Should You Ride in Extreme Conditions?

As road cyclists/triathletes we generally pride ourselves on being hard. Riding up a mountain for 90 minutes? No problem. Dropping down a hill at 50MPH? Hold my beer. 12 hours straight with no break? Walk in the park. However there comes a time when cycling is simply not very sensible and has a high margin of risk associated with it. Never is this more appropriate than in cold weather, but not wanting to comes across as being a bit soft can make it difficult to make the distinction between it being a bit chilly and dangerous. Here’s an overview of different factors and how they should affect your decision on whether to ride or not.

Icy roads

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Untangling bikes following my crash in Richmond Park, with a London Dynamo member crashing on the same spot we just went down on

You don’t need snow for ice to appear, and it can be invisible in the form of black ice. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had very few crashes on the road, but one time did involve dropping it in Richmond Park on black ice. It’s impossible to spot until it’s too late and your front wheel will simply disappear from underneath you, giving you no chance to react or avoid a crash. To reduce the risk you can lower your speed, giving you more time to react in the unlikely scenario you spot it before it’s too late, and reducing the likelihood of injury/bike damage if you do hit the deck.

Top tips:

-Watch out for frost on grass/pavements as you leave. If there was a frost last night there is also a reasonable chance black ice will be around

-If there was standing water on the roads the day before a frost, this will likely translate into black ice come morning

-Avoid areas that are shaded by trees/buildings. Most frosty nights will be followed by a clear morning which helps to clear the ice as the sun rises, but dark lanes will be exposed to less sunlight and more prone to icing over. If you’re desperate to get outside try to keep on more exposed roads which will be more likely to warm up in the sunlight

-Roads with a camber will be more likely to collect water, ride further away from the kerb than normal

-Avoid bike lanes. This may attract the ire of drivers, but there’s a very low chance that your bike lane has been gritted, where the road adjacent likely has

Snow

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Riders of Milan Sanremo in 2013 experienced horrendous conditions before the race was stopped and riders shuttled further along the course in team buses where the race was resumed. Image copyright Cycling Weekly

It’s pretty obvious when it’s snowed, and just because of the endless pictures of people’s gardens on social media. However when it snows the bicycle is the preferred mode of transport for many, with lots of ‘fair weather’ cyclists breaking the mountain bike out of the shed when all the trains fail and the roads are gridlocked. Where cars will likely lose grip and end up involved in an expensive accident, the correct bicycle tyres will have a good level of grip and any crashes will be far less dramatic/expensive. However once the snow becomes more than a few inches deep it is far safer and quicker to walk, unless you happen to own a fat bike…

Top tips:

-Stick to bike paths and/or quiet roads, you don’t want to run the risk of sliding out on the snow and falling into the path of a car, or being collected by a driver which has got it wrong and lost control of their vehicle

-If you live in an environment with frequent heavy snow, consider fitting snow tyres to your wheels. These are wider tyres with studs/spikes in to help you gain purchase

-Slow it right down, leave more time for journeys and don’t try to use the ride for training

-You can gain extra purchase in the snow by wrapping cable/zip ties around your tyre (disc brakes only)

Low air temperature
Sometimes the fact that the air temperature is below -5 can be enough to put you off of cycling. The air will be so cold it will be difficult to inhale and exposed skin will sting, making for a thoroughly unenjoyable experience. The correct clothing will go a very long way to making the experience more bearable, but keeping your extremities warm is a real challenge, and if you are unable to effectively operate your brakes you are putting yourself at great risk.

Top tips:

-If you are experiencing cold hands invest in high quality winter gloves and a pair of merino wool glove liners, these will make a world of difference

-Invest in a pair of winter shoes or some overshoes, and use a layer of tin foil underneath your sole to reflect heat back

-A cycling cap/skull cap will make a big difference, some even include ear flaps which will benefit those whose ears resemble pork chops after a ride

-Layers, layers, layers. Using a base layer, a short/long sleeve jersey and cycling jacket is far more effective than simply putting on a big coat or the thickest jacket you can find. Each layer traps warm air, resulting in a very insulating effect. It is also very flexible if you feel start to overheat and you can start to remove/undo layers without exposing bare skin

-Don’t stray too far from home, try to ride laps of an area rather than a huge out and back ride in case you start to develop the early signs of mild hypothermia. These can include shaking, confusion and slurred speech. If you or one of your riding partners goes from excessive shaking to feeling surprisingly warm, call an ambulance immediately. For more information on hypothermia symptoms and treatment visit https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Hypothermia/

-Exercise extreme caution when exerting yourself in extremely cold temperatures where capillaries shrink and it becomes harder to pump blood, vastly increasing the risk of a cardiac event.

