Our suspicions confirmed

So we can finally lay this issue to rest.

New York Times
May 8, 2008
Personal Best
For Peak Performance, 3 Is Not Better Than 1

WHEN Jenny Higgins started doing triathlons, she discovered something peculiar. She had been on her high school cross country and swim teams and her college swim team. But in 2003 she started running, swimming and cycling, and tried to excel in all three at once.

“I noticed that in the pool, my legs felt very heavy,” she said. “I was dragging my legs more than I used to and it hurt my swimming.”

Other times, she would swim fluidly but feel lifeless when she ran or cycled.

After five years as a multisport athlete, Ms. Higgins, now a 32-year-old postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton University, said the push-me-pull-you feeling has not gone away.

It made Ms. Higgins wonder something that may be on the minds of the nation’s more than 100,000 triathletes, too: Is it even possible to peak in more than one sport at once?

Anne Gordon, 51-year-old triathlete and a partner at Dubilier & Company, a private investment group, has never gotten a personal record in each leg of a triathlon on the same day. “I find it is possible to peak in two out of the three sports, but no matter how hard I try the third eludes me,” she said.

Neither, though, is about to give up triathlons. They love the training, the discipline and competitions that allow a little leeway. For instance, if you are a weak cyclist, you may still do well with a fast run and an adequate swim. Multisport athletes can play on their strengths.

“The simple act of working hard at three things requires a diversity and balance in my life that is rewarding in and of itself,” Ms. Gordon said. “It is good for my spirit to know that I have to work hard and be patient to achieve mastery.”

But the question remains: Can you train optimally for three sports at the same time?

“Even the pros struggle with this, that’s just the nature of the human body,” said Joe Friel, a coach and author of 10 books, including “The Triathlete’s Training Bible” (VeloPress, 2004). “It is hard to get the human body to peak at several activities at the same time.”

Professional triathletes tackle the challenge by training 30 hours a week. With that kind of robust, targeted training, said Mr. Friel, who has a master’s in exercise science, “it’s much easier to improve but it’s still not easy.”

It’s a problem Mr. Friel sees all the time in the athletes he coaches who complain about their times, saying, for example, that they aren’t running as fast as they think they should be.

“I have conversations with them,” he said. “Do you really want to be a triathlete? If you want to run faster you have to give up swimming and cycling.”

That, in fact, is what one professional triathlete did. Desirée Ficker, who is 31 and lives in Austin, Tex., said she decided to concentrate on running when she ran the Austin Marathon in 2007 and came in second with a time of 2:40:28. Not only was that her best marathon time ever but it qualified her for the women’s Olympic Trials in Boston last month. The top three women in that race are on the United States Olympic team.

So Ms. Ficker gave up cycling and swimming and just ran, hoping to make the Olympic team.

“Biking hurts your running performance,” she said. “It tires your legs out, and you are using opposing muscle groups. I actually believe you are tearing up your quads to the point where it hurts when you run.”

When she eased up on bicycling, she said, her legs felt fresher and she ran faster.

At the Olympic trials, Ms. Ficker knew that if she did not make the team she would be racing again as a triathlete. That’s how she makes her living, she said. When it became clear that she was not going to be one of the top three women, she lost her will to run her hardest. “My thought was I’m not going to trash my legs because I have a race in six weeks,” she said.

There’s a reason it’s hard to excel in three sports at once, physiologists say. The training necessary to do your best in one sport is likely to counteract what is needed to be good at another.

When you are training, said Gary S. Krahenbuhl, an exercise physiologist and emeritus professor at Arizona State University, improvement depends on physical and biochemical changes in muscle cells and in nerve-firing patterns. And those changes are very sport-specific, he added. The result, Dr. Krahenbuhl said, is that “changes that facilitate performance for one event may actually undermine performance in another event.”

“To think that you could train in such a way as to have your greatest performance in all the sports is impossible,” he added.

