There’s something quite special about endurance sport – that mix of physical fitness and mental stamina speaks volumes about the way in which we humans like to push ourselves. And we’re not content with a mere 26.2 mile run anymore. These days, if you’re serious about your fitness then chances are you’ve already run a couple of marathons – possibly backwards, just to make it a bit harder – and may well be considering your first triathlon.
You wouldn’t be the only one, either. According to British Triathlon, the number of people participating in events around the UK has rocketed in recent years, with around 200,000 people now taking part in events up and down the country every year. The success of the Brownlee brothers – Alistair and Jonny – winning gold and silver respectively at Rio 2016 has only compounded that interest, and British Triathlon has now launched its GO TRI campaign to encourage even more of us to give it a go.
So, with all that in mind, we caught up with London Orthotics Consultancy clinician and triathlon convert Alan Hews to find out why he got involved in the sport, and to get his top tips on keeping yourself injury-free.
How did you get into triathlons?
I was cycling to and from work every day so that my wife and kids could have the car. After we moved house, we joined a gym and I started to add a swim into the mix. A friend said you’re halfway there now, you might as well go for the trio and the rest is history.
What should someone considering taking up triathlons think about first?
The first thing you need to do is check with your other half to make sure that they don’t mind you being out of the house so much. The amount of training required can be quite a drag on your life. I probably spend two hours a day training. After that, slow progression is the key. The way I started is probably one of the best ways to get into triathlons. The slower you build up your fitness, the less likely you are to become injured. Avoiding injury is as important as any technical ability you might have – all techniques are irrelevant if you can’t compete in the first place.
What advice would you give to people who may not be used to the running?
Running is the dangerous one because of the impact on your legs, which can cause repetitive injury, whereas swimming and cycling – while hard work and time consuming, are not as physically harmful to your body. Generally speaking, the older you are and the worse your injury history is, the more you need to prepare. I’ve broken my leg and torn a cartilage, so getting back into running was something I did very tentatively. I would recommend running at a track or on a path instead of tarmac wherever possible. The impact forces are greatly reduced on softer surface, which reduces the risk of injury. Running shoes are important – you will probably go through a few pairs before you find ones that you like. I train in one pair and race in another. I have a history of knee surgery and use insoles to reduce the risk of more damage. They also make my training runs more comfortable.
How important is stretching?
Long, lean muscles are less likely to be injured than short, tight ones, so lots of stretching is important. It helps to do warm up exercises to loosen the muscles, but, don’t do it straight after you’ve been running. It’s not that good for you – you will only do more damage to the muscle fibre. Either leave it a few hours, or even until the next day. Treat it as an activity in its own right and do it regularly. When I swim I go to the steam room afterwards, get hot and then hold stretches as long as I can. Si long as there aren't too many people watching me!
Alan’s top triathlon tips:
We asked Alan to give us his best tip for each discipline to help you kick start your triathlon career…
A well-fitting wetsuit or swimsuit makes all the difference and it is worth taking your time to buy the right one. Don’t be tempted to go for the first one you find on the internet, or the most popular – it’s what fits you and works best for you that is more important than the latest suit technology. It’s worth knowing that all neoprene is made in the same factory in Japan. When you buy a high-end suit, you’re just buying the newest neoprene.
It’s all about time in the saddle. Don’t spend a whole heap of money on a bike. It’s far better to spend a whole heap of time on a bike. Fewer things are more satisfying than overtaking a very expensive bike on a triathlon. It makes the run a bit easier.
Take it slow! Don’t run a few 5Ks and suddenly jump up to 10K. When you’re building distance, it’s better to think about it in terms of adding 5-10 minutes to a run. Run as many 5Ks as you need, then try 6K, and then 7K. Increasing distance too far, too quickly can be the thing that stops you from training and, before you know it, you can’t actually compete.