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The unique physical challenge of triathlon’s ‘sadistic’ Arena Games

It may be short but it can be brutal too - Super League's lead physio Geoff Twinning on a test like no other

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“I don’t know if it was just because it was early in the year but I think it was some of the most pain I went through in 2021. But I’m looking forward to going back there in a weird, sick way.”

When we heard Alex Yee – who went on to win Olympic gold and silver – describe the Arena Games in that way, we had to find out more.

Yee is indeed back in action in the 2022 opener in Munich on Saturday, when he’ll again be up against Marten Van Riel, a two-time winner from last year. That pair also had some thrilling Super League battles in 2021, with Yee just emerging triumphant in a sensational sprint finish in Malibu.

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‘A little bit sadistic’

It appears Van Riel, who started his year with an emphatic win at IRONMAN 70.3 Dubai, is of the same mindset when it comes to short format vs middle / long distance.

Speaking to Super League Triathlon, Van Riel explained: “I have to say the Arena Games is maybe a little bit sadistic. I think it is the hardest thing I have ever done.

“Running on the self-powered treadmill is incredibly hard, especially after you have swum and biked already. It is maybe the most painful race I have ever done.”

Who better to explain the demands that duo and the other athletes will be facing this weekend than Super League’s lead physio Geoff Twinning

Twinning has worked at both Olympic and Commonwealth Games as well as within athletics, hockey, horse racing and tennis.

But it’s triathlon in which he has competed himself [as a Team GB Age Group Athlete racing at multiple World Championships including Auckland, London, Edmonton, Chicago and Geneva], so the SLT role is a dream job.

‘Cat among the pigeons’

Speaking to TRI247, he says of both the Arena Games and Super League: “The intensity is pretty much full on the whole way through. It massively magnifies even what they do at the Olympic distance, let alone 70.3 and upwards.”

While not diminishing in any way the demands of the Olympic distance used in the WTCS events, Twinning points out: “Most of the athletes will be swimming in a pack. And on the bike the guys at the front will drive it and you can sometimes just sit in and not work as hard – and then it’s all down to the run.

“So in some of the World Series events, there’ll be athletes there who you never see until the end because they’ll tactfully draft on the swim and on the bike to save energy, and then they’re hoping for their run to be able to take places and finish high up. There is no such choice in Super League!

“So it has changed the balance of the athlete compared to what you’ll see in World Series. There’s some great guys coming through who you may not see in a World Series event so, yeah, it’s definitely put the cat amongst the pigeons, I would say.”

Different demands

And an added factor is the mixing of the format. On Saturday at the Arena Games, the second stage of the finals will be run / bike / swim which throws up an altogether different challenge.

Twinning explains: “Your heart rate’s through the roof already from the run and bike. And then suddenly you’re asking your body to put all the blood from its legs into your arms.

“It works a very different energy system in terms of your real high-end anaerobic system, that’s going to produce a lot of lactic acid, which is toxic for your muscle, so will cause a lot of muscle soreness. So recovering and being able to go again does prove how good these guys are because there’s virtually no time between each race.”

The indoor dynamic – or more specifically the equipment used – shouldn’t be underestimated either, says Twinning.

Sophie Coldwell on teadmill at Arena Games London 2021 copyright Super League Triathlon
(copyright Super League Triathlon).

“The treadmills [self-powered and curved] are a difficult beast – it’s a lot different than running on a normal treadmill because you have to generate the force. That comes largely from your hamstrings so if someone’s not a hamstring-dominant runner, they may find that a lot harder.

“If they’re more of a quads runner, they’ll find that difficult to drag the machine to get the speed up.

“And then similarly, on the bike [using Tacx NEO 2T smart trainers], the momentum is not there. So if you are a strong quad-dominant rider, you’ll put out more watts and go faster than someone who’s maybe more of a technical biker .

“There are other factors too – many of these guys don’t do a lot of racing in the pool, where you can make a significant impact on the turns. If you’re savvy there you know that’s where you can make gains.

“The demands in all three disciplines are very different to outside and you really need to practice. The transitions are critical too, especially with such fine margins. As I said it’s full on from start to finish!

“But I think that’s great for those watching and you’re also really able to compare it to your own performances and metrics with the data that’s on display. You can try to replicate it at home or in the gym – it’s measurable how you compare to these incredible athletes.”

Jonathan Turner
Written by
Jonathan Turner
Jonathan Turner is News Director for both TRI247 and RUN247, and is accustomed to big-name interviews, breaking news stories and providing unrivalled coverage for endurance sports.  
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