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6 tips for taking on an Xtreme triathlon from a PATAGONMAN champion

Extreme triathlon takes the challenge of the sport to a whole new level. After her win at PATAGONMAN, pro IRONMAN triathlete Laura Siddall shares some insights to help would-be Xtreme tri competitors on their way to the start line.

Writer & Long Course Triathlete
Last updated -

Sometimes referred to as the triathlon equivalent of ultra-running, extreme triathlons such as Patagonman and Norseman have captured the imagination – and training focus – of many would-be triathlon adventurers. These races take the challenge of a long distance triathlon to new heights: creating a day of raw swim-bike-run that’s more about battling the elements and your limits, than it is about racing against a clock.

‘Xtreme’ triathlon is an adventure. A reckoning. A race where crossing the finish line at all is never a given. And while these races, with their icy cold swims and challenging terrain might sound like they’re only for the truly hardcore. Each year thousands of people enter lottery ballots for a few hundred slots at these events, seeking to be part of the unique extreme triathlon experience.

If you’re a seasoned triathlete looking for a next-level challenge, you might be wondering how to prepare for an extreme triathlon. After her win at Patagonman 2023, we share some top tips from professional long distance triathlete Laura Siddall for taking on an extreme triathlon.

Shift your mindset away from traditional IRONMAN racing

“Detach your mindset from that traditional IRONMAN type of race,” says Laura. Taking on an extreme triathlon calls for a shift in your mentality. This isn’t about ticking off the distances as quickly as possible. And Laura says if that’s your focus, you’re missing out on the point of this type of racing. During your preparation and on race day, remember that it’s about the location, the scenery and all the challenges you’ll face out on the course. It’s not just about getting a time. “It’s about the raw swim, bike and run. People in IRONMAN races are just looking to go faster and faster. This isn’t about that.”

Laura Siddall cold water swim training in Patagonia to prepare for Patagonman.
Embracing an extreme triathlon as an adventure, rather than a race, is a key part of the experience.

On her decision to race Patagonman, Laura described it as an opportunity to have an adventure and do something different. Shifting your mentality will help you in the build-up, and to get the most out of the race itself.

Train for the terrain and the conditions

Most extreme triathlons will see athletes taking on icy cold waters in the swim, vast amounts of elevation on the bike – often with gravel sections – and steep off-road courses on the run. If you’ve been used to racing on smooth tarmac and even surfaces, it’s important to adjust your training to get used to the terrain you’ll be racing on.

Discussing her build up to Patagonman, Laura said her training became much more about spending time on the trails exploring. Bike rides involved getting out into the mountains of Colorado. Run training was less about the typical speedwork sessions on the flat and involved more time out on the trails near Boulder. Laura also took advantage of some cold water swimming to get used to wearing a thermal wetsuit, hood and boots.

Manage your body temperature carefully

A lot of these extreme races feature a cold water swim and bike/run courses going up to altitude. Add in weather conditions that can range from howling gales to wintery showers at the turn of a pedal and that means for this type of racing managing your body temperature is a key factor.

If the race allows, then investing in a good thermal wetsuit, boots and hood is well worth it. Laura also planned ahead and had a full kit change in T1 at Patagonman so she didn’t have to start the bike already wet and cold. If you’re racing in particularly cold temperatures, a great tip from Laura is to have hot water in your first bottle on the bike. This will help to bring your body temperature back up after the swim.

Patagonman extreme triathlon swim start
The iconic swim start at Patagonman sees athletes jumping from a ferry into cold water. [Photo credit: Patagonman]

You’re also likely to encounter a huge amount of climbing on the bike, which can make it tempting to take off layers of clothing. But if there’s a long descent, you could get cold really quickly. At Patagonman, Laura kept all of her layers on during the climbing: “those who’d stripped down to just short sleeves or gilets were absolutely frozen when they arrived into T2.”

Finally, for races such as Patagonman and Norseman where you start aboard a ferry – plan ahead for how you’re going to stay warm while you’re on the boat. You’ll be in your wetsuit, but you could quite easily get very cold before you’ve even started. Laura took a space blanket and slippers with her on the boat so she could stay as warm as possible.

Get used to being self-sufficient

This is not your typical Iron-distance race, says Laura. “You’ve haven’t got loads of aid stations to rely on, and it’s not like a regular race situation where you’re rarely very far away from other people and support if you need it. You need to be self-sufficient.”

Having a plan for all scenarios is key. At Patagonman, Laura found herself going hours without seeing another person. That experience of being on your own, surrounded by incredible scenery is part of what makes these extreme races so unique. But it also means you can’t rely on aid stations or roaming bike mechanics. Carefully plan what kit, nutrition and tools you’ll need to carry – taking into account the various scenarios you might encounter. Make sure your support crew has everything you might need. And remember that the courses might not be signposted like they would be in a regular race due to the remote locations – so download the GPS file onto your bike computer/watch. 

Your extreme triathlon support crew should be a well-oiled machine

Most extreme triathlon events require participants to have at least one person to act as a support crew. Bear in mind that during the race you’re going to be pushing yourself to your physical and mental limits. So you need to plan and prepare with your support crew ahead of time exactly what you’ll need and the best places for them to stop out on the course. This is particularly key if you’re roping in a partner, family-member or a friend who doesn’t have much triathlon experience. Make sure both you and your support crew are aware of the specific event rules about how much support they can give you.

Make the most of the experience

An extreme triathlon isn’t about the finish time, or how fast you can complete each discipline. It’s about the experience. Embrace the day as an adventure.

“Beyond the physical fitness, a lot of this race is about being able to be present enough to make decisions when you need to,” says Laura. Let go of chasing a finish time and instead focus on what you need to do in each moment to tackle what the day is throwing at you. Being able to manage your energy expenditure and make smart decisions will help you in the latter stages of the event.

Pro IRONMAN triathlete Laura Siddall riding a TT bike in Patagonia, training for Patagonman Xtreme Triathlon
Incredible courses and scenery are the reward for taking on an extreme triathlon challenge.

“[At Patagonman] I turned 360 degrees in the water to look back at the boat. I was presented with this iconic image of the opening of the boat, and the athletes jumping into the water. The sky had cleared, and the sun had just started to rise. I could see the stars, and the mountains behind the boat. The first light of the sun was just starting to hit the whites of the snow caps – giving them this pinkish glow. That was all I needed to see. It was such a magical image, that will be in my head forever. After that I kind of felt like it didn’t matter what happened from then on.”

It’s also important to remember that the event you’re participating in is a unique experience. Take the time to appreciate and absorb the landscapes you’re traversing.

Looking for more extreme triathlon inspiration? Read our full interview with Laura Siddall to get her insights into what it was like to take on the Patagonman Xtreme Triathlon.

Jenny Lucas-Hill
Written by
Jenny Lucas-Hill
Jenny Lucas-Hill is a writer, content creator and communications professional. A long-distance triathlon enthusiast, she has three full Iron-distance finishes to date & also loves watching the sport.
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