XTERRA Couch to Trail – New to XTERRA?


By Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance, 5x Age Group XTERRA World Champ

Do you love triathlon but want to do something more epic?  Something that challenges you both physically and mentally?  Something that takes you off the roads and into the trees?  Something that inspires you, and tests your limits?  Then come do something extraordinary–step outside the box and do an XTERRA!  But How?  Where?  Why?

The brand new XTERRA Couch to Trail program is designed to help first-timers get into the sport.  We’ll start by answering some of the first questions that come to most beginners’ minds, and we’ll evolve from there. Every other week Next Level Endurance and XTERRA will share ideas just for beginners in the Couch to Trail column, and on alternating weeks the Middaugh Coaching Corner column will delve into training ideologies and specifics.  Next Level Endurance will also provide a 12-week training program that will get you off that couch and into the woods and will end with you at the starting line of an XTERRA race.

First, some of the basics…

Q: I know XTERRA combines swimming, mountain biking, and trail running, but what are the distances?
A:  It varies.  The shortest XTERRA race, our “Xticer” super-sprint race, combines a 200-meter swim with a 10K (6.2-mile) mountain bike ride and a 2K (1.25-mile) trail run.  Our standard championship distance combines a 1.5K swim (1-mile) with a 30K Mtb (18.6-mile) and 10K (6.2-mile) trail run. You will find these at Oak Mountain, Beaver Creek, Utah and Maui (and other championship races throughout the world).

The majority of the America Tour point series races are a bit shorter and usually feature a 1K swim (roughly 1/2 mile) with a 20ishK MTB (12-14 miles) and anywhere between a 7 and 10K run (4-6 miles).  Some races also feature sprint races that are half those distances.  That’s the unique things about XTERRA.  Each venue offers vastly different terrain and thus different race distances.  No two races are alike!

Q: In what bodies of water are the swims generally done?
A: There are XTERRA races with swims in oceans, lakes, and rivers.  I would have to say the majority of our swims are done in lakes.

Q: Are there separate events for people of different skill levels?
A: It depends on the race.  Some races offer a point series race AND a sprint race. Some races offer different wave starts (competitor vs. survivor), while others have one “mass” start where everyone goes off together.  Most, however, have the men starting first, followed by the women a few minutes later.

Q: What conditions would the weather have to be like for the swim to get canceled?
A: Safety is always first, there are a number of scenario’s that can cancel a swim – unhealthy water, freezing water, high water – but it doesn’t happen very often.  In 20 years of XTERRA, there have only been a few notable cancellations. Lightning might delay a race as well, but if the weather clears within a certain amount of time, the race will happen.

Q: What should I do in order to prepare my body? How does the training differ?
A: This is a question we get asked a lot from people who are just starting out in the world of triathlon.  There aren’t that many differences between training for a road triathlon and training for an XTERRA.  The main difference is the biking is now on a mountain bike and the riding is on trails, not roads. The run is also on trails, not the road.  With that said, it is very important to train as much as possible on the mountain bike.  There is no other way to gain the confidence one needs to tackle the different types of terrain.  Some mountain bike trails can be quite technical (tight and twisty, plenty of roots and rocks, lots of uphills and quick descents) and the only way to become confident is to practice, practice and practice. The first couple of times on a mountain bike you should focus not on aerobic drills but on how to safely brake, how to shift and how to find your balance.  The body is a finely tuned machine, and if you don’t take great care of it, it won’t perform optimally.  If you’ve decided to take the plunge and do your first XTERRA, you’re going to have to devote time and energy into training and buy some equipment.

Q: Is it better to train in groups or as an individual?
A: This is a very personal decision.  If you are a person that enjoys group training in general, then by all means, train in groups. Many people agree that group training can make you faster by pushing you to go harder.  For beginner mountain bikers, it is definitely recommended to go out with an experienced mountain biker–one who can teach you skills and help boost your confidence.  Group training is by no means necessary however.  Some people tend to do all of their bike and run training solo. They like this because the workouts are tailored to them specifically and they can do them according to their schedule.

