Swimming, Cycling & Running

The following are the things I learned from my attempt at getting into triathlon training. I haven't actually done a triathlon but that doesn't stop me from doing a gentle warm up cycle into town early Saturday morning for a swim and then dashing out of the swimming pool to cycle to my favorite place to start a run. The gentle cycle ride home again is a nice warm down too.

I personally became interested in triathlon after I had also been running with the Chelmsford Springfield Striders for a while. I volunteered to marshal at the very first London triathlon and was given the opportunity to have a look around the transition area and watch the triathlon during my free pasta break. I was hooked.

Background: First of all I happen to know that most people starting out in triathlon will have problems with the swim (unless you come from a swimming background, which helps a lot). I booked a place at my local Chelmsford Riverside pool which happens to be a 33 1/3 metres long (3 lengths=100m) on their style and stamina classes and received some very good coaching. One week technique and drills the next a tough interval session. I also bought a second bike for shopping on and stripped my original Raleigh down to weight, bought some nice Tranz X tri bars (20) a trip computer (10) and second hand Shimano SPD shoes (25) and SPD pedals (40). I cycle most of the time, so along with running at the Striders club the swimming set me off in the right direction.

Swimming: With the swimming I found that although I was fairly fit from running, I could not complete more than about six or eight lengths all frontcrawl without becomming exhausted. It seems that no matter how fit you are, if you haven't got the correct technique, you just aren't going to suddenly knock out a load of lengths. Towards the end of the first term of swimming calsses however, I managed to do 20 lengths. A few weeks later it managed 30 and I knew something had clicked into place. Three months later I completed the 5000m (3.1 mile) National BT Swimathon (all front crawl) in 1 hour 41 minutes! (That is 150 lengths or 200 lengths of a normal 25m pool). I walked away on a high which made me feel a foot taller. Not being a qualified coach I can only say what I felt were my major improvements in technique:

Firstly you have to actually start doing it: There are muscles which you haven't used which need bump starting into life. My point is that no technique improvement is going to make you a better swimmer overnight.

1) Flat body position: Start off by just pushing off from the side in the "float" position, with your arms stretched in front of you. Pretend you are standing up looking directly in front of you, and you will then be looking directly at the bottom of the pool. Most people will feel that their head is too low, but if you take a moment to look at your toes and then back to the bottom of the pool, you will begin to feel the correct flat body position required. A high head will cause the lower body to drop in the water (not good). Take the time to look around you and side-ways back up at the surface of the water, and acclimatise to your new environment. When you are swimming you will obviously have to check where you are going with a glance foreward every couple of strokes AFTER the arm recovery stroke, NOT before it.

2) Breathing: I was also in the habbit of gasping a little bit of extra air each breath (I think in the mistaken belief that I would have some reserve oxygen in my lungs) This was probably due to a lack of confidence in the strange watery environment where small waves can hit you in the face just when you dont want them to. However, it doesn't work. I only succeeded in tightening my whole rib cage area and creating a stiff and slighty wild stroke. Breathing must be relaxed, low and gentle to start off with, and then re-adjusted to cope with demands.

3) Relaxation: It is important to keep ckecking you state of relaxation during the swim to make sure only the muscles which need to do the work of pushing you through the water are using up valuable energy and oxygen. But don't give up on the power phase of the stroke after the hand has passed the shoulders: When the pull finishes a push should start and carry on to beyond the waist line! To check that you are etting somewhere with the stroke length on the push phase, you can try touching your thumb against the outside of your thigh before the hand comes out of the water for the recovery phase. Where you touch your thigh should be well below your hip bone. (At this point in time it is probably best not to try any streatching forward at the start of a new stroke and stretching below the hip too far with the hand for push part of the stroke. Increaseing the stroke length is something you should consult your coach about). Also I would say you shouldn't make a habbit out of the touching your thigh thing, it is just a check. Dont waste energy!

4) The correct recovery starts by pulling the arm out of an imaginary tube stuck to the outside of the thigh. Keep the elbow higher than the hand and the hand not to high above the water. The hand can swing out slighty to achieve a relaxed smooth style to your stroke. If you are at home right now you can approximate the movement by standing up-right facing a wall. Imagine the wall is the bottom of the pool. (Don't look at the ceiling!). Now take your right hand out of your pocket with your elbow behind you and continue a circle with your hand as you try to touch the ceiling. It's something like that. Dont stress your shoulder muscle trying too hard to keep your elbow behind you or you will get a sore shoulder.

5) Goggles: must have the soft variety of neoprene or they will leak. Try to get the all round vision type.

6) Leg action: To start off with let the legs dangle to balance the motion of the upper body. Much like swinging your arms to balance the legs during a run. Once you have some semblance of a stroke or you can do a couple of lengths, join a swimming class to improve the leg action. These classes are allways very friendly.

