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How to triathlon like a pro

Will Usher is working with Gordon Ramsay to train 100 athletes for an Ironman in June, and raise money for Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. We asked him for some advice for a first-time triathlete

How long does it take to train for your first triathlon?

About two to three months for a sprint distance (750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run), or up to six months for a standard distance (1500m swim, 40km bike, 10km run). There’s a triathlon out there for pretty much anyone, from sprint distance right up to ultra distance or Ironman.

How much training should I do each week?

At entry level, you want to do three or four hours a week. One tip: something will always happen during the day to prevent you training in the evening, so get up early and do it before work; it’s the only time you can guarantee for yourself.

Are there any training exercises that work well for running, cycling and swimming?

Workouts that benefit all three would be core-related. What tends to happen is a person’s core breaks down in the swim, then they can’t push as powerfully on the bike and by the run, they’re almost bent double running because their core’s gone.

What’s the best way to build up endurance for each?

Endurance is relatively simple to achieve, it’s just about putting in the hours. For your swimming sessions, add five to 10 minutes each week (or about 300 to 400 metres) from whatever your starting point is. On your cycling practice, you’d add 15-20 mins extra each week on your long ride. When running, the perfect approach is to add five minutes each week to build your endurance. Adding 10 is OK, too, but 15 is pushing it – you’re likely to injure yourself.

What kit do I need?

Assuming it’s an outdoor race, you’ll need a triathlon wetsuit, which is different to a surfing wetsuit. Other than that, it’s up to you really. Anything you’re happy cycling in, really – you don’t need specialist gear, just a T-shirt and shorts are OK. Tri-suits may look a bit odd, too, but they’re designed for the job so are the best piece of clothing you could wear – you can do all the disciplines in them.

Do I need a new bike?

Starting out, any bike is OK, as long as it’s serviceable. The one thing you have to have is a helmet. They won’t allow you to race without one. More serious triathletes will usually use a road bike or time trial bike.

Should I eat differently?

A balance of macronutrients is the way forward. The one line I’ve heard on nutrition which rings truest is “if it needs to be advertised, it probably isn’t worth eating” – you never see an advert for broccoli.

A couple of days before a race, you want to move onto simple, refined carbohydrates, things your body can process easily. What you don’t want on race day is blood around your digestive system, rather than carrying oxygen to the muscles that are screaming out for it. Something heavy – like a steak or complex carbs – will be a problem.

Are there any common technique mistakes?

Swimming is where most people make mistakes. Luckily, it’s the one you spend least time doing. People try to power all the way through the water. Your arm needs to enter the water smoothly with good technique and apply power at the end. Rowers don’t smash their oars into the water, they catch the water and save the power until the end of the stroke.

If you can start with a relaxed swim, it will set you up well. Think of Olympic sprinters in the 100m; the ones that tense up have a terrible race, whereas Bolt’s face is always relaxed and flopping all over the place. If you tense up your jaw because it’s cold or you’re nervous, it has a knock-on effect on your shoulders and back and impairs your swimming because you can’t flow.

Don’t use too high a gear when cycling because cadence is important. Optimum for the triathlon is 85-90rpm. Cycling at a relatively high cadence means less fatigue on your muscles before the run.

The same principle applies to running. One way that you can improve your run speed is to try and run at a higher cadence. Most pro athletes will try to run at around 180 strides per minute, maybe more. That can be quite hard to achieve for an amateur, but you can download a metronome app on your phone and run to it constantly. Taller guys might have a lower cadence because they have a longer stride. The easiest way to increase your running cadence is to move your arms faster, because your legs will follow.

Should I practise the transitions?

Yes, transitions are important. Make sure you’re well prepared if you’re going to take on some water or a gel, otherwise you’ll lose time. I recommend walking through your changeover before the race.

Every race, there will be someone standing there looking helpless and very stressed. I’ve known someone to get disqualified for running off in someone else’s shoes before.

What should I do the day before the race?

Get as much preparation done the day before the race as you can, such as racking the bike [at the changeover point] so that’s one less thing to think about on the day. Talk yourself through what’s going to happen on race day. Lay out your kit the night before, so in the morning when you have to get up at the crack of dawn for the race, you know where everything is.

When you’re racing, just keep thinking about what’s going to happen next. So towards the end of the swim, start thinking, “I’m going to exit here, my bike’s over there, I’m going to take my wetsuit off as I go, eat a gel,” and so on. Just go through the process.

To join Gordon Ramsay’s team in the GTR100 Ironman 70.3, please visit www.gosh.org

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