Thursday, February 27, 2014

Making the Transition from Mono-Athlete to Triathlete

by Karen Mackin, PCG Elite Coach

In the years I've been coaching runners, cyclists, and swimmers who want to become triathletes, I have found that the most important step to a smooth transition is to understand your competitive priorities. Continuing to compete in an individual sport in addition to triathlons can prove to be one of the biggest challenges you’ll face, so make sure you know and accept your priorities. Are you striving to become the best triathlete you can be, or are you a runner who also happens to compete in triathlons? A runner will put more value on performance in running races than in triathlons or might even be more concerned with the run split of a triathlon race than the overall finishing time. Training to improve your performance in an event that consists of swimming, cycling, running, transitions, and sometimes nutrition (for iron distance events) is very different from training to improve your performance in an individual sport while including enough cross training to enjoy a few triathlons.

If you really want to focus on triathlons, you should understand the following two things: 

1. Performance in a triathlon is a result of all three events, their transitions, and (for longer races) nutrition. A triathlon is basically a complex time trial. If you go too hard in the beginning or in one phase of the race (i.e., swim and/or bike too fast), your run will not be as good as it could have been and the overall time will be slower. This concept is difficult to grasp, because results of a triathlon include the splits for each sport and athletes tend to focus on the individual splits separately. In general the most efficient way to race a triathlon is to perform the entire race (swim, bike, run, and transitions) at a consistent intensity level. This will result in the fastest possible overall time, even when it means the split in your primary sport may be slower.

2. In order to perform to your fullest potential as a triathlete, you must work to balance your training in all three sports. Balancing the sports does not mean training an equal amount in each sport. It means you need to level out your relative abilities in each of the sports by training in a way to minimize any impact your weaker sports may have on your performance. Quite often this means training only to maintain your strength in your primary sport so that you can devote more focused time on improving your weak link(s). Athletes who come from a strong background in one of the three sports and/or continue to compete in the individual sport events are typically the ones who have the hardest time doing this.

Once you understand these two points and are willing to train and race by them, you will be on your way to reaching your true potential in the sport of triathlon.

Karen Mackin is a USAC Level 2 and Power Certified coach, a USAT Level 1 and Junior Certified coach, a USA Track and Field Level 1 coach, an AFAA Certified Personal Trainer, and a former speed skater. She has over 25 years of experience in a variety of endurance sports, and she is a founding member of AIMTriTeam. She and the other PCG coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes. Karen can be contacted through

Photo Credit, L to R:, PCG Coach Lisa Colvin, PCG Coach Nick Stanko