Jo Lewis


28th March 2014

Alex Gray on the rise and rise of Triathlon

According to the British Triathlon Federation, this multi-sport – consisting of swimming, followed by cycling, followed by running – is one of the fastest growing in the UK. Membership of the Federation has almost tripled since 2004, and there are over 500 affiliated clubs in England and Wales, welcoming a huge number of new members every year. Around 900 events were held in 2012 alone. What’s all the fuss about?

Well, for a start, apparently anyone can do it. Zoe Wheeler is a working mum of two who, in 2013, completed her first ever triathlon. Zoe had been pretty active in her youth, but following the birth of her two sons had put on weight that she was keen to shift. When it came to exercise, though, she was stumped. Her husband worked long hours, making evening classes out of the question, and because Zoe doesn’t like exercising inside, becoming a gym bunny wasn’t really an option either. However, after completing the MoonWalk (the nocturnal walking marathon to raise money and awareness of breast cancer), Zoe had hit upon something that just might work for her: working towards an achievable goal, with training in the outdoors. Step forward the triathlon.

It’s a relatively new sport – the first ever triathlon in the UK took place in Reading, Berkshire in 1983 – and it’s even newer to the limelight, not becoming an Olympic sport until 2000. For the Olympics it consists of a 1500m swim, followed by a 40km bike ride, followed by a 10km run. At this elite level triathletes are professionals who compete internationally – UK brothers Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee took home gold and bronze respectively at London 2012. Age group triathletes, however, are non-professionals, and they can compete at an international and domestic level in their own age category (age categories cover a five-year band). Once seen as a punishing endurance sport, the triathlon now encompasses various distances, and this may well be the key to its growing popularity.

The shortest of all is the super-sprint, encompassing a 400m swim, a 10km bike and 2.5km run, which is what Zoe worked her way towards. “When I started training I could swim 400m but I hadn’t ridden a bike for ten years and I definitely couldn’t run 5k,” she says. “But I could work my way up to each one of those things independently, in a time frame that suited me.” At 38, Zoe is in the demographic most likely to join the sport: 35 to 50 year olds. She set herself the goal of finishing the triathlon in under 1 hour 15 minutes, and along the way achieved a pretty impressive weight loss: three and a half stones and counting. And that’s the point – the triathlon has shed the last vestiges of its hard-core image to become a hugely enjoyable way of keeping fit, losing weight and achieving goals – it has reached the masses. “I also like it because it’s a full body workout,” adds Zoe. “You’re training across three disciplines, so the likelihood of injury is less than, say, pounding the streets for a marathon.”

It’s also an incredibly welcoming ‘club’. Maggie Rolfe had been a triathlete up until her 40s but, after a prolonged period away from the sport, was unsure whether she could compete again. Now aged 62, she has found her return a hugely positive experience: “No matter what age or ability you are, everyone is welcoming and encouraging. It doesn’t matter how slowly you do it, you’re still out there and trying,” she says. She enlisted the help of GB Triathlon athlete and coach Jo Lewis, in particular to improve her open-water swimming confidence, and in 2013, completed four triathlons successfully. “It’s all embracing, that’s what I like about triathlon,” says Jo, who, while still competing internationally, set up Tri50, a club based in Bucks specifically for coaching over 50s, another demographic showing interest in the sport. “There’s a distance that anyone can generally handle,” says Jo. “In the over 50 age group people have finished their family responsibilities and they’re looking for a new challenge. There’s also a huge social element, it’s a great way of meeting people.”

“I thought I would come last,” laughs Zoe of her race, “and in a way that was part of the challenge – all I wanted to do was get round, but I did it in just over an hour. My boys were there at the end saying ‘go on, Mummy’. And that’s the other thing, you tell your kids all the time you’ve got to try your best, but I wasn’t telling them – I was showing them.”

“I feel so lucky that at my age I can still go out and do it,’ says Maggie. “I love the fact that no two events are the same: swims may be in pools or open water; bike rides can go through towns, villages or countryside; runs can be on or off road or a mixture, and the locations are often spectacular.”

“I’d love to see more adults taking up the sport,” concludes Jo. “Especially those people who don’t think they can do it, because there is so much satisfaction and reward. And it’s not just the physical benefits,” she asserts, “it’s the psychological benefits as well. You’re more positive, you’re more confident in your everyday life, and there’s a general sense of well-being because you’re leading a healthier lifestyle. It has made my life for the last 15 years, and hopefully at least the next ten.”

Zoe's Tri Tips

• Don't be afraid of it, do it!
• You can start off really small
• Find a coach to get some expert advice, not only on training but other things like the transition from swim to bike or how to cope with open-water swimming

Jo's Tri Tips

• Get a coach or join a triathlon club to help motivate you and give you knowledgeable advice
• Ensure that you also get nutritional advice
• Avoid over-training and get plenty of rest!
• Combine your training with core strength training (eg yoga, Pilates)
• Learn to listen to your body: if you’re tired one day, do the training the next day

Maggie's Tri Tips

• Try to make the time to stretch properly
• See if you can find people to train with. As well as tri clubs, there are plenty of clubs around for each individual discipline
• If you’re starting out and need a bike, find one you feel happy on – you’ll see people on all sorts of bike; they’re not all the expensive road racers.

Useful websites

British Triathlon Federation:

Jo's Tri50 Club:

Watford Running Sisters:

Just Racing:

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