By GINA KOLATA
Published: May 8, 2008
WHEN Jenny Higgins started doing triathlons, she discovered something peculiar. She had been on her high school cross country and swim teams and her college swim team. But in 2003 she started running, swimming and cycling, and tried to excel in all three at once.
“I noticed that in the pool, my legs felt very heavy,” she said. “I was dragging my legs more than I used to and it hurt my swimming.”
Other times, she would swim fluidly but feel lifeless when she ran or cycled.
After five years as a multisport athlete, Ms. Higgins, now a 32-year-old postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton University, said the push-me-pull-you feeling has not gone away.
It made Ms. Higgins wonder something that may be on the minds of the nation’s more than 100,000 triathletes, too: Is it even possible to peak in more than one sport at once?
Anne Gordon, 51-year-old triathlete and a partner at Dubilier & Company, a private investment group, has never gotten a personal record in each leg of a triathlon on the same day. “I find it is possible to peak in two out of the three sports, but no matter how hard I try the third eludes me,” she said.
Neither, though, is about to give up triathlons. They love the training, the discipline and competitions that allow a little leeway. For instance, if you are a weak cyclist, you may still do well with a fast run and an adequate swim. Multisport athletes can play on their strengths.
“The simple act of working hard at three things requires a diversity and balance in my life that is rewarding in and of itself,” Ms. Gordon said. “It is good for my spirit to know that I have to work hard and be patient to achieve mastery.”
But the question remains: Can you train optimally for three sports at the same time?
“Even the pros struggle with this, that’s just the nature of the human body,” said Joe Friel, a coach and author of 10 books, including “The Triathlete’s Training Bible” (VeloPress, 2004). “It is hard to get the human body to peak at several activities at the same time.”
Professional triathletes tackle the challenge by training 30 hours a week. With that kind of robust, targeted training, said Mr. Friel, who has a master’s in exercise science, “it’s much easier to improve but it’s still not easy.”
It’s a problem Mr. Friel sees all the time in the athletes he coaches who complain about their times, saying, for example, that they aren’t running as fast as they think they should be.
“I have conversations with them,” he said. “Do you really want to be a triathlete? If you want to run faster you have to give up swimming and cycling.”
That, in fact, is what one professional triathlete did. Desirée Ficker, who is 31 and lives in Austin, Tex., said she decided to concentrate on running when she ran the Austin Marathon in 2007 and came in second with a time of 2:40:28. Not only was that her best marathon time ever but it qualified her for the women’s Olympic Trials in Boston last month. The top three women in that race are on the United States Olympic team.
So Ms. Ficker gave up cycling and swimming and just ran, hoping to make the Olympic team.
“Biking hurts your running performance,” she said. “It tires your legs out, and you are using opposing muscle groups. I actually believe you are tearing up your quads to the point where it hurts when you run.”
When she eased up on bicycling, she said, her legs felt fresher and she ran faster.
At the Olympic trials, Ms. Ficker knew that if she did not make the team she would be racing again as a triathlete. That’s how she makes her living, she said. When it became clear that she was not going to be one of the top three women, she lost her will to run her hardest. “My thought was I’m not going to trash my legs because I have a race in six weeks,” she said.
There’s a reason it’s hard to excel in three sports at once, physiologists say. The training necessary to do your best in one sport is likely to counteract what is needed to be good at another.
When you are training, said Gary S. Krahenbuhl, an exercise physiologist and emeritus professor at Arizona State University, improvement depends on physical and biochemical changes in muscle cells and in nerve-firing patterns. And those changes are very sport-specific, he added. The result, Dr. Krahenbuhl said, is that “changes that facilitate performance for one event may actually undermine performance in another event.”
“To think that you could train in such a way as to have your greatest performance in all the sports is impossible,” he added.
Even body musculature can trip up triathletes. Swimmers need large muscles in their backs and shoulders. Runners and cyclists want small, light upper bodies. Cyclists need large quadriceps muscles. Runners don’t, and in fact they don’t want any extra muscle weight on their legs.
Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, an exercise researcher at McMaster University in Canada, a physician and a triathlete, is also convinced that training for one sport interferes with training for another.
“There are molecular signals that allow certain types of training,” he said. “They get diluted when you start blending sports together.”
As an extreme example of how specific training can be, Dr. Tarnopolsky tells the story of a man he has raced with in triathlons. The man previously had been a professional cyclist for a European team and told Dr. Tarnopolsky that when he was training for cycling, he could barely run two kilometers.
But these physiologists hasten to add that there are benefits to doing more than one sport. They advocate cross training for all recreational athletes and especially middle-age athletes who are more easily injured and slower to recover than younger people.
Cross training — cycling one day and swimming the next, for example — lets you maintain your energy and enthusiasm and avoid injuries that come from doing the same activity day after day. That’s also part of the appeal of being a triathlete, Mr. Friel said.
“It’s fun to train,” said Kelly Couch, a 30-year-old triathlete from San Mateo, Calif. “Just being a runner, just being a cyclist, can get a little stagnant.”
But training seriously for more than one sport can be hard to coordinate — training for endurance in each, training for speed in each, getting sufficient rest, eating properly for optimal performance. Then, of course, the athlete has to avoid injury, even a minor twinge, that could impede performance in any of the three sports.
“Everything has to come together,” Dr. Tarnopolsky said. “It’s difficult — like getting all the stars to align.”
But even if the stars never align, there can be other perks.
When Ms. Higgins only swam or ran, she would have weeks when every workout discouraged her. That doesn’t happen anymore. “I can always expect to be feeling good in something I’m doing,” she said. “I can feel like a manatee in the pool, really slow. But then my running feels sharp.” As a result, she said, “I can count on several good workouts each week.”
Ms. Gordon works with a coach who is helping her reach the peak of her performance for the start of the triathlon season this month. “May and June are packed with races,” she said. The big one for her is the Philadelphia Triathlon on June 22. “The workouts’ intensity increases dramatically this time of year,” Ms. Gordon said. “As a result, some days I hit all my numbers or swim like a mad woman and even manage a steady if not fantastic run, but then tomorrow comes and I start all over again and I may not be as good at the same things that day.”
But, she said, that is part of what draws her to triathlons.
“What I love best about this sport is the training, the sense that the goal of hitting a perfect 10 for all three sports will take a lifetime.” And that, she added, “is O.K. by me.”
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