Triathlon: The unholy trinity

Swimming, cycling, running – the triathlon produces such amazing fitness benefits that there’s an explosion in the event’s popularity. by Alex Wade (The Independent)

You will find questions and exercises after the article.

  1. I can remember the feeling of elation as if it were yesterday. I had just completed the Perranporth Triathlon – an event made up of an 800m swim, a 38km cycle ride and a 7.5km run – and, exhausted, had collapsed on the beach. Around me many other competitors were reacting similarly. But, though so weary that we could barely speak, we all wore a look of exhausted joy. We were, as surfers say after a good session, stoked.
  2. A full Olympic triathlon consists of a 1.5km swim, a 40km cycle and a 10km run. Dedicated training is required before taking one on, but there are easier options. A sprint triathlon consists of a 750km swim, a 20km cycle and 5km run. A super-sprint triathlon consists of a 400m swim, a 10km ride and a 2.5km run.
  3. Triathlon made its debut in the Olympics at the Sydney Games in 2000. An estimated 80,000 people watched the triathlon at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The London Triathlon – one of the world’s most popular – is now in its 11th year. Triathlon is the fastest-growing sport in the UK, with a 10 per cent year-on-year growth in competitor numbers. Last year’s London Triathlon saw an extraordinary 11,000 entries, and across the UK event organisers say the same thing: more and more people are signing up for a discipline that the observer might conclude is more like to torture than fun.
  4. Triathlon’s rise to mass appeal owes much to its appearance in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The word “triathlon”, meaning an athletic event of three contests, may be derived from Ancient Greek but it was not until Sydney that triathlon featured in the Olympics. The men’s gold was won by Canadian Simon Whitfield, but two Britons, Simon Lessing and Timothy Don, captured the public imagination with performances that took them to top 10 finishes.
  5. Triathlon was on its way. The following year, in 2001, there were 1,000 entrants to the London Triathlon, all eager to see how they would do over the three disciplines that define the contemporary triathlon: swimming, cycling and running, in that order. It is the multi-disciplinary nature of triathlon that accounts for much of its appeal, as well as the way in which contests are run, as Ian Smith, an amateur triathlete, explains. “Triathlon allows someone who’s not brilliant at any one event to compete in three. Having three sports to master, or at least perform competently, means that training is more interesting than if you’re just running, swimming or cycling. You can test your limits and compete against others.”
  6. The health benefits are a factor in triathlon’s increasing popularity. Triathlon is an endurance sport but results in relatively little stress on ankles and knees. It provides an excellent cardiovascular workout – professional triathletes are among the fittest sportspeople. Training for a triathlon is a great cardiovascular workout, as well as a way of building and maintaining muscle tone. Because there are three sports, with more emphasis on swimming – which is non weight-bearing – and cycling, which is marginally weight-bearing, triathlon is also a natural progression for runners whose knees have suffered too much.
  7. Intensive training is not always necessary. You need to put in between four and six hours a week to complete a triathlon, and if you cycle to work, you’ve taken care of a lot of the training. Newcomers can try the shorter events, sprint-triathlon, which are held over shorter distances.
  8. A full Olympic triathlon is, indeed, a daunting prospect. The swim, held over 1.5km, can prove a rapid awakening for newcomers since it takes place in the company of hundreds of others. The cycle ride of 40km is more than enough for most people, and to add a 10km run would appear to be insane. A competitor’s official time includes the transition between the individual legs of the race, including the time it takes to change kit.
  9. The profile of the typical triathlete suggests that the acquisition of accessories will not break the bank. A survey by Starfish Consulting states that the average triathlete is 30 years old, works in senior management and has a high disposable income. He – and increasingly, she – is brand aware and enjoys a healthy, outdoors lifestyle. The majority are between 25 and 40; 47 per cent are university educated and 57 per cent earn more than £40,000 pa.
  10. My own experience of the Perranporth Triathlon, held each September in Cornwall, came thanks to a friend whose sense of my welfare led her to enter me in the event without my knowledge. “You’ll love it!” she promised. The more I learned of Perranporth annual race, the more I doubted my friend’s intentions. The Perranporth triathlon is notorious as one of the hardest in the UK, thanks to its environment: often rough seas, hilly terrain for the cycle ride and a strength-sapping run along sand at the end. But on the day, despite pounding surf, I somehow made it round the circuit. And even though, at the end, I could neither speak nor move, I had never felt better!

