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Unleash the Ironman: How you should train to become a triathlete

As the pandemic recedes, mass triathlons and marathons are slowly returning. Lounge speaks to coaches on how to prepare for them

You need to master cycling, swimming and running to become a triathlete.
You need to master cycling, swimming and running to become a triathlete. (Istockphoto)

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One half of Abhishek Avhad’s study looks like a sports store. Two bicycles hang on the wall, taking up a significant portion of the room. There are dumbbells on the floor, sports accessories lying around. A local train chugs past noisily every few minutes,a reminder that this high-rise apartment is in Mumbai.

The other half of the room has a bookshelf filled with texts on endurance sports. A softboard has, besides other stuff, gadgets pinned to it. A whiteboard has a graph, lots of text, the sketch of a cycle and some dollar signs.

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Avhad is a triathlete and budding coach who finished the Ironman (3.86km swim, 180.25km cycle ride and 42.2km run) in Sweden in 2017 in 14 hours and 35 minutes.

Since 2018, persistent enquiries and at least one stubborn aspirant who insisted that Avhad help him train for a triathlon have given the now 32-year-old another purpose. In 2020, he founded Triathlon Made Easy, taking baby steps towards becoming a coach, in addition to his day job of tax consulting.

Avhad’s foray into coaching for endurance sports, which has the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) and the Ironman as significant motivators, is strengthening a burgeoning business of instructors. TMM, last held on 15 January, has spurred long-distance running in the country since its first edition held two decades ago.

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Since then, endurance junkies have segued into long-distance cycling and triathlons. Ironman held its first event in India, the reduced version of Ironman 70.3 (1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21.1km run) in Goa in 2019, giving triathlon a boost. Another edition in 2022 had about 1,450 athletes participating from the world over.

“There is something about this sport which pulls amateurs into its rut, makes them suffer wilfully and leaves them smiling at the finish line,” is Avhad’s poetic explanation for why some people are attracted to suchextreme activity.

Pune’s Kaustubh Radkar, the founder and CEO of RadStrong Coaching, and Deepak Raj, co-founder-CEO of Yoska in Bengaluru, are considered the original big daddies of this field in India. Pune’s Chaitanya Velhal, who founded Power Peaks Athlete Lab, Ahmedabad’s Ingit Anand, Chennai’s Raghul Sankaranarayanan, Atul Godbole’s Motiv8 Coaching, Kolhapur’s Pankaj Ravalu and Mumbai’s Shankar Thapa are just some of the names that crop up frequently as people who help amateur aspirants cross the finish line—and help competitive athletes better their timings.

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Coaching manual

Radkar, who has a master’s degree in clinical exercise physiology and has worked at Johns Hopkins Medical Centre in the US, returned to India in 2013 with the idea of starting a clinic for rehab. But his reputation preceded him: Radkar had completed his first Ironman in 2008 and has subsequently done it an astonishing 32 times.

Starting with about a dozen trainees since, Radkar says he has coached over 150 athletes just for Ironman alone and over 1,000 for other triathlons.

At any point, he has 120-150 athletes training under him. More than half of his proteges train remotely, most have been with him for over two years. Radkar says his plans are individualised—based on experience in all disciplines of swimming, cycling and running. The coach discusses a timeline with the athlete, which is updated on a weekly basis.

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Radkar encourages everyone to buy Garmin watches and then uses his own app, “be Rad”, to rely on the feedback from athletes. “Data is king,” he says on the phone. “But data does not tell the whole picture. You need individual phone calls that brings trust, especially with female athletes. Sometimes, men have to be hand-held because they don’t open up easily. My plans are conservative, which is why I attract full-time professionals. I can scale back when life takes over. You have to push people to get results but you have to be empathetic to what’s going on in an athlete’s life.”

Anand, who completed his first Ironman in 2016, has a four-point mantra for new students: What is your goal? What is your fitness? Do you have a medical condition? What is your time availability? “In coaching, most important is not the training plan but mentoring and guidance,” says Anand, who has about 30 trainees with him. “You don’t get that on Google. Mentoring is individualised. I want people to learn from my mistakes.”

