Triathlete’s Beginner’s Guide: Learning To Balance All Three Sports

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Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Over the next few weeks we will introduce a variety of articles aimed at helping beginner’s to learn more about the sport of Triathlon. First, Senior Editor Matt Fitzgerald explains why the surest way to improve as a beginner is to become more balanced in all three sports.

There aren’t many triathletes who are more or less equally competent in swimming, cycling and running, but there are some. Michellie Jones comes to mind. Balance is the formula that has driven Jones, the legendary Australian, to two ITU World Championship titles, an Olympic silver medal and an Ironman World Championship victory. She has always been among the best swimmers, cyclists and runners in the sport but has never the best in any single discipline. Consider Jones’ victorious performance in the 2006 Ironman World Championship. She recorded the fifth-fastest swim, the sixth-fastest bike and the fourth-fastest run of the day. How’s that for balance?

Some triathletes have achieved a very high level of success without balance. Jimmy Riccitello was all about the bike. His mediocre swim forced him to play catch-up in most races, and his mediocre run caused him to get caught in many others. But his cycling prowess was so great that he still managed to win some big events, including the St. Croix International Triathlon and the Buffalo Springs Half-Ironman. Australia’s Mirinda Carfrae is just the opposite. Her bike leg is weak compared to that of other female long-distance triathletes on her level, but she swims well and crushes the run. That’s enough to make her first at finish lines in races such as the 2007 Ironman World Championship 70.3.

It would be a mistake, however, to look at athletes like Riccitello and Carfrae, who succeed despite a clearly weak discipline, and assume that you can do the same. First, weakness is relative. U.S. Olympian Matt Reed’s run is weak compared to his swim and bike, but he still runs a 32:30 10K split in World Cup races. Your weak discipline represents your greatest opportunity to improve as a triathlete. You can only improve your splits in your best triathlon leg so much. The real opportunity to shave minutes off your overall finish time lies in becoming a more balanced triathlete by shoring up your greatest weakness. Even if your weakness never becomes a true strength, you stand to become a higher-performing triathlete by elevating your weak discipline from an embarrassment to a non-liability. You may never win races in your weak leg, but at least you can stop losing them there.

There’s no secret to shoring up a weakness. You just have to work hard at it. But, of course, this is exactly what most triathletes don’t do. If you asked a roomful of other triathletes to first name their weakest discipline, then name the discipline they least enjoy training in, and then name the discipline they spend the least time training in, most of them would speak the same word three times. It is human nature to enjoy what one does well and avoid doing what one does not do well. But indulging this facet of human nature leads triathletes into stagnation. If you really want to bolster your weak discipline, sooner or later you have to suck it up and work hard on it.Some coaches advise triathletes to spend the most time on their weakest discipline. I see nothing wrong with maintaining this sort of strategic imbalance-called a single-sport focus period-for relatively short stretches of time, but in the long term, triathletes who take this approach tend to lose fitness in their strongest discipline, which is also undesirable. By doing a roughly equal number of workouts in all three disciplines, you get something close to the best of both worlds: You do enough to get stronger in each discipline and weaker in none.

Next up Fitzgerald explains how to incorporate single-sport focus periods into a training plan.

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