Chris ‘Macca’ McCormack is arguably one of the most successful and well-known athletes in the history of triathlon. He’s logged a record four Ironman finishes under eight hours and won the Ironman World Championship twice. He’s also the all-star Bahrain Endurance 13 team captain, and the person who helped HH Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa make the idea of this team a reality. Here, he shares his top tips on how to train for triathlon…
Become a confident swimmer. I think for most people who come into triathlon, the swim is the biggest fear, without question. To overcome a fear of anything, it’s just to get confident, and swimming is a confidence thing.
Confidence in the water comes from doing more and more swimming, so do whatever it takes to keep you in the pool – if that means swimming with fins, with paddles, with pullbuoys, with snorkels – to try and get more and more mileage.
Swimming is very much a technique-based sport, so spending time doing it is key – and doing it right is important. Get a good coach.
In open water, sighting becomes important; there’s no black line, there’s a completely different feel. If you’re not a confident swimmer, I would encourage you to get in the open water to get a feel for it, but it’s not imperative if you go through some key drills that will help you, understand what those drills are and why you do them.
Your bike saddle is not supposed to hurt. This is something I learned later in my career because I figured being a professional triathlete and putting in lots of miles was supposed to hurt. Spend your time with a good bike fitter, someone who can really look at your sit position and then recommend the correct saddle so you can log those much-needed miles pain-free.
Don’t do all your bike training indoors unless you have to. I do a fair bit of indoor bike work. There’s a lot of benefits around structured training on an indoor trainer. The indoor trainer is a tool, but I wouldn’t encourage an athlete to do all their work on it unless they had to. If you are, be specific in the workloads – a lot of the things that need tidying up like pedalling, strength, position issues.
I think there’s nothing like getting out on the roads. It’s a completely different feel how you move your bike around. You understand more how your body reacts with wind.
Practice running off a bike. The bike leg tends to be 50 percent of any triathlon you do, regardless of the distance. Fifty percent of your time will be spent on the bike and the position you have on the bike is a shortened hip flexor and hamstring position – you never fully extend your legs. It’s just a very, very different feel.
I came from a running background and this was a transition I had to make personally. A lot of runners come across to triathlon and think this is something they’re going to dominate but they tend to lose a lot of time in the early stages of the run while they try to find their 'run feel'.
As triathletes we learn to run very efficiently in a fatigued state. That’s an adjustment that comes with sessions running off the bike.
Find a coach you work well with. The most successful professionals have long-term coaches. When you’re looking for a coach, just make sure you get on well, you communicate well, and they can understand your goals, your objectives, and your psyche as a person, as well as your physical strengths. But be part of that process with them.
Anybody can be a triathlete. I think the great thing about triathlon is the challenge of it. I think that’s what draws people to the sport in the first place – trying to answer the unknown for them. A lot of people I’ve seen come to the sport saying, ‘There’s no chance I could ever complete one of these’ and sure enough,
I’m talking to them at the finish line and they’re going, ‘This is addictive.’
It’s just a matter of committing to an event. You do not have to be a lifetime athlete to be a triathlete. People come in all shapes and sizes for all different reasons to do a triathlon. Primarily most people I’m meeting on triathlon finish lines have come in for health purposes. They came to lose weight, a lot of them are giving up a certain lifestyle, and they really embrace it. For many, they came from non-sporting backgrounds. While it looks to be the most physically demanding sport in the world, I think people can relate to those three disciplines and I think they believe they can do it. Whether you’re a good athlete or not, that’s the beauty of triathlon.
Andrew Turner, who finished his first Ironman in the UK in 2012, is a founding member of the Bahrain Triathlon Club, which was started by a group of people training for Ironman Austria. Starting with a few ‘core lads’, as he puts it, the club has developed over two years and now has over 150 members. In that time, Andy has also completed two more full Ironman competitions even though he started out just five years ago as ‘a complete overweight novice’ (his words, not ours). We ask him about how hard it was to get started…
How did you find the initial process of triathlon training?
Getting into triathlon training can be daunting at first, especially if you don't follow a training plan and train alone. Initially I found it very hard to fit it in around family life, as my wife was pregnant when I first started, and work commitments were very high. It was too easy to let sessions slip by because I was too tired or I felt I had to do other things first, but realistically, if you plan, it is easily manageable. Moving to Bahrain was a big help with training as I found a group to train with and learned quickly that you had to plan your weeks in advance. It is very important to find the right balance between training, family and work but what is key is that if you are finding it a chore then stop and reassess. I took four months off from the sport this year as it simply wasn't fun any more after peaking at 18 to 20 hours training a week. Don't beat yourself up about missing sessions. Rest is as important as training.
What important advice would you offer people new to the sport?
Join a club or at the very least try to get a few people to train with. Triathlon is an individual sport when you race but it is very hard to train on your own. I did much of my first two years training solo and it was often soul destroying to go out and spend five to six hours on a bike with no one to talk to. Training with a group breeds competition, is a great laugh with plenty of banter and also gives you a bunch of friends to socialise with afterwards and talk about things such as bikes and gels, which most people will find weird. Plus that 4am wake-up is much easier when you have ten good friends calling you if they think you are late.
How did you feel when you finished your first Ironman?
