The Inside Tri

Indoor triathlons are the perfect preseason prep for veteran triathletes, a great way for beginners to get started and an excuse-proof event for those who say they can’t race.

swimmers on starting boards

After moving to a new state in 2003 and starting a family, I took a hiatus from my longtime sport of choice, triathlon. Three years later, I felt the itch to compete again, but I didn’t feel comfortable handling the many variables that go into a good race day. The answer to my anxiety was an early-season indoor triathlon. It eliminated many of the equipment-handling hassles of race day and was based on time rather than distance: a 10-minute pool swim, 30-minute ride on a spin bike and a 20-minute run on a treadmill, with designated time in between for “transitions.” I knew, based on my short runs in the neighborhood and the cycling classes I took at the gym, that finishing was well within my reach.

While indoor triathlons can help veteran triathletes like me return to the sport or prepare for the next race season, they’re also “race bait” for triathletes-to-be — those who are interested in the sport but still working up the courage to toe the start line.

Take Bob Baney, 46, who started his triathlon career in 2007 with an indoor tri. His health club in Lexington, Ky., offered one that consisted of an 800-meter swim, 20-mile bike ride and a 3-mile run. He was one of about 50 participants, half of whom were first-timers. “The indoor tri experience was a great way to get started,” Baney says. “I think there are a lot of everyday people out there who would love to give triathlon a chance but are fearful of diving into a regular sprint or international-distance event.”

How’s It Different?

While the formats for indoor triathlons can vary with each race organizer, most are developed to remove certain “barriers to entry” that prevent aspiring triathletes from participating in outdoor events.

  1. You swim in a pool, not a lake or ocean. One reason many people hesitate to sign up for a triathlon is the swim, which usually occurs in open water with a mass start. Triathletes often describe the experience as “swimming in a washing machine.” Indoor triathlon participants swim in a pool, sometimes in their own lane, allowing enough space to swim at their own pace with the option to stop and regroup if necessary.
  2. Transitions are less hectic. Most people define triathlons as swimming, biking and running, but a major part of the race is the transition between events. The clock doesn’t stop as you race to your gear, change equipment and set yourself on the right course. In many indoor triathlons, however, the clock does stop — for a short period — to allow you to move on to the next stage.
  3. You get a hassle-free bike ride. Since you’re not riding a bike on the road, you don’t have to worry about getting a flat tire, wiping out, navigating around other cyclists on the course, or perfecting some of the rules of conventional triathlons, such as drafting and passing.
  4. Weather conditions can’t influence the race. Some outdoor triathlons have become duathlons because of dangerous swim conditions. Severe heat can shorten the run course. You don’t always get what you expect, and your own race results from the same outdoor course each year can vary because of weather. Not so with an indoor race. The conditions are always the same.
  5. No one gets left behind. Everyone races in the same building, in the same area. Even if the guy on the treadmill next to you runs a mile in half the time it takes you to get there, you won’t be left in his dust. Because of this proximity, it’s an ideal format to race with friends and family.

Baney’s first indoor tri offered him the combination of confidence and camaraderie he needed from fellow competitors to move on to his next race — outdoors. He has now finished three sprint-distance tris, one international-distance race and a half-Ironman.

As a seasoned triathlete, Baney still sees the benefits of the indoor version and would do another to help jump-start his training. “It was so beneficial to get cooking on my workouts in January and February,” he says. “By the time the outdoor tri season got under way, I had a solid foundation of strength and base mileage.”

And me? Even though I managed to re-enter the world of triathlon after that first indoor race three years ago, I have still signed up for an indoor triathlon each year since, including last fall. Being five months pregnant, I was more comfortable riding a spin bike indoors than cycling on the road. I knew an indoor triathlon could accommodate my situation in terms of comfort and pace, without having to worry if I’d be the last one out on the course. I couldn’t come up with a good reason not to do it. Can you?

Kara Douglass Thom is the author of Becoming an Ironman: First Encounters with the Ultimate Endurance Event (Breakaway Books, 2001) and the children’s book See Mom Run (Breakaway Books, 2003). She blogs about balancing motherhood and fitness at http://mamasweat.blogspot.com.

How It Works

Most outdoor triathlons follow the swim-bike-run order, but not always. While there are standard distances, often the length of a triathlon varies with the whims of the race director or the constraints of a location. Indoor triathlons may also vary. Some races are based on distance, like an outdoor race, while others are based on time, with outcomes based on how far one can go in that designated time. Generally, though, you can count on the following features:

The Swim
The number of lanes in the pool typically dictates how many triathletes can start together. Each participant swims for the designated time, while “counters” assigned to each lane keep track of laps. When time is up or the swimmer has completed the distance, participants exit the pool and the next wave of swimmers begins.

The Transitions
After the swim, participants have the opportunity to go to the locker room and change out of their wet swimsuits. (Don’t attempt this at an outdoor triathlon — nudity is prohibited in the transition area!) After the bike, be ready to head to the treadmill. Some indoor tris count your transition times; others provide several “free”
minutes between events.

The Bike
Bikes will be calibrated so they put forth the same resistance for all participants. Make sure you adjust the bike seat and bars so you’re comfortable riding. A bike computer mounted on the handlebars will allow you to see your speed and distance. Your goal is to ride as far as you can in the designated time period or go the distance specified for the race.

The Run
After getting from the bike to the treadmill, the run begins. If your race is based on distance, you stop when you’re finished. If your race is based on time, you stop when that time elapses.

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