AS A world-renowned physical therapist Gerard Hartmann knows a thing or two about getting top athletes ready for major events. He has treated Sonia O'Sullivan throughout her illustrious career, helped Kelly Holmes to her double gold medal success in Athens last summer and Paula Radcliffe to her world championship marathon success 10 days ago in Helsinki.
More than 49 Olympic medal winners and 34 world champions in a multitude of events have either visited his clinic in Limerick, or gained the benefit of his healing hands at the world's major training bases and championships.
He's also the go-to guy when it comes to Triathlon, having won seven national titles between 1984-91, placing 14th in the 1986 world championships and fourth in the Europeans the following year.
Which is why he is the perfect sounding board as D-Day approaches for the fourth annual Musgrave SuperValu-Centra (MSVC) Triathlon. Supported by the Irish Examiner, the triathlon, which takes place in Farran Woods in Cork on Saturday, September 3, in aid of Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin and the Irish Cancer Society.
More than 1,500 people have participated in the event over the past three years, and organisers hope 700,000 will be raised this year, which would bring the total raised to date to 2m.
Fund-raising aside, Hartmann understands all the joys and pain that triathlon competition brings, and not just from having competed at the elite level of the sport.
Two years ago, at the age of 42, he competed in his first triathlon for 12 years since an horrific cycling accident ended his competitive career.
"There are two levels of triathlon these days," Hartmann said on his return from Helsinki last week. "In Ireland there are maybe a top level of 100 triathletes who are very fit, they are the serious types, the hard core. The others are very recreational, people who take up the event as a challenge. There's been a huge increase in participation in recent years, and a lot of those people have come from a non-sporting background. I've seen guys take up the triathlon who are 16 or 17 stones, so with very little or no formal sports training and in a very poor cardiovascular condition. But they are able to do the event, I think, because the three separate disciplines break up the cardiovascular impact, particularly in a shorter event like the Musgrave Triathlon in Cork.
"The shorter distances mean you can still finish by jogging and walking the final section, so it's actually easier than competing in a marathon.
"In fact, there are guys I know who compete in both, and they recover from an Ironman event much quicker than they do from a marathon. They are not pushing as much because of the nature of the three events and so it is much more low-end, aerobically."
Hartmann's comeback triathlon in 2003 was the world-famous Hawaii Ironman event, a gut-wrenching, heart-bursting examination of the human condition that involves a 2.4 mile ocean swim, 112-mile cycle road race and full marathon run over 26.2 miles. Yet he fully understands that much shorter events, including the Musgrave Triathlon an 800m swim, 33km cycle and 10km run can become an equally fulfilling experience for every entrant that completes the course in Farran Woods.
"Being in the middle of the pack in Hawaii at the age of 42 gave me a real appreciation of recreational triathletes, building myself back up through the cogs to get there. Often the people that jump in the air and shout at the end of a triathlon are the ones who finish in the middle of the field or even at the tail end. They are the ones who, in a way, are more successful and certainly more fulfilled.
"First of all the sense of achievement of completing any triathlon is very special. Just the word 'Triathlon' conjures up toughness. It's out there, with a perception of being a hard event, and when someone enters one for the first time, having maybe been two or three stones overweight two years previously, then it is a huge challenge and achievement. Maybe someone has had to juggle a professional life or family life and come from a poor fitness background. Maybe a mother has had to fit in her two swims a week around her kids going to school. For all these types of people competing in a triathlon is their Everest."
He says swimming training should always be done in groups and wet-suits should be worn for buoyancy. But his chief concern is on the bike.
"We often say that the triathlon can become an obsession you can lose your job, your wife and even your life.
"I've known six people killed off their bikes, and if people turn up for a training ride with me without a helmet on I tell them I won't go with them.
"Accidents happen, and the more you are out there the more chance there is of something happening. People in cars don't see you on a bike and there is a risk involved.
"I always wear red, neon red and I don't like neon, but safety is paramount. Those neon colours are easily picked up. Whatever you do never wear dark colours."
