Triathlon guide: How to put in your best performance on race day
All your training is done and you’re heading to the water for the swim start. Triathlon Coach Rob Wilby from Team Oxygenaddict is back with some advice to ensure that you get the best performance you can from your fitness.
Seed yourself properly
Regardless of whether the race is a mass start, a wave start or a rolling start (as we’ve been seeing in the big branded IM and 70.3 races), seeding yourself at the start of the race is essential to having a nice calm start to your day. Too far back and you’ll find your way blocked by much slower swimmers. Start too far forward and you’ll have a REALLY miserable time - getting swum over by hundreds of highly competitive athletes is not an experience anyone would recommend, and can be very frightening.
With a rolling start, the experience tends to be much more relaxed and enjoyable as there is simply much more room in the water for everyone. Just make sure you take into account that if you are going to be racing the time cut off at the end of the day, you want to get yourself into the water as early as you are allowed to give yourself maximum time to reach the finish.
It can be hard to know exactly how fast you are swimming at the start of a race, with nothing to really give you a guide except the other swimmers around you. However, most people start much too fast as race day adrenalin kicks in, and then find they are breathing really hard after five minutes.
Our advice for everyone, except those who are in with a real chance of a podium, is to swim as easy as you can. Use your breathing as a guide - ideally, you want to be breathing bilaterally (once every three strokes), or even breathing every four strokes. This will naturally limit how fast you can swim, will help you feel relaxed, and will help you save energy for the bike and the run. If you find you’ve gone off too fast and are really struggling for breath, slow yourself down and regroup. It will pay dividends later on the run leg!
Sort out problems
Everyone will, at some point, experience a problem as they are swimming. Whether it’s misty goggles or the velcro on your wetsuit chafing the back of your neck, you need to take care of it quickly and effectively. Spending a few seconds clearing your goggles means you’ll be able to see where you are going much more clearly, and will really reduce your levels of anxiety and irritation. Similarly, having your neck rubbed by a small piece of velcro that’s not closed properly can leave you with a nasty red welt on your neck for a week after the race. Take a few seconds to fix it rather than have it irritate you for the rest of your swim.
Know the swim course in your head
Having a mental picture of what the swim course layout looks like will really help you navigate when you’re swimming amongst lots of other athletes. Get to the course early and have a good look at where the buoys are, and how that compares to the course map that you’ll already have seen. It can be impossible to sight buoys amongst the other swimmers, so try to look for landmarks behind the buoy where possible that are much easier to see - for example, there might be a building or tall tree on the shore in line with the buoy that will make sighting much more simple.
Look after each other
One last tip is simply to remind yourself that everyone else in the water is a human being with a family too. Although a little contact between swimmers is occasionally inevitable, remind yourself that no one is going out of their way to harm you, and that the swimmer that keeps catching your feet didn’t do it on purpose!
Smile and shake hands with the other swimmers in the water just before the gun goes, and remind yourself that everyone else is just as scared as you - it’s amazing how quickly this has a positive effect on the pack of swimmers around you!
On the bike
The fastest way for you to get to cover the bike leg is by having even pacing. However, as anyone who has ridden with a powermeter knows, even pacing won’t feel like even effort! You’ll need to consciously hold yourself back at the start of the ride and gradually increase your effort and heart rate.
A good rule of thumb to try to control your power on hills is to immediately change up three sprockets on the back as soon as the road goes up. This will help you save your legs for the run. Remember, you’re not in the Tour!
Food and calorie intake guidelines vary depending on what distance you are racing. The shorter your race, the higher the relative intensity and consequently, the harder your body will find it to absorb calories. For Ironman and 70.3, we recommend 250 calories an hour, as a mix of gels, sports drinks and solid food. Bigger athletes, and those that are more experienced, might be able to absorb more.
Experiment in training, work out a plan, and stick to it on race day. Taking in too many calories can be even more unpleasant than not taking in enough!
