A Triathlete in a Cyclist’s Body

tri on a bikeI have experienced many different challenges in cycling–from crossing the United States in 40 days to climbing the mountains of France, Italy, and Colorado. The roadmap to getting to this level was simple: get on your bike and ride. Sure, there were several lessons along the way on avoiding overtraining, dehydration, and choosing your gears wisely as your gain strength. For the most part, the advice was consistent and the miles led to more ability.

About a year ago, I thought I’d add some new flavor to this activity by adding two sports: swimming and running. For years I said I never would—I knew nothing about these sports and both seemed difficult. Basically, I couldn’t swim. Yes, I could get to shore if I fell off a boat, but barely. The last time I had ran, a half-mile seemed too far.

But through this journey into Triathlon, I’ve learned quite a bit—mainly what not to do. Triathletes starting out as cyclists have a special challenge, in my opinion. There are many more mistakes to be made in the other sports, and you can’t jump in nonchalantly. As many will tell you, in a Triathlon, you swim to the bike–you bike to the run–and then the race starts.

Although I am in no way an expert of transitioning from a pure cyclist to a hopeful triathlete, I thought I’d capture the thoughts that have been rolling around in my brain on the subject, and share them with others who might benefit from learning from my mistakes.

Running:

It seems way too easy to injury yourself as a runner. The wrong gait, the wrong shoe, the wrong mileage strategy all lead to injury. In my first Half Ironman, I had to walk/run half of the run portion and dropped from 35th in my age group to lower than 70th. And it hurt. A lot.

You will be told you shouldn’t increase your miles per week by more than 10%. You will be told it is better to keep your cadence high(ish) and not worry about your pace. You might be told to keep your strides short and don’t overextend (“hide your feet” I was wisely advised). But if you don’t ask questions about this, you won’t learn about all this until it is too late. It takes a long time to recover from running injuries, too. 

Somewhere along the way, you’ll also be introduced to rolling, better stretching (even when you’re NOT running), yoga, and core workouts (especially hips and glutes!!!).

So avoid jumping in carelessly.  Assume nothing is easy.  Once you master the basics, there are tons of form and drills you’ll have to learn, too.

Swimming:

I learned swimming is all about technique. Think aerodynamics–wind passing over a car. The less you fight the water, the more efficiently you swim. This doesn’t have to be about speed—it can encompass saving you effort. Recently, I changed three things about my approach in the water and gained 10% speed while reducing the amount of effort to cover the same distance.

Like many cyclists, the hardest part was getting started. Find a beginner’s class. Tell them you know nothing. And jump in. Don’t think about it too much. As a cyclist, I already had the fitness, so it wasn’t hard to progress. Even with poor form.

Swimming in open water intimates most everyone at first.  Swim with a local Triathlon club.  They will take you through the basics and give you some comfort.  Yes, the water is dark.  Yes, you have to learn to like cooler temps than bath water.  And yes, there are living creatures nearby, but they are more afraid of you than you of them.  It takes one to two swims to get used to the concept.  After that, you will love it.  Seriously.  And you get to dress up like a super hero when you buy your first wetsuit.

While training indoors, you might have to get used to showing a little more of your body than you’d like.  But you know what?  No one cares, and frankly, no one is looking at you.  Much.  Wear a swim cap and dark goggles–no one will recognize you.  Maybe.

Cycling:

A major shift for some cyclists is giving up on drafting. Stop doing it. You will not be able to draft in a race. If the wind bothers you—embrace it. Learn to love the challenge. You will also have to learn to love indoor training (which I never preferred). At times, it is easier to execute a training day on a trainer than stopping continuously for traffic lights and cars.

If you’ve enjoyed long endurance rides most of your cycling career, get ready for more interval work. And the opposite is also true. The harder part will actually be scaling back a little if you’ve been an avid cyclist.

As a long-time cyclist, it’s easy to think you’ll make up for weaknesses in the other sports by riding really hard and gaining time during the bike portion of the race. All you’ll do is make the run harder and run out gas sooner (and all the triathetes you passed on the road get to laugh at you as they run by you). The good news is your cycling fitness will allow you to optimize your ride. Get to the run in the best shape you can.

The Bigger Picture:

Complexity goes up quite a bit when you add even one more sport to a race. You might get away with not drinking or eating enough on a ride when you can replenish when you get off the saddle. Not the case in triathlon. Many a race has been crushed by poor decision-making in the area of nutrition. Decisions about equipment can be deal-breakers, too.

In the end, the best advice I can give you is: get a coach. It is much easier to have one source of advice. This includes not just technique, nutrition, recovery, and your weekly training plan, but also your race day plan (including how to deal with transitions between sports). And good advice is even more critical when you’re injured, overtraining, or something unexpected happens.

I did the Lone Ranger approach to training for a few shorter triathlons. I got fairly far, fairly fast. Leveraging my cycling fitness, I thought I could get away with it. I was just kidding myself and ended up with ITB Syndrome. Don’t make the same mistakes—don’t assume running and swimming are the same as cycling. Especially when you will do them all in the same event.

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2 Responses to “A Triathlete in a Cyclist’s Body”


  1. 1 Mike Grayson February 6, 2016 at 10:11 pm

    Jeff, I mean Bike Whisperer, good article. I’ve been running since 1972 and I’m still learning stuff. Ive done all kinds of stretching over the years and incorporate some yoga now and then.

    The body changes in phases after 40, about every 10 years. The most important thing I’ve learned is give your body enough recovery time – which gets longer as you age.

    • 2 bikewhisperer February 6, 2016 at 11:59 pm

      Absolutely! I didn’t even talk about starting this journey at over 45 years old. It has required lot of stretching I never did (and yoga). It’s nice that we can still learn though, right?


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