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If the idea of a gut-busting triathlon on the open roads isn’t hardcore enough for you, look no further than off-road triathlons. This race format takes the traditional combination of swimming, mountain biking and trail running into the dirt – and yes, it’s as fun as it sounds.
With XTERRA racing and other off-road triathlons rising in popularity, it’s easier than ever to smash your next adventure race. Just make sure that you plan your post-race shower.
What is off-road triathlon and XTERRA racing?
In 1996, a group of self-described sadists created the Aquaterra race in Maui, Hawaii. Consisting of a choppy open-water swim, a hilly mountain bike-race and a grueling trail run, Aquaterra was a hardcore twist on your typical smooth surfaced triathlon. Aquaterra soon became the XTERRA series, a collection of off-road triathlons around the world.
Today, off-road triathlons are more than the XTERRA series and they aren’t as intimidating. Almost all swims are in smoother waters then the crushing Maui waves and are similar to normal open-water chop.
The first difference between a regular and an off-road triathlon is on the bike. Instead of rolling hills on pavement, the bike leg is up mountains and trails. Depending on where you live there can be a huge difference in the type of bike course.
“If you live in the Northeast, then the courses are going to be more twisty and turny with dirt. But if you live in the Southeast, there is going to be more loose rock and sand,” says Suzie Snyder, a four-time XTERRA U.S. National Champion and USA Triathlon Off-Road Athlete of the Year. Out west, you’ll find smoother riding on mountains, with fewer punchy climbs and big accelerations than you might find on the east coast.
The second difference between traditional tri and XTERRA comes on the run. Instead of smooth tarmac built for speed, off-road triathlons are trail runs that reward strength and balance. That can mean rocks, gravel, or tree branches that cascade up mountains or hills.
What are the typical XTERRA/off-road distances?
Most off-road races will have full and short course distances. But keep in mind that the bike and run legs will take longer than your typical race on pavement due to the undulating terrain.
|Full Course||Short Course|
What gear do I need for an off-road triathlon?
The gear list for off-road is mostly similar to what you’ll need for a traditional tri (check out the list here). However, anything that comes into contact with the ground during a traditional road triathlon needs to change for an off-road triathlon. That means bikes and shoes made for playing in the dirt.
No drop bars are allowed, meaning that mountain bikes with flat bars are the weapon of choice. No aerobars are allowed during off-road races (going aero on a twisty descent won’t end well). During XTERRA races and other off-road triathlons, using a gravel bike isn’t advised either, because they aren’t going to be able to handle the rough terrain and sharp turns.
When it comes to tire choice on the bike the bigger the better. Bradley Weiss, a two-time XTERRA world champion and two-time 70.3 champion, recommends racing on a 2.4 inch mountain bike tire. Getting the tire pressure to a super low 16 or 18 PSI will help with sharp turns and bumpy descents.
If you’re comfortable with clipping in and out quickly then mountain bike pedals and shoes will give you extra power and cornering. But if you’re not used to mountain bike pedals then flat pedals and shoes will work just fine.
Weiss would travel to each race with a few different pairs of shoes. He’d bring regular carbon shoes, lightweight trail-shoes with special tread pattern for technical courses, and cross-country racing shoes with large spikes for extra grip.
How is training for an off-road triathlon different from a traditional tri?
Begin with a general base phase to get into shape. Once you have a solid month of base training complete, Weiss said it’s good to follow a modified Olympic distance triathlon program for off-road races because the distances are similar. For an age-grouper that means a few intensity sessions per week and a long ride and run.
Both Snyder and Weiss recommended extra strength sessions to help athletes get over the sharp hills. Single-leg lunges, squats, and step-ups are all leg exercises that triathletes can do at home using bodyweight. Balancing on one leg for a minute can work the smaller muscles in your foot and ankles that will help bring stability for rocky trail runs. “You are using a lot more of the small muscles from your feet to your hips and your core,” Snyder said. “You need more strength and stability because of the uneven surfaces.”
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When it comes closer to your race, add in more intensity than a typical Olympic plan. “In a road triathlon you want to sit at an even effort at threshold heart rate or power and not go over. In off-road you can’t because of the sharp hills,” said Snyder. “In off-road you need to be able to go up and over threshold in short bursts and then recover on the downhills quickly.” Snyder says that the classic workout of repetitive 40 second sprints followed by 20 seconds of recovery is a perfect aerobic workout that will train the body for the race ahead.
Another classic workout from Weiss is “over-gear” bike workouts to build strength on the bike. It means putting your bike into a big ring and cycling steady at 40 or 50 RPM for 3 sets of 30 minutes to build leg-strength.
Off-road triathlon skills to practice
Flying into tight turns and going down gravelly descents require their own special set of bike handling skills. And keep in mind your heart will be thumping out of your chest and your legs will be burning with lactic acid after crushing the mountain climb. To practice technical descents while tired Weiss recommends repetitive reps of 3 to 5 minute climbs and going right back down the mountain. Your body and mind will get used to zipping through the twisty descents while exhausted.
For those who want a mastery level of bike handling than classic cycling drills like setting up a slalom course with cones, doing wheelies, and bottle pickups can give an extra edge. But riding on gravel and mountain bike trails should be enough practice for most races. Courses in XTERRA and off-road triathlons aren’t as punishing as most mountain bike races and they’re designed for your everyday rider.
If you’d like to keep your ankles in one piece then Snyder suggests changing up your running stride to survive the rocky trail runs.
“Getting comfortable with a higher turnover and moving your feet faster with shorter strides can help you adjust to the trail,” Snyder said. Keep your lead foot underneath your body so you have a strong center of gravity. To build extra ankle strength, Snyder suggests standing on one foot and closing your eyes. Do you fall over? “If you fall over easily then you need to practice. Once you’ve mastered that, move up to a pillow then to a balance board to build stabilization muscles,” Snyder said.
How do I find an off-road triathlon near me?
XTERRA has a series of races around the world that can be found in their website. For the first time the XTERRA World Championships are being held this year in Italy instead of its typical location of Hawaii.
Since 2011, the ITU has held the World Triathlon Cross Championships. Spain has hosted the most races and won the most gold medals. Notable past champions include Flora Duffy, Melanie McQuaid and Ruben Ruzafa.
USA Triathlon hosts a national championship as well. This year the U.S. gravel and off-road championships took place in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
And for those triathletes who are gravel-obsessed USA Triathlon created an eight-race gravel triathlon series in 2022.
Still up for the challenge? The best part about off-road triathlons is that its an adventure.You can throw away your watch and goal times because each course is different. Instead, you can enjoy the dirt and smile on your face.