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Swim, Bike, Run

Tips from a triathlete


Swim, Bike, Run

Triathlon was introduced in the 1970s in California and migrated north into Canada soon thereafter. Some 50,000 Canadians participate annually in these continuously timed competitions, which feature segments in three of the world’s most popular sports - swimming, cycling, and running.

Matt Hill describes himself as a person who was “running when he came out of the womb.” The Vancouver-based voice actor and long-time triathlon competitor just can’t seem to stop moving his legs.

It was running that first drew Hill to the triathlon, and he has since fallen in love with its multisport menu. He completed his first Olympic distance triathlon when in his early twenties, and after his first competition Hill knew he was hooked for life.

He soon became a regular participant in Ironman competitions—the marquee member of the triathlon family. “It’s not just about competition,” says Hill. “For those who participate regularly, it becomes a lifestyle.”

Three of a kind

Triathlon was introduced in the 1970s in California and migrated north into Canada soon thereafter. Some 50,000 Canadians participate annually in these continuously timed competitions, which feature segments in three of the world’s most popular sports—swimming, cycling, and running.

Triathlon is considered continuously timed because the transitions in between these three sports are also timed.

Swimming, cycling, and running form the backbone of triathlon events. The standard Olympic triathlon consists of a 1.5 km swim, a 40 km bike, and a 10 km run. However, a super-sprint category has competitors completing a 375 m swim, a 10 km bike, and a 2.5 km run. Ironman events are rigorous endurance tests that pit athletes against a 4 km swim, 180 km bike, and a full-length marathon run (42.2 km).

Other members of the triathlon family include the duathlon, a race with run-bike-run components. The aquathlon features run-swim-run segments. And finally, the winter triathlon features running, cycling, and cross-country skiing.

Kids of Steel events focus on introducing children as young as five to the sport in a positive way. The youth race segments are shorter than adult races and, depending on the age of the participants, can feature as little as a 50 m swim, 1.5 km bike, and a 500 m run.

Practice makes perfect

A triathlon swim is a long-distance affair that requires participants to conserve energy for the other segments of the race. In general, efficient triathletes keep their stroke count low, reduce the intensity of their kick, and rotate their hips and glide with each stroke.

Cycling has everything to do with cadence—that optimal pedaling rhythm that sacrifices neither power nor endurance. Triathletes should time their rotations per minute (RPMs), and on flat ground they should be somewhere between 60 and 80 RPM. For increased efficiency, triathletes should also practise exerting force on the pedals during all 360 degrees of their rotation.

Although running is the simplest segment of the triathalon, plenty of errors can still occur. First and foremost, runners should stand tall while running to ensure maximum oxygen flow into their lungs. They will be more efficient by taking quicker and shorter steps and by striking the ground with the ball of the foot rather than the heel. Runners should also avoid bouncing, as it wastes kinetic energy in a vertical direction rather than using it to move forward.

Burn baby burn

The number of calories burned while training for a triathlon can vary greatly, and depends on how hard an athlete trains, how often and, of course, the unique physical characteristics of the participant. Online calorie calculators such as the pace calculator on the Training Tools page at can help to estimate.

During an Olympic-length triathlon, a 200-pound male would burn about 550 calories during the 1.5 km swim, 1,400 calories during the 40 km bike, and nearly 1,000 calories during the run. That’s 2,900 calories—more than the 2,500 recommended daily intake for someone of that size! Calorie intake should increase as training demands increase.

Eat your heart out

Every person is different, so it’s impossible to recommend a fit-all diet that will work for everybody. One rule of thumb is that approximately 50 percent of an athlete’s calories should come from carbohydrates—simple (sugar) or complex (fibre and starches)—because glucose, the energy source that carbohydrates contain, is released soon after consumption.

Around 30 percent of remaining calories should come from unsaturated fats and around 20 percent from protein; fats and protein counter the fast-working effects of carbohydrates and allow energy to be released a little more gradually.

When to eat is also important. Eat carbohydrates and drink fluids before training to top up energy and fluid levels; then consume carbohydrates, protein, and fluid within 30 to 60 minutes after training to speed recovery.

Drink up

Staying hydrated is vital to your performance during a triathlon, and there’s an easy way to determine how much liquid you’ll need. While training, weigh yourself before working out. Then keep track of the length of your workout time and how much liquid you take in. If you’ve hydrated properly, you should weigh no more than a pound or two lighter than when you started.

During the triathlon, fluid replacement is most important during the final running leg of the competition, which is often completed in warmer afternoon temperatures when the triathlete is possibly running in a significant state of dehydration and fatigue.

Go for it!

Matt Hill’s advice to first-time triathletes: “Go for it!” Says Hill, “It’s easy to put off because a triathlon can seem overwhelming, but once you get going it will be hard to stop.” He does add one caveat, however: “Just make sure you can do the distance in training.” Finish one triathlon and, like Hill, you may find yourself a member of the “family” for life. Just remember that it doesn’t matter whether you finish first, last, or somewhere in the middle. It’s most important to simply finish.

Not a pro? No problem

Participating in a triathlon may sound like self-punishment to some, but you don’t have to be an elite athlete to enjoy the challenge and benefits. Moreover, training for it doesn’t have to consume your life. According to Eric Harr, author of Triathlon Training in Four Hours a Week (Rodale, 2003), most people can prepare for a tri-sprint event by committing to a mere 24 hours of training—four hours a week spread over six weeks.

Participating in the three sports is an effective way to cross-train and the result may be a better body: triathletes have some of the best physiques in the fitness world because training across three sports works every muscle.

  • Swimming is a full-body workout but is particularly effective at toning the upper body and increasing an athlete’s flexibility.
  • Cycling strengthens the lower body and, if done properly, will work the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and butt.
  • Running is an effective cardiovascular workout, and it helps to develop long, lean muscles.

Consider supplements

Triathletes who wish to enhance performance with supplements should first discuss recommended doses with their health care practitioner. Some considerations for supplements:

  • Sodium supplements may help maintain electrolyte balance in the body, especially in hot and humid environments.
  • Iron and vitamin C can help when training at altitude.
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin may improve joint function.
  • Creatine supplementation before a long-distance triathlon competition may reduce inflammation.
  • Branched-chain amino acids may avoid the immune suppression brought on by intense, long-duration exercise.


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