Duathlon

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One of the biggest growth areas in contemporary sport is the ultra-
endurance, multi- discipline competitions, where athletes from different sporting
backgrounds test their mettle in a variety of sports. Conventional triathlon events
have been around for some time now, but the bulk of expansion is in the off-road
versions. Events such as the Xterra off-road triathlon and Discovery Channels Eco-Challenge
include disciplines as divergent as open water swimming, sea kayaking and camel riding
in addition to the mountain biking stages. Competing in these events is a big step
up from racing at your local mountain bike event. If you can’t hold your own at open
water swimming, or run off-road for an hour or two, then the prospect can be quite
daunting.

However, in this country there is a small network of off-road duathlon events which
provide the opportunity for you to serve your apprenticeship before you progress
on to the big events. An off-road duathlon is a three phase, dual sport event consisting
of a mountain bike race sandwiched between a couple of cross country runs. The courses
can be of varying length, but if you are competing for the first time, my advice
is to opt for the ‘sprint’ events which cover a shorter course. The typical distance
of a sprint event is 5km run, 20km bike, 5km run. Don’t be intimidated by this prospect
as the majority of the competitors are athletes trying another sport. They are either
mountain bikers having a go at running, or runners having a go at mountain biking,
with only a minority being experts at both. Because of this the atmosphere is fun
and relaxed, with competitors from each discipline encouraging those from the other.

Making the Transition

If you’re reasonably fit on your bike then you should have no major problems completing
a duathlon. Unfortunately the only fitness crossover benefit from mountain biking
is your improved cardiovascular system. Despite using your leg muscles in each discipline
you are using them in a totally different way. When you are running you are supporting
your weight and working all of the time – there is no sitting down, coasting or changing
to an easier gear. From a physiological point the cycling only involves concentric
(shortening) contractions of the muscles whereas when running the muscles also contract
eccentrically. That is, your leg muscles lengthen under tension as they absorb the
impact of your body weight. For this reason, no matter how fit you are at mountain
biking, if you are unaccustomed to running you’ll always feel it in your legs for
a couple of days after a run. Your main priority is not to injure yourself whilst
you are running. Remember it should be adding to and not detracting from your mountain
biking. The single most important thing you can do is buy yourself the best pair
of trainers you can afford. Go and visit your local specialist running shop, as opposed
to a high street sports shop, as they will give you expert advise and have a wider
range of stock. Some running shops even have a foot scan machine which will analyse
your gait and assess whether you are a pronator (rotate foot inwards), or supinator
(rotate foot outwards) whilst running. Getting the right pair of running shoes can
not be overstated. If you have got an inadequate pair of trainers you will feel it
each time your foot hits the ground, and at around 140 foot impacts per minute, that’s
an awful lot of reminders. Another precaution is to run off-road during your training
because the surface is more forgiving than tarmac or concrete and has less of a jarring
effect on your joints.

Training for duathlon

You will make most of your improvements in duathlon if your work on your weak areas,
which in this case is your running. Any effort applied to improving your mountain
biking at this stage will not bring about as a good an improvement as the same effort
applied to your running. You will need a minimum of six to eight weeks to get your
running up to par for the event. If running or jogging has not played any significant
role in your fitness in past, then you should aim to spend about 10 percent of your
training on running. You may only be able to manage a 10 minute continuous run. This
is not a problem. Each week add about 5 percent to your running workouts until you
reach a sixty forty split in favour of mountain biking. After all you’re a mountain
biker not a runner. Not only do you have to develop your running fitness, but you
must also become accustomed to making the transition from running to biking and then
back again. The best way to achieve this is to perform mock duathlons in your training.
First of all pick out a 5km running loop and a 20km cycling loop near your home.
Lay out all of your cycling gear next to your bike (with your helmet buckle and the
velcro straps on your shoes undone in order to speed up the transition) and set off
on your first run. Upon return quickly swap your shoes, put on your helmet and shades,
and set off on your cycle loop. Then it’s back into your running shoes for your final
5km run. Initially this final transition will feel extremely weird, like your running
with your legs on back to front, or with flippers on your feet, or even both. No
matter how tired you are at this stage you will always manage a wry smile as you
try to regain control of your legs. But given time you’ll begin to get accustomed
to it. Because this workout is extremely taxing on your body perform it only once
a week. For the first week use the initial run as a warm-up, go hard on the bike,
and then taper off during the final run. The next week go hard in the run, recover
on the bike and then go hard in the final run once more and so on. Every now and
again go ‘all out’ during all three phases so that you can get an overall time and
monitor your progress. You will also need to substitute a couple of your regular
mountain workouts with running sessions. Aim to include one long distance run which
is around 10km and an easy paced recovery run which should take approximately an
hour. Even though your heart and lungs may be able to perform this type of training,
remember that at this stage your muscles and joints are not up to the job. So, as
with any other form of training, start easy and build up gradually.

Locating the race

So far, off-road duathlons are not as prolific as the conventional road ones, and
may take some research on your behalf to find out when they are being held. Most
events are organised by a traditional triathlon club, so contact your local club
and see if they have got any off-road duathlons on their race calendar. Other sources
of information include the race calendar sections of magazines such as: 220, Triathlon,
Today’s Runner, and your regular mountain bike magazines. If your search is fruitless,
then you should add the extra discipline of race organisation to your multi-sport
repertoire and organise your own event!

(c) Copyright 1999 John Metcalfe

John Metcalfe is a Mountain Bike physiologist, regular mtb magazine contributor and
avid racer. In order to pay the bills he is also a Sports Science Lecturer.

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