Gusting winds

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Geriant Thomas gets caught by a sewing and ends up in a ditch during Ghent Wevelgem 2015 (image copyright Eurosport)

Strong, constant headwinds that you battle into are one thing, but a strong sideways gust can immediately displace you into the middle of the road or a ditch. These are normally associated with gales and hurricanes, so think very carefully before riding in these conditions. Even Geriant Thomas ended up in a ditch during Ghent Wevelgem 2015, and if it can happen to Geriant Thomas, it can happen to any of us.

Top tips:

-Use weather forecasts to check the direction, intensity and gust factor of the wind before riding

-Ride in a position that will give you the chance to react to any gusts to give you time to react. If they are trying to blow you into the ditch, ride slightly further out than normal. If you are riding in a group, single up to reduce the risk of getting taken out by another rider

-Don’t risk high winds in an effort to bag your local KOM, not only are you putting yourself in great danger, you’ll also have the nagging feeling that you didn’t really deserve it

-Avoid exposed roads, and favour quiet lanes with buildings/hedges that will act as a buffer

-Don’t run deep section wheels in gusting winds, particularly in coastal areas (read: IRONMAN Wales) unless you are very experienced in handling them

Heavy rain

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One of my all time favourite sports photos, Richie Porte, Romain Bardet and Geriant Thomas hit the deck during a wet stage 2 of the 2017 Tour de France (image copyright Cycling Weekly)

We’re not talking a quick shower here, more a constant, torrential downpour that can result in flash flooding. While top coaches are often quoted as saying “Don’t worry about the rain, skin’s waterproof!”, and this is true to an extent, there is a point at which heavy rain can put you in more danger than it’s worth. Firstly there is the obvious lack of grip and increased stopping distance in the wet, especially when running rim brakes. There is also the risk of flash flooding which can leave you no choice but to ride through deep puddles with no idea of what lies below the water; there are a variety of videos you can find on YouTube of cyclists riding through a puddle and disappearing over the handlebars as they hit a pothhole. Mixing cold temperatures with heavy, consistent rain is a fast track to hypothermia, so I recommend you turn around and head home if the heavens open on a cold winter’s day.

Top tips:

– Avoid riding through puddles

-If riding in a group allow extra space between you and the wheel in front. This will give you extra time to react to any crashes and reduce the spray from the wheel in front

-Allow for an increased stopping distance, brake earlier into corners and when approaching junctions

-Run lower tyre pressures to improve grip, 10-20 PSI should do it as running them too low will put you at risk of pinch punctures

-Invest in a high quality waterproof jacket such as the Castelli Idro to protect yourself from the worst of the rain, and keep you warmer for longer

So with the worst that winter can throw at us, how do we decide when it’s too dangerous to ride? We’re all individuals who love the open road and want to get out there as much as we can, but there comes a point when you have to put things in perspective and ask if it’s worth it. How likely is it that you’ll come off? How much will it cost you to repair damage to your frame? How much fitness will you lose if you break a bone? Will you lose income? And ultimately, what do you stand to gain from heading out in the foul weather? If the risk outweighs the reward, it’s probably time to jump on the turbo trainer, find our introduction to turbo training here: https://phazontriathlon.com/2017/09/26/introduction-to-turbo-training/

Or if you are in the southern hemisphere and more worried about the scorching summer sun, fund our tips on hot weather training/racing here: https://phazontriathlon.com/2017/06/21/training-and-racing-in-hot-conditions/

Should you run disc brakes?