Even body musculature can trip up triathletes. Swimmers need large muscles in their backs and shoulders. Runners and cyclists want small, light upper bodies. Cyclists need large quadriceps muscles. Runners don’t, and in fact they don’t want any extra muscle weight on their legs.

Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, an exercise researcher at McMaster University in Canada, a physician and a triathlete, is also convinced that training for one sport interferes with training for another.

“There are molecular signals that allow certain types of training,” he said. “They get diluted when you start blending sports together.”

As an extreme example of how specific training can be, Dr. Tarnopolsky tells the story of a man he has raced with in triathlons. The man previously had been a professional cyclist for a European team and told Dr. Tarnopolsky that when he was training for cycling, he could barely run two kilometers.

But these physiologists hasten to add that there are benefits to doing more than one sport. They advocate cross training for all recreational athletes and especially middle-age athletes who are more easily injured and slower to recover than younger people.

Cross training — cycling one day and swimming the next, for example — lets you maintain your energy and enthusiasm and avoid injuries that come from doing the same activity day after day. That’s also part of the appeal of being a triathlete, Mr. Friel said.

“It’s fun to train,” said Kelly Couch, a 30-year-old triathlete from San Mateo, Calif. “Just being a runner, just being a cyclist, can get a little stagnant.”

But training seriously for more than one sport can be hard to coordinate — training for endurance in each, training for speed in each, getting sufficient rest, eating properly for optimal performance. Then, of course, the athlete has to avoid injury, even a minor twinge, that could impede performance in any of the three sports.

“Everything has to come together,” Dr. Tarnopolsky said. “It’s difficult — like getting all the stars to align.”

But even if the stars never align, there can be other perks.

When Ms. Higgins only swam or ran, she would have weeks when every workout discouraged her. That doesn’t happen anymore. “I can always expect to be feeling good in something I’m doing,” she said. “I can feel like a manatee in the pool, really slow. But then my running feels sharp.” As a result, she said, “I can count on several good workouts each week.”

Ms. Gordon works with a coach who is helping her reach the peak of her performance for the start of the triathlon season this month. “May and June are packed with races,” she said. The big one for her is the Philadelphia Triathlon on June 22. “The workouts’ intensity increases dramatically this time of year,” Ms. Gordon said. “As a result, some days I hit all my numbers or swim like a mad woman and even manage a steady if not fantastic run, but then tomorrow comes and I start all over again and I may not be as good at the same things that day.”

But, she said, that is part of what draws her to triathlons.

“What I love best about this sport is the training, the sense that the goal of hitting a perfect 10 for all three sports will take a lifetime.” And that, she added, “is O.K. by me.”

[b]“Anne Gordon, 51-year-old triathlete and a partner at Dubilier & Company, a private investment group, has never gotten a personal record in each leg of a triathlon on the same day. “I find it is possible to peak in two out of the three sports, but no matter how hard I try the third eludes me,” she said.”

“To think that you could train in such a way as to have your greatest performance in all the sports is impossible,”[/b]

Triathlon is one sport not three and as such it is impossible to have more then one PR during a single triathlon. That is what the above athlete needs to understand. Successful multisport athletes make this a core mantra. What’s a biathlete if he can shoot but can’t ski? A decathlete who can run and jump but not throw? A triathlete who knocks back a 4:18 bike and then blows to pieces during the marathon?

The greatest challenge in multisport is not to get the best possible splits in each discipline, but to build a training program that optimizes your results in each sport.

What’s a cyclist who can’t ride a bike?

A triathlete.

Joking, of course, but Ben’s article is definitely suspicion-confirming. I’ve never met somebody who’s called himself a triathlete who’s also impressed me with his cycling. There are very strong cyclists I know who have done triathlons. Being a triathlete vs. doing triathlons, this is all semantics, no it’s not, we’re beating a dead horse, etc., etc.

Anyway, yours truly prefers the master-of-a-few route over the jack-of-all-trades. My sister says that seeing me run is like seeing a unicorn.