Olympic and sprint distances will require a lower calorie intake, as it will be more difficult to absorb at relatively higher intensities. Precision Hydration’s electrolyte range are zero-calorie, allowing you to separate hydration from nutrition (although a little bird told me that there are some announcements afoot on that subject…)
Hopefully you’re well versed in this because you’re reading this on Precision Hydration’s site after all! From my perspective, a good way to think about fluids on race day is definetely ‘water plus electrolytes,’ rather than just water. Precision Hydration’s online Sweat Test gives you useful guidelines on how much to drink in different scenarios, but as a rule of thumb, we recommend athletes try to drink roughly 500ml (16oz) per hour when racing over 90 minutes in ‘normal’ weather conditions. Of course, you’re going to need more than this if the weather is very hot and/or you have a high sweat rate.
The strength of the electrolytes you add to your water depends on how you sweat as an individual. You may well need stronger electrolytes if you have particularly salty sweat (like my colleague Coach Andy does!). If you notice your kit caked in white at the end of a ride on a hot day, it’s definitely a good idea to get a Sweat Test to personalise your hydration strategy. This is particularly important for Ironman athletes, who will be exercising for a long time, and who might find that their ability to run during the marathon is dramatically affected by their hydration strategy on the bike.
Most of your effort on the bike is spent overcoming wind resistance, so the key to a fast bike split is to stay as aerodynamic as possible. Ride in your aerobars as much as you can where it is safe to do so, and use any climbs as a chance to sit up and rest your neck and shoulder muscles.
Training in the aerobars is essential, as your position on the bike will be very different and you’ll be recruiting slightly different muscle groups. It also takes time to develop the very specific fitness in your neck and shoulder muscles to be able to ride for long periods of time in the aero position - this is especially important for middle and long distance athletes. You can’t just roll up with a new Tri bike on race day and expect it to make you faster if you haven’t trained in that position.
Let’s face it: race day is going to be pretty uncomfortable at the best of times as you’ll be pushing yourself as hard as you can. Any additional pains and chafing can really distract you from the job of trying to go as fast as possible. Chamois cream applied to your -ahem - undercarriage, and tri shorts, before the race will really reduce the amount of friction, and make your riding much more bearable. Similarly, simply applying suncream the night before the race, and again on race morning, is a good idea. Most athletes won’t want to stop to apply it mid race, so get it done before hand!
For sprint and olympic distance, we recommend building towards your best-scenario race pace over the first mile and then trying to hold it there. Most athletes run far too hard over the first mile and then their pace gradually falls away.
At middle and long distance, we recommend using a run/walk strategy for the first half of the run. For 70.3 we recommend 9.30/30 run/walk for the first 11k, then trying to run the last 10k as hard as possible. At Ironman, we recommend a 9 min run / 1 min walk pacing strategy. Pace the first 30k according to the best 30k run you completed in training. If you still feel good at the 30k mark, you then have 12k to run as hard as you can to the finish.
It’s very hard to eat anything solid during the run, so stick to liquids and gels. We recommend a rule of thumb of 250 cals per hour during long distance races (over 4 hours) - in the form of gels every 20-30 minutes, or an energy drink. Once you start drinking coke, we recommend that you don’t mix this with other drinks or gels - it seems to cause a lot of upset stomachs.
For shorter races, most athletes will find they don’t need much in the way of energy, but half a gel or a cup of coke if needed will help keep those blood sugar levels up.
Again, check out the guidelines in your Precision Hydration Plan and always drink to thirst, but from my experience and as a rule of thumb, I’d say that drinking between 100-150ml of fluids at every aid station (usually every 2km) for middle and long distance races is about right as it will allow you to consume 500-750ml of fluids roughly every 10k.
For sprint and olympic distance races, unless it’s very hot, you might require less than half of that. It’s also much harder to absorb during higher intensity races, so a mouthful at every aid station will get you to the finish line, where you’ll be able to rehydrate.
You’ve worked incredibly hard just to get to the start line so remember to enjoy the whole experience!
Rob Wilby is Head Coach and Founder of Team Oxygenaddict triathlon coaching and race team. As one of the UK’s leading triathlon coaches, he has a degree in sport and exercise science, and is a certified coach and coach educator with British Triathlon. He is also host of the weekly triathlon podcast The Cup of Tri.