How I trained for my first Olympic Triathlon in Jersey, the Channel Islands
The other day I stumbled upon this interview that I gave to the Bailiwick Express about my experience as a first-time triathlete at the Jersey Olympic Triathlon in June 2019: consisting of a 1,500m swim, 40km cycle and 10km run. An Olympic triathlon takes roughly 3 hours so it’s up there in terms of endurance sports and requires concerted training. There are shorter ‘sprint’ versions, and even longer Ironman triathlons too. Although I’ve been a ‘marathon tourist’ for a few years now, I’m an unlikely candidate for a triathlete: for a start, being female stands me out from the crowd in this sport, with just 31% of the Jersey Triathlon 2019 competitors being women, compared to 69% men.
But I’m a sucker for a challenge and I succumbed to peer pressure with school friends on New Year’s Day 2019 on the Isle of Wight. We had braved the freezing sea for a quick swim to banish our hazy headaches from the festivities the night before. Inspired by our brisk dip in the sea, together we hatched a plan to do a triathlon. One of my friends, Ali, had recently moved to Jersey and his suggestion of the Jersey Triathlon instantly appealed, both as a great excuse to visit the island, and also because we’d be swimming in the actual sea, rather than in a lake or pool, like most mainland triathlons. The fact that Jersey is so accessible, with cheap and frequent flights across the whole of the UK, meant the distance wasn’t a deterrent at all.
Having committed and registered for my place, I scoured Google and asked my most lycra-clad triathlete friends for advice on what training for a triathlon actually entails. I settled upon a 12-week training programme beginning in March. While this blog post is no replacement for a full expertly-designed training plan, it does give a taster for what to expect as a novice triathlete.
I don’t swim a huge amount and I rarely ever front crawl (as thick long hair takes a lifetime to dry, so keeping it dry when swimming has always been a priority!) so I had to re-teach myself how to swim. There are various breathing techniques that I had to learn for front crawl (here’s a handy explainer) and gradually I felt my lung capacity and stamina grow.
I also had to find somewhere to swim in London: I varied the location to keep it somewhat interesting: visiting Tooting Bec Lido at weekends to acclimatise to swimming in cold temperatures with a wetsuit. It’s the longest openwater lido in the UK at 91m long, so was a good simulation for swimming longer distances without a pool edge to grab onto. For a while I frequented Vauxhall Public Swimming Pool which is at least modern, but a bit too busy, until a good friend swooped in and rescued me – letting me swim in the two-lane luxury adult-only 25m pool in the Harbour Club Chelsea, which comes complete with pan pipes and mood lighting, with full spa facilities to soothe my muscles afterwards. In the 5 times I visited the Harbour Club, only once was there a single other person in the 2-lane pool.
My main recommendation though is to try swim in an accurate environment for your race. If you’re swimming in the sea, like in Jersey, practice plenty of sea swimming. If your triathlon is in a lake or river, make the effort to travel to a lake or river. This was my biggest mistake as I’d done precisely zero sea swimming before my own triathlon.
I usually cycle 10km to and from work each day from Earlsfield to Westminster, albeit on a baby blue women’s Dutch city bike complete with basket – hardly a speedy lightweight vehicle for a triathlon. So I already knew how to cycle and I knew that my thighs were strong enough for long distances, but I had never ridden a road bike with dropped handlebars and a crossbar. I actually think my heavy Dutch-style bike is good resistance training for the thighs, as they need to work harder to propel that weight forward.
To practice on a proper road bike, I rented a snazzy road bike for 3 days from On Your Bike for £59 and signed up for a number of long cycles with Dirty Wknd which a friend had recommended for learning to cycle in groups. I turned up for the first ride woefully under-prepared, having only just sat on this hired road bike and having massively underestimated the different in riding style! We embarked on a 54 km ride from Dulwich out into hilly Kent, with three Lycra-clad clip-shoe-wearing absolute pros alongside me – the utter newbie wearing normal trainers – but they were fantastically friendly, teaching me the meaning of the word ‘cadence’ and all the hand signals cyclists use. In the following days I joined other Dirty Wknd groups for sunrise cycles around Regents Park (31 km) and Richmond Park (65 km), and slowly built my confidence.
My main recommendation for the cycle training would be to buy a proper road bike! I simply don’t have the storage in London, so I didn’t, but I really wish I had.
I was in my element with the run training. I’ve written here about my Athens Marathon training and I simply added more long runs into my normal routine. Usually along the Thames Path, which is my go-to for picturesque runs. I also had a weekend hiking Ben Nevis and the Ring of Steall up in Scotland shortly before the triathlon, and while in New Zealand & Australia for 3 weeks mid-training, I focused entirely on running and hiking long distances to get my stamina up – all helping to build my leg muscle strength. I embraced Saturday morning Parkruns with a new purpose and even managed to get a Parkrun 5km PB (‘personal best’) of 21 mins 39 seconds, and I even finished as first lady in one Parkrun! To get used to running without music (as headphones aren’t allowed in official triathlons), I also ran the Hyde Park Last Friday of the Month 5km race a few times. I subscribe to Women’s Health and on their recommendation, I even dabbled with a protein powder in my porridge, but I couldn’t honestly tell you if that made a difference or not.
My main recommendation for running is to buy the right shoes and get insoles custom fit for your feet, build up the distances and pace gradually, find interesting routes outdoors (a treadmill is not a realistic simulation), discover the time of day that gives you most energy, and enter mini-races to practice ‘race mentality’ and get used to pre-race nerves.
