Travel Active: No pain, no gain, no ice cream

You've just swum a kilometre in open ocean. Ahead is a punishing bike ride, a gruelling run - and the kids want a cornet. Peter Conchie visits the elite triathlon camp for all the family

High in the sun-baked hills of mainland Greece, sweat dripping on to my handle-bars, the cleated feet of my silver cycling shoes pumping up and down like an automaton, I tucked into the slipstream of a delivery truck and bided my time. When the moment came, just before one of the fast descent's many hairpin bends, I stood on the pedals, pulled out from behind the boxes of watermelons and overtook on the opposite side of the road to that recommended in the Greek equivalent of the Highway Code.

On the final part of the descent into the village, a police car blocked my path and I swung past on the wrong side of a roundabout. I began to wonder if I was taking this race a little too seriously. What the hell, I thought: my swim was slow and there's a 5km run to come after I get off the bike. I need all the seconds I can get.

The race in question was a sprint triathlon, the competitive culmination of a week's training camp outside the harbourside town of Sivota. It was aimed at all levels of competitor in this increasingly popular sport; among our number were Paul Larkins, a former international athlete who raced against Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. Other participants included a number of novices, men and women, yet to compete in their first triathlon, a cheery Scouser preparing for his first Ironman event (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike run followed by a marathon) and a South African couple getting ready for their first competitions at élite level.

The aim of the annual camp, organised by Adidas Eyewear and hosted by activity-holiday specialists Neilson, was to enable participants to acquire the sort of skills and experience that only experts can provide. The week was intended to provide some race-specific technique as well as enable participants to set goals for that season's competition.

With that in mind, the schedule was intense but somehow also relaxed. Each day there was a compulsory element, marked in threatening bold in our training folder; these included a session on open-water swimming; advanced cycling technique; and transition, the art of changing swiftly from wetsuit to bike and from bike to running gear. For this thirtysomething father of two, part of the appeal was the unique combination of expert tuition with a sensitivity to the demands of family life. With two children under four and a partner left to fend for the family whenever I disappear for a long Sunday bike ride, I found the offer of inclusive childcare too tempting to miss. We enrolled our three-year-old into the Sea Urchins club and I spent the day pushing my heart-rate to unrealistic levels. Meanwhile, my partner played tennis and cooled by the pool, chatting with the other triathlon widows and widowers as Louis was stimulated, entertained and - crucially for his continuing good humour and co-operation - regu-larly fed ice cream by a very capable, patient group of nannies.

As the week progressed, we became keener than a pot of tangy tzatsziki. Doubtless we were motivated by the sunshine, healthy food, and beautiful cliff-hugging location, but even the optional 7.30am runs were attended by upwards of 15 people.

Whereas if the family were asleep at home I would doze with them, banking as much sleep as possible for later in the day, here in the relative cool of the morning I rose early and left them in bed. Feeling the night's cobwebs breaking faintly against my legs, I walked along the path, breathed the scent of spring flowers and joined my fellow triathletes in the open air for some post-dawn stretches.

Along with the technical advice, moral support and free sports massage from the amiable and nimble-fingered Ralph Hydes, another élite triathlete and coach, there were sessions on health and nutrition. Sound advice on carbo-loading and recovery went alongside idiosyncratic tips. If you eat fruit before a morning training session, for instance, scoff a couple of almonds at the same time, as the nuts slow down the release of sugars and enable you to train longer. We were warned darkly against using deodorants or sunscreens containing aluminium sulphates, as they block the pores, while a buttock-clenching story about in-race "gastric distress" caused by severe dehy-dration painfully made the point about taking on sufficient fluids during a race.

The coaches had styles that appealed to competitors of differing temperaments. Jack Maitland is a former élite athlete and fell-running champion who is now the head coach at the British Triathlon High Performance Centre at Leeds Metropolitan University. A wiry Scottish terrier of a man, he is a stickler for detail: for instance, the display on his wristwatch is angled at 45 degrees to enable him to monitor his progress while cycling without raising his wrist from the handlebars. While his coaching sessions were extremely detailed and informative, I found my slacker psychology better suited to the style of triathlon legend Richard Allen, a lugubrious fellow for whom less is more.

Allen was the resident professional for the week, and a shrewd choice. Like many triathletes, my first experience of organised competition was the London Triathlon, a race in which I was perhaps a little too proud to have finished 168th out of 400 in the 35-to-39-year-old category. In the same race the previous year, Allen had been the overall winner. He is the only triathlete to have held national championships over all distances. Clearly I wasn't fit to zip up the man's wetsuit, but he still made time to offer encouragement and advice. And I had something on my mind.

During the swim section of the race, I had suffered. Despite a knee injury, I fancied my chances as I bobbed in the harbour with my wetsuited fellows in the count-down. But after a fast start I became breathless, and my normally adequate front crawl deteriorated to the extent that I completed some of the 750m course with breaststroke and backstroke.

Richard's analysis was simple and reassuring: I had experienced every open-water swimmer's nightmare and had "gone anaerobic". In a mass start, there is a strong temptation to set off hard to keep pace with the faster swimmers; it is the first element of the triathlon and you are hyped up and eager to go. Within a few seconds there was frantic communication between my brain and my body along the lines that I wasn't getting enough oxygen. The constricting effect of a wetsuit plus the fact that my face was under water equalled panic.

Allen advised me to take a breath every second stroke rather than every third. He revealed that none of the top triathletes breathe bilaterally (every third stroke) as I did. He also explained the importance of not training too hard. Tough sessions that leave you seriously out of breath need to be combined with easier, distance sets to improve your aerobic efficiency. A longer, slower run is essential to complement speed work, while similarly on the bike a long, flat trip should dovetail with sharp sprint sessions.

The advice came too late for the race, but the whole experience had sharpened my competitive instincts. Albeit to an unrealistic degree. "You be Seb Coe and I'll be Steve Ovett," I shouted to Paul as he sprinted past, one, two or possibly three laps ahead during the final run. Well, a man can dream, can't he?

The camps and coaches

Peter Conchie stayed at the Neilson Beach Plus Club at Sivota. Richard Allen (allentriathlete@ btinternet.com) is organising another triathlon training camp from 1 to 8 October. The price of £554 includes flights, transfers, accommodation at the retreat, most meals, coaching and races. Next year's Adidas Eyewear Triathlon Training Camp takes place from 6-13 May. Contact 0870 9099 099, neilson.co.uk. Richard Allen is in Bath, Ralph Hydes (ralph. hydes @blueyonder.co.uk) is in London and Jack Maitland (thetriathloncoach.com) is based in Leeds. All three take private clients.

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