Why the triathlon has become the ultimate water-cooler competition

Timothy Barber
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ON A NORMAL weekend you&rsquo;re more likely to encounter tumbleweed in Docklands than serious signs of human activity. It might have been a bit of a shock this Sunday, then, to have seen 13,000 people swarming into the water at Royal Victoria docks, climbing out to run 10km and then cycling to Westminster and back. Twice.<br /><br />Nutters, right? Wrong. The triathlon may once have been seen as a form of endurance torture for the most masochistic obsessives, but it&rsquo;s quickly conquering the mainstream. And August is triathlon month. The Docklands event, the Mazda London Triathlon, is now reckoned to be the world&rsquo;s biggest such event &ndash; even Formula One&rsquo;s Jenson Button was taking part. Another 2,000 weekend warriors are expected in Hyde Park on August 16, the day after the London leg of the ITU World Championships, a series of elite triathlon events across major cities. Both the pros and the amateurs will be following the route planned for the sport&rsquo;s Olympic event in 2012, with a dip in the Serpentine followed by cycling and running round the Royal Park.<br /><br /><strong>TOP-DOG STATUS</strong><br />Triathlon events vary between novice-friendly super sprints, where the swimming element takes place in a pool, and spectacularly gruelling Iron Man events that can take place over hundreds of kilometres. And as you&rsquo;d expect with something based on personal excellence and endurance, triathlon&rsquo;s a big deal in the Square Mile. After all, says Morgan Williams of the British Triathlon Association, it&rsquo;s not a bad way to assert top-dog status in the office.<br /><br />&ldquo;We call it a water-cooler sport &ndash; on a Monday morning it&rsquo;s great to be able to tell people it&rsquo;s what you&rsquo;ve been doing over the weekend,&rdquo; he says. &ldquo;Just as the marathon was once, it&rsquo;s the new challenge that people want to be able to say they&rsquo;ve done.&rdquo;<br /><br />You have to think there&rsquo;ll be particular office props later this month for the brave souls from six City firms, including UBS, Deutsche Bank and Barclays Capital, who will be taking part in the Arch to Arc Enduro Challenge Triathlon, a relay event beginning at Marble Arch and finishing at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, with a swim across the Channel in the middle.<br /><br />Such extreme ends of the sport are only the tip of the triathlon iceberg. Since 2000, when its inclusion in the Sydney Olympics was instrumental in elevating its profile, triathlon has seen massive growth at gym and club levels, and there are numerous avenues for people of all abilities to be involved. Indoor triathlon events using regular fitness equipment are an increasing trend as the sport diversifies, meaning it can truly be a year-round pursuit. <br /><strong><br />HEALTH BENEFITS</strong><br />And of course, choosing to take up triathlon has considerable health and fitness benefits, particularly compared to marathon running, a high-impact sport which tends to result in more injuries.<br /><br />&ldquo;Overuse injuries are reduced because you&rsquo;re cross-training in three different sports,&rdquo; says Karen Weir, a personal trainer at Matt Roberts Personal Training. &ldquo;If you do get injured and need to rest a particular muscle group, you can always keep your fitness up by increasing your swim sessions (a no impact exercise) or cycling.&rdquo;<br /><br />Because of its variation, triathlon works the whole body, building up strength and endurance evenly across different areas. As an endurance sport, it also gives a cardiovascular workout &ndash; the levels of training required to complete even a relatively short triathlon event will give the heart and lungs a lot of work. But you don&rsquo;t have to be winning such races to get the most out of the sport, says Morgan Williams.<br /><br />&ldquo;It&rsquo;s an individual challenge above all else, and that&rsquo;s what appeals to a lot of people,&rdquo; he says. &ldquo;There are of course competitive racers, but everybody races in the same format irrespective of ability so it doesn&rsquo;t have to be about being first over the line &ndash; you create your own challenges and goals.&rdquo;<br /><br />For some people, one of triathlon&rsquo;s plus points is the amount of kit you can indulge yourself with, from the scientifically-designed body suits to state-of-the-art racing bikes. There&rsquo;s really no cap to what you can spend if you want to &ndash; but that&rsquo;s far from compulsory.<br /><br /><strong>GETTING STARTED</strong><br />&ldquo;If you&rsquo;re getting started, pick triathlons with a pool swim so you don&rsquo;t need a wetsuit, or hire a wetsuit for the season,&rdquo; Weir recommends. &ldquo;You can use your mountain bike, just fit some skinnier tyres.&rdquo;<br /><br />In fact, you shouldn&rsquo;t be surprised to see people taking part in triathlons using shopping bikes with baskets on the front &ndash; Williams says he&rsquo;s even seen someone on a Raleigh Chopper. As long as you can make it to the end eventually, it&rsquo;s a sport where it really is the taking part that counts most.<br /><br />TRIATHLON: GET THE KIT<br /><strong>BIKE</strong><br />Sure you can spend thousands on the latest, lightest, raciest road racing bike, but the only real pre-requisite is that it's road legal. A normal mountain bike should be fine, though you may want to fit thinner tyres.<br /><br /><strong>TRI-SUITS AND WETSUITS</strong><br />If you're swimming in water below 14 degrees in temperature, you need to wear a wetsuit (which can be hired for race day), but for pool-based triathlons, swimming trunks are fine, before pulling on some padded cycling shorts and a T-shirt for the rest of the race. For hardcore triathletes it's all about tri-suits, the streamlined one or two-piece body suits that work for all three disciplines.<br /><br /><strong>SHOES</strong><br />You need a quick changeover between the cycling and running, and you can buy specially made shoes for the cycling element, with single velcro straps and large ankle pulls for whipping off quickly. For the run, go for the best and most comfortable you can, as you would for a marathon.<br /><br /><strong>GOGGLES</strong><br />If they don't let in water and are comfortable, your common-or-garden swimming goggles should be fine in the pool. If you're heading to open water, you might want to check out more hi-tech triathlon goggles, which often come in a scuba mask-style design.<br /><br /><strong>ACCESSORIES</strong><br />The list of gadgets and gizmos you can get hold of for triathlons is extensive, from advanced heart-rate monitors (pretty essential for effective training) to mini GPS systems (not exactly a must for finding your way around Hyde Park). How extensively you want to indulge your gadget-fever <br />is up to the depths of your pockets.<br />