The importance of data inevitably leads to a reliance on technology. TrainingPeaks is a popular app for coaching services that allows coaches to make plans, use heart rate and pace as data points. Garmin started with portable GPS navigation products before progressing to fitness wearables like watches, records runs, swims, heart rate, distance, speed which helps analyse progress, making the whole coaching-trainee relationship geography- agnostic.

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“I will not teach how to ride a cycle or to swim,” says Velhal. “I will say join a coach—we have connections everywhere. Once you can swim 100m in freestyle without stopping, then I come in. I video your technique and start training.

“The whole trick is in data. People come down to Pune once a year and I can do a gait analysis (for the bike) in person.”

Data also makes an athlete’s actions evident, like calculating whether they are recovering or not. If an athlete shows signs of wear and tear, she has to scale back training. Unlike running, it’s easier to stay injury-free with cycling and swimming because they don’t have the same kind of impact on the body.

Velhal, a sports nutritionist with a master’s degree in biotechnology, has, along with Radkar, the advantage of an education in biomechanics. While swimming is the most technical of the three, the right technique in any discipline can make a person go faster with less effort. The common error newbies make in endurance sports is over-exertion. Besides being able to guide athletes to be more efficient, Velhal also has Ironman certification, which adds credibility more than anything else.

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“I was overqualified for it (Ironman certification),” he says, smiling over a Zoom chat from Pune. “To run, lift, squat, there is a biomechanically friendly way to do it.” Velhal learnt how to do bike fits when he was studying in Australia—the right bike fit is important for a rider’s comfort, to prevent injuries and maximise efficiency.

New entrants assume running and cycling, in particular, do not require coaching. Only a small percentage of triathletes, therefore, actually seek out a coach. “This is an expensive hobby to have,” says Ketaki Agtey Sathe, a distance runner and cyclist who got into triathlon five years ago and has trained with Radkar. “You want to swim in cold waters, you will have to have a wetsuit. A bike these days doesn’t cost you anything less than a lakh.” Registering for an Ironman, for example, costs over 50,000. There is no Ironman event in India—travel abroad adds to the cost.

But a coach can prevent common errors athletes commit, like doing too much, too soon, seeking instant gratification and trying to emulate professionals. “They think paying for a coach is pricy. I can prove with math that with a coach, you will pay much less. I help reduce injury and equipment costs. We have tie-ups with races, so you pay half the total cost because we go as a contingent,” Valhal adds.

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“The biggest mistake (one can make) is to compare with someone else,” says Radkar. “In endurance sport, doing less is doing more. You are always towing the line of overtraining. Unnecessary mileage and unnecessarily pushing your pace are two of the biggest mistakes.”

Avhad believes the coach brings in three factors, expertise, accountability and objectivity. “Once you have a coach sitting on your head, you are accountable to someone. Once you are accountable, the chances of you missing a workout are pretty slim.”

A feat of Marvel

A majority of triathletes tend to be long- distance runners or cyclists who are looking to break the monotony of a single activity. They are mostly in their 30s and 40s, professionals and entrepreneurs. Stable careers, with disposable incomes, gives them the ability to spend on gear and gadgets that the sport demands. Being older also makes them aware of the importance of health.

Avhad quotes Maslow’s theory of hierarchy, which says humans are motivated to fulfil their needs based on a hierarchical order, to explain how “all of these people are looking for self-actualisation”.

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“Look, maybe it’s midlife crisis,” says Velhal with a grin, explaining the interest in triathlons. “But you are married, earning well and realise you are unhealthy. You have a paunch but have money to spend.”

The pandemic has accelerated the interest in triathlon. While covid-19 forced people to understand the importance of immunity, cycling was one of the first outdoor activities allowed by governments after lockdowns. Long, self-congratulatory posts on social media have also created awareness and nurtured vanity.

“If someone has done the Ironman,” adds Anand, “it’s a testament of hard work, discipline. Also the movie, in which people have seen this strong man. People perceive you as more than an ordinary person.”

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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