They might be in a different stratosphere when it comes to ability, but it doesn't mean we cannot learn anything from elite triathletes. While swim, bike and run action provided a blistering start to 2018 Commonwealth Games action on Australia’s Gold Coast, it also gave us plenty of pointers to improve our own performance.
1. Swim strokes don’t have to be pretty to be effective
Southport Broadwater Parklands is an inlet of the Coral Sea, and for the men’s individual race the wind whipped through and the triathletes had to cope with the chop. Leading the field and giving a textbook example of open water swimming skills were the HUUB sponsored triathletes, the Brownlee brothers and Henri Schoeman. But it wasn’t the classical gliding strokes so often seen in the pool, but a higher cadence technique punching through the water with straight arm recovery. Why? Firstly, triathletes do not possess the upper body power of pure swimmers, because the additional bulk needed to achieve it is detrimental to a fast bike and run that follows. The quickened stroke rate makes up for not gaining such distance with each ‘catch’.
Secondly, in open water, trying to mimic Ian Thorpe would also leave triathletes exposed to be buffeted by both the conditions - and other competitors. None of this means all technique is thrown to the sharks - remember, it’s what goes on under the water that counts - but instead it’s adapting traditional swim coaching for open water conditions. It allowed Alistair to swim 8min 48sec for 750m - and has brought him two Olympic titles.
2. No matter how experienced or smart you race, there's no cheating fitness in endurance sport
Double-Olympic champion and HUUB ambassador Alistair Brownlee is perhaps the most astute exponent of swim, bike and run the sport has seen. He’s repeatedly managed to beat world-class rivals on the biggest stage, but one arch nemesis that keeps returning is dreaded injury. This year was no different with a calf pull ruling out the high intensity run training he was always likely to need to have enough speed over 5km on the Gold Coast. It didn’t stop him from giving it his all - Brownlee led out the swim, and threw everything at the bike to try and forge a race-winning chance for either himself or his brother, Jonny. Yet it wasn’t to be, and from the first steps of the run it was clear the Commonwealth title he won in Glasgow 2014 wouldn’t be retained. As fierce a competitor as ever, Alistair was sanguine with the result. There was no more he could have given and it was proof, if needed, that our bodies don’t just need time to recover from injury, but also to build the fitness to compete.
3. Confidence breeds results. And it’s a virtuous circle
Henri Schoeman claimed his first World Triathlon Series win in Cozumel in 2016, won Olympic bronze in 2016 and the claimed first WTS race of 2017 in Abu Dhabi last month. The South African was the man in form heading into the Gold Coast and knew both the course and the way the race was likely to develop all played to his strengths. Along with fellow HUUB sponsored athlete Richard Varga, Schoeman regularly heads the swim in ITU races, but this time he was confident enough to sit in behind Alistair Brownlee and be part of a six-man breakaway on the bike that - importantly - put time into his fleet-footed compatriot Richard Murray, and other threatening runners, Jacob Birtwhistle and Ryan Sissons. Schoeman judged it perfectly, and from the first steps of the 5km didn’t look like anything other than a gold medal winner. It might be his first major title but it will take a brave person to bet against him being back on the Gold Coast in September for the Grand Final with a first shot at a world title.
4. It’s not a straight-line sport. Technique is important
Winning gold takes more than just aerobic ability. Joe Townsend is the HUUB sponsored former marine who lost both legs in Afghanistan in 2008 but triumphantly took the Commonwealth paratri title for England on Gold Coast. It was not unexpected, but Townsend - who was third in last year’s world championship and sixth in the Rio Paralympics - had never beaten home hope and pre-race favourite Bill Chaffey before. Once out of the water, the two were the fastest men on the recumbent handcycle before Chaffey spectacularly overcooked a corner and smashed into the barriers. Townsend stayed on course in every respect and as he overtook race leader and another Aussie, Nic Beveridge, coming into the second transition, there was only to be one winner. His power and technique in the racing chair is renowned having won four gold medals in the inaugural Invictus Games in 2014, and he covered the final 5km push in just 13min 28sec.
5. It might be endurance sport, but a second can make or break the race
England’s Jessica Learmonth (another HUUB athlete) led out of the swim in the women’s race, followed by Flora Duffy with HUUB's Sophie Coldwell just 7sec behind. Coldwell, who trains in Loughborough, had been picked ahead of defending champion and training partner Jodie Stimpson for just such an eventuality. A strong swim-biker, if she could be in a three-woman breakaway she was almost guaranteed a podium finish. But she couldn’t make up those vital few seconds in T1 and as Duffy and Learmonth headed out on their bikes, Coldwell was stranded in no-woman’s land. She was caught by the pack and although ended up a creditable sixth, missed the chance of a medal. While it will rarely prove such fine margins for amateurs, it’s a reminder that there are times on the race course where expending that extra bit of effort to take advantage of the draft effect on the swim, the bike (where legal!), and even the run on occasion, can pay major dividends.
6. Left-field thinking can prove a winner
New Zealand were locked in a three-way battle for bronze with Wales and Canada in the mixed relay when Kiwi Ryan Sissons dismounted the bike on the second leg of the race. Then he was gone like a shot up the road. Sissons had chosen not to cycle in regular cleats for the 7km bike leg, meaning he didn’t need to change shoes for the run. It was a move repeated on the final leg by Tayler Reid as New Zealand beat Canada to bronze by just 7sec. A lesson in not being afraid to think laterally… it might just give you the edge.
Thank you to Tim Heming, sports journalist and 220Triathlon columnist, for this guest post.