beyond beautiful and on arrival were greeted with a glass of fizz. My sister had prepared a tea-based quiz, as well as some other tea inspired games, which were really fun and kept us all entertained.

Jeeves and Wooster
Jeeves and Wooster

The afternoon tea was delicious and I had a full tray of vegan sandwiches and treats.

It was utter heaven to spend some time with my family and to see my nephews, who are the sweetest of hearts. While we seem to be going a turbulent period with regard to family health at the moment, knowing we have each other and how well we work together as a team filled me with so much love, gratefulness and happiness.

I was showered with the loveliest and most thoughtful of gifts, including a much needed new pair of trainers – Nike frees – from my parents.

Afternoon tea
Afternoon tea

After tea we went to my Aunty Janice’s house for a luxurious afternoon of Pimm’s, board games and catching up time.

On the Sunday we enjoyed a little stroll around Trentham Lake, a lazy salad lunch, and I had chance to catch up with another old school friend, before heading back to London, where my housemates prolonged the birthday festivities with pampering a presents.

Finally, last night I celebrated with my Tough Mudder teammates with a 10km run to Anna’s house, where we cooked supper, enjoyed vegan cakes prepared by my dancing and yoga partner, Lucy, and watched Pretty Woman in our PJs.

My family
My family

Now if that isn’t the most perfect birthday on record, I don’t know what is! Suddenly 29 doesn’t seem so bad after all.