Do not let any of this put you off the triathlon, these are merely tips to make the event and your preparations for it even safer and more enjoyable. The triathlon should, after all, be very enjoyable indeed.
"The biggest aspect I have seen from the shorter triathlons," Hartmann says, "is the fun and camaraderie, the social aspect of it.
"I started the Kilkee Triathlon in 1985 in Co. Clare where I was born, and when I go up there I see groups of them going into the water to train and then I'll maybe drive past later and they'll all be eating together. It's a great way for the participants to gel. From a social viewpoint it's far more accessible than a pure running event."
Have the right tools for the job
THERE are some matters on which triathletes simply cannot cut corners, says Gerard Hartmann, and having the right equipment is one of them.
"We joke about the 'tri geeks' with all their equipment," he says, "and it is an event which is very attractive and it is part of the attraction. It can be a little addictive but technology is a big factor. Decent gear can take minutes off your time and give you extra safety."
Of course, three disciplines means three sets of gear and for the cold waters of Ireland, Hartmann recommends a wet-suit. "They are allowed at lower temperatures and can protect you against the dangers of hypothermia when you change over onto the bike.
The other essential on the swim is goggles. "My first ever triathlon was in Kinsale in 1984 and I didn't have a clue. I had no goggles and all the salt in the water and the sun meant I couldn't see where I was going. I got lost between the yachts and it lost me about 4.5 minutes on my time."
The biggest investment you will have to make is in a bike, says Hartmann. "I see recreational triathletes riding bikes 3-5 lbs lighter than ones we rode in the Hawaii Ironman, worth E5,000-6,000. If you're starting out and not sure if triathlon is right for you, then a 12-speed racing bike in a mid-range price will do. Plus, you'll need decent shoes, helmet, spare inner tubes and tyre levers."
Top nutrition tips for triathletes
Tips from nutritionist Emma Brown:
Preparation: Good nutritional health, like fitness, isn't something that occurs overnight. This means plenty of carbohydrate and fibre-rich foods for energy, good lean protein for muscle growth and repair, unsaturated fat for fuel and proper immune function and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day for a strong, healthy immune system.
Rest: After a training, session it is important to let your body mend and recover.
Hydration. Drink about a litre of water before and during a session. After it, use a sports recovery drink.
You should be loading up on carbs the week before the race and eating carb-rich foods the morning of the race with perhaps a banana or two before and during.
Recovery refuel Congratulations, you've done it! But your body still needs to be looked after. Fuel Before: A very individual thing.
Rehydrate and replace lost salts with a sports drink or diluted pineapple juice with a tiny pinch of salt. Eat something small like fruit and yoghurt to refuel within 20 minutes of finishing. Then eat plenty of good, healthy food, preferably within an hour.
SLOW down and take it easy, that's Hartmann's advice for the last few days before the Musgrave Triathlon.
"You cannot get fitter in the last five days before a triathlon, you can only get more tired," he said.
"Most triathletes run up until the day of the race but they would be better easing down six to 10 days beforehand and not running for the final three days.
"Take Paula Radcliffe as an example. Her last training work for the world championship marathon a week last Sunday in Helsinki was a 20-minute jog on the Thursday. That's a three-mile run.
"If you need to do something, go for a light swim, do some stroke drills or something like that. Better still, use the time in the final days sorting out your equipment.
"Check your bike out, practice changing tyres or running repairs and work out your race plan, writing down what you'll need and getting all together."
THE pre-requisite for every triathlete in training is to keep the sequence intact, says Gerard Hartmann.
In other words, the triathlon consists of a swim, followed by a cycle then a run, and that's the way you should train.
"Always keep the sequence," he says. "It's so important.
"Don't go for a run then get on a bike when you're doing back-to-back training.
"Your muscles need to adapt, to get to know what it feels like to swim then cycle then run, why do it the other way round? You increase the chance of seizing up during the race when your body struggles to adapt.
"So even if you only go for a 10-mile hard ride, follow it with a one-mile run," says Hartmann.
"Get to know how it feels changing over, take short strides for the first half-mile so you adjust and get the muscles working in that new way.
"Always keep the sequence."