If you are looking at buying a new bike ahead of next season and have been visiting some bike shops in search of your new steed, you will have noticed that many bikes come in disc and non disc brake versions. Disc brakes use two brake pads to pinch a disc rotor that is affixed to the wheels of your bike, one on the front and one on the rear. In this respect they work like rim brakes, by creating friction that slows the wheel, however the big difference is that they are pinching disc rotors and not the rims of the wheel.

So what are the advantages of disc brakes? Let’s take an objective look at the benefits.

Improve performance in the wet
People talk about disc brakes having “more power”, which suggests they probably didn’t have their rim brakes set up correctly, it’s perfectly possible to lock up your front or rear brakes with rim brakes, but where discs definitely give you more stopping power is in the wet. When you apply rim brake pads to rims in the wet, the first two rotations the wheel makes are simply dispersing water from the rim before the pads bite and start slowing the bike. Even when the rims are cleared of water braking performance is vastly reduced, which can be the difference between keeping it rubber side down or ending up under a tree, or even worse, a car. Disc brakes achieve this improved performance by using far more viscous brake pads than rim brake equivalents.

 

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Personally, I’d be looking for all the help I could get when descending in these conditions. Image credit EdBookPhoto

Save on expensive wheels
Wheels are the most expensive upgrade you can buy for your bike. If you’re shelling out four figures on a new set of hoops, you don’t want to have to replace or re-rim them a couple of years down the line because the rims have worn away after thousands of hours of braking. Replacing a disc rotor will cost a maximum of £60 to replace when it wears down, a significant saving compared to replacing your expensive carbon wheels.

Resistant to brake fade
If you encounter long descents when riding, disc brakes can help keep you safe, especially if you are a nervous or inexperienced descender. Some descents can last the best part of an hour, and the novice rider may find themselves riding the brakes for the majority of this time as they speed towards hairpins and sheer drops. Doing so will keep you safe in the short term, but using rim brakes like this will result in temperature building in your rims. There are three problems with this, braking performance decreases, tubes are prone to exploding due to the build up of heat, and carbon rims can be damaged. With disc brakes the only problem you need to worry about is a reduction in braking performance, which they don’t suffer nearly as badly as rim brakes, especially high end disc rotors which provide improved heat dissipation. This means you can sit on your brakes for much longer before you notice a fall off in performance.

However there are some downsides to running discs as well

Risk of bending rotors
If you crash in a very specific way or your bike is not properly handled during transit, there is a possibility your rotor can become bent out of shape and cause brake rub as a result. However such crashes are rare and rotor covers are available to buy to protect your bike in transit.

Sharp edge hazard
Anyone who follows professional cycling will be aware of the controversy surrounding disk brakes. The UCI (international governing body for cycling) ran a trial on disc brakes in the pro peloton. During one race, a rider got caught up in a crash and ended up with a gash on his leg, which he blamed on a disc brake rotor. There is no evidence the cut was caused by a disc brake rotor, however the UCI suspended the trial following the incident, before introducing them again following a review. The jury is out on just how much of a hazard rotors present as there are no confirmed incidents of a rider being injured by a disc brake rotor, but the risk is almost nonexistent in non draft legal triathlon where we have to maintain a minimum distance between us and the rider in front. I’d wager far more accidents have been prevented by reliable braking in the wet that will ever be caused by disc brake rotors. Nonetheless certain governing bodies (including France and Spain) have got cold feet about disc brakes and are currently not permitting them in their events, so it’s worth checking the race information for your event before you make a purchase.

Wheel compatibility
This is a problem for many riders who already have a garage full of wheels, your disc brake bike will not be compatible with any of your current wheels. This means you will have to restart your wheel collection if you make the switch to discs, a costly endeavour indeed.

Weight/aero penalty
For the weight weenies or aero obsessives out there, yes disc brakes weigh marginally more and are slightly less aerodynamic than standard rim brakes, but the differences really are tiny, and any time lost due to this penalty can be made up again with improved confidence when braking. Bear in mind that one of the world’s most advanced triathlon bikes, The Cervelo P5X, is only available with disc brakes, and if it’s good enough for the world’s greatest IRONMAN athletes, it’s good enough for me.