Q: Where do you suggest I start?
A: To be successful at anything you need a PLAN.  Tackling any new sport can be daunting, but tackling three at one time may seem simply overwhelming!  It’s best to not dive in head first and do too much training too quickly or find yourself screaming down a descent at break neck speed the first time on your bike; both are recipes for injury and we don’t want you sidelined before your first XTERRA.  A great place to start is to partner up with a coach and possibly a training group for social and technical support.  There are many places to find a coach (someone that specializes in off-road triathlon is best, but not necessary).  PRS Fit has off-road coaches and has also devised a 12-week plan that is perfect for the beginner and will get you to the starting line injury free and ready to rock and roll.  If you do find a coach and/or club, just ensure that one or both are certified and have sport-specific knowledge.

Q: Is the XTERRA community more social rather than competitive?
A: YES! That’s XTERRA!  This community is very welcoming, and while the racing is competitive the people are widely referred to as the nicest and most laid back in all of triathlon.

Q: What is the hardest leg of the Triathlon?
A: This is different for each person.  Some start doing triathlons after a swimming or running career.  Others have spent significant time bike racing before they start triathlon.  Then, there are some that have experience in all three sports, or some that have no experience at all.  Many might say the hardest leg for them is swimming.  Thank goodness it’s the shortest leg of the race! However, I do think the majority would concur that the mountain bike portion of any race is usually the hardest just by virtue of it being the longest.  Then again, if you hate to run, you might beg to differ and argue that running 4-6 miles on trails after biking is the hardest part.

Q: How prepared do I need to be for terrain obstacles?
A: Since each course is different, you need to be prepared to face anything and everything.  Feeling comfortable tackling obstacles is essential to making yourself feel confident on race day.  There is no other way to gain this confidence than by practicing biking and running on as many different trails as possible.  Of course, it’s great to do long endurance rides on a road bike or trainer, but nothing beats riding a mountain bike off-road to get you ready for race day.  It’s not conducive to try and compare road biking with mountain biking.  The latter requires so much more athleticism, power, momentum and coordination. Again, the only way to feel comfortable and confident on a mountain bike is to practice, practice, practice (I think you get the picture now!).

Q: How much money do I need to get started?
A: There’s no doubt about it, triathlon is an expensive sport and hobby.  How much money you spend really varies.  Certain things are required of course, but how much you spend on those required items is entirely up to you.  A mountain bike is required and is going to be the most costly item. And perhaps a wetsuit.  If you are just starting out, it is recommended that you test ride various bikes to see if you want to go with a full suspension or hardtail.  One option is to buy a used bike or borrow one from a friend.  There are plenty of great used bikes on the market.  We will go into more detail about the gear required in Couch to XTERRA Part 2: The Gear You Need.

Q: Is there a season for this?
A: Year-round!  There may be two-feet of snow on the East Coast right now, but it’s summertime in South Africa so their season is in full swing.  The sport is more conducive to warmer weather, but there are XTERRA races all over the world now.  But in the United States, the season typically runs from April through the end of October.

Q: Is there an off season? Or should I plan to train all year long?
A: There is an off season and most people would consider it to be November and December.  It’s a good idea to take a physical and mental break during these months to recharge and focus on something other than swimming, biking and running.  I think you’ll find that when you start training again in January, your body and mind will thank you for the much needed time off.

Q: What are average times I should shoot for?
A: Since each race is different and the weather can change the trails overnight (and thus the times) it’s very difficult to talk about averages.  Just getting to the start line on time, healthy and happy is a great goal.  Finishing your first XTERRA is the first step to master, and is a super rewarding feeling when you’re just getting started!  You can start worrying about times after you become a seasoned XTERRA Warrior!

Look for Part 2 of the Couch to XTERRA tips in two weeks.

The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by SheriAnne Little and five-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance. Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA.