I’d been running for a bit. Then I tried triathlon. I was no longer pure. But it was worth it. I’m not one of those hardcore types who start doing swimming and cycling on top of their weekly running miles. Andy Bullock, a BTF triathlon coach, says: “Some people from a running background do a lot of training, but they start having problems with the injuries associated with a high volume of running. So if they start triathlon, they find they can do even more training … whether that’s suitable for them or not. But it hits that urge.”
So, for them, it’s a way of staying super-fast without crashing and burning. That wasn’t me. Inexperienced, tubby, 40+. So taking up triathlon training meant doing swimming and cycling instead of some runs – saying a partial goodbye to running before I’d properly got into it. Still, I’m glad I did. There are some running lessons I would have got the hang of eventually, but triathlon speeded the process up. Here are four I’ve learned so far.
All that monotonous chatter about core strength is true
It wasn’t until I started swimming again that running started to feel right. Taller. Seeing things higher up than the road surface. Take a day off running to swim and you’ll also be thanked by your shoulders and upper back – the coathanger that your lungs dangle off. On the subject of lungs, swimming involves consistent tracking of your breathing. The consequence of not doing so is unpleasant and immediate. Proper breathing is a habit that puts the swimming runner at an advantage. Plus, says Bullock, “with the lower impact of swimming, your body recovers more quickly. You can then push harder in your hard runs and your running performance improves.”
Be nice to people you overtake
The lessons of mixing your sports are not all physical. For example, seasoned cyclists, as a rule, wave to each other (at least) as they pass. The better and more experienced the cyclist, the louder and more chattily they also greet each other. What they’re really saying is: this is my road, this is your road, isn’t it effing great? A few weeks ago I passed a runner on a leafy lane who looked like he’d been hammering the tarmac for many decades. If he’d been a cyclist he would have waved, hollered the time of day, and probably checked the Strava flybys when he got home to put me on his Christmas card list. This guy waved. It was enough. He was one in a hundred. I almost stopped to hug him. New runners, try being a cyclist for a day. Learn to wave and smile. It’s good for you and the sport.
Starting is difficult
Starts at mass running events. Oh my. There are probably thousands of people slower than you, and thousands faster. Unless you’ve put yourself in just the right place, you’re going to be dancing around like a mountain goat for the first couple of kilometres (and that’s reckoning without the thousands of other people who haven’t put themselves in the right place). Triathlons are crash courses in this kind of skill. Book yourself in for Blenheim or a similar multi-thousand triathlon. Arrange your bits on a napkin-sized towel with your bike dangling over your head, looking like a nob in your wetsuit. On a giant red carpet. In the rain. The situation virtually compels you to exchange self-deprecating comments with the identical two saps 10cm to your left and right. Try to borrow stuff you’ve forgotten. Lend them stuff they’ve forgotten. Lollop into transition with your neoprene skin hanging off your belly. Slip and slide out with a bike. Hobble back with a bike. Run out with jelly legs. Watch out, all the time, for panicky fellow racers, and casually sauntering types who haven’t started yet or who have finished and are back to collect their stuff. After all that, negotiating a starting line for a run – and not shoving people around like Robocop – will be second nature.
Did someone say jelly legs?
The final stage of the triathlon. Off the bike, into your plimmies, and off you go, looking like the conquering hero you are. Except what the hell has happened to your legs? Wobbly, embarrassing – dammit, you might even fall over. The scientists call this jelly legs. The physiological explanation: your legs go suddenly from roundy-roundy to bouncy-bouncy and they don’t want to. If you train enough on brick sessions (doing a bit of running straight after your rides), you’ll help mitigate the effect. But will this also help your running, longer term? My instinct has been that anything that turns my legs to mush like brick sessions do, and then slowly rebuilds them, will help. Does Andy Bullock agree? “If you do those brick sessions enough, you find your legs are tired, but it’s a different kind of tired,” he says. There are running benefits – not least psychological ones – to bringing on jelly legs outside of a race. “If you practice running tired, and holding your form through the fatigue, you know and understand your form and technique, and how to hold on to that as best you can. And going from the bike to the run is a different way of inducing that fatigue.”
If “holding on as best you can” rings a bell for you as a runner, give triathlon a go. Rather than making you a jack-of-all-trades, it could help you be a master of your run.