When I moved back to the UK last year I decided I needed a challenge to focus my training efforts. I ended up with two; obstacle course racing and triathlon. I had previously taken part in two small super sprint triathlons that the company I worked for in Zambia organised each year. So naturally (and some might say absurdly), instead of starting small, I allowed myself to be talked into signing up for a local 70.3 distance triathlon this June.
The reality of having to swim 1.9km in a lake at the beginning of the open water swim season soon hit home. I am not a swimmer! I set about finding options of how I could get some open water swimming in before the lakes opened in the UK and ended up signing up to Challenge Tricamp training week in Mallorca.
It was a week of sunshine, training, hills, food, laughs, learning, hills and more hills! I learnt a lot about triathlon and endurance events. I was challenged mentally and physically and had the chance to experience training in a new location and see how I coped with the different terrain and the unknown. I spent a good proportion of the weeks training at the back of the pack. This isn’t somewhere I am that used to sitting, mostly as a result of sticking to things I know I can do and not really challenging myself to reach the next level. It was a great position from which to learn and find some extra motivation to improve and get to where I want to be.
You're only good for what you train for
I train most days however my triathlon specific training has been limited. I find any excuse possible to skip a swim session and prior to my week away I had only been on my bike a handful of times this year.
Yet despite this, on the first day I was still surprised at how much I struggled. I was used to high training volume, even if it wasn’t focused on swimming, cycling and running. I knew the swim would be a challenge but I was not expecting the bike to be as difficult as it was. I took for granted the fact I had been out for a long ride and felt fine would mean I was up to the challenge of the Mallorca hills. I couldn’t have got it more wrong!
After I got over the knock to my ego and picked myself up a bit I realised I couldn’t expect much more of myself and the week was the ideal opportunity to start making progress and get closer to where I wanted to be. The camp was a great start to dedicated triathlon training and needless to say my training programme now incorporates a lot more triathlon focused sessions.
Performance is about more than just hours spent training
I've studied this, read about it and told other people about it but at tri camp I learnt it first-hand. Performance is not just about the hours you put in training but how you prepare, time taken to rest and recover as well as the right fuelling and nutrition.
Give yourself a chance to get the results you want. I took the importance of rest and recovery for granted, training way too much the week before the camp, I turned up with tired legs assuming I’d cope with the demands of the training. Two days in and I had to stop a session early, stretch, relax, eat and get a massage on my legs. I felt so much better for it and ready to tackle the training after taking time out and fuelling properly.
It’s not going to happen overnight; practise, practise, practise!
Before this year I only ever swam a few weeks of the year in the run up a sprint tri and therefore struggled through the swim leg each time before giving up swimming again in favour of other sports or exercise. When I see my swimming history in black and white, I can’t believe I ever questioned why it is so much harder for me than running and cycling, both of which I’ve continued to do regularly.
The best swimmers on the camp had been swimming for years, doing session after session of drills and technique and putting in the time and effort needed to get to where they are. It didn’t happen overnight. You can want something all you like but if you don’t work at it you won’t get any better. Improvement takes time, hard work and dedication.
No such thing as ‘one size fits all’
Nutrition, fuelling during races and tapering were all topics which came up during the week and during the Q&A session we had with the coaches. We had good discussions on all these topics and more. For me tapering, how to prepare in the final few weeks before the event, was something I learnt a lot about and that I have now taken into account in my schedule for the final run up to my event.
The thing that hit home with me though is while there is general advice on all these areas to a large extent you have to figure it out for yourself. People react differently and the only way to figure out what will work for you is to try it out for yourself. You will find many people who will tell you the right things to eat, what supplements will work best, how often and what you should eat on the bike but the best way to do it is through trial and error. I was a bit blasé about the importance of fuelling during the event but this is something I am now working on and trying to figure out the best approach for me. It will take a bit of time and effort but with all the hours put into training, it seems silly to skip something so important and fall short of your potential because you didn’t give your body the chance to perform at its best. It will be time well spent when it comes to race day.
You can do it if you set your mind it
There is of course an amount of skill and fitness required when it comes to completing a triathlon but if you don’t really believe you can do it and push yourself when it gets hard, then chances are you will give up before you reach your true potential.
Something I am slowly learning is the importance of mental strength when it comes to really pushing and getting to your goals. I made some definite progress on my week away. I went from having never done any open water swimming to completing 1.9k on the last day, something that felt like an impossible task on my the first day in the sea. On the bike, despite my frustration at my speed, or lack thereof, I cycled up hill after hill even though there was a point on each climb that I questioned if I could make it.
Swimming in a lake will be my next challenge, followed by the triathlon itself. It is going to take a lot of physical effort and strength but probably more mental strength to keep going when it gets tough and carry on through to the finish line.
Take opportunities to learn from people with more experience than you
I learnt so much on my week away, from both the coaches and the other guests. Everyone was so keen to share stories from their triathlon experiences and answer questions, of which I had so many. We talked training programmes, session ideas, pre-race nutrition, fuelling during the race, tapering, equipment and gear. It was great to be around people with so much more experience and genuinely interested in helping those of us who are yet to complete a bigger event.
You are your own worse critic, give yourself a break!
On the first few days of the camp I felt like I was way out of my depth, surrounded by people who had completed numerous half and full Ironman events, that could swim like fish and run like gazelles! I had struggled on the bike and swallowed half the sea in my first open water swim. I was sure everyone was questioning why I was there and how I was ever going to complete a triathlon, let alone a long distance one.
It soon became clear that no one was judging me the same way I was judging myself and everyone was supportive of one another, no matter what their current level, their experience or their goal. I began to realise that as a relative beginner to triathlon I had a lot of learning to do and progress to make and given my experience, that was to be expected. I now have a goal in mind for my finish time based on my capabilities in each discipline and I am trying to not get caught up worrying about what everyone else is doing or where I place on the day.
I’m not going to lie, there were moments when I was struggling up yet another never ending hill that I questioned why I was doing this and why I had been crazy enough to sign up to a 70.3 triathlon. Then I took a look at the amazing views, realised how much I was enjoying being around like minded people, having the chance to learn so much and pushing myself to new limits. It was clear to me I had made the right decision.
Most of us aren’t ever going to be a professional sports person. Exercise should be fun, it should energise you and leave you fitter and healthier than before. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge yourself, work hard, dedicate time and effort, feel some pain and make some sacrifices along the way in order to achieve your goals.
I would be lying if I said the triathlon didn’t scare me still; the time it will take, getting out of the swim alive, how I will cope if it is really warm on the day. Ultimately it is the fear of failure that scares me, although not quite enough to stop me trying. I’ve done a lot of events and tough challenges in the past, but I have always known I would be able to finish each one when I signed up. This is my first really big challenge with a few more unknowns and while I am scared about it, it is exciting at the same time. I am looking forward to seeing how it goes and what I can learn for next time!