Dr Richard Ma - A GP turned triathlete

If you can swim 400m, ride a bike and run, you too can be a triathlete, writes Dr Richard Ma.

I had always thought triathlons were for the fitness-mad, Lycra-clad gym bunnies you see on television, swimming, cycling and running with pained expressions on their face. It really did not seem to fit in with my philosophy of enjoyment. That was four years ago.

I used to work with a doctor who was keen on sports medicine and she entered a triathlon competition. She reassured me the mini-triathlon she was racing in comprised a 750m pool-based swim, a 20km bike ride and a 5km run.

That didn't sound too bad, I thought. I already swam regularly and cycled everywhere, although I absolutely hated running.

To get started, I bought triathlon-dedicated magazines which gave great tips on training and managing 'transitions'. There is usually some pseudo-scientific nutrition and sports guru giving you advice which reads like the tabloid health pages.

I found a six-week 'From Zero to Hero' training schedule which involved up to 30 minutes running, swimming, or one hour of cycling a day with two rest days a week. I didn't really stick to this because as a GP, I simply didn't have the time.

To fit everything in, it was more efficient to do two disciplines a day: for example, a run or bike ride followed by a short swimming session. I would often spend one to two hours training in the middle or end of the day, three times a week, which was just enough not to take over my life. It was a welcome break from sitting down all day and gave me the discipline to leave work so that I got to the pool before it shut and returned home at a reasonable time for dinner.

I am a decent swimmer and cyclist, but I absolutely hate running as I am slow. I am still terrible at it: read my running woes and despair on my Twitter timeline.

Kit requirements and costs

The events themselves cost from £45 to £90, depending on where they are held. You may need to spend more if you have to drive and stay overnight in a hotel. The only bit of fancy kit I bought was a road bike.

My first ever triathlon sprint distance event was based in a leisure centre in a Derbyshire village and comprised a 400m pool swim, 20km bike ride in the countryside and 5km run. The Olympic distance is typically 1.5km/40km/10km but Ironman is hardcore and includes a marathon.

My other half and I stayed in a nearby hotel and made a weekend of it. Thankfully, it was a nice sunny day; I finished in one hour, 22 minutes and was very pleased.

Open-water swimming

I dreaded my first open-water swim event as I cannot tread water; it took place on a cold day in an uninviting, murky lake, followed by a hilly bike ride. I also raced in Dorney Lake when it was cold and poured with rain.

I used London's Hyde Park lido and Hampstead ponds to get used to swimming in a wetsuit. The suit cost me £220 but you can hire one for the season. It takes getting used to, particularly as it is meant to be a little tight around the chest and makes you feel like you are having an asthma or panic attack; not a very nice feeling combined with hyperventilation on suddenly entering cold water, but the wetsuit gives you a surprising amount of buoyancy.

In contrast, my most satisfying event was the London Triathlon.

We swam in Royal Victoria Docks. It was a sunny day and a great atmosphere all round. The water was warm and tasted a little salty, but I didn't get diarrhoea.

If you can swim 400m, ride a bike and run, you can be a triathlete. You can spend as much or as little time as you wish for training; for example, 30 minutes to an hour a few times a week - exactly what we preach to our patients regarding physical activity.

There are plenty of competitions around the country; competitors range from novices to veterans. I did my first event in my late 30s.

I am now proud to be a fully fledged amateur triathlete and have also joined the ranks of Middle Aged Men In Lycra (#MAMIL).

  • Dr Ma is a GP in north London.

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