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The triathlon is a new sport that grew out of the thirst for new ways to compete. It was devised for runners who became bored with 5-or 10-kilometer races and sought new means of competition. The sport is growing by leaps and bounds; about 400,000 Americans now train for triathlons, and it may well become the sport of the 1990s.

The whole concept of cross-training can be traced to triathletes. Until recently, most athletes trained for just one sport and suffered a high rate of overuse injuries because of the constant repetition. Alternating activities, going from swimming to biking to running, helps triathletes reduce their overuse injuries. Cross-training also helps relieve the monotony of repeating the same training program over and over again.


A popular misconception is that triathlons are only for elite athletes. Anyone who enjoys fitness and takes the time to train can complete a triathlon. The average triathlete is 35 years old, enters triathlons primarily for fitness reasons, and trains for an average of 14 hours a week.

One-third of triathletes are women. Female triathletes range from high school students to full-time mothers to businesswomen and professionals. Women, however, should be wary of developing amenorrhea (lack of menstrual periods) from overtraining. Stress fractures and runner's knee are also more common among female triathletes.

Not every triathlon is like the Hawaiian Ironman, the grueling combination of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26-mile run. Other, much shorter, triathlons cater to the growing number of competitors of all ages. These include sprint triathlons (half-mile swim, 12-mile ride, and 3-mile run) and Olympic-distance races (0.9-mile swim, 25-mile ride, and 6-mile run).


The triathlon brings into play virtually every part of the body, which makes it probably the most complete sporting event. Swimming builds the upper body, specifically the chest and shoulders. Running primarily works the extensor muscle groups of the lower body, namely, the lower-back muscles, the buttock muscles, the hamstrings, and the calves. Biking brings in the flexor muscles, particularly the quadriceps, which are not strengthened that much from running.

As a general conditioning sport, the triathlon is much better than any of its three separate components. Each of the three sports requires good aerobic training, but there is little crossover from the lower to the upper body in aerobic training. Triathlons train both the lower body and the upper body aerobically.

The diversity of activities allows you to train even if you have an injury. For example, if you suffer tibial stress syndrome from running, and all you did for exercise was run, you would have to wait until the injury healed and then change the amount you ran. But a triathlete can train by swimming or biking until the tibial pain subsides.

Another example is shoulder pain from swimming. Instead of being forced to stay out of the water or to use a kickboard, a triathlete can bike or run until the shoulder improves. A triathlete can always do some type of training activity while rehabilitating.

Doctors know that athletes decondition by 50 percent in a matter of a few weeks while resting an injury. One of the precepts of sports medicine is to substitute other activities to keep injured athletes from deconditioning. Even when hurt, triathletes can usually continue to condition themselves.


Triathletes suffer all of the injuries associated with the three individual sports. By combining three sports, you increase the variety of potential injuries. However, the incidence of each type of injury is lower, and the injuries are usually less extensive.

Surveys of top triathletes show that they often experience lower-back pain, sciatica, knee injuries, iliotibial band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, ankle tendinitis, and stress fractures.

Refer to the swimming, cycling, and running chapters for more details about specific injuries. Keep in mind, however, that triathletes have an advantage. Where the treatment for an overuse injury indicates "rest," substitute "change activity" as the treatment for triathletes.

Since each sport accentuates different muscles, start slowly on a new sport. You can be aerobically fit and in good shape for the sport in which you are experienced, but you may develop soreness in muscles you never knew you had. Novice cyclists can experience hand problems, such as carpal tunnel syndrome caused by gripping the handlebars too tightly, as well as lowerback strain and buttock muscle strain from riding too many miles. Beginning runners are vulnerable to problems ranging from foot injuries to runner's knee to tibial stress fractures aggravated by pounding the feet against the ground. New swimmers may develop shoulder pains from bringing the arm up over the head.

Cramping due to muscle fatigue is a common problem for triathletes. About two-thirds of all competitive triathletes report cramping, usually during the run phase of a race. Drink lots of liquids and eat potassium-rich foods, such as bananas, oranges, and tomatoes, a few days before an event to help prevent your muscles from cramping.

If muscles do cramp during a race, slow your pace. It may be necessary to stop. A stitch in the side is usually a sign of spasms in your diaphragm muscles, which help expand and contract the lungs. Breathe slowly and regularly, and you'll work your way through the cramp.


