Meet GB AG Triathlete Tej Thaker: A tale of determination, enthusiasm and community

A triathlete and duathlete on the Great British Age Group Team, Tej Thaker is not a fan of half measures. Initially inspired by a poster to give triathlon a whirl, this is a tale of how determination, enthusiasm and community can make your goals a reality.

How did you get involved with triathlon?

I’ve always been quite active. Like many young boys, I loved playing football and dreamt of becoming a professional. From 15, I started playing hockey and was on my school and university teams. After graduating, I wanted to take hockey more seriously, so I joined a local club. Long story short, I injured my wrist playing a social game of football with old friends which put an abrupt stop to my hockey ambitions!

By chance, I saw a poster advertising the London Triathlon in 2011. Along with my brother, we thought we’d give it a go – despite the fact that neither of us could swim. In fact, I had always hated swimming. I was quite a chubby kid and used to be embarrassed to wear my swimming briefs. Despite this, and my injury, we got started, though we were barely able to do 2 lengths at once!

Together we took on our first triathlon – and I have not looked back since.

From being unable to swim to representing Team GB, what would be your advice for people who want to give the sport a try but are holding back due to swim nerves?

Look at another aspect of your life where you have done well and think about where you were at the start of that journey. It could be university, a job, a sport, your family, anything. Nobody starts off great at anything – well, almost nobody. We all have to start somewhere. It can be humbling and it can be difficult, but it will be rewarding.

For most, swimming is the most nerve-wracking part of a triathlon. Take comfort in knowing that most others who have completed a triathlon, or even made it to represent Team GB, started in that exact same position. You are not alone.

Set your goal and then break it down into small steps. If you are frightened of the water, maybe the first step is to book in a swimming lesson or take a friend to stand in the shallow end to get more familiar with the pool. Then start with 1 length, build to 2, and keep building until you can start piecing together a full swim set. This will really build your confidence. Swimming is all about technique, so watch videos online and practice. If you can, get someone to watch you, or ideally video you, and give you feedback.

This year and last, you have actively helped beginners take on their first triathlon; what would be your top tip for anyone thinking of taking on Royal Windsor or another triathlon in 2020?

Prepare. The usual top tip is to enjoy it – but you can’t enjoy it unless you’re prepared. ‘Prepared’ can mean different things to different people but if you prepare to a level that fits your goals, you will enjoy race day so much more.

Start with drawing up a training plan. It doesn’t have to be complicated. As a first step, pencil in the times of the week that you can set aside for training. If possible, set goals with friends as this will encourage you to stick to them. Training and preparation do not have to be a chore. You don’t need to stare at a brick wall in the garage early morning or go out in the freezing cold. Find out what works for you and do that. Make it enjoyable. Make it social – though obviously not right now! – I worked with 75 triathletes for last year’s Banana Triathlon and the community spirt makes an enormous difference. We’re doing it again this year – all being well. Ultimately, the fitter, more prepared and confident you are come race day, the more you’ll enjoy the experience.

You work full-time and also coach triathletes on top of your training. How do you make sure you have enough energy to deliver at work and in training?

Time management and being efficient. I must admit, I’m quite an all or nothing character. If I’m working, I’m all in. If I am training hard, I’ll give it everything but as soon as I’m off the bike, I switch off from training and I’m on to the next thing on the list.

I try to set blocks of time to try and be efficient, so 20 minutes on a training plan, 30 minutes reading, 1-hour training etc. Social media is a bit of a vice for me but I don’t watch much TV, so I think that frees a lot of time. If you look at how you spend your time, you will find pockets – even big chunks – that you can use to progress your goals. Prioritise sleep. It is good recovery time and helps you get more out of your day.

Coaching other athletes, what are some of the common mistakes you tend to see in training and racing?

Getting stuck in the middle zone, where you’re not working hard enough, or easy enough. It’s super important to go easy on your easy days. You recover better and will really be able to turn up the heat for the difficult sessions, ultimately making you a more consistent, stronger and fitter athlete.

