Mention the word "triathlon" to beginning exercisers and they'll likely quake in their running shoes, conjuring up images of uber-athletes and intense competition.
But a multisport event doesn't have to be intimidating. Scaled-down versions are both motivating and doable -- even for those just getting started.
They're also increasingly popular, says Mike Reilly, vice president and co-founder of Active.com, an online resource for sport and fitness events. "It's been above a steady growth," he says, with some events doubling their participation from year to year. Training for a multisport event "takes away from the boredom of just running or just cycling," says Luis Canales, race director of the 6-year-old Playa del Run, a series of six mini-aquathlons that kicks off Saturday in Mission Bay in San Diego. Such preparation also works both the upper and lower body, while reducing the risk of repetitive stress injuries that can occur from over-training in one sport.
Playa del Run co-founder and marketing director Michelle Lindner, herself a triathlete, says the atmosphere is sociable, not cutthroat. "People are often intimidated by triathlons," she adds, "so that's one of the reasons we created this event, as an introduction."
Smaller multisport events, tagged onto larger races or held separately, can take the form of mini-triathlons (cycling, swimming and running), duathlons (cycling and running) or aquathlons (swimming and running). The distances are but a fraction of their more consuming cousins. For example, the Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike ride, followed by a marathon. The distances for a mini-tri or sprint-tri (with some variation) can be a 12.4-mile bike ride, a 3.1-mile run and a swim that ranges from a third of a mile to just more than half a mile. Some events are even done as relays.
Bob Mest, 44, considered himself a "lousy runner and a lousy swimmer" when he entered his first aquathlon in 2002. Although an experienced cyclist, the Long Beach resident had been doing only occasional ocean swims and, for about six months, a couple of three-mile runs a week. "I always thought the people who did that kind of thing were super athletes, and I didn't consider myself to be in their caliber," he said.
Completing the event not only energized him, but also gave him the confidence to do more multisport events. "I didn't know I could swim, change into running clothes and finish a run -- combine events in a competitive environment," he said.
A couple of months after the aquathlon, he competed in a sprint-distance triathlon, and a year after that did an Olympic distance triathlon (one-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike ride, 6.2-mile run).
But as low-key and doable as they are, mini-events are not for the complete neophyte. The adage "nothing new on race day" applies, Canales says. Some training is necessary, and everything, including transitioning from one event to the next, should be practiced beforehand.
Jeff Galloway, an Atlanta-based running coach and former Olympian, recommends training for more than the race distance.
"The biggest problem is getting carried away," he says, "and going too fast in the beginning. If you've prepared even slightly beyond the distance, you'll have some reserve and be able to carry yourself to the finish."
Some experienced athletes use smaller races as warm-ups for larger events, or just for recreation. Erika Aklufi chose the Playa del Run aquathlon as her first multisport event and eventually became a professional triathlete.
Aklufi, 30, from Santa Monica, still competes in smaller events and says, "I actually enjoy them even more these days. I've been to big ones, and while they're fun, there's so much hoopla and people do take it really seriously. I just want to enjoy a really great day at the beach."
* For a list of upcoming events, go to www.latimes.com/event.