Triathlon: The Brit pack are best in class

Triathlon has become the fastest-growing sport in Britain. But if you want to compete at top level, you'll need to apply as much brain as brawn. Peter Conchie reports on an academy for gifted amateurs that is turning its pupils into world-beaters

Since the ancient Greeks gathered in the shade of a sacred grove of olive trees, the model of the academy as a route to knowledge and self-improvement has res-onated through the ages. From Hollywood superstars in search of global recognition, to singers in search of a record contract, to inner-city schools in search of a rebranded identity, there is something about an academy.

The sport of triathlon may sound like an unlikely focus for such an institution, but in many respects it is appropriate. The most popular triathlon distance is the Olympic one, after all, and in this form triathlon represents a daunting challenge, consisting of a 1,500m swim followed by a 40km bike ride and topped off with a 10km run.

With the level of commitment required, those who elect to train on their own are doing it the hard way. Joining a triathlon club, with like-minded people and an element of coaching, makes the task much easier. But each year a lucky few are able to take their commitment to the sport one step further.

The Herbalife Triathlon Academy was established last year to give four grass-roots triathletes access to the sort of coaching normally only available to elite competitors. Each year, a quartet of competitors are offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attain optimum fitness and become triathlon champions.

Triathlon is the fastest-growing sport in the UK. British Triathlon, the national governing body, each year sanctions over 400 events across the country, and around 9,000 people competed in the London Triathlon last year, with a third more expected to take part in this year's event, being held in August.

For half of that 12,000 it will be their first triathlon. As one might expect, with new-comers flocking to the sport each year, competition for the Academy places is as stiff as a post-race hamstring. In common with the Ancient Greeks, the selection process is democratic, with anyone who completed the London Triathlon in 2006 eligible for the class of 2007.

Around 250 people were selected as potential acad-emicians, a long-list slashed to a slimline 10 with the help of Bill Black, the Academy's coach and a former British Triathlon Olympic team coach. Democracy, in the form of a sporting version of The X Factor, entered the equation as the final four were voted for by other London Triathlon competitors, on the basis of a mug shot and a brief CV.

Last week, the 2007 intake was announced. They are: Jessica Adams, 30, who has recently returned to the UK from lifeguarding on Bondi Beach; Katherine Vile, a 35-year-old literary agent; the appropriately named Tristan Shipsides, 26, a former rower; and Louis Verdi, 22, a City worker.

They have much to live up to. The class of 2006 was an outstanding crop, its prize-winning specimen being David Aitchison, by day a 29-year-old project manager for a web design company, in his spare time an emerging swimming, cycling and running super-hero. After his time in the Academy, he produced a sub-two-hour triathlon and a podium finish at the World Age Group Championships. What advice does he have for the class of 2007? "I would say just enjoy it - and do everything that Bill [Black] tells you, because he has the knowledge."

Without Black, the Acad-emy wouldn't happen. A genial man who in this country is a father figure to the sport, Black started out as a PE teacher before lecturing posts at Twickenham College and St Mary's College, fitting in a stint as coach to the England men's volleyball team in between.

In 1998 he was appointed as the GB men's triathlon coach, where his impressive young charges included Simon Lessing and Tim Don. Clearly he is a man who knows about setting priorities. "The first part of training athletes is training to train," he says. "Teaching them to make a regular slot to train. Then I ask what is the minimum hours they can work off.

"Last year we chose two youngish people, under 30, plus two 40- to 45-year-olds. Their aim was to qualify for the World Age Group Championships and improve their previous performance."

In terms of that stated aim, the inaugural Academy was an unequivocal success, as all four qualified for the championships in Lausanne.

"My job, this year and last, was to tune into the level of the individual and get the best from them," Black says. "They were all highly motivated, but the younger ones had more time. Their results show that it's possible to improve performance by having better, structured training that suits an athlete's lifestyle.

"The hat that fits you will not fit someone else; the training principles remain the same, but the volume and intensity will vary."

The physical side of triathlon is obviously in safe hands, but additional support comes in an area considered increasingly important for the modern athlete: mental preparation. Midgie Thompson is a secretive but reassuring figure. A softly spoken Canadian, she casually drops into the conversation the fact that for 10 years she was a spy for the Canadian government. It is a former career that will help her deal with the mind games involved in top-level sport, and being able to talk about "the spy who coached me" has a certain cachet for her clients.

"I've talked to marathon runners and triathletes and asked them what proportion of their effort is physical and how much is mental," she says. "Surprisingly, they say that 80 per cent is mental and 20 per cent is physical. I'm not saying you should spend [only] 20 per cent of the time in physical training, but it shows the importance of mental preparation."

What sort of improvements can triathletes expect with expert mental support? "I don't look at it in terms of percentages," she says. "I look at it in terms of qualities rather than quantities. I'm not saying you will shave five minutes off your time, I teach people to have more confidence and ultimately more satisfaction. There are simple techniques you can use to get into the flow more easily, and to deal with distractions and your 'internal dialogue' during the race."

Nutritional advice comes from Dr Ralph Rogers, the UK representative of Herbalife's global nutrition advisory board. He is a black belt in jujitsu and a research fellow at the School of Sport, Performing Arts and Leisure at the University of Wolverhampton. He was also medical advisor to the Trinidad & Tobago World Cup 2006 football team.

"Diet significantly affects sport and exercise performance," he says. "Appropriate and well-balanced training is wasted without sound nutritional support. Triathlon requires a well- thought-out nutritional and training programme."

Of the 2007 members drinking from this diverse fountain of wisdom, Vile is a talented sportswoman who has overcome challenges that would have floored most other mortals. "My first triathlon was London [2006] and I abso-lutely loved it," she recalls. "When I found out I'd been accepted into the Academy I was elated - like a child at Christmas. Since I was 19 I've had ME. I had to take five years off from university [studying French and philosophy at Oxford]. I had a massive relapse in 2005, got better and decided to compete in London in 2006, raising £2,000 for the ME Association.

"I want to find a way to train so I don't burn myself out, and I'm looking forward to having a proper training schedule. It's really exciting healthwise, over and above the triathlon.

"I haven't set myself specific goals - I find it can be quite limiting to focus on that. I want to get better. However better I get, so be it."

To a man and a woman, everyone I spoke to was positive and enthusiastic, and I began to feel that familiar competitive twitch in my legs as I thought of this year's race. Then I received an email. I had been accepted into the Journalists' Academy, which is running alongside the official one.

Already I'm nervous, having perhaps exaggerated my athletic capabilities along the way. Will I let everyone down? What do I do if anyone sniggers at me in my running kit? How are my family going to feel about me disappearing on extra training runs? Will I make a complete fool of myself this year? I'll keep you posted.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

Further information:

Follow the progress of the Academy students at thelondontriathlon.com/ TriathlonAcademy.

Entries for the 2007 Michelob Ultra London Triathlon close on 31 January. To apply: thelondontriathlon.com. Entrants can also apply for the 2008 Academy. Bill Black (black.billy@btinternet.com) and Midgie Thompson (brightfuturescoaching.com) offer private coaching.

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