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Time to try a triathlon?


Triathlon is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports, and the Caribbean hosts some fantastic events. Matt Baird provides tips on getting into the sport, and rounds up some of the best regional races

Born in San Diego in 1974, the swim, bike and run sport of triathlon exploded in popularity following its appearance at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. Triathlon has since regularly grabbed the title of the world’s fastest-growing sport at both professional and amateur level, with more than two million global triathletes each year reaping the physical, mental and pure fun benefits that come with taking on a fresh sporting challenge.

Happily, the Caribbean hasn’t been left standing in triathlon’s huge growth, and some of the world’s most beautiful races take place in the region. The Caribbean has been fundamental to the rise of the ‘race-cation’ – athletes build a holiday around a triathlon, with Nevis, St Lucia, Puerto Rico and Barbados hosting internationally renowned races for every level of triathlete, from beginner to grizzled veteran.

There’s much here for locals as well. Grenada and Bermuda have among the highest proportions of triathletes in the world; Bermuda will host the flagship World Triathlon Series for three years from 2018.

“People know of the beautiful islands in the Caribbean, but what many aren’t aware of is the active side to the region, and what fantastic infrastructure is in place for triathlon,” says top amateur athlete Jane Hansom, who helps organise the Nevis Triathlon. “From beginner races to longer challenges for experienced athletes, the events allow competitors to compete against stunning scenic backdrops. For those who are questioning taking part, I say: go for it!”

Quickfire Q&A

Whether you’re unsure of the distances, the disciplines or want to know about duathlons, we answer the common multisport questions…

Why should I compete in a triathlon?
Triathlon is an inspirational, immensely enjoyable and potentially life-changing sport to become involved with. The all-round health benefits – stamina, core strength, weight management, mentally blowing away the cobwebs – are clear. The sport also boasts a huge community ethos, with athletes training together to reach their goals before an empowering race-day experience full of encouragement, cooperation and many personal goals being ticked off.

Can anyone do a triathlon?
Yes! It sounds like a cliché but, put simply, triathlon is accessible to all. We’ve met triathletes of every shape and size, ranging from six-year-old children to 92-year-old seniors. In 2016, Japan’s Hiromu Inada completed the 3.8km swim/180km bike/42.2km run Ironman World Championships in Hawaii after 17 hours of racing. His age? 83!

Do I need to be super fit?
Not at all. Experience in any of the three disciplines of triathlon is a handy – but not essential – start to a triathlon career. But with races in the Caribbean starting at a 100m swim followed by a 5km bike and 2km run (even shorter for children), the distances are manageable with a modicum of training.

What are the distances of triathlons?
Race distances can vary from event to event, but here are the usual standard distances for triathlon events.
Try-a-tri: 100m swim/5km bike/2km run
Super-sprint: 400m/10km/2.5km
Sprint-distance: 750m/20km/5km
Olympic-distance: 1.5km/40km/10km
Middle-distance/Ironman 70.3: 1.9km/90km/21.1km
Ironman-distance: 3.8km/180km/42.2km

Are there variations to triathlon?
If you’re really worried about any of the swim, bike or run disciplines in triathlon, then an aquathlon or duathlon could be the answer. An aquathlon includes a swim followed by a run, while a duathlon starts with a run, followed by a bike ride and then another run.

How do I start training for a triathlon?
Training for a sport with three disciplines can seem daunting, so start slowly with shorter distances in training and gradually progress. A training plan is key, so find one on the internet (they’re often free) that’s tied to your chosen race distance (eg, a sprint-distance plan).

How do I prepare for race day?
Once you’re comfortable in each of the disciplines, a ‘brick’ session will be an important addition to your training. This ‘brick’ session involves combining two of the disciplines into one session – usually a bike ride followed by a short run. This will get your body used to the unusual sensations of racing, especially when your legs can feel like jelly at the start of the run after getting off the bike.

How should I split my training between the swimming, cycling and running?
It’s always tempting to focus on your best discipline in triathlon, but the key is to concentrate most on the discipline(s) in which you’re weakest. Many amateur athletes will train four or five times a week for around six or seven hours in total. Use the midweek days, lunchtimes or evenings to swim once or twice, ride or run to and from work if possible, and then use the weekend to do a longer ride and/or run.

What are the essential triathlon purchases?
The key purchase for Caribbean triathlon is a tri-suit, in which you swim, bike and run; it will cost from around US$40 upwards. It should be made of material that’ll dry quickly after the swim, feature a pad in the seat of the shorts to provide cushioning on the bike, but will also remain comfortable on the run leg. Make sure it’s comfortable and fits you well.

What type of bike do I need?
You’ll need a bike on which to race and train – ideally a racing bike with drop handlebars, though mountain bikes and hybrids can be used at many events. You can also hire a bike at some races.

What do I need on race day?
You’ll wear a tri-suit for the duration of your race, but you’ll also need: a pair of goggles, a bike, a bike helmet, socks, trainers for the bike and run, and a race belt to attach your race number. Helpful but not mandatory items include sports sunglasses, bike shoes that clip in to your pedals, a sun cap, a towel, and a wetsuit if the water is below 24°C – which isn’t often in the Caribbean!

Is triathlon an expensive sport to get into?
If you buy cutting-edge gear for the three disciplines, spend lots on race fees and plenty of travel, triathlon can be expensive. But it doesn’t have to hurt your bank balance. We did our first race on a US$130 secondhand bike in some swimming shorts and a US$12 t-shirt. Many Caribbean races take place in water too warm for wetsuits, and much of the kit can be bought second-hand, rented or borrowed.

