VAIL — Triathlons are gaining popularity with mountain athletes, but there can be an element of intimidation when you realize that a world champion is swimming laps in the next lane or the woman on the opposite bike took first place in her last tri.
The components of a triathlon are straightforward: swim, bike and run. Many people do at least one of these activities each week; the intimidation factor comes in combining the three disciplines into one event. However, participating in a triathlon is an attainable target that can be a lot of fun if you keep it in perspective.
The swim portion is often one of the most intimidating portions of a triathlon simply because most people don’t spend a lot of time in the pool.
“Everyone grew up riding a bike. You walk every day, so running is just an extension of that. The swim is always the scariest piece for any new triathlete who didn’t grow up swimming,” said Steve Croucher, Master’s swim coach at the Athletic Club at the Westin and an amateur triathlete. “But the swim shouldn’t be scary. It should be an opportunity to start a race on the right foot.”
The first step to dispelling the nerves is, predictably, to get in the water. Becoming relaxed and comfortable with your body in the water is the first step. After that, you can focus on other factors such as body position, strength and stamina.
“An important element for everyone who swims is correct body positioning. Be comfortable laying flat in the water. If you can do that, you’ve solved 90 percent of your problems,” Croucher said. “The flat body position allows you to move through the water more efficiently.”
But perhaps one of the best exercises to focus on is one of the simplest: kicking.
“Get a kickboard and do laps,” he said. “It’s a huge piece. It adds yardage, helps you gain strength and teaches correct body positioning.”
There is no shortage of pools in which to practice here in the Vail Valley. From the Vail Racquet Club in East Vail to the Gypsum Recreation Center and in between, there are plenty of options for getting your feet wet. Options for instruction include both group and private classes.
Though it may have been years since you first wobbled your way down the road on your new two-wheeler, getting back on a bike is as easy as, well, riding a bike. But even with the basics down, there are still some tips and tricks that will make the ride portion of the triathlon even smoother.
Start with the gear. Contrary to what is seen on the roads and trails, it’s not necessary to drop three paychecks on a new ride.
“You don’t need the most expensive, fanciest equipment,” said Brett Donelson, executive director of The Cycle Effect. “However, I do recommend getting your bike fit by a professional, someone like Jonathan at Venture Sports. You’re going to spend a lot of time on it and you want to make sure your body is comfortable.”
From there, it just boils down to making a plan and setting realistic goals. There are hundreds of training plans both online and at the library; for more personalized help, hire a coach.
“Following a plan, whether from a coach or a book, will teach you a pace that your body can adapt to,” Donelson said. “You can’t go from biking zero miles to 50 miles in a week and expect to stay injury free.”
One piece of equipment that can be helpful in implementing the plan is a basic bike computer. Ranging in price from $30 to $300, it’s not necessary to buy the top-of-the-line computer, but it is important to have a way to time intervals, calculate distances and makes sure you’re hitting the targets from the plan.
A common source of anxiety on a bike is the “what if.” What if I get a flat tire? What if slip a chain? A little knowledge can go a long way toward alleviating these fears. Venture Sports offers free clinics that teach these and other useful skills. Call the Avon location at 970-949-1318 for details on clinics in May.
When you’re ready to start riding, there are great options for both road and trail rides. Donelson recommends Brush Creek Road in Eagle for road riding as it’s a steady hill suitable for intervals, long steady stages, technique and climbing work.
For honing your skills on a mountain bike, the new Haymaker trail in Eagle is his pick for completing shorter, heavier intervals and working on cornering skills while building up confidence.
Running is the last portion of a triathlon and, after swimming and biking, can be the most difficult. While it seems straightforward (one foot in front of the other), there are tips for finishing this portion strong.
“Find a group,” suggested Erinn Hoban, Master’s swim coach at Homestead and Avon Recreation District. An amateur triathlete, Hoban admitted that the run was her least favorite portion of the event. “If you don’t like a certain aspect, go with other people. I’ve found that when I run with a group of people, I run faster, I run farther, I run longer.”
The beauty of a triathlon, though, is the fact that you don’t have to put in the same mileage as you would a longer race, like a half marathon, said Josiah Middaugh, a professional triathlete and endurance coach. Instead, you can progress to longer lengths gradually but still put in a fewer number of miles than someone who is training for a distance race.
One aspect that’s unique to triathlons is the transition between the cycling portion to the running segment. Unless you practice running immediately after a bike ride, you won’t be used to the fatigue and it will cost you in your performance. Middaugh suggests practicing that transition, known as a brick, at least once a week to help adjust your body.
But ending strong isn’t always about the run itself.
“The run is still the hardest part because you’re fatigued from the other two segments,” Middaugh said. “Getting stronger in the bike actually helps with the run split because you’re not as tired from the bike.”
It’s about balance.
“Consider your training program as a whole,” Middaugh said. “You don’t have to swim like a swimmer, bike like a biker, run like a runner. You’re combining all three sports.”
This mentality can be a problem for athletes who are coming from a single sport background; they have a hard time letting go of the focus in their core sport.
“If you really want to improve in triathlons, you have to give up your strengths and work on your weaknesses.”
Hoban is leading a special triathlon preparation program called Just Try It at the Avon Recreation Center through the month of May. Taking place every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday morning from 6:30 to 7:45 a.m., this course is designed for athletes of all ability levels and allows participants to get triathlon ready in a non-intimidating environment. Just Try It costs $48 for four weeks of training; call or visit the Avon Recreation Center for more details. It’s not necessary to be a member of the rec center; the price is the same for members and non-members.
Once you’re ready, there are many opportunities to try out a triathlon in the Vail Valley. From the sprint length LGTri in Eagle and BecTri in Avon to the full length XTerra Mountain Championships in Beaver Creek, there’s a race to sign up for.
For those who’d prefer to start with just two sports, the Dunk-N-Dash biathlon consists of laps in Nottingham Lake followed by a 5K race. The first Dunk-N-Dash will take place on July 7 from 6 to 8 p.m.; subsequent races will take place each Monday through August 4.