Training for cross country and triathlon

Hi Lee!

I have a training question for you. Is it possible to train for triathlon and cross country mountain biking in the same season? I’m a beginner mountain biker, and am racing cross country this season. My main goals for cross country are to gain fitness and endurance during the season and maybe move from the bottom of the pack to somewhere in the middle. I also like to do triathlon (which I’ve done before), and am going to do a sprint distance in May and an Olympic distance in August.

Any suggestions on how to train for both or if it’s even possible? Each time I mention swimming, or bring out the running shoes my mountain biking boyfriend gets a pained look on his face.


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Elizabeth hones her cornering kung fu in our clinic last fall.

Hi Elizabeth!

It’s great to hear from you. I hope your riding is going well (Elizabeth and I did a clinic last fall).

First of all, the only people crazier than mountain bikers are triathletes. Watch out for obsessive-compulsive behavior …

I gather you’re not trying to dominate either MTB or tri — you just want to feel decent and have fun — so, yes, you can do both. In my college days I got pretty serious about tri, but I’ve always been a mountain biker at heart, so biking was always the bulk of my training. I won’t call you an older athlete, but as someone who’s over 30 (like me), the keys will be balance and recovery.

If you’re not an elite athlete, mixing it up is more fun and probably better for you than hammering the bike every day. You’ll get better overall fitness, and you’ll be less prone to burnout and overuse injuries.

The demands

– MTB XC – 1-2 hours.

– Sprint distance triathlon – 500-750m swim, 20k bike, 5k run. 1.5-2 hours

– Olympic distance triathlon – 1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run. 3-4 hours

That means you must be able to:

– Sustain a moderate to high effort for the duration of your event.

– Swim, ride and run 1.5x the required distances.

– Transition between disciplines.

A weekly plan

One could write an entire book on this subject, but here’s a simple way to incorporate everything each week.

Hard bike ride. Off road is best. Hammer the climbs and rip the descents. A place like El Corte de Madera — with its ups and downs — is ideal. This will become your interval session, where you’ll build your capacity for work (and pain). The harder you ride today, the easier the race will be.

Long bike ride. Work up to riding 1.5x the length your entire race. If you have a 2-hour triathlon, ride for three hours. Road is fine. This builds endurance and mental stamina. Also, experiment with food and fluids. Figure out what works for you in training. Don’t gulp some Gatorade at the race and discover that fructose + high effort = cramps. Not like I’ve made that mistake …

Swim workout. You can get fancy, but that isn’t necessary. Practice a smooth stroke and learn to cover max meters with minimal effort. Coaching is a great investment. Work up to swimming 1.5x your required distance. Definitely swim in open, choppy water. Wear your wetsuit. Swim close to other people. In a tri the swim start is madness: people crawling over you, using you for traction, etc. Be ready for that or let everyone go in front of you. Note: The next wave will swim right over you. Stay out of their way. I know what I’m talking about here!

Run workout. Again, you can get fancy, but all you need is a smooth, economical stride. Work up to running 1.5x your required distance.

Transition workout. The transition from swim to bike feels great, but the transition from bike to run is AWFUL! Make sure you practice that so you know what to expect. Do a short, hard ride then immediately go for a short, hard run. Do that a few times. ALSO: If you can, ride or run to your swim workouts.

Rest. That’s a lot of action. Use the rest of your week to eat, drink, work and be merry.

When you get there

Scope the course so you know where to rest and push, when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

Dial in your transition area so you know where everything is and you can get out of there quickly. If you need special food/fluid, bring ’em.

Have fun!

I love running around strange cities in a Speedo … If your boyfriend isn’t down with that, he’s missing out! 🙂

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