Find out the complete triathlon gear to be prepared during competition.

Intermediate level

A Pre-reading activity

  1. What sports do the students enjoy? Why?
  2. Write the word triathlon in the centre of the board. Ask the students to brainstorm what comes to mind with regard to this sport. List their points on the board around the central word.
  3. Discuss the points they have made. Add to their points as necessary. Write any new words on the board.
  4. If the triathlon becoming more or less popular? Why?
  5. Ask the students if they have ever done a triathlon. Would they like to? What preparations would you do?

B Use these words to complete these sentences.

  • elation
  • weary
  • debut
  • eager
  • endurance
  • stress
  • daunting
  • profile
  • notorious
  • cardiovascular
  1. My friend was suffering from …… problems after completing the race and he was rushed to hospital.
  2. There is a short stretch or road near us which is …… for bad accidents and six people have died there.
  3. He was fit and well trained and he was very …… for the match to start.
  4. Having finally passed his final set of exams after so much work, he felt a tremendous sense of …… .
  5. We had several applicants for the bob and so we looked at …… of each of them.
  6. A triathlon is a race of …… because it involves three different sports and takes a long time to complete.
  7. Many runners, long-jumpers and triple-jumpers suffer knee problems because of the tremendous …… that they put on their knees.
  8. She worked extremely hard and felt very …… by the end of the week.
  9. The British driver Lewis Hamilton made his …… in Formula 1 racing in 2007.
  10. Climbing a steep rock wall, or starting on a PHD course, can both be very …… for most people, and they don’t want to do it.

C Scan the text and find the importance of these words and expressions in the text.

  • 11,00 entries
  • Sydney Games
  • Simon Whitfield
  • non weight-bearing
  • Starfish Consulting
  • Perranporth Triathlon

D Read the passage silently

E Answer the questions

  1. Define stoked.
  2. What’s the difference between a sprint and a super-sprint triathlon?
  3. If 11,000 people signed up for the London triathlon last year, how many might we expect next year?
  4. What was it that significantly increased interest in the triathlon?
  5. What is one of the reasons why triathlons are so popular?
  6. In health terms, why is the triathlon a good sport?
  7. In your own words, what sort of people typically take part in triathlons?
  8. What makes the Perranporth triathlon a tough race?

F Explain the meaning of these expressions.

  1. mass appeal (Para 4)
  2. captured the public imagination (Para 4)
  3. multi-disciplinary nature (Para 5)
  4. muscle tone (Para 6)
  5. a rapid awakening (Para 8)
  6. not break the bank (Para 9)
  7. disposable income (Para 9)
  8. brand aware (Para 9)
  9. doubted my friend’s intentions (Para 10)
  10. hilly terrain (Para 10)

G Find words in the text that fit in the following categories.

  • Words used to describe the triathlon
  • Words used to describe how triathletes feel

H The writer uses various adjectives to paint a clear picture of what is in his mind; for example:

  • rough seas
  • hilly terrain
  • strength-sapping run
  • pounding surf

What adjectives could you use to describe how you might feel?

  • at the end of a triathlon
  • after falling in love!

I Arguments for and against

  1. Your teacher will divide the class into two groups.
  2. First, each student should work alone; make a list of all the arguments for and against training for triathlons and taking part in competitions.
  3. Get together one other with another student who has done the same task. Compare your lists.
  4. Join with two other students who had the other task. Discuss. Put forward the arguments for and against triathlons.
  5. Report back to the teacher. List the strongest for/against arguments on the board.
  6. For homework, write a report for a youth club in your home area making the arguments for and against triathlons.

There are lesson planning notes for this article in the Teacher’s Centre.