Look out for rocks. And roots. And ruts. And possibly a puddle of muck oozing across the trail. Swap skinny tires for fat knobbies, designated lap lanes for a murky swim in a frigid pond, and asphalt for a forested trail meandering in the woods, and you've got an off-road triathlon.
XTERRA is the original off-road triathlon, and the fastest growing sport in the country. You could call it a triathlon on steroids.
If you're tired of chlorinated pools, skinny tires, and pavement an off-road triathlon might be for you. But be prepared. All triathlons are not created equal.
"When I made the switch from road to off-road triathlon, I thought I was pretty fit," admits XTERRA pro, Ryan Ignatz, who also coaches triathletes in the Denver/Boulder area.
"What I discovered is that I needed to train much more specifically; to incorporate more hills and more strength workouts, and to run away from the track to train on more varied terrain."
As Ignatz learned, training for an off-road triathlon is different. But that's not all. Charlie George, an amateur XTERRA racer from Denver notes, "There are a whole lot more differences than similarities." Here's the short list.
Top 10 Off-Road Tri Differences
1. Strength: Ignatz ranks the strength requirement as the number one difference between road and off-road triathlon.
"Once off-road, you've got to deal with inconsistent terrain," he says. "Whether you're biking or running, there's sand, rocks and all sorts of interesting features to get through. You've got to be strong and ready with quick power bursts to tackle the short hills and sustained power to make it up the long ones."
He advises his athletes to "train for the terrain. Incorporate more hills into your run training, and add strength training on your bike. Use the big ring and pedal at a lower cadence."
2. Time: While Olympic-distance road triathlons and XTERRA-like races are similar in length, "It'll take you 20 to 30 percent more time to complete an off-road event. Even if your swim and run times are fairly consistent," explains personal trainer Jimmy Archer of Boulder. "The mountain bike portion will be slower." Obviously, you can maintain a faster pace on the road than when you're dealing with dirt, rocks and switchbacks.
3. Gear: With off-road triathlon, Archer jokes "You just can't buy a faster time. You've gotta know how to ride the terrain. A $300 set of wheels isn't going to help if you can't power through the rough spots." Still, equipment and maintenance matter. Things like tire pressure, tread pattern and tools can mean the difference between riding into the transition area and carrying your bike.
"Mountain bikes have bigger tubes," says Ignatz, "which means you need to carry bigger CO2 cartridges in case you flat out. Water is likely to be colder so a thermal swimming cap can make a big difference. Trail running shoes need a good tread pattern. They should be light, breathable, quick drying, and supportive."
4. Altitude: Since off-road races usually take place in the mountains, you'll most likely have to deal with the altitude. "It's a gigantic factor," says George. Expect colder water, rapidly changing temperatures and lack of oxygen.
5. Clothes: If a wetsuit is required, practice putting it on. And taking it off. Carry extra clothes on the ride. Ignatz recommends full-finger gloves, arm warmers and a rain jacket.
6. Food: What to eat? When to eat? For triathletes, these are age-old questions. For off-road triathlon, the answer is: eat what you can, when you can. But don't count on reaching into your jersey pocket for a leisurely snack. Off-road bike courses tend to be rigorous, so pre-ride the course, if possible, and mentally mark areas where you can refuel.
"Practice eating and drinking during training," Ignatz suggests. "Tape gels onto your top tube. When you see a chance, take it, and take advantage of the aid stations." Another option is to do what George does. Stop and eat.
7. Swim: "People don't swim around you, they swim over you," says George. Forgot the comfort of line dividers and lap counters. Don't even think about seeing the bottom of the water or getting a friendly tap on the foot to signify your lane mate wants to pass.
A mass wave starts mean chaos. Think free-for-all. Plan to enter the frothing, churning water with several hundred of your best friends. Once the crowd thins out, remember to sight the course every few strokes to avoid straying.
8. Bike: Think power. Lots of power. You'll need it to churn over rocks, ruts and roots. "Forget chillin' on your aerobars," says Archer. "There are no breaks, and there is no place to hide. On a road bike, you can relax. Off-road, you need to stay alert and keep you focus. There are no easy downhills."
Passing is no piece of cake either. "Announce what side you're passing on, and the slower rider should let you by," suggests Ignatz. If that doesn't work, bide your time and wait for a wide spot in the trail.
9. Run: "Just try to survive the run," advises George, who has completed three off-road triathlons. "I am always surprised by the intensity of the mountain biking. It is very difficult, so I am always tired when I start the run."
10. Attitude: Have fun. Sure, off-road triathlons, like XTERRA, are challenging, but as George explains, they are a darn good time, too. "You're in a beautiful spot, among like-minded people, in a laid-back and easy atmosphere." That must be why he keeps coming back for more.