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A day in the life of a triathlete

July 11, 2008, 5:14 p.m. (ET)

Swim. Ride. Run.

Add to the list sleep, eat, and stretch, and those words pretty much sum up the life of a professional triathlete.

In a sport that first gained fame in 1982 when ABC Wide World of Sports showed footage of Julie Moss first staggering, then crawling on her hands and knees in the dark to the finish after almost 11 hours swimming, riding, and running in Hawaii's Ironman Triathlon, endurance across three sports would appear to be key.

But "Olympic distance" triathlons are shorter than the Ironman-a 1.5-kilometer swim rather than 2.4 miles, 40km bike leg instead of 112 miles, and a 10km run as opposed to a grueling marathon. So swimming, riding their bikes, or running from dawn ‘til dusk isn't part of the program for most pro triathletes. Instead, they look for quality over quantity in their workouts.

Both Jarrod Shoemaker and Julie Swail Ertel-who have qualified for the men's and women's triathlons in Beijing-say they train for about 20-22 hours each week. They go hard and fast, but for only an hour to an hour-and-a-half at a time.

For 25-year-old Shoemaker, who lives in Maynard, Mass., this means logging 20,000 to 25,000 yards in the pool, eight to 10 hours on the bike, and 40 to 50 miles running on the road and track. That works out to about 800 to 1,000 laps in a 25-yard pool, 150 to 200 miles cycling, and four to five hours pounding the pavement in running shoes. A standout track and field athlete in college, Shoemaker's best event is the run; his weakest, the swim. So that means extra time in the pool some weeks.

Ertel-who won a silver medal in water polo in 2000 and switched to triathlons a year later-constantly mixes up her schedule "to keep it fresh." Now 35 and living in Irvine, Calif., she usually only trains five days each week. Surprisingly, running has proved her strongest sport, not swimming.

Although grueling, their schedules can leave enough time to read, watch TV, pay bills, and even have lunch with mom. But mostly, triathletes need rest. In a sport that stresses every major muscle group, recovery is as important as working out.

Given the relatively short distances that these triathletes are training for, developing speed is almost more important than improving endurance, says Shoemaker's coach Tim Crowley. Top male triathletes will swim 1.5km in under 18 minutes, ride 40km in under an hour, and run 10km in just over 30 minutes.

"We need to train like a crit rider," says Crowley, referring to a criterium, a fast-paced bicycle race that lasts about one hour. "We need to develop speed and power, as well as endurance, in all three (sports)."

To develop speed and power, Crowley creates workouts that focus on intervals. Intervals require the athlete to repeatedly put out a maximum effort in a short, specified period, say one minute or five minutes (as opposed to just riding, running, or swimming for two to three hours at a slower pace). By swimming, running, and riding faster than race pace, they can increase overall speed. These physically taxing sessions last less than two hours and are termed "quality" workouts by coaches and athletes.

"We do three quality swims every week, two to three quality runs, and two to three quality bike workouts," Crowley adds. "But we need to create a balance so the athlete doesn't get fried."

It's difficult for athletes to do a quality workout without resting afterwards, so triathletes rarely train the three sports back-to-back-to-back.

 "When I do three workouts, sometimes I'll go from one to the second, but I'll never do all three (in a row)," Ertel explains. "The reason being you're not going to get a quality workout, maybe not in the second (sport) but certainly not in the third one. My goal for training is to make sure that all my training sessions are quality. Otherwise, I'll be really good at being slow."

On their hard training days, both Shoemaker and Ertel focus on only two sports, one in the morning and the other in afternoon or evening session. Between sessions, they do whatever they need to recover-like nap, eat, and stretch-so when the next workout rolls around, they are ready to push 100 percent. They also get regular massages and chiropractic adjustments.

A Dartmouth College grad, Shoemaker admits to watching "a lot of TV as I find the couch the best place to recover." But he sticks to watching Red Sox and Celtics games, and shows on the History, Discovery, and Science channels.

"We have very little time to go out," he says, when asked if he and his wife, triathlete Alicia Kaye, ever go out for dinner or to a movie. "But part of that is because we have swim practice on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights from 7 to 8:30, so we get home, eat, and sleep right after that."

He usually goes to bed between 10 and 11 every night and wakes up between 7:30 and 8:30, "trying to get as close to nine hours of sleep as possible." Then he gets in his first workout before 11 most mornings.

Since qualifying for the Olympics in a World Cup last September, Shoemaker's sponsorship obligations have increased-he's now on the cover of a limited edition Wheaties box (available in Iowa and Boston stores). Photo shoots and interviews, among other obligations, take time from his training. Crowley encourages him to consider this time as recovery before the next hard workout. Plus, he knows sponsorship reduces Shoemaker's financial stress.

Surprisingly, Ertel now finds herself with more free time than in her water polo days. "The number of hours per day training is actually less than with water polo," she says. "We typically had five-and-a-half to six-hour day (training for water polo)."

Now, on the five days she usually trains each week, she only logs about four hours of training time. For example, on Wednesdays, she usually swims for an hour-fifteen to an hour-and-a-half in the morning, and then does a track session in the afternoon.

Ertel even works on transitions-the time it takes triathletes to move from one sport to the next. At the Olympic Trials for Triathlon in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in April, a fast bike-to-run transition helped put Ertel in the lead. She finished the run 29 seconds ahead of second place Sarah Haskins and qualified for the Olympics.

Transition workouts are like mini-triathlons, she says, with the focus on changing equipment-namely shoes-quickly. "For about 12 minutes, we do a full triathlon. Then we stop and rest and we do another. We do that four times."

In her downtime between workouts, she'll checks-in with friends on the Internet or occasionally goes out for lunch with her mom.

On her two recovery days, she goes shopping, to the beach with her husband, and even plays tennis with her sister-in-law, although her husband calls it "five bounce tennis," because Ertel doesn't exactly chase the ball.

"My favorite thing to do when I'm not training is being as far away from training as I can be," she says. "I love competing and I love training, but there needs to be a balance. If you eat, breathe, and sleep it, you're going to get burned out."



Jarrod Shoemaker's typical week

Like most endurance athletes, Jarrod Shoemaker's weekly training schedule includes hard days, long days, and recovery days. Although his schedule varies depending on the time of year, here's an idea of what a typical training week might look like.

Monday: Recovery day. But this doesn't mean he lies on the couch all day. He will do up to a two-hour easy bike ride in the morning, then swim for 1.5 hours in the evening. It's about 4,000-5,000 yards in the pool, or 160 to 200 laps in a 25-yard pool.

Tuesday: Hard day. He does a track workout in the mornings-"something like three to five miles of intervals." From the track, it gets on his bike for another tough workout. "It's a shorter ride, about an hour-and-a-half with a lot of intensity, like one-minute intervals or eight- to ten-minute intervals," he says. That evening, he hits the weight room for 40 minutes and focuses on flexibility and stabilizing his core muscles. From there, he sometimes hops in the water for a swim.

Wednesday: Another tough day. He gets on his bike first and does longer intervals, 10 to 20 minutes of hard effort at a time. After his bike workout, he does a middle distance fartlek workout-running interspersed with sprints and faster-paced intervals. Wednesday evening, he jumps into the pool for a 4,000- or 5,000-yard swim-about 1.5 hours. That's another 160-200 laps.

Thursday: Recovery day. An easy bike ride or easy run.

Friday: Bike intervals or an easy run, then swimming at night. Distances and pace depend on the time of year.

Saturday and Sunday: Long distance days. He will run 11-13 miles, then ride his bike for 2-3 hours. As for a swim, "I try to fit it in," he says.


Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.