Triathlons and Fractions: When the Sum of the Parts is Greater than the Whole

author : tonyladd
comments : 4

Addressing the notion of excelling or even getting a PR in all three events in one race.

Like many of you I would imagine I now eat, sleep, run, bike, and swim triathlon. Magazines, blogs, websites, and newspapers are all sources of triathlon information that I read on an almost daily basis. Just yesterday I read an article that discussed the difficulty of training as a triathlete, and in fact argued strongly that one cannot peak in all three events at once or in any one race. So for example, let's say you have been consistent with getting your swim workouts done. You are working on your endurance and doing speed drills. You are even focusing on body rotation and staying long in the water.

You are also paying equal attention to you cycling. You are getting a long ride done each weekend and during the busy work and home life you are doing one leg drills and target heart rate rides on your trainer at home in the basement while you watch loud inspirational testosterone jacked movies like 300. (I reference this because I always get a rush and can improve my pace when King Leonidas yells, "THIS IS SPARTA!”)

Lastly, you are running and running and running. You are doing tempo runs, long runs, and even from time to time you are on the treadmill in the gym at 10:00 pm after hanging out with your wife and helping your son with his homework.

So, all of this is getting done and the good news is you are getting better. But you still are not running as fast as you should be or think you should be, your swim is labored at times, and when cycling your average speed does not seem to be increasing. So, back to three events at once: People much smarter than me argue that the cycling hurts the running, and the swimming hurts the cycling. Swimmers need strong back and shoulder muscles, cyclists do not. Cycling is aided by big strong quads, but in turn, this is not advantageous for running. So on any given race day, the premise is that you cannot PR in all three events. You may do great on the swim and the run, but the bike leg is not up to your best pace. In the alternative, your swim and bike were average but you run superbly, catching a lot of the people you saw go by on the bike.

Now you may be asking, “Ok, so what? How does this help me? What should I be doing different?” I do this sport because it helps me gain discipline and achieve things I have never been able to do. When I began more than two years ago I could not swim a lap (25 meters) without feeling like I would have a heart attack. I had not ridden a bike since I was a kid, and I had never run a 5k. Hell, like the fractions homework I helped my son with, I learned I was not so good at the metric system either. In other words, I did not know how long a 5k was! Regardless of how I started and how far I have come, like most age groupers, I want to get better! I want to place higher in my age group and also swim, bike, and run past more people during a race.

If you assume the above is true and you cannot PR all three events at once, where should one spend his/her time among the three disciplines? Like many new triathletes, I spent that time early on focusing on the swim. This was of course because of the fear of drowning during a race. My swimming is coming along and my running gets better based on my level of consistency.

After evaluating my last race and the people in my age group and their split and overall times, I have a new approach. I swam a little slower than the pack but not by a wide margin. Similarly, my run time was competitive. However, the longest distance during a triathlon is always the bike ride. Everyone in my age group who beat me had a better bike time. I actually swam faster than some of them and ran faster than a few as well. In some cases people who got out of the water ahead of me I caught again in the transition. However, then the bike ride started. I watched people on the bike with my age group numbers on the back their calf fly by me on the bike and in most (likely all) cases I never saw them again!

This season I am going to adopt the premise that you cannot PR in all events but you can focus on getting much better on one. I have decided my one will be cycling! By becoming more competitive in this one event, I can only dream that I can have big cycling quads and not get passed by so many people during a race. I think at the end of the day the goal is always to be balanced and to get better in everything. But for the sprint and Olympic distance races I do, cycling is the key for at least me!


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date: July 29, 2008