Faster, not fitter

The fitter you are, the faster you are, right? Well, it’s not quite as clear cut as that in the real world. Fitness has an enormous effect on as athlete’s ability to swim, bike and run as fast as possible, but it’s by no means the only factor.

Let’s take the term fitness for a start, it’s a phrase I really don’t like because of how vague it is; someone could be able to bench press twice their body weight, summit Mount Everest, free climb up the Dawn Wall or walk the length of the River Thames. All impressive achievements in their own right, but how would an individual who achieves any of these impressive feats fare in a triathlon? Better than your average member of the public you’d wager, but the chances are they’d be soundly beaten by those who are physically weaker, with a lower resting heart rate and a lower V02 max but who are more experienced in the sport. 

How do we measure fitness? There is no right answer or wrong answer here, lots of individuals will have a different idea of what fitness means, however as triathletes we’re interested in the bottom line, our race results . Yes improvements to our FTP and threshold heart rate are all stepping stones to success, and for some individuals these numbers are more important than race results, however I believe these individuals are few and far between. Those who measure everything objectively can often struggle on race day and find themselves disappointed when their predictions and meticulous calculations fall short, and they’re never short of an excuse to explain a poor performance (but then again, how many triathletes aren’t?!). You can be very fast and very fit, that’s what we’re all aiming for, but it’s also possible to be the highest FTP of the field, yet find yourself struggling to make the top ten.

An athlete is fast when they have the confidence, the skills and the experience to complete the race in the fastest possible time, with the resilience to keep pushing when their body is telling them to stop. The winner of the race is the one who crosses the line first, not the one with the highest power numbers, the lowest level of cardiac drift or the most expensive bike. Let’s break it down and have a look at the traits of successful triathletes in each of the disciplines.

Swimming

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Image copyright IOC

In the water, the fast athlete goes off like a rocket at the start, finding fast feet or setting the pace themselves. They then settle into their race pace, sighting often to stay on track. They feel comfortable drafting, and come out of the water towards the front of affairs. They’re not overly concerned about optimal stroke length or stroke rate in the melee of a triathlon swim, they’re more worried about swimming fast and coming out of the water with the fast guys. They swim in the open water at least once a week, and work on their technique all year round, with plenty of hard swims thrown in as well.

Transition 1

The experienced triathlete knows there’s a lot of time to be made up in transition. You may shrug your shoulders at the thought of saving 20 seconds over a long event, but imagine how happy you’d be with taking 20 seconds off of your 5K PB? Fast athletes can easily save time by practicing wetsuit removal after every training swim, memorising where their bike is, leaving it in an appropriate gear, with their items left on the bike in the order they’ll need to attach them. They have also practiced their mounting technique, comfortable with whatever method they have chosen rather than simply hoping for the best.

Cycling

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Image Copyright Ironman 

Too many triathletes are addicted to their turbo trainer, but while time spent riding indoors will make you fitter, it doesn’t teach you how to take a the corner in the wet, carry momentum through a rolling section, fix simple mechanicals, ride up hills, brake effectively or stay on your aero bars on anything except a perfectly flat, smooth tarmac. ERG mode is especially bad for creating cyclists who can only ride at one cadence in a very narrow operating window. Fast cyclists know their bike and how it works intricately, they can carry speed through the corners and drop down the descents, making up time on fitter, less skilled cyclists hand over fist. They’re also able to spend longer in an efficient TT position without developing neck or back pain, because they’ve put in thousands of miles on their race bike, instead of treating it like it’s made of sugar glass. Rather than only taking it out on the sunniest of days, they’ve learned how to ride it in the wet and giving it a thorough clean after every ride to prolong the life of the parts. When on race day the heavens open, a strong headwind develops or strong gusts try to throw them off their bike, they keep their head down and keep making progress rather than excuses. Nobody cares about your W/KG if you’re sat on the side of the road staring at your flat tyre like someone has just asked you to fix the space shuttle. Fast cyclists do their quality training rides on the turbo, but in anything except the foulest weather they hit the road for their easy/long rides to build their confidence and road craft.

Transition 2

After the bike it’s tempting to take a few moments to yourself to recuperate and mentally recharge before the run. If you’re racing an Ironman, you’re new to the sport or you had some issues on the bike you need to address this is fine, but if you’re going for a good time you need to go into T2 with a detailed plan of how you will switch from bike to run. Fast athletes can picture the exact route they’ll take to their bike racking, where their shoes will be waiting with elastic laces ready for them to fly onto the run course with.

Running

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When racing for the podium at Kona, you can’t afford to stare at your watch. Image copyright unknown.

When those who focus endlessly on numbers and micro analysing their training are passed on the bike, their internal dialogue will nearly always be “They’ve gone out too fast, I’ll catch them on the run”. This may well be true in many cases, but even if they are faster on the run than someone who rode it like they stole it, the fact they arrived in transition 2 ten minutes later somewhat offsets this. Most athletes will have a target they’re aiming for on the run, and pacing is paramount, but the skill to a fast run is knowing when to push. Staying below a certain BPM is a good idea if it’s your first attempt at the distance or the conditions are unusual, but if you’re into the last third of the run and your body is screaming at you to move faster, you should probably listen to it. Proper pacing is incredibly important for the bike to ensure you have good run legs, but you want to make sure you pace your run to perfection so you cross the line having left it all on the course. Fast runners don’t even look at their watch during shorter events, they know how to push their bodies to their absolute limits, and listen to their breathing and legs rather than their heart rate.

 

Race winners are the athletes who practice their nutrition in training, scout the course by riding or driving it, ride their bike in full race spec, practice speedy transitions in their brick sessions, push themselves to the max in fitness tests, and are not afraid of new thresholds or tough workouts. Rather than finding excuses they step up to the challenge and have an intrinsic motivation which keeps them going even when they feel the world is conspiring against them.

Despite what you may think by reading this far, I’m a relatively data heavy coach who spends hours pouring over data files and prescribing workouts to influence power curves, embracing new technologies such as running power. However, recently it has become clear to me just how important coaching the human is rather than simply the body, and how disappearing down a rabbit hole of physiology for the pursuit of 1% improvements can result in us missing the big picture. 

It’s your hobby and you can train for it however you like, but I highly recommend you spend a few years simply enjoying the sport and learning more about your body before you begin getting the textbooks out, or even better hire a coach who can help you navigate the maze of endurance coaching. 

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