Three’s a Crowd

May 9, 2008 at 5:28 am Leave a comment


Friday is turning into excerpt-from-Gina-Kolata day. Her Personal Best column in the New York Times consistently produces some of the most thoughtful, interesting, and well-written articles on exercise, health, and fitness. This week’s piece explores the sport of triathlon, generally, and the difficulty of excelling at multiple disciplines — swimming, cycling, running — specifically.

Excerpts and notes from “For Peak Performance, 3 Is Not Better Than 1“, which looks to answer the question, “Is it possible to peak in more than one sport at once?”:

In the article we meet Joel Friel, a triathlon coach and author of 10 books, including the bible of the multi-sport world — literally. I did not feel comfortable calling myself a triathlete, even as an accomplished athlete in the sport, until reading and underlining what turned out to be nearly ever-other-sentence in Friel’s best-selling training guide, The Triathlete’s Training Bible.

Friel says many of his athletes sometimes feel frustrated that they aren’t running as fast as they think they can and should. His advice? “[I talk with them and ask] do you really want to be a triathlete? If you want to run faster you have to give up swimming and cycling.”

There’s a reason it’s hard to excel in three sports at once, physiologists say. The training necessary to do your best in one sport is likely to counteract what is needed to be good at another.

When you are training, said Gary Krahenbuhl, an exercise physiologist and emeritus professor at Arizona State University, improvement depends on physical and biochemical changes in muscle cells and in nerve-firing patterns. And those changes are very sport-specific, he added. The result, Dr. Krahenbuhl said, is that “changes that facilitate performance for one event may actually undermine performance in another event.

“To think that you could train in such a way as to have your greatest performance in all the sports is impossible,” he added.

Even body musculature can trip up triathletes. Swimmers need large muscles in their backs and shoulders. Runners and cyclists want small, light upper bodies. Cyclists need large quadriceps muscles. Runners don’t, and in fact they don’t want any extra muscle weight on their legs.

A woman named Anne Gordon is profiled in the article. She’s a “51-year-old triathlete [who] has never gotten a personal record in each leg of a triathlon on the same day.”

But, she said, that is part of what draws her to triathlons.

“What I love best about this sport is the training, the sense that the goal of hitting a perfect 10 for all three sports will take a lifetime.” And that, she added, “is O.K. by me.”

As noted, I participated in the sport of triathlon for a few years before leaving for a host of issues that I’ll explain in another post. But the elusiveness of perfection that Ms. Gordon refers… This is what intrigued me about triathlon. There are so many variables in a race — the swim, bike, and run, of course, but also the transitions, hydration and nutrition management, and gear and technical issues — that I never executed anything close to a perfect performance.

But it is that frustration — I had a great swim and run, but I got two flats on the bike section, or I didn’t grab my special-needs bag out of T2 and utterly bonked on the run — and that hope — Next time, baby. Next time — that kept me racing. I couldn’t quit until I mastered the sport and conquered at least one race.

It’s an ultimately futile chase for perfection, I realized. But an exciting and inspiring one. Says Ms. Gordon:

“The simple act of working hard at three things requires a diversity and balance in my life that is rewarding in and of itself. It is good for my spirit to know that I have to work hard and be patient to achieve mastery.”

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood


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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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