Cry to Tri: The Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs of Multi-discipline Sports.


Being good at one sport is tricky. Being good at three is an even more formidable challenge. Being good at five, or seven, or ten? Come on now.

Multi-discipline sports are fascinating. Whether it’s the swim, bike and run of a triathlon, the compromise of speed and strength required for a heptathlon or the sheer diversity of modern pentathlon, these are the ultimate tests of all-round skill and athleticism. So what’s it like to participate in them and are they for us mere mortals as well as ultra-fit Olympians?

I’m no Alastair (or indeed Johnny) Brownlee, but these are two questions I’m going to attempt to answer this year. I’ve got my sights on completing some triathlons in the new year, partly with SUTRI, Southampton University’s triathlon club. My attempts so far have featured a bit of vi(rus), sometimes feeling like I’m about to die and overall, not a lot of tri – although I did have a reasonably gentle re-introduction to competitive racing at the BUCS duathlon (run, bike, run) on the 14th November. Other than getting cramp in my hip whilst switching from the cycle to the second run, it was a pretty fun weekend out!

Juggling even three different sports is something I’ve found challenging since I ditched my sole focus on running. Shuffling the training schedule to fit in cycles and swimming (especially swimming) takes a lot of forward planning, particularly alongside lectures and the impending doom of deadlines. Whilst being good across the board is clearly handy, there’s some consolation in the fact that you don’t have to be the best at every discipline. So said Peter Hart, a former GB pentathlete and ex-CEO of GB pentathlon, when quizzed on his talent-hunting approach for modern pentathlon (running, swimming, fencing, show-jumping and shooting) prior to the London 2012 Olympics.

“We’re looking for county-level swimmers or runners who play a bit of rugby, hockey or netball – multi-sports people who are coming fourth, fifth or sixth at swimming club. It’s those guys who try hard at county level and haven’t trained flat-out in one sport who adapt much easier.”

After all, multi-discipline sports are all about compromises, so putting a lot of effort into one discipline isn’t necessarily a good idea. Mo Farah, and I mean no disrespect to a knight of the realm, probably lacks the upper-body strength for a decent swim leg. Olympic shot-put champion and 145kg beef-cake Ryan Crouser’s world record throw of 23.37m makes a mockery of the 16.00m throw registered by Kevin Mayer during his decathlon world record, but you can’t see Crouser adding a sub-11 second 100m time, 7.8m long jump and 2.05m high jump to his repertoire. It’s the battle between these compromises that can make these sports so exciting to follow. The competition between the strength of Nafi Thiam and the speed of Katarina Johnson-Thompson is a common theme in modern heptathlon and has produced some tight results in recent years. 

Whilst the combination of events in a heptathlon or decathlon is tough enough, they are at least run separately, often over multiple days. For sports like triathlon, where each discipline feeds continuously into the next, the transition from one to another also needs to be considered. Transitions are like Formula 1 pit-stops. Whilst they make up a tiny fraction of the race, they are easy ways to gain or lose time to your competitors and whilst a little manual dexterity might come in useful, the only way to get good at them is through practice. Trying to hop onto my bike whilst jogging felt like a major risk to my fertility at first, but getting comfortable with it should shave a few seconds off. There’s also some useful bits of kit to speed things up – number belts that you can clip on and off, shoes that you can attach to your bike pedals before you get on and of course the tri-suit, a snug onesie that means you don’t need to change clothes on the way round (just as well as mid-race nudity is unsurprisingly banned).

For a single-sport bumpkin used to padded socks and taking at least 5 minutes to make sure their shoes are laced to just the right tightness, some of the more marginal gains introduced for triathlon do feel slightly spartan. I’m definitely not enjoying running without socks, but for the amount of effort it would take me to run 15 or 20 seconds faster, I’m just about willing to put up with the sticky soles.

That seems like a good point at which to ask my original question: are these sports actually accessible for beginners, particularly those without bucket-loads of gear at their disposal? My admittedly biased answer would be yes.

Although national competitions are more serious affairs, there’s plenty of events for first-timers who enjoy multiple sports and want to give a combination race a go. Local tri clubs, including SUTRI at the university and Southampton Triathlon Club are also extremely welcoming to beginners and keen to have new members on board. Of course there’s no need to be good at everything (or indeed anything) straight away – there’s duathlon/aquathlon events if you only fancy 2 out of 3 tri disciplines whilst GB Pentathlon also run modern biathlon, triathlon and tetrathlon events. You don’t need a sub-20-minute parkrun time, you don’t need a £5000 racing bike and you can take it as seriously as you want. Either way, if you want to keep fit, meet some new people, or just try something different, how about giving it a go? You can even wear socks. 


My name's Matt, I'm a fourth year medical student at the University of Southampton. When I'm not studying, you can find me attempting to train for a triathlon with SUTRI or in my kitchen baking.

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