Swim, Bike, Run
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Find Your Perfect Fit

Find Your Perfect Fit

It's so easy!

Swim, Bike, Run

by Beth Hagman

As runners, we consider ourselves pretty fit. Although it's hard to ignore the mounting evidence that cross training helps prevent injury and extends your running life well into old age, many of us do just that - ignore it. We run because we like it. All that other stuff is just a distraction.

But it turns out that cross training is the best way to improve your running.

Tackling a triathlon may be just the thing to get you out of your training rut, get you fitter and still let you focus on the sport you love best. The low-body-fat, well-muscled, highly symmetrical triathlete body, found on females and males alike and on age-groupers as well as world-class athletes, is the most compelling reason to broaden your horizons. But there's more.

Triathlon takes swimming, biking and running and combines them into one sport, one competition that challenges you both physically and mentally. The three disciplines work all four major muscle groups - arms, chest, thigh and calf - but avoids overdeveloping any of them. The result is a very balanced fitness package and often dramatically improved fitness, even though you're spending less time running.

"Cross-country skiing is the only single sport that matches triathlon for muscular balance," says Dr. Herman Falsetti of Irvine, California, former university professor, elite cyclist, 1984 U.S. Olympic cycling team doctor and triathlete. "But cross-country skiing isn't available to 90% of the people. Triathlon is."

The benefits of triathlon training become more apparent over the years because the near-daily exercise involved in triathlon training allows your body to develop an improved ability to handle free-radical damage.

Triathlon Improves Your Running

You'll also notice a direct improvement in your running when you cross train.

There is an additive effect that allows your body to metabolize sugars and lactate better. If you swim freestyle, where 80% of your movement comes from your arms, your arms develop the ability to handle a lactate load. So when you run, your arms can help out much more than those of pure runners.

According to John Ellis, a triathlete/massage therapist/yoga instructor who trains many triathletes, adds that complimentary training, especially in the quad/hip-flexor-focused bike and the hamstring/anterior tibalus-focused run, recruits opposing muscles that more thoroughly strengthen the legs. This means you're less likely to get shin splints, because the upstroke in cycling strengthens the shin muscles and balances your already strong calf muscles.

Mental Training

The variety and challenge of doing three different sports - and the logistics involved - will keep you mentally agile and interested. We all know runners who do the same distance on the same track every day for years and years. But most of us need something more to keep us going.

The motivation to stick with triathlon training into old age is much stronger than with single sports because you continue to see improvement. Nobody's best in all three disciplines. If you're a very strong runner, you're likely to see big gains in the other sports while enjoying a more gradual improvement in your running and your overall fitness.

You're also going to get some positive feedback on how great you look. You might fill out a bit, but it'll be all smooth, gorgeous muscle.


Triathlon is much more demanding on your wallet than running, however. First, you're going to need a good bike, and you're probably going to want both a mountain bike and a road bike once you get into competition, because trail or mountain bike triathlons are a whole lot of fun. Then you'll need racks and possibly a bike travel carrier. Depending on where you live, you might also need a wetsuit. You'll need different shoes - not just bike shoes, but your running shoe needs are likely to change somewhat (an example of this is in Super Dave's column this issue).

You can minimize the cost of swim training by finding a Masters swim club in your area. Your local bike shop can make sure you're properly fitted to your bike and can turn you on to group training rides. Don't be shy - don't just go in and check the bulletin board. Ask for help, and you might just make a whole new set of friends.


Triathlon offers one major benefit as a cross-training tool: Competition. It's often easier to keep interested when you can set goals and test yourself against others. Sprint triathlons are springing up all over the country, and you should be able to find a local venue where you can get your feet wet in the sport. Check your regional sports magazines, ask at your local bike shop or sporting goods store and look online, particularly at www.active.com for events. There are also some major national series, including XTERRA (www.xterra.com) and the Dannon Duathlon Series for Women (bike/run events, with no swim) that have events all over thecountry.

Training Schedule

The one area of triathlon training that you need to be careful of is overtraining. When you're trying to fit three disciplines into one schedule, you can put a real strain on your job, your sleep and your personal relationships. To stay healthy - and keep your friends - you need to find a reasonable schedule. Don't try to run as much as you did before and cram swimming and cycling in, too. The following sample schedule should give you an idea of the proportional training you will embrace as a budding triathlete.

One workout per week in each sport should be devoted to quality.

For your key swimming workout, try to get in with your local Masters swim team on the day they do their anaerobic threshold or sprint workouts. If you're doing your own program, figure to do 1,500-2,000 yards with 200-400 yard repeats at your race pace or slightly faster, with a 10-20 second rest between each rep.

Your key bike workout - on an indoor bicycle or on a road with no traffic - should include speed intervals of 4-6 minutes with 1-2 minutes recovery in between.

Try to get to the track for your key run workout. Do intervals of 400-1,000 meters, totaling between 3-5K with 200-400 meters recovery between. The intervals should be run at 5-10 seconds faster than your goal race pace, while letting the heart rate drop only 20-30 beats during the recovery run. Do your track workouts with a group - or, as with swimming, hook up with your local Masters run or triathlon group.

Every couple of weeks, add in one short run (20-40 minutes) after a bike ride to get used to the transition from bike to run. Keep it at an easy to moderate intensity. Your speed on the run will come from the quality run sessions, not the transition run.

These key workouts should be separated by 1-2 days of easy workouts. If you are short on time, combine two of the workouts on one day, followed by two easy days.

Do one longer aerobic (easy) workout in each sport every week. 3,000-5,000 yards of swimming, cycling 2-4 hours and running 60-120 minutes will be sufficient to maintain or develop an aerobic base. Keep these workouts easy and relaxed at no higher than 80% of your max heart rate.

The third important weekly workout for each sport is the easy recovery session. A very relaxed, comfortable swim, bike and ride, with no pressure to go fast or hard, is refreshing and keeps you from getting over-trained. Most of your fitness will come from your key, long and easy recovery workouts each week. If time permits, add other easy training sessions. Tapering down the week before a race, with 2-3 weeks of the above training sessions under your belt, will help you reach your goals on race day.

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