The Five Disciplines of Triathlon – A Balanced Approach

Swimmers await a triathlon start.

Everyone knows about the three main disciplines of triathlon: Swimming, cycling and running. Diversity of activities and cross training multiply the benefits while dividing the risks.

Swimming, a physical activity done weightless, reduces stress on the bones and joints, while the isolation of the senses cuts us off from the sounds and fury of day to day life. With less lower body stress and impact, swimming assists recovery from the other activities, though pool swimming can get boring.

Cycling is also a non-impact sport where pedaling at a high cadence benefits articulations, allows for great muscular strength buildup and cardiopulmonary function without overloading the ligaments and cartilages. If the bike fit and riding position are good, the body is draped across five points of contact, ideally balanced and relaxed, though there are times when the weather is not conducive to riding outdoors.

Finally, running is the great cardio and weight bearing exercise. It improves flexibility, balances muscles, and strengthens bones and pulmonary capacity. It challenges joints, especially knees, sometimes too much. Of the three exercises, running is the one that requires least organizing and planning — all you need is a pair of good shoes.

IRONMAN University has identified 5 pillars for a perfect training plan, for which I use the mnemonic B R A C E, as in “brace for .. performance” :

  • Balance your strengths and weaknesses to become an athlete who trains, races and lives holistically.
  • Recovery: From intensity to recovery it’s a journey from peak to valleys. Too much stress or too much rest can equally undermine a life or an athlete.
  • Adaptability: In training, in races and in life you must adapt to circumstances.
  • Consistency, the road to the finish line is paved with realistic goals and training schedules
  • Endurance, Triathlons are the ultimate tests of endurance and the ability to continue even when the going gets tough. This is a valid point for life as well.

Psychologically, variety in triathlon training avoids the boredom of single activity training. It gives the flexibility to schedule sessions depending on your busy life/work or the weather. You might wake early for a run or a spin, hit the pool at lunch, and strength train in the evening.

The balance of training for three different activities allows an athlete to keep training at a time when a single-sport athlete might skip a workout. So here I am, running more and more, but then, feeling some strange knee pain that seems to vanish when I ride my mountain bike, which triggers some back pain which seems to disappear when I swim. Every time I can’t run or swim and I can still spin (and watch Netflix), or I can’t ride because it is pouring rain or frozen solid but I can still run or swim (a big thank you to whoever invented heated outdoor pools).

Training for triathlon opens up the mind for discovering other activities: Mountain biking, skiing, water sports (paddle board, kayaking, rowing), and even hiking challenge different muscles and skills while providing a nice mental and physical break from training defined purely by time, distance and effort.

The Fourth and Fifth Disciplines

A triathlete runs through the transition area with his bike.

Fueling is the 4th discipline in triathlon. Exercising and the pursuit of excellence gets people thinking about other aspects of their lives and how they support their triathlon goals. They tend to drive people away from the bad food and towards a balanced diet. The nutrition choices made before, during and after training and racing can make or break a performance. A good balanced training diet should provide vitamins and minerals but also vary from day to day to adapt to the difference in intensity and duration of a periodized training plan.

And let’s be honest, we feel a lot less guilty hitting that cheesecake when we go after it right after Saturday’s long and grueling ride.

Discipline Itself is the Fifth Discipline

Exercise helps athletes sleep better, but athletes also need to have the discipline to make adjustments to their lives to allow for adequate sleep. Sleeping, sleeping well, deeply and uninterrupted is one of the most important parts of training, the ultimate recovery time. Sleep restores the body’s energy supplies that were taxed during the day and / or exercise. Without adequate sleep, training is ineffective.

Many other behaviors and lifestyle choices support or undermine athletic success. The successful triathlete eats right, limits alcohol intake, breaks away from TV and social media to allow time for training and sleep, and takes care of medical issues before they can interfere with training. The athlete who has the discipline to do these things will prosper.

Triathlon is not only a sport, it’s a way of life when you embrace it. It will be beneficial to you and your loved one by making you a better, more balanced individual and by showing by example and bringing new athletes into the sport. Triathlon might even be the perfect metaphor for our journey as humans:  We start in water for nine months before birth, continuing crouched on a bike like a child discovering the world on all fours, then finally rising and standing up, running to the finish line.

~Phil Timothee