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There I was in the foyer of my home, hot and sweaty after a bicycle ride in the late-spring heat, searching for the reason to continue. I knew I wouldn’t keep cycling 3 days a week, so I chose to enter a triathlon: I’d wanted to be a triathlete since childhood. Since then, I’ve discovered continuous improvement, not health or fitness, is the reason I’ll keep doing it. I began looking for performance levers as I trained for and raced my first triathlons. I found that many elite age-group athletes in local races seemed to finish their run legs on the pace of a Boston qualifying time, and I want a place on the podium. This was the genesis of my Boston aspiration.
Here are the most important things I’ve learned.
All Disciplines Are Not Equal
The longer legs of the triathlon are the places where the greatest overall time improvements are possible. At about half the total time of a standard triathlon, the bicycle leg is the low-hanging fruit. A 10% improvement in cycling time represents about a 5% improvement in total race time.
Nonetheless, despite this low-hanging fruit, the fastest triathletes are often strong runners.
Each Discipline Requires A Different Approach For High Performance
The hardest part of any endurance event is counter-intuitive. As races get longer, an athlete has to go slower early in the race to finish strong at the end. Doing so requires a combination of:
- relentless, consistent execution inside the athlete’s aerobic capacity during the early part of the race
- well-developed aerobic capacity
While they’re very closely linked, these are not the same, and each can be trained independent of the other. Even a strong cyclist or runner will bonk on the run if he works too hard earlier in the day. Even the swim can impact final performance.
After all the above, training for a strong bicycle leg is distinctly different from training for a strong run. Bicycle racing success is primarily about power, which can be trained on a bicycle trainer. It’s fairly fast and inexpensive to increase cycling speed.
Run success is about running long miles. It’s about developing the ability to grind for miles, as well as the ability to run fast in shorter races. There’s no preparation for good running like running.
Finishing fast in triathlon is why my current athletic goal is qualification for the Boston marathon.
Finally, the most overlooked element of athletic performance is recovery. After a succession of injuries, starting with this one, I’ve learned to get more sleep and slow down.