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Thrice as tough

A triathlon is the final test of endurance. If you finish it, you will emerge stronger and fitter. Sai Raje tells more.

health and fitness Updated: Feb 06, 2010 15:55 IST
Sai Raje

When he finished his 1.5 km swim and got on to the bicycle, Matt Barrett thought his legs had turned into jelly. It took a long while for the usually speedy cyclist to get steady and increase his pace again.

“After a long swim, my legs just didn’t seem to have enough blood supply to start cycling,” says Barrett, 48, who runs an adventure tour company.

Many seasoned marathoners go through this experience when they graduate to a triathlon. A triathlon — the ultimate endurance sport that brings together swimming, cycling and sprinting — can be very demanding even on seasoned long-distance runners. After all, a non-stop 1.5 km swim in open water, followed by a 40 km cycle ride and a 10 km run isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.

So what’s the draw?
Unlike some other sports, a triathlon demands fantastic physical and mental fitness to begin with. Most triathletes admit that the experience is both punishing and exhilarating at the same time. So why would anyone in their right mind train to put themselves through such a punishing routine?

For India’s lone champion triathlon athlete, Anuradha Vaidyanathan, 29, it was about attaining the next level of fitness. “I had been an avid long distance runner and cyclist and an occasional swimmer for several years. And about six and half years ago, I thought, why not pursue all the three together in a triathlon?” she says.

Since 2005, Vaidyanathan has competed in several Ironman triathlons among many other marathons and in 2009 she finished sixth in the Ultraman Canada (see box).

Back to fitness
Others like 41-year-old senior sales professional and ex-university swimming champion Kiran Balram, began triathlon training to get back to the fitness level he had lost to erratic work hours and smoking. “When I started swimming again, I was appalled at how unfit I had become. I quit smoking overnight and got back to regular exercise,” he says.

Once his weight was in check, Balram took to running 5-10 km distances and gradually took to cycling as well. “Now, I actually simulate an entire Olympic-distance triathlon (1.5 km swim, 40 km cycling and 10 km run), every two weeks or so,” adds Balram, who is now eager to take part in his first India International Triathlon at Goa this year.

“Triathlon is the ultimate form of cross training that exercises all your muscle groups as opposed to a single discipline sport,” says triathlete Peter Hakim, 32, who has completed the Ironman Singapore 70.3 km triathlon.

Triathlon trained
Training for a sport that’s several times more intensive than a full marathon is not easy, especially when you have a demanding day job as well. Entrepreneur Rukmini Dahanukar, 36, has been an avid long distance runner for over five years now and finished her first sprint triathlon in the UK last year.

She makes sure she completes 2-3 sessions each of swimming, cycling and running every week. “I could run about 8 km one day, cycle for 25-30 km the next and swim for a couple of hours on the third. On days when I train intensively, I may do both cycling and running on the same day,” says Dahanukar.

These non-stop cycling-running sessions, also called ‘bricks’ sessions, make the transition from cycling to running easier in an actual triathlon.

Some strength workouts
Some amount of regular strength or weight training also goes a long way in keeping the muscles in good shape. “I make it a point to weight train thrice a week and try to keep the workout as balanced as possible. For instance, I combine a cycling session with an upper body workout and a swimming session with a lower body workout,” adds Dahanukar.

But while weight training is good, it doesn’t help to overdo it. “You don’t want to strength train too much and build up too much bulk. Cycles can’t bear too much weight over long distances and the bulk makes it difficult to run as well,” says Barrett.

Your triathlon training, according to Vaidyanathan, depends on two things. “It’s whether your goal is to finish the triathlon or to better your time. It’s all up to you how you train then,” she says.

Eating well
The energy that you burn during triathlon training also needs to be replenished fast. A balanced diet rich in proteins and carbohydrates works well for most athletes. Some athletes opt for diet supplements as well, but it’s best to check with a doctor before. It also helps to be extra careful a couple of weeks before a race. “I drink 3-4 litres of water every day and avoid alcohol and coffee for at least two weeks before a race to avoid dehydration,” says Dahanukar.

But while the body goes through intense physical preparation for a gruelling sport like the triathlon, it’s a rock-like mental resolve that athletes finally depend on to get them past the finish line. “Of course, there are moments during the race when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to quit. But I thought I had come too far to not cross the finish line and kept going,” says Vaidyanathan of her 2009 Ultraman Canada experience.