Hanging on to any major stroke problems means that you are just practising all of your mistakes every time you swim. Swimming is riddled with technique, but be patient and always critical of your stroke. There are always some very good underwater shots on TV Grandstand, which often has the added bonus of being introduced by my ex-swimming idol, the beautiful Sharon Davies (now superceeded by the sassy Karen Pickering, mainly because she continues to do some amazing swimming at an age well beyond her peers). Sharon Davies:

A common swimming injury is 'crawlers shoulder' which is a chronic sharp pain caused by compression of the rotator cuff of muscles around the shoulder. It wont go away unless you take the remedial step of dipping the oposite shoulder lower during the recovery phase, or otherwise correct the faulty technique which caused it in the first place.
So the next time you go swimming remember: 1) Flat body position. 2) No gasping the lungs to exploding point. 3) Relax, pull and push. 4) Elegant high elbow recovery, with the hand just above the water. Think fish! I always put baby oil on my face as a barrier against the chlorine, but dont get it in your eyes because it stings. Don't ever do an open water swim without some assistance just in case you get into trouble. Swimming is fantastic fun when you learn to do it well. Karen Pickering:


In my opinion the main points about biking are:

1) To get a bike frame that fits your body rather than the other way round. Cheap second hand bikes are good for trying out different frame sizes since if they don't fit you can sell them on reasonably quickly without any major financial loss. Equations involving inside leg measurement and elbow to finger tip distance and so on are no longer used by those trying to find their optimum power output position. I would go as far as to say that ordering an expensive frame without having spent at least 6 months trying different frames and bike setup first almost gaurantees failure with your campaign on the bike course. Because we are all a different shape, with differing power to weight ratios in our leg muscles etc. the chances of chosing just the right bike straight off is low.

(In some water :-)

When you get a bike try adjusting the saddle up, down, forwards, backwards and the same with the handle bars until you feel that your position is efficient and comfortable. Body weight should be evenly distributed between the hands and seat. Comfort on the bike is an important point. To start off with it can mean the difference between either feeling brilliant after you have done a good ride or cursing every pedal push in agony from half way round the course until you get home. The major point about comfort though is that it is a good indication of good bike setup. Comfort and good position is as important a starting point for cycling as a flat body position is in swimming. It is the fundamental starting point. Observe other triathletes on theis bikes and take a look at your own as you cycle past shop windows.

2) Cadance (revs per minute of the pedals): Cadance and selection of the gear ratios go hand in hand. for most of us the standard Shimano gear block is not adjustable gear wise. I always feel as though I could do with an 11 tooth gear on the block but the lowest always seems to be a 12. Too bad unless I decide to spend a couple of hundred on a cassette block and wheel hub. This has the benefit of simplifying things a bit though. Cadance is the most efficient you can find for your own personal body physiology and the gear train on your bike. Some tend to spin the back wheel fast while others push a high gear with their torquey fat leg muscles. Most people can improve performance by practising cycling at slightly higher revs. Pushing a high gear also tends to induce knee injuries. As a lightly built person with surprisingly strong little muscles for my size, I tend to cycle a at about 96 rpm, using 170mm cranks.

Time Trialling

Time trialling is often mis-understood. It is simply a race against the clock. In triathlon racing all the competitors do their time trial on the same course, but they are not strictly taking part in a road race. There may well be some interaction during the swim and run but with the bike section drafting is not allowed and the fastest time is not affected by normal road racing tactics. Except at the elite level, where drafting is allowed which seems very strange to me as I do not think that the elite races need to be made more interesting by letting the competitors interact and gain advantage on a weak cycling leg by drafting.

The BT national swimathon is a good example of a time trial race. All of the pools accross all of the counties who are involved in the fund faising 'race' set their competitors off at intervals spread over a number of convenient days of the competition week. After the race the results are collected by the central organisers and processed, our position out of the thousands who take place is sent to you in the post. Thus someone living in London is rated on her/his ability to complete the distance compared with say someone in Glasgow. Strangely enough some swimmers do work together towing each other with their wake for an agreed-on number of lengths. I don't believe this should be allowed. Also slower swimmers in your alotted lane can disrupt you tempo badly. Then again it is great fun just to take part and it does raise cash for children in need etc.

I would like here to that the pools manager (Julie Reed) at Chelmsford Riverside for continuing to used to organise this event each year. Update: There was no swimathon in 2001 because Julie has left and nobody else organised the event to run there.

3) Pedalling technique involves developing the ability to apply effort all around the pedalling circle for acceleration and overtaking and steep inclines. This can only be realised fully by buying 'clipless' Snap on type pedals, for which you also have to buy compatible shoes. The SPD variety allow about 3 degrees sideways motion, thus minimising knee injuries from incorectly set up padals and shoes, while the Look variety connect you completely to the bike.

Apparently the 'tour de france' variety of expert cyclist spends very little time on 360 degrees of pedal rotation and most effort is spent on the down push. The general feel, however, of clip on pedals goes a long way towards comfort and cycling efficiency.

Injuries are normally: a) Knees from pushing too high a gear. b) Falling or being knocked off. You can crash when you become almost stationary if you use clipless pedals and forget how to release them. Don't ask me how I know this! Checking the wheel quick release mechanisms is also essential. I nearly had an almost unthinkable disaster when my front wheel popped out of the front forks a fair way and then back in again while I was cycling down hill at speed. Also, if you are approaching a car which has just come to a sudden halt outside a news agents you are probably just about to be knocked off by the drivers door swinging open into your path as he jumps out to purchase his fix of cigarets for the day.

Running: Please you tell me about running, I am no expert. It the corner stone of fitness so they say. Although this does not mean good health. Knee, ankle. hip and back injuries are common ailments withing running circles. I view running as an excercise in staying injury free. Some people have tough bodily frames and others are a little more tempremental. You really have to monitor how you are feeling all the time during your running training. As with all physically demanding sports, it takes about three months to physiologically adjust to running if you haven't done much before. Once running happily and fairly comfortable after three months, you will know wheather you have the running bug or not. If not take up badminton instead. If you think it's OK you will keep pushing yourself until you get your first running injury. And that's what running is all about!! Just always monitor your body and avoid all injuries if you can.