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Hitting the Trails: Making the Jump to Off-Road Triathlon

Hitting the Trails: Making the Jump to Off-Road Triathlon
Michael Drackert

Michael Drackert is a multi-sport endurance athlete, USAT Cross Age Group National Champion, USAT All American for both road and off-road triathlons, Ironman All World Athlete and has competed at the Xterra World Championship and ITU Cross World Championship. In addition to triathlon, Michael has competed in numerous ultra events including the Dirty Kanza 200-Mile Gravel Grinder, Black Hills 100K Trail Run, as well as a self-supported bike trip across the United States. In 2019, he will compete in Spain at the ITU Cross World Championship and will spend the second half of the year in preparation to race the Pikes Peak Marathon and a first attempt at the 100-mile ultra-marathon.

 

Triathlon can be a very demanding sport. It requires a commitment for training, recovery and racing. Many amateur triathletes will do at least three swims, three bikes and three runs per week, totaling 10 to 15-plus hours. For those dreaming of racing Ironman distance (2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and 26.2 miles of running run), training time can easily go over 20 hours per week. At times, this level of commitment can become both addicting and unsustainable. Far too often in the amateur triathlon scene, athletes catch the triathlon bug, meaning they will have some success, only to become burned out within 3 to 5 years.

RELATED: Trail Running 101: Everything You Need to Dominate Your Trail Runs

Many athletes love getting into triathlon because of the diversity in training. Mixing the workouts up between swimming, riding, running and strength training will keep things fresh. There’s also some diversity in the race distances (Sprint, Olympic, Half Ironman, Ironman), which require different training structure and volume. But after a while, athletes start to lose interest. They’ve done all the distances. Even won some age group and overall awards.

What’s next?

Don’t worry my spandex friends… there’s still one more sport: triathlon. These triathlons will take you off the pedestrian paths and to the wilder places, where your aero helmet won’t help you.

These triathlons will likely demand so much from you that you’ll be convinced your heart rate monitor is broken. These triathlons may even require a little blood to finish. You won’t set PRs at these triathlons. You’ll need to develop new skill sets and racing tactics to win. You’ll train and compete in the most beautiful locations.

Interested?

Welcome to the world of off-road triathlons. Let’s get started with making the leap.

Training for off-road triathlons is similar to training for the road with a few tweaks for specificity. Unless you have quick access to trails, you’ll find that a lot your training sessions during the week will still be on the road. And on weekends, your key training sessions will be done on the trails. Below is a brief outline of some training differences when going off-road.

Swim

Good news for swimmers is that it’s the same as road triathlons, but with one caveat. As with most triathletes, nearly all of your swim training will be in the pool with the occasional opportunity for an open water swim.

Swim segments in off-road triathlon typically range from 800 to 1500 meters and will be in a lake or river. However, the caveat is if you’re a strong mountain biker, then you need to work on your swim. This matters because in off-road triathlon, it can be difficult to make bike passes on single track. If you’re slow out of the water, then you’re going to be spending a lot more time waiting for opportunities to pass the faster swimmers instead of maximizing your bike potential. If you can at least exit the water mid-pack and execute a smooth, simple transition, then you can reach the singletrack near the front to let the hammering begin.

Bike

First things first, you’ll need to get a mountain bike. The bike portion of off-road triathlon is the most significant difference from both a racing and training perspective. Mountain biking is really the heart of off-road triathlon and makes up the majority of overall race time. Most of the races feature cross country type trails that are technically easy with intermediate sections and maybe a couple difficult rock garden areas. But don’t worry, there’s never big drops or kickers or riding on the edge of a cliff. There’s always plenty of novice mountain bikers giving it a go at races.

When it comes to racing mountain bikes, overall fitness and power output is very important, but so is technique. In non-drafting road triathlons, athletes ride aerodynamic time trial (TT) bikes, focus on developing their Functional Threshold Power (ability to sustain the highest possible power output for 45 to 60 minutes), improve their aerodynamics (riding position, helmet, bottles, race suit) and then lay the hammer down. It’s often a very steady effort with few explosive power outputs and not a lot of bike handling skills necessary.

Mountain biking requires both sustained power and the ability to deliver numerous short and very high-power bursts with quick recoveries. These short bursts are needed to overcome steep punchy climbs, clear technical sections, or pass other racers with limited space.

Here’s the extra key component: bike handling skills. In mountain biking, the strongest and fittest athlete doesn’t always win. Without bike handling skills, you can easily over power a corner and ride straight into the bushes. There’s skill developed over time to know when to pedal, when to coast, when to brake, when to stand and when to sit. Developing these skills can actually allow you to beat a competitor who may be physically stronger.

You’ll still do a large amount of your training on the road, especially when trails are open or closed due to weather. So, include some efforts in your road training that simulates the efforts you’ll need off-road such as: 10x20” max, 5x1-3’ hard, and hill ladders.

Do your long rides on the trail and eventually include a few 15 to 20 minute trail time trials. Ride a trail loop or out and back at race pace and time yourself. Recover for 15 to 20 minutes, then do it again and try to beat your time. This will help develop bike handling skills at speed. If the trails are wet, ride your mountain bike to a parking lot and just practice trying to ride as slow as possible, work on balance, ride the painted lines, hop over curbs, or set up some cones and practice weaving in and out of them. Developing these skills will help you keep your momentum and save energy for the run.

Run

Good news: you’re going to love trail running as it’s a lot of fun. Not only are you covering ground, but you’re also skipping over logs and rocks, splashing through creeks, zig-zagging up switchbacks, changing your turnover, and then letting it all loose as you fly downhill. With these extra features, plan to add 1 to 2 minutes/mile to your usual road pace. Trail specific shoes are quite helpful with extra traction, toe protection and even rock plates imbedded in the soles but honestly, you’ll be just fine running in your road shoes.

Off-road triathlon runs are usually 4 to 6 miles and will inevitably feature a significant amount of climbing. But what goes up must come down. Believe it or not, there’s actually quite a few tips and tricks that can help you when trail running such as: when/how to power hike, how to descend with fast feet, looking further down trail to allow time for your brain to react, and generally increasing your turnover to avoid rocks, sticks, and turtles.

Find a hilly trail for your weekly long-distance run or better yet, run the roads to the trails, then run the trails and run home. Similar to mountain biking, you’ll want to add some intervals that develop your VO2 max. Translation: short but really hard. Also try jogging over to a nearby grass hill and practice bounding up. Another great training workout is running steady uphill, then turnaround and run fast downhill focusing on increasing leg turnover.

Here's the Plan

The first step is to go online and find a nearby off-road triathlon (most are Xterra races). Do your regular road triathlon training plan in the Spring, race a few road races during the summer, then add a few training tips mentioned above, and hit the trails for a beautiful fall off-road race to finish out the year.

If you don’t have a mountain bike, then borrow one for a month or buy an entry-level aluminum hardtail (new or used) for $500 to $1000. You can still use most of your road gear on the trails.

One important reminder: the trails can take you to remote areas but that’s part of the fun! You may, however, not have cell phone service or ways to easily access help. The Garmin inReach Mini GPS Satellite Communicator is the perfect traveling companion for these trails, especially when there's no cell phone signal.

This pocket-sized marvel allows you to send and receive text messages, track and share your journey and, if necessary, trigger an SOS alert to contact the GEOS 24/7 emergency response team.

Most trail networks will also have a local trail building and maintenance group. Think about volunteering for a build day to meet new people and discover the trails.

The last thing to know is being in the wilderness can be grounding and refreshing. It might be a good opportunity to unplug and leave the headphones in the car, take the heart rate monitor off, hide your GPS watch and forget about your splits. Try riding or running by feel. Listen to the sounds. Smell the damp soil. Stop and look at the views. Feel the earth under your feet. And finally, take a deep breath and enjoy being outside in nature.


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