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A World Inside: A Look at the Big Shift in How We’re Racing and Training

From fresh newbies to Kona medalists, advances indoors are changing the way triathletes are embracing the sport.

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From fresh newbies to Kona medalists, advances indoors are changing the way triathletes are embracing the sport.

Two years ago, I was training for my first Ironman. I was putting in a lot of effort and training volume, and despite some injuries—but also because of them—I felt pretty badass. That feeling took a hit when I found out that someone I worked with was training to do an indoor, full-distance Ironman. “What the heck!” I thought. “Why on earth would you do something like that?”

Then I found out: It’s cheaper (you might only need a single gym membership), and you don’t have to worry about travel, bad weather, and so on. On top of this, my friend was raising money for a charity; though she spent the whole day inside the gym by herself, she later posted the achievement on Instagram to social media acclaim.

But indoor triathlons are not only the lonely projects of some very inspired athletes, they’re also becoming more and more popular in gyms and fitness centers—both as a way to offer variation to members (like in short ones that you can complete in less than an hour) and as a friendlier way to get into the sport. Some of these events are run as team events where athletes rotate between pool lanes—or rowing machines if the pool is not available—and stationary bikes and treadmills. While this may bend the definition of “tri” at times, it does the trick.

Scottish athlete Emma Guthrie is a London-based triathlete who has taken part in an indoor triathlon. It was six years ago at her local gym.

“It was purely a fitness challenge for members of the gym,” she says. “I remember we had to book a spot to do it because we didn’t race at the same time.” The race was a super-sprint: 400-meter swim in the pool, 6 miles on a stationary bike, and just under two miles on the treadmill.

Guthrie used a normal tri-suit and after the swim she put on a pair of trainers that she later used for the run. “I got out the pool feeling like you do at the end of the Critical Swim Speed test [swimming’s Functional Threshold Power-equivalent test], but then had to run across the gym reception to get onto the stationary bike, which was much harder to get comfortable and settle on because of its shape and position. The bike also had to set at a certain level and you weren’t allowed to keep it on the easiest one.”

Despite the short distance, she still had a good takeaway. “You definitely got that speed buzz like when you need to get the transition fast. And I definitely remember running on jelly legs, so it was a good practice.”

In the U.K., where the triathlon scene has increased largely in proportion since the exploits of a few national-hero Olympic medalists, Triathlon England—the national federation—has been powering a project called “Go Tri.” The aim of Go Tri is to offer training sessions and races of manageable distance to get beginners into triathlon at an affordable price.

In the U.S., Life Time Fitness’ large indoor series has been gaining momentum since its inception in 2009. Life Time’s events have racers try to complete as much distance in a given time, rather than the fastest time in a given distance (10-minute swim, 10-minute transition, 30-minute stationary ride, 5-minute transition, 20-minute treadmill run). With an indoor season that stretches from January to April, participants not only compete at individual races at their local Life Time Fitness gym, but also compete for spots on a national leaderboard. This year, most races topped out at just under 100 racers per event; last year, the series saw over 6,000 participants total, with over half completing a tri for the first time.

However, indoor tri is not only a phenomenon to make a gym session more fun or help people to get into the sport. Especially in countries where the winter is dark and cold, indoor training can be a necessity: On an indoor trainer, the absence of traffic, red-lights, and icy roads make a training session truly effective. Canadian pro and 2017 Ironman World Championship runner-up, Lionel Sanders has always been an indoor adherent, who trains indoors most of the time—even in the summer.

Asked whether he would normally pick indoor or outdoor riding, Sanders has no doubt: “I would pick outdoors on the back patio, out in the sun, but on [online training platform] Zwift. I love the sun and fresh air, but I think the roads are dangerous and the quality of training is not as good as on the virtual roads. For the entire summer you will find me out on the back porch, working on my tan and my VO2 max.”

On Feb. 24, Sanders smashed yet another monster trainer session on Zwift. He competed in Zwift’s Canadian National Championship and in 1 hour 30 minutes of workout he averaged 361 watts, with a peak of 394 watts for a 20-minute segment and 506 watts for one minute. Sanders was dropped in the first climb—a virtual one, albeit—but worked hard to get back in the pack and eventually finished fourth.

Sanders, a Zwift ambassador, is on the platform almost every day, and he uses the app both for his rides rides and runs. For him Zwift is not only a way to avoid “staring at a wall,” but a real way to improve his performances and to get social.

“I enter in a race or two every week,” he says, “which pushes me to the absolute limit, resulting in improved VO2 max and lactate threshold. I used to slog through the indoor sessions, but now I actually enjoy them and look forward to them. There are lots of people on there who I see regularly, so there is a social component as well.”

In recent years, the growing success of Zwift—first in cycling and now also in multisport—has switched riders’ attention to the indoor scene. Zwift is not only a more engaging way to beat the boredom of indoor training, but it has become an effective tool for training sessions (and races, as Sanders has proved).

In February, the Long Beach-based company launched both its running version—which can be played on laptops and iOS systems (Android is a target for 2018)—and the Specialized Zwift Triathlon Academy, a project that is going to scout four talents worldwide and support them to achieve the ultimate triathlon dream: to qualify and race in Kona.

Zwift and Specialized will equip the riders with smart trainers, treadmills, a Retül bike fitting, wind-tunnel testing in California, a full S-Works package (S-Works Shiv, road shoes, Evade helmet and apparel) and will also cover the team’s expenses throughout the season. One of the program’s mentors, who will follow the age groupers through their quest, is another 2017 Kona runner-up, the U.K.’s Lucy Charles.

Like Sanders, Charles is also a Zwift ambassador and uses Zwift for her training all year, not only in the winter.

“For me it is much more about effective training rather than just avoiding bad weather,” she says. “[Indoor training] allows me to focus on hitting power targets in a controlled environment without worrying about traffic or weather conditions. Zwift makes the process more fun but also more effective because I upload my workouts and make sure I complete every interval. It is so cool to see two brands such as Specialized and Zwift putting this project together to give top amateurs the edge in Kona.”