A Sprint Triathlon is a user-friendly entry into the world of triathlons.
If you’ve ever been at the finish of the Lake Placid Triathlon, or watched a documentary of the famous (infamous?) Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, (Ironman World Championships held in Kona each year for those who have qualified), you’ve seen some graphic examples of human pain and exhaustion; physical, mental and emotional depletion.
You’ve watched masses of bodies on the run into the water, then off to bike and finally into running shoes for a grueling marathon finish. You’ve learned of countless miraculous conquests of individual athletes challenged by age, trauma, physical and mental limitations; individuals who have reached their goals – or not – in the face of unfathomable adversity.
Triathlons can be the theatre of heroics.
But, triathlons can also be within reach of the novice athlete and user-friendly. How can this be?
A triathlon comes in many shapes and sizes. The big daddy is the Full triathlon: 2.4 mile swim followed by a mere 112 mile bike race and ending with no less than a complete marathon, 26.2 miles.
The Half is just that. (The savvy call it the 70.3.) After a 1.2 mile swim and 56 mile ride, the run is sliced into 13.1 miles.
For most casual athletes, even the intermediate distances of the Olympic tri sound daunting: .93 mile swim, 24.8 mile ride and a basic 10k (6.2) mile run. These distances aren’t so bad unless you are actually racing them. (Note, many participants define their personal goal as simply to finish. Finishing = victory for some as much as coming in first = winning for others.)
The distances listed above are regulated and locked in, well, shall we say, iron? But, when it comes to the new darling of the triathlon world, the Sprint triathlon, distances vary at the discretion of the race organizers.
Sprint tris are growing in popularity for a very good reason: they are within reach of such a wide range of athletic ability that one can almost say that anyone can do them. Generally, the distances are: .5 mile swim, 10-12 or so mile bike, and roughly a 5k (3.1) mile run.
Going back to the notion that tris are user-friendly, consider this. Repetitive motions can result in overuse stresses, strains and injuries. Because training for a triathlon is divided by three, the risk of overuse injury is likewise diminished. Training for a Sprint triathlon, often provides a balanced means of challenging oneself that maintains mental, emotional and physical investment at an appropriate level and thus keeps training fresh and positive.
To learn more about Sprint triathlons, I spoke with Donna Smyers, a known and highly respected triathlete from Adamant, Central Vermont.
Smyers, a 30-year triathlete, has podiumed at Hawaii 12 times, 6 of which were age group wins. In 2014 she earned the title of National age group Champion at the Olympic distance, and World Champion at the Half-Ironman (70.3) distance. As her competitive career continues, so too does her role as coach, organizer of the Elmore Practice Triathlon Series and physical therapist.
For 20 years Smyers has treated her physical therapy patients with the same skill and commitment she dedicates to training for triathlons, marathons, time trials or cross country ski events. A glance at her academic credentials is enough to confirm her authority: BA and MS in Engineering from Dartmouth College 1979 and 1987, MS in Scientific Basis of Human Performance from University of Oklahoma 1991 and BS in Physical Therapy from University of Connecticut 1995.
The Elmore series is 9 years old. In Hartford, CT, Smyers was introduced to short distance and time efficient Sprint tris. “When I moved to Vermont, there was nothing at the time,” she said. Working in conjunction with the Green Mountain Multisport Triathlon Club, she eventually formed a Sprint series held at Lake Elmore State Park.
In 2007 there were six racers. Over the years the number has stabilized, but the group is small, both to conform to the State Park limit of 35 participants and to satisfy Smyers’ own preference to serve the purpose of this endeavor.
“I like the small size,” Smyers said. “It’s big enough to feel like a race but small enough to run with two to three volunteers per week.” Spectators and supporters cheer at transitions and the atmosphere is very personal.
“Elmore is the only low-key weekly triathlon series,” Smyers said. Others such as the Vermont Sun Series (scheduled for June 20, July 12, August 9 at Lake Dunmore) are a step up from the relaxed tris at Elmore (scheduled for June 11 and 25, July 9) that serve well as training for what may follow.
