By R. Lorin Inglis
Lake Windermere Aquathlon
If you look up the word aquathlon online, you will likely come across two very distinct definitions of the sport. One refers to an underwater wrestling event created in the former USSR in the 1980s. Outfitted with fins, mask and ankle ribbons, two daring opponents who are comfortable holding their breath underwater descend to the bottom of a pool and grapple for 30 seconds. Aside from the speedo swimwear, this does not conjure up the images of aquathlon most readers are used to. The other, and more commonly known, definition sees aquathlon as an endurance multisport event involving swimming and running. Aquathlon combines the Latin word “aqua” meaning water, to the Greek word “athlon” for a contest. So which definition is correct? With the root words taken to mean “water-contest,” it seems they both are. You can breathe easily – Aquathlon wrestling has not gained much popularity outside of Europe, so no need to double check your event details if you have added an aquathlon to your summer race itinerary. The binding thread of both uses of the word aquathlon is that it conveys the notion of a struggle in the water. Endurance sports are a challenge – and that is perhaps the reason many of us take part in them.
Challenging yourself can come in many different forms. So why register for an aquathlon? Why not stick generally to sports which have names that are easier to pronounce? On a side note, just to clarify, “aquathlon” can be pronounced with or without the “l”. So, if you are announcing to your non-endurance racing friends, who undoubtedly think you are a tad bit strange for wanting to do this type of thing in the first place, that you are doing an aquathlon – rest assured, although it is awkward, you are saying it correctly!
The first compelling reason to compete in aquathlon is the beautiful simplicity of it. Purists of sport love this aspect because it eliminates the need for mechanical assistance and is all about unaided human propulsion. All swimming and running require are a pair of goggles, shoes and a strong heart. This simplicity opens the door for many athletes who may have considered triathlon but were hesitant or unable to commit to purchasing a bicycle. Cycling is a fantastic low impact sport, however, the price tag on some new triathlon bikes has the potential to raise an eyebrow on even the most seasoned enthusiast. Sticking to basics makes aquathlon a great entry point for newcomers to the sport of triathlon.
The joy of participation is not limited to the challenge. Sensation pays a huge part in endurance sports. Arguably no other activity provides more direct access to a transcendent experience than swimming and running. They are without doubt two of the most intense cardiovascular workouts available; whether induced through the body’s chemical processes, or by the psychological rewards generated by the mastery of the will, aquathlon has the potential to exhilarate the senses and reduce stress. Endorphins released by the body’s natural processes will have you feeling fantastic and ready to take on some of life’s other challenges.
Open water is perhaps one of the most challenging areas of outdoor multi-sport. Aquathlon as an endurance sport was born from the lifeguarding competitions of the 1960s. Competitors would dash to the water from the beach and back out again in the format run, swim, run. This was a way to roll fitness and skills development into a fun and exciting afternoon at the beach. This is all great, but aside from the lifeguarding community not all of us are innately comfortable in water where the conditions are variable and, well… open! Stepping into new waters can be intimidating. Depth, currents, temperature, waves and aquatic life can all add to the anxiety of leaving the shore. You may have known a swimming instructor who, upon the mention of open water, shuddered at the thought lest a lake weed should meet with his or her toes. Name a body of water and likely someone has swum in it; from the English Channel to the Southern Ocean in the Antarctic. Although impressive, these are not really great starting out waters! Heading to a calm, relatively warm lake with little or no current and bringing along a well thought out plan is a better place to begin. Overcoming potential fears about open water can give a wonderful feeling of empowerment. Events which include open water are challenging – but it’s important to remember the environment is somewhat controlled. Race directors, when choosing swim locations, consider all the above and have done some of the homework for you. Experienced open water swimmers know that any swim begins with knowledge of the conditions they will encounter such as temperature, currents… (or icebergs, in the case of Antarctic swimmers like Lewis Pugh!) Having a plan, swimming with others and a having the company of an aid boat is all best practices of those who venture into lakes and oceans. Another way to boost confidence is to join a masters swim club or attend an open water swimming clinic in your area.
Assuming you have now put to rest a seemingly lackluster fear of lake weeds touching the feet, you might be thinking this whole swimming in open water thing is a good idea. You are correct. Swimming in open water can be a wonderful experience! In aquathlon, your open water swim is going to be followed by running rather than biking and depending on the format, you may have already run a portion of the race prior to your swim.
The transition from swimming directly to running is a little different than from swim to bike. Cycling does not tax the cardiovascular system as hard as running does. When you exit the water in an aquathlon, it is important to find the pace that works for you and one you can maintain. It’s tempting to want to push at the beginning of the run, as the thrill of the transition can exhilarate you. But it is important to hold back a little bit and find the pace and rhythm which will allow you to have a strong finish and avoid producing too much lactate for your body to deal with. This scenario makes for a very uncomfortable run, so if you’re competitive, sometimes maintaining pace even when being passed by other runners is the mark of mental tenacity. Sticking to what you have trained for is good practice. Of course, there is value in training for adaptability as well.
If you show up to a race expecting to wear a wetsuit and the water temperature doesn’t allow for it, the ability to change the plan and have a good swim with or without a suit is an asset. Likewise, when running, having trained in a diversity of conditions, such as elevation, temperature and wind are going to prepare you for whatever happens on the big day. Taking an open approach to training will produce a more well-rounded athlete!
If you are at the point in the year where you are looking around and thinking about the races you might like to take part in, adding an aquathlon onto the roster is a great idea. Triathletes starting out with their first race will find value in this easily accessible yet challenging format. Old pros with years of starts will appreciate the new challenge and opportunity for diversified competition.
Aquathlon as an endurance sport, rather than underwater wrestling, is widely known today in its various adaptations of distance, format, and venue. There is something for everyone.
This year is an exciting time to be involved with aquathlon. The Lake Windermere Aquathlon Society will be hosting a unique event this year, combining open water swimming in one of B.C.’s most pristine lakes, with a trail run through the wooded hills of the Columbia Valley. This unique event also offers a trail-run-only option, kids race and relay. In addition, this event will be offering one male and one female qualifying spot (aquathlon long course only), in each age group, to represent Canada at the 2020 ITU World Multisport Championships. Early bird pricing for this event lasts until April 30th!
Aquathlon is one of the most challenging sports in the world and great a measure of cardiovascular health. Getting out into open water, enjoying the road, trails, sun, and fresh air make this a great choice for anyone looking to connect with nature.
Challenge yourself this year! The Lake Windermere Aquathlon happens August 3rd and 4th. For more details, see www.lakewindaqua.com.