Ever wonder: What Makes a Great Triathlete?

By Danny Roe

As triathletes, we push ourselves.

On a daily basis we do things that other people would (and lets face it, with some degree of reason) deem absolutely crazy. Swim up and down a pool 80 times? Cycle kilometres in triple digits? Use the term easy run? We each, achieve from ourselves things that most do not. We each manage to achieve things that are worth a lifetime’s bragging. But the question can be asked. What makes a GREAT triathlete? Those few who go further then even the standard (atypical) triathlete. Here are some factors to consider.


Too small to be fast? Normann Stadler (2 time world champion and fastest man to take the bike course in Hawaii). To tall to run fast? Jan Frodeno (Olympic gold medallist, Beijingg 2008). Too much weight? Torbjorn Sinballe, (regularly coming off the bike in Hawaii with a 10 minute lead over the best pro’s in the world.). Too little weight? Craig Alexander (2 time world Champion). The interesting thing is, typically, great swimmers are 6 and a half feet tall, the phelps, thorpes, popov’s of the world. Typically great time trial cyclists are big guy with low frontal area, the cancellara’s the jan ulrichs. As for runners? Well, at 55kgs, its easy to see why runners like Haile Gebresellassie and Mo Farah are able to skip through races at under 5 minute’s per mile. These contradictory dimensions may lend a degree if speciality to an athlete, but lacking a specific body type will not mean an athlete cannot be a great triathlete.


It would be ridiculous to say that equipment does not make a difference to triathlon performance. Some people believe that equipment makes all the difference, some people believe that it makes almost no difference. However, it is clear that it would be next to impossible to complete a 40k flat time trial, in under an hour, while riding a bmx. Could top level equipment be how world class triathletes complete the Hawaiian Ironman in just over 8 hours? In short, no. Although a top level bike and wetsuit will make an athlete faster, it is not enough to touch the roof of triathlon performance. In this particular race, it is infact a non-wetsuit swim and the all-important disc wheels are banned from the bike. Even with this, the winner will almost inevitably be just over 8 hours, with Luc VanLierde’s course record, an incredible 8 hour 4 minute 8 seconds. Further to this fact is that this course record was achieved in 1996, triathlon companies can claim all sorts of equipment improvements since then.

Childhood background?

Typically in the ITU the top athletes over Olympic distance have grown up in a swimming pool or on a running track. Regularly athletes will have been brought to triathlon in their mid-teens as something new to do, having spent years racing gala’s or track meets. This is not to say, however, that there is no room in the sport for those who enjoyed a childhood of playing football in a local green and spent too much time playing video games. Remarkably, quite possibly the best pound for pound triathlete in the world at the moment did not take up the sport until they were grown up and working for the British government. I am of course talking about the transcendent Chrissie Wellington. With her 3 world titles and plethora of records, her greatest achievement of all may be the fact that she took to triathlon from a cold start. Chrissie raced her first triathlon at the age of 27. Yes, really 27. She described herself as a sporty kid but one who excelled more with her studies. She originally took up the sport to lose weight.


Some believe that genetics is the biggest factor when it comes to achieving sporting success in the endurance sports world. However after many theories about genetics, it was proven that the great Kenyan runners success in athletics, was not based around any particular genetic predisposition. The simple truth of the matter was, these people (typically from the rift valley) were running to school, the top national level runners produced would run between 10 and 15 kilometers across and back to school each day. Probably the greatest distance runner of all time Haile Gebrsellassie is quoted as saying he was at the level he was at, due to running a 20k round trip daily for 10 years.
SO WHAT IS THE SECRET! There are common factors in the best triathletes in the world. 2 principle points must be taken into account, these champions love what they do and they train hard and train a lot. Before his second world title, Chris ‘Macca’ MacCormack was doing up to 25k of swimming, over 900k of cycling and 120k of running at peak times. A recent video was posted of 2 time world champion Craig Alexander showing one of his peak training days. This involved 112miles of cycling, which finished with 40k at race pace, followed by a run involving 10 repeats of 1 mile.
Everyone has something great to offer the sport of triathlon. Individually we all have things we are suited to, things we are not so suited to. Things we like and things we loath. Greatness in this sport can only be achieved through hard work, passion and doing things that others say is crazy. It is. That’s why we do it.

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Danny Roe is an Irish Triathlete and writer

Contact Danny at: tridanny(at symbol)live.ie

One thought on “Ever wonder: What Makes a Great Triathlete?

  • October 7, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    Nice article Danny, as with most successful people there is a couple of common traits, loving what they do, working really hard at it and embracing serious goals. Here’s hoping Chrissie Wellington scores in Kona again on Sunday.


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