Isn’t open-water swimming really scary?
A Caribbean triathlon is the ultimate place to gain open-water swim confidence. The water is clean and clear, the temperature is warm and the current is often calm. If you’re nervous, start at the back of the pack and follow the limbs in front of you. Keep your breathing relaxed and, though front crawl is more efficient, don’t be afraid to use breaststroke if you’re beginning to feel panicked.

What’s a good time for a triathlon?
Completing any triathlon deserves plenty of kudos, and courses can differ in their toughness and conditions, but here are some ballpark figures to aim for in your early triathlon races.
Super-sprint distance: One hour
Sprint-distance: One and a half hours
Olympic-distance: Three hours
Middle-distance/Ironman 70.3: Six to seven hours
Ironman: Anything around the 13-14-hour mark for athletes in their thirties. The cut-off is 17 hours, while anything under 11 hours is seriously impressive. The professionals can do an Ironman in just under eight hours (men) and just under nine hours (women).

Who are the superstars of triathlon?
If you’ve watched the triathlon at the Rio Olympic Games, then you’ll be aware of the Brownlee brothers from Yorkshire in England, who took gold (Alistair) and silver (Jonathan) in 2016. Gwen Jorgensen of the USA took the women’s gold in Brazil, while Bermuda’s Flora Duffy took three world titles during the 2016 season. At Ironman racing, the undisputed superstars are Germany’s Jan Frodeno and Switzerland’s Daniela Ryf.

Tri lingo

If you’re going to do triathlon, you’ll soon start talking like a triathlete. Here are some top tri terms…

Bonk: Attributed to athlete meltdown, a ‘bonk’ is when you’ve hit a brick wall and can’t go any further. It’s usually caused by a depletion of glycogen in the muscles.
Brick: A session that combines two of the disciplines together.
PB: A personal best time in one of the disciplines or the entire race.
Split: The time it takes to complete one of the race disciplines.
T1 and T2: Transition 1 (T1) is the changing area between the swim and the bike course sections. Transition 2 (T2) is the bike-to-run area.
Tapering: When the volume of training is reduced ahead of race day.

The ultimate Caribbean triathlons

From 55m children’s races to gruelling 113km Ironman events, we pick five of the best races in the region…

1 Barbados National Triathlon
DATE 15 October 2017
DISTANCES Sprint (750m swim/20km bike/5km run); Olympic (1.5km swim/ 40km bike/10km run)
GOOD FOR Anyone from beginner sprint athletes to top-end racers
KEY DRAW The Barbados Federation of Island Triathletes organises races throughout the year, including monthly children’s races and a sprint-distance event in the spring. The flagship National Champs, held for the 27th time in 2017, takes place in the calm waters of Brighton Beach in the south-west of the island before the scenic bike and run routes include the Spring Garden Highway in St. Michael.

2 The Nevis Triathlon
DATE 11 November 2017
DISTANCES 100m swim/5km bike/ 2km run; 500m swim/31km bike/5km run; 1km swim/62km bike/10km run, plus relay options
GOOD FOR A whole host of triathletes, with the shortest distance race the ultimate intro to tri
KEY DRAW Where to start? You swim in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, cycle around the entire island of Nevis before a run that includes road, trail and beach. The distances will suit almost every type of triathlete as well.

3 St Lucia Triathlon
DATE 18 November 2017
DISTANCES The Dagger (200m swim/ 6.6km bike/2.5km run); The Pistol (750m swim/13.2km bike/5km run); The Cutlass (1.5km swim/26.4km bike/10km run); plus relay options
GOOD FOR Beginners to intermediate athletes
KEY DRAW Held since 2013, the St Lucia Tri has a variety of distances to suit beginner and intermediate athletes. The swim is in the calm, blue and warm waters of Rodney Bay before a hilly bike ride that showcases the island’s volcanic scenery, and a looped run course to the historic Pigeon Island National Park.

4 Antigua Tinman Rohr
DISTANCES Under-6 Triathlon (5m swim/25m bike/25m run); Under-10 (200m swim/2km bike/2km run); Under-14 (500m swim/4km bike/2km run); Mini Triathlon Adult (500m swim/10km bike/2km run); Tinman Rohr Triathlon (2km swim/90km bike/21km run); plus relay options
GOOD FOR Young children and tough triathletes
KEY DRAW Cutest triathlon in the world has to go to the 55m under-6 event, while the Tinman Rohr middle-distance race offers one of the longest events in the Caribbean. The races start in the sheltered and picture-postcard Morris Bay before the bike heads west on Old Road.

5 Ironman 70.3 Puerto Rico
DATE 18 March 2018
DISTANCES 1.9km swim/90km bike/21km run, plus relay options
GOOD FOR More experienced athletes progressing in the triathlon distances
KEY DRAW Yes, the entry fee is US$375, but with Ironman-branded races you’re getting the real deal from one of the big names in triathlon. From pre-event check-in to post-race party, the Ironman weekend experience is seamlessly organised and vast in scope. 70.3 Puerto Rico starts with a 1.9km swim in the sheltered waters of the Condado Lagoon before the mostly flat 90km bike course takes in the north of the island. The run hugs the Atlantic Coast and heads to the 16th-century Fort San Felipe del Morro before the famous Ironman finish-line experience.