Some triathletes, like marathoners, feel compelled to put in prodigious weekly distances. But the more they do, the more overuse problems they can experience. Runners who attempt to maintain their normal mileage while adding swimming and cycling to their routines put themselves at increased risk of overuse injuries.

Distance runners and swimmers are the most prone to be obsessed with their mileage. However, there is a point at which you gain nothing from doing more. You know you are overtraining when you always feel tired while exercising, you have difficulty falling and staying asleep, and your resting heart rate is elevated.

Chronic fatigue is a common syndrome among endurance athletes due to changes in their immune function. They become more susceptible to viral infections and suffer many coughs and colds. Take a week off after a triathlon race or a day off after a heavy training day. This can prevent minor injuries from escalating into major ones.

How to Improve Your Times

Balanced Training

The trick to becoming a good triathlete is to train to your highest level in each sport but to stay below your injury threshold. That is, train to your capacity, but don't overtrain and thereby risk repetitive, overuse injuries.

Many triathletes hold back on their running programs because running has the highest injury rate of the three sports. As a result, however, they may be undertrained for the running portion of events and lose precious time.

Each triathlete must determine the level at which he or she can train for each sport to get maximum performance while minimizing injuries. Balancing your training along this fine line can make you a better performer. This comes with experience and knowing how much your body can do.

You should monitor your pulse while training. Often, you'll find that when you take up a new sport, you hit your target heart rate faster and at a lower resistance than you expected. This is particularly important in swimming, which trains both the upper and lower body.

You must spend enough time with each activity to achieve muscle growth and strengthening. You need to do an activity at least twice a week. Once you have strengthened your muscles sufficiently to handle a new activity, you can slowly incorporate another new activity into your training.

Triathletes can safely train at 75 to 90 percent capacity for five days a week. This schedule might cause injuries and burnout if you limited yourself to one activity, but with cross-training, you can maintain your aerobic conditioning while giving the muscles you worked on yesterday some time to recover today. Rest is as important as the workout. Without it, your muscles are continually torn down. Recovery is built in to cross-training because different sports use different muscles.

Once you have competed in a few races and wish to improve your time, you many want to try a triathlon camp. Most of these who attend camp do so to learn more about training techniques and to maximize their potential. You will spend a weekend or a week with elite athletes and experts who will examine your swimming, biking, and running techniques and discuss good nutrition and other training tips.

Targeted Conditioning

There are certain areas of the body you should concentrate on to increase your strength for each sport. For swimming, you need to work on the shoulders, to strengthen your pull through the water; the triceps, for that last push of the stroke; and the wrists, to help you flick your hand as it comes out of the water.

For propulsion in cycling, you need strong quadriceps muscles, which you develop with leg extensions. You also need a strong upper body for climbing hills and controlling the handlebars. You should also work on shoulder and arm strengthening.

For running, extension exercises strengthen the lower back; leg curls strengthen the hamstrings to power your stride; and toe raises build strong calf muscles, which give you that extra push at the end of your stride. Strong biceps can help control your arm swing to improve your running rhythm.


Many triathletes use large swim goggles that seal on the bony structure of the eye. These rugged goggles are more comfortable for longer swims and also provide good peripheral vision. However, they are slightly more difficult to seal than the smaller swimming goggles that cover only the eye sockets.

You can get swim goggles with tinted lenses to cut down on sun glare. I recommend goggles with fog-resistant, optical-grade lenses. Some people try to wear contact lenses underneath non-prescription swim goggles. Others prefer prescription lenses built into their swim goggles.

Look for triathlon wetsuits with the zipper in the front rather than the back. This makes the suit easier to peel off before you switch to biking. These "tri" suits also have very flexible arms to facilitate swimming motions. You can also buy a specially padded swimsuit that you can also bike and run in. This can save time in transition from one event to the next.

Another way to save time is to use lace locks. These plastic guides allow you to pull on your running shoes and lace them all in one motion so that you don't have to stop to tie your shoes.


Some triathletes suffer from anemia due to iron deficiency or have digestive tract problems because they tamper with their diets to produce the maximum amount of energy. Others become vegetarians without understanding the dangers of dietary restrictions: Avoiding fish and chicken can rob the body of valuable protein, calcium, and iron. Triathletes need a balanced diet that is very high in calories, is rich in iron, and has large amounts of protein and calcium.

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