Training for transitions:
A ‘transition’ is the gap of time between the sports, where you change kit for the next sport. The first transition is from swim to bike (exhausted arms stripping off the wetsuit, putting on shoes and helmet, grabbing the bike) and the second is from bike to run (jelly legs from so much pedalling, putting away the bike, losing the helmet, changing shoes if you’re wearing clip-on shoes).
I should have practiced transitions far more than I actually did. I cycled to and from my swims and my 5km Parkruns, but there was always ample time for dressing/undressing or waiting at the start line, and I never practiced in real haste. Which was a major mistake. You can sign up for Beginner Triathlete training days where they specifically teach you how to ace transitions, and I was put off by the price, but with hindsight it would have been a good idea. At least Google it and watch a few Youtube videos to see what it involves.
Pros & cons of triathlon training:
- I was in truly fantastic all-round shape for the 3 months leading up to the triathlon, from doing quite so much exercise.
- I developed arm strength for the first time in my life.
- I could eat whatever I wanted!
- I got a lot of fresh air and time outdoors.
- I enjoyed working towards an exercise goal and felt really motivated by the prospect of a new challenge.
- Triathlons are more expensive than normal exercise, due to the sheer amount of kit required.
- I couldn’t drink as much alcohol as I’d normally like, since I had so many training days.
- Washing my hair in Vauxhall Public Swimming Pool (mixed!) showers was a low point.
- It reduced my ability to do other things outside of work (like write my Master’s thesis – oops, and to a certain extent it limited my ability to socialise).
- Swimming endless lengths is soooooo boring – I wish I’d bought underwater headphones and had a smart watch at that point to count my lengths.
My experience competing in the Jersey Olympic Triathlon 2019:
I loved that the Jersey triathlon felt intimate and familiar, as there were only a few hundred of us competing, compared to the 18,000 people running in one of my previous races. As it was my very first ever triathlon, it was a scary prospect and I was understandably very nervous on the day and hadn’t slept a single wink the night before. I felt especially daunted since I hadn’t been able to practice any sea swimming in advance, and I hadn’t used my bike before (which I rented from Big Maggy’s in St Helier).
The 1,500m swim:
The sea conditions on the day were unfortunately very choppy so the swim was something of an exercise in survival, as many other competitors agreed! I wasn’t accustomed to swimming in waves so I swallowed a ridiculous amount of sea water and unfortunately had stomach pains for the remainder of the triathlon. At times I honestly felt like giving up during the swim and calling it a day, it was that horrendous. Swim segment = 37 mins 30 secs (a bit slow)
Transition no.1: Barely believing that I hadn’t drowned, I was very slow to snap out of the shock of the sea and strip off the wetsuit. My arms were exhausted and numb from the cold so I struggled with zips and tying shoelaces. I ate an energy gel for sustenance. Time = 4 mins 25 secs (very slow)
The 40km cycle:
I loved the bike segment though, exploring the island’s deserted rural roads and covering half the island. There were beautiful bays, villages and coastlines at every turn, and blissfully little traffic! The travel writer in me wished I could have stopped to take photos mid-ride, but the competitive nature of the race meant I ploughed on without stopping, and I instead made sure to store snapshots of the landscapes and beautiful sea views in my memory instead. I had a stitch throughout (from sea water) but was able to ignore it. Bike segment = 1 hr 27 mins 08 secs (happy with this!)
Transition no.2: Much faster turn-around this time because I used the same trainers for the cycle and run, which the pros don’t do. But the pain really started to kick in here. Time = 43 secs (fast)
The 10 km run:
The run was really difficult after two hours of swimming and cycling, with a dreadful stabbing pain in my stomach throughout thanks to the traumatic sea swim, but it was scenic to peruse the yachts in the marina. It’s a bit of a repetitive route as it’s 4 laps of a marina, but thankfully that means no hills! I was quite disappointed with my performance on the run, as I’d always assumed that would be my strongest segment, but I blame the swim for that. Run segment = 56 mins 45 secs (slower than I’d expected)
Overall I finished the Olympic distance Jersey triathlon in 3 hours 6 minutes 31 seconds, and I was really pleased considering how tough the swim had been. I finished 49th out of 60 women and 180th out of 204 entrants in total. It was a hugely satisfying feeling to finish after 3 months of training, and considering how many new techniques I’d had to learn for the first time. It was also great to see so much of the island during the race!
I’d definitely recommend Jersey to anyone thinking of doing a triathlon, especially as the organisers also offer a shorter Jersey Sprint distance and a relay triathlon for multiple participants, so there’s something for all abilities. Being part of a smaller event also gave it a great, friendly atmosphere.
You can also watch my Instagram Story from the Jersey Triathlon 2019:
Would I do another triathlon?
Lots of the women I spoke to during my practice bike rides in London said they’d “got the bug” and continued to compete in triathlons afterwards. The appeal of all-round fantastic fitness is definitely appealing, and I definitely exercise better when I have a goal to work towards. I didn’t fall in love with swimming, so that’s probably my major obstacle to entering another triathlon. I can however definitely see the appeal of a “duathlon” (bike + run) and I’d happily enter the bike or run segments of a relay triathlon! The expense of all the kit is also quite off-putting, and explains why so many triathlon entrants are affluent white “MAMILs” – that’s short for “middle-aged man in lycra”. But I’m really keen that more women do try out these male-dominated sports (cf. the Inferno ski race and did I mention that time I tried boxing?!).
If you’re a woman, another way of looking at a male-dominated sport such as triathlons is that there’s a smaller pool of competitors, as the only ranking that counts for women is the gender ranking. And although I performed poorly on the day, the satisfaction of proving to myself that, with dedication and focus, I can cross the finish line of a new endurance sport is confidence-boosting and helps me believe that no goal is out of my reach, if I apply myself to it!