The practice aspect is significant. A series such as the one at Elmore offers an opportunity for the hesitant to “try a tri,” or for the seasoned to hone specific skills, rev up the competitive engine or simply race full-out, all wrapped in a friendly package.
Flexibility is the theme for Elmore events. This is a time for new participants to discover how they might react in a situation, yet remain safe in doing so. Participants may choose to do only one or two of the three pieces, swim, bike or run, and yet be a part of the series and enjoy the same preparation, performance and celebration as everyone else.
Elmore is sanctioned as a triathlon clinic. What does this mean? USA Triathlon is the governing body for triathlons in the U.S. and serves to nurture Olympians as well as provide a governing, insuring and promotional role for the sport. To say that Elmore is sanctioned means that the events are “insured and must abide by USA Triathlon rules which help maintain safety and awareness,” Smyers said.
NOW is the time to begin to train. Let’s look at three of the pieces of the tri pie.
SWIM. “People say ‘I could never do a triathlon.’ If you can swim, you can do a tri,” Smyers said. “You must learn how to swim.” Prep in a pool now. “Get a lesson. Technique is 90% of swimming.”
You need regular time in the water. Elmore starts early and you can’t wait until you can swim outside. Find a Masters’ Swim group such as the one offered by First in Fitness in Berlin.
Don’t forget that swimming in open water presents challenges of its own. Be sure to find a way to do so before your first triathlon. Even experienced swimmers might be surprised by unanticipated anxiety in a lake or other outdoor body of water. Develop confidence in open water. (Another advantage of the Elmore series is that the swim is short and much of the time the water is not over your head. Walking or running on the bottom, however, is not allowed for this event.)
Then there’s the matter of a wetsuit. Some wear them, some don’t. A wet suit helps to keep you warm and afloat; a benefit when wearing one, but a different experience without. Practice as you will race.
BIKE. Biking at Elmore this year offers the benefit of new paving. For 9.7 miles on Route 12, cyclists will bear the responsibility of dealing with traffic but will happily be able to ride their road or tri bikes instead of the sturdier tires needed for the past few seasons of poor paving.
The bike portion of a Sprint triathlon is short. “Maintain your fitness now,” Smyers suggests, “and go outside as soon as possible. It takes over a month of biking to get your bike legs.” A new triathlete should be able to ride several 10-15 mile rides. Putting in more time does not hurt. The “low risk of injury balances the benefits of speed and comfort gained.”
RUN. “You should be able to run 2-3 miles,” Smyers said. “Good (proper) shoes are critical.”
It’s worth repeating that training for a triathlon is more balanced and imposes less stress on the body than training for a single event. “If you get hurt in one sport,” Smyers said, “you can usually continue with the others so there is less frustration.”
SMYERS’ TRI TRAINING TIPS
-A weekly training plan could be as simple as visiting each element 2-3 times each week, spending extra time on your weakest sport. At least one session should be a long one. If the race takes 1.5 hours, you need to be able to go that long.
-A classic novice mistake is to overlook the importance of transitions, the 4th component of a triathlon. Practice the triathlon skill of setting up your transition area and then getting out of the water, out of a wetsuit by yourself (if you wear one), and onto your bike. (Most people don’t change clothes at all and just wear a tri suit or even a bathing suit for the entire event.)
The second transition is the one from bike to running shoes. Drink while you’re on the bike, not when you stop. Use elastic shoelaces or lace locks on your running shoes.Transitions are so important that a triathlon can be won or lost by seconds saved in transition time. Ironically it is the easiest event to improve.
-Swimming is technique-driven. Try to relax and you’ll be faster. Anxiety from the swim could remain with you for the rest of the race. Do not become anaerobic in your swim and you’ll be faster.
-Finally, honor your sprint triathlon. “People say ‘I didn’t do a real triathlon; just one of those little things.’” Smyers said. “If you don’t think it’s real, you don’t think Usain Bolt is a runner.”
For more information about the Elmore Triathlon Practice Series or Fixer-Upper PT, go to www.donnasmyers.com.