PE teacher Ben Parnell helping UAE Triathlon scene flourish

Triathlon

In racing, every second counts and Englishman Ben Parnell has the same philosophy when it comes to his lifestyle. Every aspect of his life is geared towards making sure he’s in prime condition to enable him to compete against the world’s elite triathletes. Parnell, who teaches PE at Jebel Ali School, has competed for both the UAE and Team GB but only actually took up the demanding sport seriously in 2012, after moving to Dubai in 2007.

Training, working and coaching is a near-impossible combination but Parnell is not only coping, he’s thriving. “One of the hardest things about being a triathlete rather than playing in other sports is trying to train in three different disciplines whilst fitting in work and time with your family,” says the 33-year-old. “Planning your week correctly is crucial. Often I will leave the house at 5am and won’t get back in until 8pm.”

All the hard work has been paying off for Parnell. In September he competed in the 2016 ITU World Triathlon Grand Final for Team GB after finishing second in a sprint race qualifier in Eton, United Kingdom which involved a 750m swim, 20km bike ride and a 5km run. Parnell owes a lot to his coach Neil Flanagan who has been a role model for him since taking up the sport. “Neil has been great for me because he really helped me with the bike side of triathlons,” adds Parnell. “I needed lots of advice on the bikes like, which bike to get? What’s sort of bike do you need for triathlons etc? Once I got in contact with Neil two years ago we started building slowly towards the sprint triathlons. Neil has represented Great Britain so that made me determined to do that too.”

INTERNATIONAL STAGE

Flanagan’s advice and tuition obviously benefitted Parnell as he qualified to represent his country in Mexico, an experience the teacher will never forget. “This was the biggest race I have ever done and is only the second race I’ve ever been in outside of the UAE.  There was a lot of travelling involved in this race so I arrived a week early to get over jet lag and acclimatise.

“Some of the races in the UAE are huge events like TriYAS and Abu Dhabi ITU, which is the first race of the World Triathlon Series, but this race in Mexico was a different level. There were almost 500 British competitors alone competing in the three different disciplines, so it was overwhelming and something I’ve never been used to before. You look around and see all these super fit athletes with bikes that can be worth around 60,000 dirhams so it was pretty intense. It was quite intimidating but you just have to have some self belief on the day.”

Parnell finished tenth overall out of 70 competitors (age 30-34) which is low for his high standards. However, he was actually the second fastest Brit so there was much to be positive about. “I was a little bit disappointed because you set yourself such high expectations, but reflecting on it now I think I should be really pleased with that result when it’s my first proper World Championship event.”  This result has helped  Parnell to qualify again for next year’s British team which will be a little bit closer to home in Holland so that is fantastic news.

NURTURING THE UAE FUTURE

Parnell now has his sights set on some longer-distance events that are coming up in the UAE like the Half Ironman which is on in Dubai in January. “Last year I did the swim for somebody as part of a relay team. It’s a really cool event with international stars in it like Jan Frodeno, who won it last year. In the race you swim 1.9km, cycle 90km and then run a half marathon at the end. I’m going to have a go at that and see what happens. It’s certainly a bit different from sprinting!”

One of Parnell’s favourite hobbies, aside from competing, is training the next generation of athletes in the UAE and the sport is proving increasingly popular due to top class facilities and pefect weather conditions for nine months of the year in the region.  “I love coaching the juniors. We train five times a week across the three disciplines which means my training takes a bit of a hit but it’s worth it to see their progression.  With the climate we have in Dubai, the racing available and the facilities, it’s ideal. They even have purpose-built cycle tracks so it’s not dangerous to train like it is in most other places around the world. People can generally afford to pay for some of the more pricey equipment out here, too, which is a big bonus for the kids.”

Parnell is optimistic that some of the UAE youngsters could go on to big things if they maintain their dedication and commitment to the sport. “I predict we will see a professional athlete come out of Dubai in the near future. I know some professional triathletes base themselves here. If they want it and they commit the time, they certainly have the talent to go a long way so watch this space.”

The triathlon scene in the UAE has certainly propelled in the last few years with events occurring throughout the year to keep any fitness fanatic happy.

“A good website to use is premieronline.com. If you go on there, they have all the details of all types of upcoming races to keep you busy,” he says. “I also enjoy doing the Desert Warrior and Spartan Warrior obstacle races.”

TIME TO SWIM, PEDAL AND RUN

Due to all triathlon courses having different features and weather conditions, it can be difficult for athletes to monitor their progress. However, there is a series in the UAE which Parnell believes is ideal for doing just that. “Super Sports organise a triathlon series at Mamza Beach Park which takes place in October, January and March. It’s the same course each time so it’s nice if you want to track your progress throughout the season. It’s really tough to try and compare times with other races you have done because two races are never the same. The course and weather conditions are usually different so Mamza is good for that.”

For those put off from giving triathlon a try because of the swimming aspect, the Giant Duathlon Series is  ideal. “I love the swimming part but you find that a lot of athletes do not enjoy the swim so this race is popular because it’s run-bike-run.”

There are undoubtedly plenty of options available for those residing in the UAE and wider Middle East region and want to get involved in the triathlon scene.

Parnell started just before he turned 30 and has proven that you can pick up the sport at any age so give it a shot. Who knows, you could go on to represent your country one day just like him!

Ben’s top triathlon tips

  • Start small.
    Get a flavour for the race and see if you enjoy it because if you don’t, it’s pretty pointless.
  • Swimming tip – Don’t skip the drills.
    Swimming is a common weakness for triathletes but those who start young and concentrate on technique will have a big advantage. Older athletes can also improve by working on technique and skills rather than just focussing on fitness.
  • Bike tip – A bike fitting is worth the money.
    It’s not cheap but there are loads of places that do it. Getting a proper bike fit where they’ll measure you and analyse your body shape will make sure you’re maximising your power output and efficiency. It can also prevent injury because if you’re sat in a poor position you could hurt yourself.
  • Running tip – It’s important to get a balance with your aerobic base.
    You should take some time to do some longer low heart rate running combined with interval training where you are varying your speeds and intensity, as this will help you build a nice, strong aerobic base.