Absolutely elated, tired, hungry, drained and emotional all at once. I'd like to say it was the best moment of my life but my wife would probably kill me! My first Ironman took 12 hours and 57 minutes and the feelings that hit you when you hear the immortal lines, 'You are an Ironman', after 13 hours of racing is simply indescribable. You race for that moment and it certainly doesn't let you down. One of the most satisfying things after a race is to stand and watch the other finishers go through the finishing chute and see the range of emotions they all go through, as you know exactly how they are feeling. I have now heard the words three times and it still sends a shiver down my spine.
Presumably it’s easy to hit a wall during an event. What tricks do you use to push through this?
Hitting the wall in any event is horrible. It happens to most of us at some point in our racing career and the first time it does it can be a bit of a shock. Hitting the wall is easily the best way of describing it as you often simply feel like you cannot go any further. It happened to me for the first time in Ironman UK. Twenty kilometres into the run my legs decided they didn't want to go any further – they had simply turned into jelly and I thought I was going to have to pull out. When you hit this point it is pretty much all down to your mental ability to overcome the feeling and carry on. Your legs can carry on but you need to force yourself to do so. As you race more and more, and improve your training, you will find that hitting the wall becomes more akin to hitting a steep hill; it is hard but not impossible to overcome. Training and improving fitness is the key, along with doing as many events as possible so you recognise the signs and can mentally prepare for them.
What do people need to know if they want to join the Bahrain Triathlon Club?
BTC started in 2011 as a small online forum for established and new triathletes and has now grown to over 150 paid members, offering advice and sharing knowledge on training plans, nutrition, injury prevention, event information, and offering the opportunity to train with world champions, Olympians and Commonwealth Games medallists. No other triathlon club in the region offers such experiences for its members. BTC committee members have a combined résumé of over 20 full-distance Ironman events and a similar amount of experience in half-distance (70.3) events.
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suzy Al Zeerah
Bahraini-Austrian athlete Suzy Al Zeerah is the island’s Ironman representative and she discovered a love of running after the birth of her first child. She’s now done more triathlons than she can ‘count on two hands’. Internationally speaking, she’s done Ironman 70.3 in France in 2014, Challenge Bahrain 2014, Challenge Dubai 2015 and, most recently, the full Ironman in Nice, France. She tells us why you should follow suit.
How did you originally get involved in competing in triathlons?
I did my first triathlon in Lebanon and I literally fell into it by accident. I was training with some triathletes and one of them injured her shoulder so I took her place in my first ever sprint triathlon (750 metre swim/20 kilometre bike/five kilometre run) and ended up winning second place in my age category. I had no bike experience.
What got me into triathlon?
The first time I crossed that finish line. There is no measurable quantifier for how it feels. The training is the thing you do every day but the finish line is the reward for all of it and that is why I think most triathletes get hooked on this. It's a lifestyle with a goal. It makes you disciplined, there is less injury, and it gives you confidence.
How hard was it for you to start?
We have a slogan in Ironman: ‘anything is possible’ and I am proof it is. It's all in the training, it's all in one's mind, and if you believe, you get there. I did and it's down to putting in the hours, getting up and doing the training you need and knowing how good it feels when it is done. The most challenging part of training is finding the time but it is doable and, again, it’s a lifestyle. A big part of the day-to-day training is usually done in groups and the friendships you make on the way with people of similar interests lasts a lifetime. I have had the pleasure of training with people who live all over the Middle East because we all have the common interest to get better at what we do, to enjoy the outdoors, to be fit, to achieve.
What would be your advice to people new to the sport?
Get a coach to help you in the disciplines you struggle with, especially in the longer distances.
Know that you will improve and value the fourth unmentioned discipline of triathlon – nutrition and how fuelling your body is equally important in getting you to the finish line still strong. Realise how important recovery is and be balanced in your training. Most importantly, this is a journey.
How did you feel when you finished your Ironman?
The feeling of crossing the finish line changes you. An Ironman changes the core of you, it makes you realise you can do great things. If you put your mind to it, your body will follow.
You train your mind through your body and vice versa. You are never who you were when you started and you’re always someone better. I researched on many platforms why 10,000 people a year become first-time full ‘Ironmen’. Some research says it originates because of what we used to be – hunters and gatherers. Our ancestral roots make us want to challenge ourselves and now, with modern-day inclinations, we don’t have those challenges anymore.
How do you feel about Ironman coming to Bahrain?
Firstly, in all my work promoting races and working for Ironman, there is nothing negative about hosting a race like this. It covers all aspects of what we need with this event – an opportunity for the country to grow in both the private and public sector. It covers all aspects of society – we have schools involved, banks, ministries, hotels, you name it, there is everyone involved, everything to gain, and nothing to lose.
And I am proud to be a part of developing this in the Kingdom of Bahrain.
The Bahrain triathlons
International amateur and professional athletes are competing in Challenge Bahrain, which is back for a second edition on the island. This year, we’re breaking new ground by becoming the world’s largest half-distance night triathlon and the event will also double as the grand final of the Nasser Bin Hamad Triple Crown.
Ironman 70.3 Middle East Championship Bahrain
This is the first Ironman event in the region, and will offer 40 qualifying slots for the 2016 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Australia. The route has been designed to bring athletes closer to the Middle Eastern history and heritage, taking them past iconic attractions such as the first oil well, Bahrain International Circuit, and Al Areen Wildlife Park.