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The Accidental Triathlete: Training For The Unknown

Television personality and writer Mike Senese charts his transformative journey from car accident victim to first-time triathlete.

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In a three-part series (read part one here), television personality and writer Mike Senese charts his transformative journey from car accident victim to first-time triathlete. From Day 1 of training with renowned coach Ian Murray to crossing the finish line of his first race, Triathlete is along for the ride.

Over the past few months, I’ve gone from a triathlon “zero” to a full-on training machine. I’ve learned the basic swim/bike/run mechanics and key terminology and was given a road map that will take me from a post-car-accident state to being a multisport athlete. At this point, I’d go as far as ranking myself a 1.5 on a scale of 10, although there are some days I feel that scale might go to 1000. I’m inspired, excited and pushing hard, but there are a lot of challenges along the route to the finish line of my first race.

With my initial assessment and coaching session with Level 3 coach and L.A. Tri Club founder Ian Murray complete, I began my journey into the wild world of athletic conditioning. Right off the bat, I slammed into a hurdle that I hadn’t anticipated: locating places to train.

I haven’t been a member of a pool since I was splashing around with friends during the summers in junior high school. Friends and websites like Swimmersguide.com directed me to a batch of nearby locations that offered lap swimming.

For the first few weeks, during my sunny laps I focused on learning to swim properly through slow, simple exercises: making elbow-upward triangles with my arms as they exit the water; tracing the tips of my fingers just over the surface; and reentering the water right where the forearm of my extended arm begins; rotating my torso to help pull my leading arm back and drive me forward; keeping my head facing downward to keep my body streamlined, while timing my breathing to not disrupt my stroke (and not suck in a lung-full of pool water, which I tend to do). Twenty-five yards at a time, I’d swim my way across the pool, proud of myself for completing a full length. Eventually, 25 yards stretched into 50, and then into 100. As a non-swimmer, four lengths of the pool was a very gratifying achievement, but that excitement quickly waned when I realized my triathlon swim is 66 lengths! Even with occasional rests, this distance was daunting. My new goal in sight, I pushed to increase my endurance as I concentrated on maintaining proper form. Strangely, this challenge made me more excited to go to the pool; even stranger, I achieved it a couple of weeks later. Forty-five minutes of slow, gliding strokes and periodic pauses, and I had swum the total distance of the upcoming triathlon, albeit in a clear, heated pool with walls to grasp and kick off of, and with a lane all to myself.

Then suddenly, my swim progress was put in perilous danger: Summer ended, schools started back up, and all the outdoor pools closed for the season. I eventually located an older YMCA not too far from my house, a facility in desperate need of updating but with a small indoor pool that offered occasional lap swim times. It was a far cry from the championship-caliber spot I got accustomed to, where the warm sun would cast a sharp shadow of my silhouette on the pool bottom. But I was still able to get in and swim. And that’s all I really needed.

After getting comfortable with the essentials, I found a few favorite swimming drills. “Descends,” where you swim a given distance three times, each interval faster than the previous, have been great not just for increasing my speed, but also for helping me detect that my form falls apart as I attempt to go faster—my strokes per length increase from 17 at my easiest pace to 26 when I’m going all-out. Coach Ian noticed that I take about five breaths per length at full speed, with a bad habit of lowering my leading hand to help lift my head. This is causing unnecessary drag, and is a tendency I need to correct before the big race. I also like the drill where I have 30 seconds to swim a length, including rest, before I have to return to the other side of the pool, again in 30 seconds. This gets challenging over a long stretch of time, especially when my form starts to go to pieces. I have to pace myself to make sure I have adequate time for recovery but not push so hard that I need extra time to catch my breath.

Biking also brought some location challenges. While I’m much more of a cyclist than a swimmer, most of the riding I’ve done in the past 10 years has been for casual commuting. I now need to pedal hard and fast for distances that would accustom my body to the biking portion of the triathlon. Unfortunately, I live in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, where cars are king and bikes are largely ignored. After some not-so-successful rides (turns out downtown Los Angeles isn’t great for cycling) I settled on riding a nearby four-lane boulevard that heads east for miles and is relatively car-free after the evening commute. This became my standard spot for the next few months, riding through the night into the San Gabriel Valley and back, keeping my cadence high and focusing on full pedal rotations.

