There is an interesting phenomena amongst triathletes… they profess to be multi-sport athletes, but when it comes to being multi-sport athletes they seem limited to competing only as triathletes.  A few athletes start in all three sports all at once, having no background in any, and develop from the get-go as multi-sport athletes. Most seem to come to triathlon with a background in at least one of the three – swimming, cycling or running – and progress by adding the other two sports.  But across both groups, triathletes seem to stick to racing either triathlons or only in standalone events of their background sport; rarely it seems do triathletes venture into competing into the other sports in standalone events.

Invite a triathlete without a background in swimming to participate in an indoor swim meet or an open water swim… and the reply will be, no thanks!

Invite a triathlete without a background in cycling to participate in a road, MTB, or cyclocross race… and the reply will be, no thanks!

Question is… why?

Meanwhile, ask triathletes if they are serious about wanting to improve as triathletes and they will undoubtedly reply “absolutely”.

Something doesn’t add up. Why would an athlete want to improve overall, yet be unwilling to focus on one aspect, perhaps even an aspect which is a serious impediment to them improving overall? Why would an athlete not take the opportunity to zoom in on the specifics, get right into the details of their ability to perform in each sport as a standalone sport and explore?

Triathletes are no strangers to zooming into specifics, into obsessing over details. Click through triathlon websites and you will find article after article about the aerodynamic benefits of this, that, and every other set of bike rims on the market, or the electrolyte ratios in this fluid replacement beverage over another, or the weight of one racing flat versus all the current and soon to come running shoes. Triathletes are infamous for wearing watches similar in size to that worn by American rapper Flavor-Flav, with the only difference being that triathletes seek to capture every iota of data imagine-able whereas the analog version worn by Flavor-Flav would seem to be more of a fashion statement than data device.

What gives?

To me… it comes down to one thing:  new comers to the sport of triathlon are instructed by novice coaches who lack a depth in their education and experience and as a result have to teach that swimming, cycling, and running in a triathlon are different as compared to when they are performed as standalone events.

Attribution: Raymond McCort

These coaches make new comers believe that open water swimming performed by competitive swimmers, that time trialing and track cycling by competitive cyclists, and road racing by runners exist in a world all to themselves, where the basic laws of physics, where the laws of motion, calculations of kinetic energy, momentum, resistance, drag, force and speed are wholly and completely different than in the sport of triathlon.

Unfortunately, these coaches must be living on another planet because that is the only way to explain how the physics of swimming differ between that in competitive swimming (in a pool or open water) versus swimming in a triathlon.

These coaches have to do this to explain why the training they prescribe is so radically different than the training an athlete in any one of the sports would do (e.g. no kicking for triathletes who want to improve as swimmers). Novice athletes knowing no better… trust the coach, they go with it, they believe that they are being coached appropriately (and why wouldn’t they).

Its unfortunate, but its true.

The end result is that as a coach I have to spend almost equal amounts of time explaining basic physics prior to swim workouts to substantiate why the athlete (triathletes especially) need to focus on kicking, sculling, rotation, balance, and why they need to perform endless numbers and countless repetitions of drills, as I do reviewing the goals and objectives of any given training session and workout specifics. Why? Because if I don’t, then the purpose of the workout doesn’t add up to what new comers have heard, have been told, have read online, or have come to believe as a result of a prior coaching philosophy.

Which brings us back to why triathletes rarely compete outside of their background sport and triathlons… because if you have been indoctrinated that the three sports within a triathlon are radically different than the exact same sports as standalone events, then why would you compete in any of the sports in standalone events?  You would feel like an apple amongst oranges.  You would stick to “what you know”… triathlons.

The odd time that a triathlete does compete in a standalone sport in which they do not have a background a paradox arises: as a result of coaching which lacks depth, these athletes lack even the most basic skills and techniques of the sport.  This serves to prove only one thing to the athlete… wow, my coach was right… the sports as standalone events are entirely different than in a triathlon.

They miss the point entirely… its not that the sport is radically different, is that their coaching has been radically insufficient and unfortunately inappropriate.

The end result is that multi-sport athletes don’t become multi-sport athletes, because if they did, then their training should open up door after door… into the world of triathlon AND into the world of each of the sports. ITU and XTerra triathlon pro Flora Duffy was recently interviewed for an article in triathlon.com and she clearly communicated how training as a mountain biker obviously benefited her in cross or off-road triathlons, AND has equally benefited her in road triathlons. If there is any female pro that is watched on the bike leg, its Flora Duffy.  Gwen Jorgensen shares in highlights from the Island Triathlon that Flora Duffy on the bike is a force and when allowed to race unchecked will drop everyone and disappear.  As a result of her standalone sport strength, Flora Duffy has shared that at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics she is considering competing in Mountain Biking instead of triathlon, (or perhaps it will be in addition to triathlon). Ironman World Champion Sebastian Kienle has shared how he turns to mountain biking in the winter in order to improve biking handling skills.

There is no possible way for a true multi-sport athlete to get bored, to end up limited in their training and racing options… because exploring each of the individual sports opens up opportunity after opportunity of trying new events, new distances, new strokes, new types of bikes, new types of bike and running races.

Find a coach who seeks to open up doors of opportunity for you, not limit you, by putting the fear into you that “triathlon is so different” that you should not dare venture into anything else. What do you want? Fear based coaching, or fearless coaching? Whichever you chose is what you will reap in the end.

Think about it…

Examples:

  • Top US ITU and Olympic distance triathlete and Olympic gold medalist Gwen Jorgensen came from a background in both swimming and running at the College level of sport.
  • Top XTerra and ITU triathlete Flora Duffy competes on and off road requiring skills in both road and mountain biking, is typically identified as ‘the’ female triathlete to watch on the bike as her strength on the bike is cause for concern especially since Duffy can get off her bike and run a 33min 10km.
  • Top Iron-distance triathlete and former Iron-distance WR holder Lionel Sanders ran for the University of Windsor.
  • Top Iron-distance triathlete Andy Potts was an All American swimmer in College.
  • Triathlon legends… Dave Scott, Mark Allen and Paula Newby-Fraser were all club swimmers growing up, and both Scott & Allen swam in College.
  • Top ITU triathlete, Olympian, fastest swimmer on the ITU circuit and training partner of the Brownlee brothers, Richard Varga is the son of a swim coach, grew up swimming and set numerous Junior and Senior records as a swimmer.

Canada’s own Olympian in the sport of triathlon, Simon Whitfield as a teen moved to Australia to live and train amongst the top swimmers (going back to the early 90s), to a nation that reveres swimming and swimmers the way North Americans value football and hockey and its players.  As a teen Simon could run like a gazelle, but he swam like a brick. To pursue his potential, Simon immersed himself in swimming, not learning just to “survive” or “cope” with the reality that swimming is the first leg of triathlon, but to excel, to become a top swimmer, one capable of swimming with the best, of being the best.  History shows how one must train if you truly want to achieve your potential.

Want to be YOUR best, then you have to train like the best: swim like a swimmer, bike like a cyclist, run like a runner. There is no short-cut, there is no special circumstances that make triathlon so radically unique or different that it requires a unique approach to training.

There is no difference in the physical laws governing swimming, cycling, and running inside and outside of a triathlon; don’t let anyone ignorant in the basic laws of motion sell you on training or coaching that forgets this simple fact.