 

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Cervelo P5X, possibly the world’s most advanced triathlon bike, available only with disc brakes (image credit Cervelo)

On balance I believe that disc brakes are a superior product and are the way the industry is going to move in the next 5-10 years. There will always be a place for rim brakes due to their simplicity and the fact we’ve been running rim brakes for as long as anyone can remember, but it’s already come to the point where some bikes such as the P5X, are disc brake only.

If you spend a lot of time around road cyclists and have bought up the possibility of switching to disc brakes, there’s a good chance at least one of them will have tried to talk you out of it, even if they don’t seem to have much of an argument against them. The truth is that roadies are very resistant to change, they’re a superstitious bunch who have probably been riding rim brakes for 30 years and don’t see the need to change. If they are comfortable riding rim brakes, I’m certainly not going to try to change their minds, people should run whatever they feel comfortable riding. However you are not a road cyclist, you are a triathlete, and we’re looking for outright performance over tradition and romanticism.

My next bike will be a disc brake bike, as I believe the pros outweigh the cons, however it is a personal decision and comes down to your personal circumstance. If you are an experienced racer who is perfectly in tune with their rim brakes and their limits, then it probably isn’t worth the reinvestment for you, however if you are new to the world of road cycling and looking for your first bike, I strongly recommend you consider disc brakes.

How to Avoid Lane Rage

A lot of people dislike lane swimming, and I can’t say I blame them, it’s a necessary evil to share the same piece of water with others pounding up and down the lane, which can be frustrating for all involved as fast swimmers get held up and slower swimmers feel mobbed. If you’ve been swimming for a while, chances are you’ve either experienced, or been subject to the phenomenon of lane rage, where a swimmer becomes so agitated at having others interrupt their workout that they lash out at others. This is completely avoidable, so let’s dive into these murky waters to find the best way for such unpleasantries and to help everyone have a great swim.

Warning, may contain opinions

Be considerate
This should be the underlying message to take away from the article, you want your swim to be as enjoyable as possible, and you want everybody else to enjoy your workout as much as possible. In the same way a good driver spends more time focusing on the behaviour of other drivers than on themselves, the same is true for swimming in close confines. Everybody’s trying to get the most out of their session, treat people as you’d expect to be treated yourself.

Communicate with swimmers
If you find yourself at the end of the lane at the same time as your lane mate(s), make an effort to engage in some kind of conversation, even if it’s just asking if they want to go first. Adding a bit of humanity to the situation can help diffuse any potential tension.

Swim in an appropriate lane
This is the subject closest to my heart, people swimming in in the wrong lane. If you want to swim heads up breaststroke to keep your hair dry, that’s fine, it’s a free world, but please stay in the slow lane. Even if the fast lane is empty and you decide to hop in there instead to reduce the chance of getting splashed, if Adam Peaty turns up for a quick training session, he’s going to get in the fast lane and be held up by your leisurely swim. You’ll also get soaked by his powerful breaststroke kick. Please swim in the lane that best reflects your ability, and if you absolutely must swim in the fast lane as the slow lane is chock full, move back down as soon as a fast swimmer arrives. The same goes for michael phelps wannabes who decide that the fact the slow lane only contains one pensioner makes it perfect for a 400 IM.

Make other swimmers aware of your presence before entering|
This can be as simple as dangling your legs in the water for a minute or two before you enter the lane while you sort out your goggles and hat, but will make others aware that there will soon be another swimmer joining them. Especially important if the swimmers have split the lane rather than swimming in a circular fashion.

Check before pushing off
All competitive swimmers have been there, in the middle of a fast 400M time trial, on track for a rapid time, when a swimmer who lowered themselves into the fast lane and spent 10 minutes doing his pre flight checks decides to gently push off and begin his warmup just as you approach for a tumble turn. Read the lane check for other swimmers approaching before you push off, in the same way you look both ways before crossing the road.

Give way at the end of lengths
If a swimmer is directly behind you, he may inadvertently or otherwise give your feet a gentle tap. A light toe tap is generally considered to be a polite request to let them past at the end of the length, all it takes it to hold onto the wall for a second while they complete their turn, allowing you both to get on with your swim. Even if you don’t get a toe tap but sense a faster swimmer has been behind you for the majority of the length, giving way is polite and allows everyone to get on and enjoy their swim.

