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In Defence of the Sprint Triathlon

There is no question that Iron-distance events carry the most prestige and stand at the pinnacle of triathlon as the toughest challenge. Most triathletes aspire to do at least one full iron distance event and many spend their entire year training for just one iron event. The progression for many triathletes is to start with the shorter easier events and build up over time to the completion of the iron distance event. But why is it so pervasive in the triathlon community to view the long course triathlon with such awe and place it on such a high pedestal?

This is what it looks like to cross the line at the end of a short fast bike race.
This is what it looks like to cross the line at the end of a short fast bike race.

It was recently revealed that the ITU is pushing to have a sprint distance triathlon (750/20/5) included at the Olympics alongside the traditional Olympic distance triathlon (1500/40/10). Two time Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee (GB) showed his disapproval of this decision saying, “I’ve lost count of the number of people who have come up to me and said it’s the toughness of the event that appeals.” Brownlee exhibits an attitude common among triathletes that longer is harder. Distance is revered in triathlon because of its ability to easily impress. When you tell someone you’re riding 180km in a full iron event, they’re much more impressed than they would be if you had told them you were riding 20km in a sprint event. It’s also indicative of a larger shift in participant sports where finishing an event has become the ultimate goal.

The vast majority of age group triathletes are satisfied with completing an iron event with no regard for their time. The big medal at the end of the race is the reward for completion. It signifies that all the hard work put into training for the event and for the distance paid off. With participation medals being handed out at nearly all events from the try-a-tri to the full iron, it’s easy to get lost in the quest-for-completion. How many athletes do you know that do the event for the medal. It’s a common refrain. For many people finishing is a spectacular accomplishment. There comes a point, however, when we need to look past participation and start thinking about the fundamental point of athletics: competition. It’s important to continually be growing as athletes. Growth starts out by just getting through a try-a-tri event and often culminates in the completion of an Ironman. But we can’t compete in those long events every weekend or even every month or year. So how do we get the most out of the shorter regional races that take place on almost a weekly basis throughout the summer?

We get faster. We compete. If not with other people, then with ourselves.

Laying down the hurt. There's nothing quite like pushing through the pain in a monster effort.
Laying down the hurt. There’s nothing quite like pushing through the pain in a monster effort.

The last triathlon event I took part in where I actually devoted time to training was Ironman Mont Tremblant in 2014. Since then I’ve been converted to the world of bike racing with the occasional impromptu triathlon thrown in for fun. When I made the switch to bike racing I was expecting that things would progress much like they did during my career as a triathlete. I would start with short 45-60 minute races and progress to multi-day stage races covering 200km per day. This couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Bike racing is a test of appropriate effort. Even the best and strongest bike racers in the world still struggle in 60 minute races. Why? Because of the relative intensity. A criterium (crit) is usually 60-90 minutes in length and is an all out suffer fest. It features a short circuit (usually 1.5km) with tight corners. At every corner the pack slows to a near crawl and then accelerates with leg shredding power out of the corner. After 60 minutes your legs feel like jello and you can barely walk. In long 200km races, the pack usually rolls along at reasonable speeds with the exception of a few decisive moments (usually on climbs). The effort is different but the result is the same.

Triathletes could learn something from bike racing.

The distances in a sprint triathlon may not be impressive, particularly for those who have completed much longer events multiple times. Sprints often are seen as the newbie race or the practice race leading up to longer events because they don’t require much training to complete. But even the most seasoned age group triathlete would struggle to complete a sprint in under 1.5 hours. There is nothing easy about the sprint triathlon if your goal is time-based. Sure everyone goes into an event with a goal time in mind, but very rarely do athletes train for a particular sprint time. Very few say to themselves, “this year I’m going to shave 20 minutes off my sprint PB.” As a coach the vast majority of athletes who come to me want to complete or better their times in the long course events. Distance is prioritized over speed. Because of this prioritization many triathletes who are physiologically gifted with the ability to go fast find themselves caught up in the world of going long because that’s what is perceived as the pinnacle of the sport, the greatest challenge.

I challenge you to choose an early season sprint triathlon (May/June) as your first big priority event and devote your training from January onward to cracking 1.75/1.5/1 hours in that event (depending on your relative ability). I think you’ll find that the challenges of training to go hard and fast are as vigorous and demanding as training to go long. Respect the distance but appreciate the speed.

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