It also helps to have a clear goal. Motivation can dwindle but a clear goal keeps you accountable and disciplined. The goal can simply be to get to the start line healthy and strong, or it can be to run a sub 25min 5k – but not having a specific goal often holds people back.

As people progress in their triathlon journey, it can be easy to avoid attention to details. Small things such as practising your transition, creating a nutrition plan and even having the right workout gear for you can make a big difference.

Lastly, this is not a mistake as such, but a misconception that triathlon is not as accessible as it may first appear, with hurdles such as cost of bike, wetsuit, access to swimming pools, gyms, race entry etc. There are always second-hand bikes passed down through your local clubs, you can even hire kit before committing to the sport to see if it’s for you, whilst signing up for a UK race usually saves on travel costs. Use YouTube videos for session plans, and cycle and run outdoors to help save gym membership fees. If triathlon interests you, sign up to a local short race, borrow kit if needs be, give it a try and build from there.

You are undoubtedly committed to the sport. Your goal was always to reach Team GB. Why did this mean so much to you? Having reached your goal, what keeps you showing up day after day?

I set the goal of making the GB Age Group team nearly 7 years ago. It has taken me a long time to get there – and I have seen many others qualify within their first year in the sport in the meanwhile! When I first found out that you could race for Great Britain as an amateur, I thought it was an outlandish idea – especially given I could barely swim. To be honest I felt that way for most of the 7 years that I fought to accomplish it! I wanted my name on a GB jersey as I thought this was super impressive and an almost impossible challenge for me.

I’m pumped that I hit my goal. I qualified for 4 events in 2020. I still can’t believe it. At the end of 2018, before even hitting my initial goal of making the team, I already set the bar higher and started targeting the podium. Sounds a little silly, but now big goals don’t sound too outlandish to me anymore. It won’t happen this year but that is my goal.

I just came back from the European Duathlon Championships, which with everything so up in the air at the moment, is likely my last race for a few months. I made a few mistakes but learnt so much – mostly that the pace is ridiculous! It stretched my definition of what is possible and I am excited to push on.

You’ve experienced a couple of major setbacks to the pursuit of your triathlon goals. Hit by glandular fever, a torn calf, ligament damage and a slipped disc – not all from triathlon training, we might add! – how did maintain morale and refocus?

I really wanted it. I really, really wanted it. That GB jersey was much more important to me than a few small setbacks. I also always try to get some perspective. This will be different for each person but for me, whenever there is a hurdle in my way, I try to think ‘how bad is this, really?’ There are people out there training barefoot, or growing up without clean water, who still make it to the Olympics. My 6 weeks off training with an injury that will likely heal with proper rehab becomes less of an issue when I think like this. Yes, it can be disappointing but no hurdle has been bigger than my ultimate goals.

When the going gets tough during an event, what are your tips to keep going?

Think of the goal. Think of where you started. Think of how you’ll feel once finished. There will be moments when you hate the process, but no one hates that amazing feeling and rush of endorphins you get once you’ve completed the race.

My secret weapon which I use during training is to have a small treat, maybe a sweet, or I have a couple of songs which I only every listen to at times of absolute need to get through a painful set. You can use that to your advantage during a race when you’re not allowed to use music, just think of the song and sing it in your head – or out loud!

It also helps to find a deeper meaning for your training. Yes, it is for your health and wellbeing but it is also about connection, community and service. Our team Tri for Roop came together last year to race the Banana triathlon in honour of my brother Roop. When I think of all the triathlons we did together, he continues to inspire me.

A last word of encouragement during these times of self-isolation

In any sport, there will always be something that affects your training and race performance. ‘Control the controllables’, as they say and focus on the things you are still able to do, not what you can’t do. This situation will not be forever. Let’s do everything we can to keep our communities healthy and well, and keep as active as possible for your mind and body.

Please note, these events are currently on hold due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Stay tuned for updates.