November 28, 2018
While some people start by competing in sprint or olympic distance triathlons, others choose to go straight into the longer endurance triathlon arena. Whatever the route, going longer is a natural progression for most endurance athletes. Some see it as the next challenge to step up to, while others feel better suited to the longer distances as the explosivity required for shorter events gives way to the resilience and stamina gained with age. For many athletes, it is also a race of achievements; first the sprint, then an olympic distance, stepping up to middle and full ticking each box as they go. However, to move into middle distance triathlon is no mean feat. With each element four times longer than a sprint and twice as long as an olympic distance, the approach to the race as a whole needs to change, with much more consideration given to the impact of both distance and time on every aspect from pacing to fueling, and training to recovery. In this article I will try to outline the fundamentals you need to consider when signing up for your first middle distance triathlon.
‘Boost the confidence’
As the distances increase and the numbers add up, it certainly can start to look pretty daunting for even a seasoned athlete, and each discipline could be a challenging enough stand-alone event. Middle distance triathlon is harder than each of the elements combined, so it does represent a big step up. One of the first things I recommend to all athletes is to participate in a few long, open water swims, enter a few sportives, and complete at least one half marathon event as part of their preparation. Knowing that you can complete each event on it’s own is key, and a big boost to confidence.
As well as during training, your approach to the race on the day itself will also need to be different than for shorter events. The days of a quick swim, with a dash into T1 on the verge of passing out, blasting a ride on the bike with only one bottle of re-hydration fluid and a lactic acid fueled 10km run are over! Middle distance requires a lot more consideration, and certainly some wisdom, to avoid blowing up later in the event which is something all athletes want to avoid at all costs. You will need to learn to pace, fuel and hydrate yourself properly according to the time you are going to spend in each of the swim, bike and run, and use technique and equipment to your advantage to ensure you are as efficient as possible.
Whilst over shorter distances raw power can sometimes outperform good technique for some people, the balance tends to tip the other way when stepping up to middle distance. Not only will good technique allow you to go further and faster for a lower energy / oxygen cost, it will also reduce risk of injury during training. With higher volumes of training comes increased risk of injury with poor technique, so it really is something worth investing time and potentially money into if you decide to hire a coach to help you. Drill sessions are a perfect time to focus on technique, and even better if you can convince someone to film you or train with a friend to help spot potential areas for improvement. Once you’ve got the technique mastered in drill sessions make sure to mentally check in with yourself regularly during long sessions to make sure you’re still on point.
‘Train Your Gut’
Another area that needs much more attention when competing in middle distance is nutrition; training your gut is something that is often overlooked, but is absolutely vital to maintaining a good fueling strategy on race day. For an effort that can last anywhere between 4.5 to 8 hours, you will need to take on fuel to maintain your energy during the race. I like to remind athletes that during an 8 hour day at the office they would eat breakfast, lunch and probably a few snacks to keep hunger at bay and maintain concentration, and that’s while sedentary, so it is doubly important to remember to eat and drink during long duration exercise. Whether you choose to use gels, bars or home-made foods remembering to practice with them regularly during training will improve the rate at which your gut can absorb both fuel and liquids, and decrease the likelihood of GI distress on race day. As a general rule of thumb, 20g carbohydrate per 20 minutes will be plenty to keep you fueled throughout, but this can be adapted depending on the nature of the course (flat or hilly) and how you’re planning to approach the event (ie, how much time you anticipate being above ¬60-70% of your maximum exercise intensity). You should always make sure you have a hydration strategy in place as well, and plan in advance what you are going to pick up from each feed station during the race. The old adage of ‘never try anything new on race day’ applies as much, if not more, to nutrition than anything else. Don’t let yourself be tempted by the latest and greatest gels in the event village when you go to register; if your stomach isn’t used to it, it doesn’t go in!
‘Consistency is paramount’
Now that we’ve talked about the importance of nutrition and technique over longer distances, let’s focus on the increased physical demand and training necessary to prepare.
The three mainstays of training are consistency, discipline and determination: Consistency is paramount if you want to coax your body into performing for longer periods of time, effectively turning yourself into a reliable, steady diesel engine rather than the explosive, burn fast petrol engine required for shorter events. It is by training regularly, even if only a little and only gently when you need to, that your body will adapt and change to allow you to be comfortable over long distances. Discipline comes into play when trying to find time to fit longer training sessions around work, family and other commitments. In order to perform on race day your training will need to take priority, and that requires discipline, not to mention a great deal of support from those around you! Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts, especially if you don’t already have a background in endurance in one of the disciplines. Last but by no means least you will need determination. Fitness and strength only improve with repeated stress of the physiological systems involved, and to keep doing that at each training session requires plenty of determination.
So there you have it, and I hope you haven’t been put off going for middle distance as going longer really is a great progression for any athlete. The distances and time spent in training may be harder and more exhausting than anything you’ve previously experienced, but so is the reward when you cross the line. By finding other athletes or a club to train with, and involving friends and relatives in your support team, the training to get you to the race is a journey of pushing both physical and mental boundaries, providing an experience to enjoy as much as the day itself.