After getting comfortable on my high-performance triathlon bike (and learning to change a couple of flat tires), coach Ian sent me my first major bike challenge: ride to the top of Angeles Crest, a steep and winding road up the mountains on the north side of Los Angeles. He suggested it would be a two-hour ride from my house to the peak. I packed an energy bar, water and windbreaker and set off, excited to test my legs after all those night rides. I had heard that training on hills is a lot more intense than on flat surfaces, and that day I found out how true that is. Just getting up the slight but constant slope to the base of the climb 9 miles away left me gasping. I started to ration my water after the first mile up the mountain, moving slow and sweating hard. The two-hour mark passed with a few miles’ climb still ahead of me, and I began considering turning around. As the long shadows crept longer and began cooling the air, I rode onto a pullout, looked at the spectacular view of Los Angeles below me, and realized that training for a triathlon gives a lot more than just physical fitness. It has brought me to amazing places that I had never seen before, and it allows  me to rediscover the natural beauty of the outdoors after spending so much of my adult life inside cars or staring at computer screens. Inspired, I pushed onward and upward. Altogether it took an hour longer than planned, but I finally made it to the top—and then enjoyed the reward of a 30mph downhill coast.

Running doesn’t have the same location difficulties as biking and swimming—I just put on my shoes and go—but it’s starting to seem like it could be the biggest challenge on race day, especially after 1500m of swimming and 40K on the bike. Of the three race components, it is the one I had previously done the most, yet it’s the part of training that works me the hardest and pushes my heart rate sky-high. This is especially true when doing intervals, one of the most taxing drills in my routine. Running is also the area where I notice the most injury potential. At the start of training, I nursed a sore Achilles, and later in my progress I started to notice a funny feeling in my adductor. Thankfully, coach Ian has been quick to action with these discomforts, making sure I treated them properly to avoid serious damage.

With two months remaining until my first race, I’m thrilled with my progress, but occasionally still get concerned that I won’t be able to consecutively do all three segments at the level needed to finish. My huge respect for the triathletes who compete regularly has increased even further, especially when I compare my training results to their speeds and distances—but at this point I’m most envious that they know what an actual race is like. For me, that day is coming quickly.

Stay tuned for part three in our August issue. Mike Senese is the host of science shows like “PunkinChunkin,” “How Stuff Works” and “Catch It Keep It.” He also writes about technology for Wired, teaches science and inspires people to build stuff and make more pizza through his DIY website Mikesenese.com/doit.

The Approach

Getting myself into triathlon condition means climbing a serrated training pyramid. As guided by coach Ian Murray, my daily workouts increase in intensity every day, with a slight drop between the end of one week and the start of the next. I’ve learned that this is a pretty common and effective technique, and for me it has worked well—each day brings a hard challenge, but no beyond-my-limits, vomit-inducing, enthusiasm-threatening sessions. The activities are helping build a smart foundation and encourage proper form. For a beginner like me, this is very important—most of what I am doing right now is brand-new to my body, and I’m only starting to develop the tissues and muscles—both primary and supporting—that are used in each of the race segments. This is doubly true for me due to the physical setbacks caused by my car accident. Even though my body feels healed and my daily routines are stress-free, I have to be careful with these new activities and make sure to focus on slow, deliberate movements that emphasize proper form.

Mike’s Early workouts

Swim

1700 total. Main set: 9x[50 drill on 1:00 (do each three times: three-quarters catch up, finger tip drag, silent swim), 100 swim on 2:10].
Why
: Prioritize “fixes” during 50 drill, then 100 swim to solidify skills. The time standards make it easy to focus on technique as opposed to fitness.

Bike

Hill repeats. Start with a 15-minute warm-up. Then climb a steady hill 7×5 minutes up. Climb seated, staying aerobic, in a big gear at 60RPM with a mental focus on “perfect circles” with 90 seconds recovery. Finish with 20 minutes easy on flat.
Why:
Build bike-specific strength for future sustained, hard efforts on flat in aero.

Run

10x(run 2 minutes with perfect form, walk 1 minute).
Why:
The greatest risk of injury is from pushing the run too hard too soon. Mike and I agreed that he wanted to run perfectly not just for his spring race but until he’s 90 years old. We shortened his stride, moved his foot-ground contact point so that it was just in front of his center of mass and determined that he could hold his new perfect run for two minutes maximum before requiring a reprieve. This set the parameters for our first two weeks of running.

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