In 1982, sports fans watching ABC’s “Wide Word of Sports” saw the grueling Ironman Triathlon competition for the first time. The emotionally charged broadcast of Julie Moss crawling across the finish line on her hands and knees to capture second place motivated thousands of runners, cyclists and swimmers to enter a triathlon event.
Today, USA Triathlon, the sport’s governing body, sanctions more than 2,000 triathlon events and has enjoyed more than a decade of steady growth in participation. The slow economy hasn’t changed that growth curve.
Cindi Bannink, owner of Madison Multisport in Madison, Wisconsin, and a USA Triathlon-certified coach, is a USA Triathlon All American and Hawaii Ironman World Championship finisher. Bannink describes triathlon’s appeal.
“Triathlons present a challenge to a lot of people. The marathon has gone through a huge explosion and people are looking for the next challenge,” she says.
Finding a new way to test oneself is one of the main reasons for the increased interest in triathlons. Runners who have suffered injuries have also looked to triathlons as a way to cross train and recover.
Frank Dobbs, owner and race director of the Lake Geneva Triathlon, is a former marathoner who switched to triathlon because of health problems. “Triathlons are much better on you than running. Cross-training with swimming and biking are less jarring to one’s joints. People in their 40s are certainly attracted to triathlons for that reason,” Dobbs says.
Across the Midwest, triathlons are catching on. And sprint distance events (typically a quarter-mile swim, 16-mile bike, 5K run) are a relatively easy way for first-time competitors to experience a multidiscipline event.
“The races themselves and the distances aren’t that intimidating,” says Jerry Landmark, a three-time Ironman Wisconsin finisher and a USA Triathlon-certified coach in Fitchburg, Wisconsin.
While some weekend warriors may perceive triathletes as “überathletes,” that’s not usually the case. Jeremy Sartain, a USA Triathlon coach in the Twin Cities, says, “If somebody who is uncertain about triathlon shows up at a race, they are going to see every size, shape and background possible participating in the race. That’s more inviting to them.”
Triathletes come in all shapes, sizes and ages. “It’s not just the 4 percent body fat elite athletes. If you look at the professionals that’s the case, but the vast majority of age group participants are just common people,” Landmark says.
In fact, people with very little athletic experience are registering for sprint distance events. Tim Yount, senior vice president of USA Triathlon marketing and communications, reports, “We are seeing more and more people coming into the sport from sedentary lives. They are just getting off the couch. They are learning that triathlon is not about the Ironman but doing something that can be life changing.”
Bannink adds, “It’s actually quite amazing to watch Ironman races and you get the whole spectrum of ages and body types. That’s why people get inspired by it. The average person who wants to make a change in their lifestyle can participate in triathlon.”
Like any athletic endeavor, newcomers jumping into the sport often make mistakes they do not repeat once they have a little more race experience.
“The number one mistake is overtraining,” says Kris Swarthout, a USA Triathlon-certified coach, Midwest regional president for USA Triathlon and co-owner SCS Multisport LLC in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. “Some people train way too much in comparison to what they actually have to do. That usually results in burnout or injury.
“The second is technique. Too many athletes go out and bang out a bike ride at 22 mph, swim really hard for 30 minutes or go run around the lake as fast as you can. They go out and race and train in the same zone. They don’t go slow or fast but stay in the gray zone. Rest and periodization in a balanced training program is the key to advancement.”
Practicing every discipline, including transitions to replicate race day conditions, is important. “When you get off the bike and start running your thighs feel like rubber for about a mile. Unless you get used to those kinds of feelings, you may be disappointed,” Dobbs warns.
Open water swimming come race day is also an eye-opener for those used to swimming in an indoor pool. “People who just swim laps then jump in the lake wonder why some Joe Schmoe swims over them. No one will swim over you at the Y. When you have people’s elbows hitting you in the face it gets a little hairy. Losing your rhythm is not a good experience,” Dobbs says.
Beginning triathletes can find training tips in many magazines, books and websites. Although the information is readily available, translating that into a personal program is challenging. More than ever before, recreational-level athletes are hiring coaches to help them meet their goals.
“There is so much information out there,” Bannink says. “How do you narrow that down and funnel it into something that is going to work specifically for you? A coach can say, ‘Here’s where you are, here’s where you want to be, here’s the plan.'”
Bannink says she learned this at the start of her triathlon career. “It wasn’t until I had a coach that I really excelled in the sport. They helped me improve on my weaknesses and develop my strengths. Coaching takes it from being overwhelming to something that is manageable.”
Preparing for a triathlon requires balancing the competing needs of family, work and training. A coach can help reduce the stress of juggling equally important responsibilities.
“We become more of a life coach. We are the instruments that create balance for people,” Swarthout says. “As coaches, we ask you to tell us what your limits are, tell us what your boundaries are, tell us what your goals are and let us create path.”
Personal attention and feedback from a certified coach offers significant insights. For example, Landmark offers, “There’s a misperception about triathlons that you need to do a lot of training. That’s not the case. If you do the right kind of training and work things through in a progressive way, you can get by with very little time training.”
Once running, cycling and swimming enthusiasts put the three disciplines together for the first time, their reaction is to look for another race, another challenge. “They often want to do a longer race,” Dobbs says. “If they did a sprint they will do an Olympic the next year and then go to a half Ironman.”
Finishing no longer becomes the only measure of success. “The first time you do a triathlon, it might be about completion,” Swarthout says. “Then they say they want to go faster and go a little longer. That’s when they look into getting coach to take them to an Ironman or half Ironman level.
“The taste of accomplishment at the finish draws them back. That’s very addictive.”
Bannink says, “Once people are introduced to the culture of triathlon they are attracted to that as well. There is camaraderie within the triathlon community. They might not get that feeling in other parts of their life. The people who fall in love with the sport are those who start with the sprint distances and move up. They progressively move through the sport.”