By Pete Williams
ST. PETERSBURG – I wedged my way through the crowd Saturday for a look at the results of the Top Gun Triathlon, doing a double take at the number next to my name.
I had broken an hour in a sprint-distance triathlon for the first time anywhere, including three previous attempts at Top Gun. This despite riding my bike just once since the St. Anthony’s Triathlon three months ago and undergoing just three modest swim workouts during that period.
Granted, the Top Gun swim course apparently was 80 yards shy of its usual quarter-mile and nobody could remember more favorable conditions for the 10-mile bike. The giant American flag at the entrance to Fort DeSoto park was still, the park’s notorious winds absent.
Still, I ran a fastest-ever 5K run leg at Fort DeSoto, broke my overall PR (set in 2009) by four minutes and finished seven minutes ahead of last year’s effort. I finished 32 seconds ahead of a friend of mine the same age who I’d never beaten, a guy who finished four minutes ahead of me in mid-April at the Escape from Fort DeSoto Triathlon, a slightly longer course, and who crushed me by thirty-one minutes at the Olympic-distance St. Anthony’s Triathlon two weeks later.
Later on Saturday, I headed to Crystal River for the Twilight Triathlon and finished three minutes faster than last year – despite doing two triathlons in one day.
How could this be?
Maybe I’m onto a training secret: get faster by not training. This could be a best-selling book.
Actually, it probably has a lot to do with training for obstacle races. I’ve done nine in the last nine months, ranging from the 5K (Warrior Dash, Highlander, Mud Crusade, Hog Wild) to the 5-6 mile range (Savage Race, Dirty Foot Adventure Run) to the 9-mile Super Spartan Race to the 12-mile Tough Mudder. Then there was the YAKathon, sort of the middle ground between obstacle racing and triathlon with a 1-mile kayak (or stand-up paddle), 6-mile mountain bike ride, and 5K obstacle run.
Some triathletes scoff at obstacle racing since there’s little-to-no swimming involved and because some participants walk much of the course.
But if you push yourself through obstacle work, both in preparation and the race itself, it’s a brutal all-around workout that produces incredible results. Consider:
TRANSITION TIMES: One of the toughest things about triathlon is transitioning between the swim and the bike and the bike and the run. It’s not just a matter of efficiently changing gear but also catching your breath, getting your legs to adjust, and maintaining speed. Even the best triathletes struggle with transition at times, especially running the first half mile after the bike when your legs feel like cement.
Still, that’s only two transitions. Obstacle races have two dozen running-obstacle-running transitions. Sure, the transitions are more modest, but there’s a lot more of them. Obstacle races are won by people who clear obstacles quickly and regain their speed immediately. Do enough of those and triathlon transitions seem a lot easier.
It’s funny. After doing a lot of obstacle races, it no longer bothers you to run 1.5 miles in sand during a triathlon, as is the case with Top Gun. In fact, it feels easier not having to stop and deal with an obstacle every couple hundred yards.
During triathlons, you’ll often get passed on the run by people who appear to have fresh legs. Some of them do, since they’re competing as part of relay teams. But on Saturday I passed a few people with “R” on their right calves. Part of that is conditioning from obstacle race transitions. The rest has to do with interval training and obstacle-specific work.
INTERVAL TRAINING: It’s no secret that interval training, alternating between hard bursts of effort and lighter recovery periods, is the most effective way to get faster. But runners and triathletes often fall into a lull of training long and slow. I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone.
But obstacle races encourage interval training. Traditional running intervals are effective (i.e. two minutes running hard, two minutes walking or jogging, etc.) but what really works is alternating between strength moves and running.
National races like Tough Mudder and Spartan Race have aligned themselves closely with CrossFit. It makes sense since all three have soared in popularity over the last two years and all three market themselves as grueling, tough-as-nails endeavors.
The one shortcoming with CrossFit is that there’s not much running involved. CrossFitters often cruise through obstacles at races but move slowly between the challenges. (Of course, a lot of runners and triathletes race through the course but struggle with the obstacles.)
But if you can alternate between strength/core moves and running, as the folks at the CrossFit gym TNL Tampa do on Saturday mornings, you have an effective program to thrive in obstacle races. Eric Stratman, the owner of CrossFit, says he jumps in an occasional triathlon and does reasonably well despite not training like a triathlete.
I was skeptical of his claims until Saturday. Apparently if you want to be a faster triathlete, cut down the hours on the bike, swim, and run and just train for a few obstacle races.