I used to think the same thing Mike, until I met some real triathletes.

“I’ve never met somebody who’s called himself a triathlete who’s also impressed me with his cycling.”


with all due respect, you just haven’t met the right people.

(and kevin, i’ll pass the message along haha!)

I wasn’t referring to Sunday exactly, though they were some great cyclists too.

I caught one of my club-mates on a Tri bike earlier this summer, turns out he competes internationally and does a mean bike split, averaging 48 km/h over 50 km on one occasion.

In the wise words of Fabolous, “Baby, I done met a few.” And by “few,” I mean far, far too many.

Still, hard-pressed as I am to imagine that, in my five years of riding bikes, wrenching bikes, and selling bikes, some large and magical population of cool, strong-cycling triathletes has evaded me, I’d welcome any introductions. But please, before you try to flip my perception of the world of triathletes on its head, understand that maximum efforts, peak heart rates, and best times don’t have anything to do with being a strong cyclist in my book.

I know, I know. What am I thinking? Do I even know what an Iron Man is? Do I have any idea how good that guy is at “cheating the wind?” He’s so aero! His splits are inhuman!

How about we hang on to our own definitions of “strong cyclists,” hey? I don’t think we quite see eye to eye on that point. Sure, there’s something impressive about swimming then biking then running, fast. Heck, triathletes (and far too many cyclists) live for it, and define their riding experience with numbers and lap times and all sorts of other nonsense. A number doesn’t make a strong cyclist, though.

Put it this way: would you be more impressed by a bodybuilder who can squat 600 pounds, who has a picture of himself above his mirror and who you’ll never catch out in anything more than a sleeveless shirt, or a mild-mannered sales associate who trains his body and mind quietly and practically, who’s not afraid of drinking more than a beer-and-a-half over the weekend, and who can knock that swollen-muscled sucker out when push comes to shove? You know my pick.

I’m not really sure what the point of this entire conversation is. If the article that ben posted is “suspicion confirming” i could only articulate the suspicion as follows.

“training specifically for cycling will result in you being a stronger cyclist than someone who is training for a different sport of which 1/3 is cycling”

That sounds like a patently obvious statement to me, not a suspicion.

Let’s call a spade a spade. You have a problem with triathletes because they don’t match up with your idea of what a “real” cyclist should be. :lol:

Not at all! When I was selling bikes, they represented a significant part of our customer base. Triathletes love shiny new stuff. I don’t have a problem with anybody whose nickels end up in my pocket.

I like unathlon.

Me too. You should see how fast I transition from bike-riding to Burger King. I made a new personal best this weekend.

well, i rode with triathletes last sunday. My suspicions were confirmed in terms of their wild manoeuvres in the pack, but i was really impressed by their power uphill though!

I used to have a regular spinning session with triathletes. I can out-sprint them everyday, but their MAPs and watts per Kg were all higher than mine.

i once saw a triathlete run over seven kittens while riding, on purpose… baby kittens. True story.

haha, I had no idea this thread was going to be resurected. I posted it a long time ago with the “suspicion” being exactly as scott articulated: you will never be as good at cycling as you could be if you are simultaniously training for two other unrelated sports. This is from a skills perspective and from a “muscle memory” kind of perspective as well, seeing as how, like the article states, you cannot “peak” in all three sports at once, and presumably the sports you do “peak” in, that upper limit isn’t quite as high as if you were JUST training for one.
That said, I am all for training and sports in general, so if triathlon is your thing, go for it. I also would like to point out there are many reformed triathletes among the cycling team members.

A word of warning: Despite bikejaypeak, aka Catherine Hogan’s past as a (highly successful) triathlete, she will cycle the socks off of you. Don’t mess with her.

I wanted to join the triathlon club, but their team fee was higher than the cycling team. Plus, who wants unsightly biceps from swimming?

I’m in the reformed couch potato category.