Don’t rest in the middle of the lane
If you are taking a break at the end of the lane, stand to the side of the to allow others to tumble turn easily. If you stand in the middle of the lane it becomes very difficult for others to continue swimming.

Consider moving down a lane for drillls/kick sets
This depends very much on how busy the lane is and the calibre of swimmers you’re sharing the water with, but if they’re doing sprints and you have 25M of sculling coming up, consider moving down a lane for a few minutes to avoid making enemies.

Swim in the correct direction
Most pools will have a clockwise lane next to an anti-clockwise lane, next to a clockwise, alternating across the pool. This is to prevent swimmers from clashing arms and legs, especially prevalent when swimming breaststroke or fly. Pay attention to the direction of travel which is normally advertised at the end of each lane to avoid agitating/confusing others.

Stick to your side
We know what it’s like, you’re 2K into a swim set and your mind starts to wander, you’re not paying attention in the same way as you were at the start of the set, and as you start thinking about what you’ll have for dinner you begin to migrate away from the rope. Before you know it you’re squeezing another swimmer against the opposite lane rope as you swim down the middle of the lane. While it happens to the best of us sometimes, it’s worth continually checking your proximity to the black line to ensure you’re swimming to the side of it rather than on top of it.

Only swim backstroke if you’re confident
As triathletes few of us will swim backstroke with any regularity, but it’s a good choice for swimming down as it loosens out the shoulders from the repetitive action of freestyle swimming. However if sharing a lane with others think carefully before you start breaking out backstroke, as it takes considerable practice to stay swimming in a straight line. I’ll put my hand up and admit my backstroke leaves a lot to be desired, so to avoid swimming into another lane companion, I practice it during quieter periods when I only have the lane ropes to contend with.

Put your ego in a box
One of the frustrations of swimming is how those who are young and very fit can flounder in the pool, and find themselves passed by people three times their age who they would leave for dead in other sports. Suck it up, and allow faster swimmers to overtake you. If a faster swimmer appears alongside you, back off a little bit to allow them to make the pass, rather than surging forwards in an effort to prevent them getting past you. The swimmer overtaking you is probably sprinting to get the pass made before a swimmer coming the opposite way hits them, back off momentarily and let them get on with their swim, you’d expect someone else to do the same for you.

Give the swimmer in front space
If you’re getting ready for a fast set and a swimmer you’re sharing the lane with is 5 seconds per 100 slower than you, give them a lot of space ahead of you in the pool before you start your set so you don’t immediately end up on their feet. It’s not rocket science but you’d be surprised how many people do just this.

Consider splitting the lane
If there are only two of you in the lane, consider communicating and splitting it down the middle, sticking to one side each. This can create issues with swimming adjacent to swimmers travelling in the same direction in other lanes, but it the two of you are the fastest in the pool yet still swimming at very different speeds, splitting the lane may be the most sensible way to ensure you both enjoy your swim. Keep an eye out for new swimmers arriving, as you’ll have to return to circular swimming to accommodate a third swimmer.

Butterfly is acceptable
Contentious I know, but those who want to swim fly have to train somewhere, and there aren’t butterfly specific pools or lanes. Many see it as an anti-social stroke due to the splash created from an effective fly kick, but as long as you’re not tearing up the middle of the lane, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. It’s great fun and very rewarding to learn, while the dolphin kick saving you valuable seconds in shallow water during races.

Don’t be a dick
You won’t be able to get the swim you want to every week due to other swimmers who are slowing you down or otherwise interfering with your set, this is a fact of life and unless you rent a lane or swim in a private pool, you’re going to have to put up with other swimmers. If someone is swimming very fast and is in the fast lane, they’s well within their rights. If someone is swimming slowly in the slow lane, they’re well within their rights. If somebody’s swimming is really irritating you and interfering with your set, just try talking to them between lengths, they may be unaware of the impact their actions are having and you should be able to find a compromise.

Just like driving or cycling on the roads, nobody wants to have to slow down for others, but a bit of consideration and patience goes a long way to a positive swimming environment. If you swim at the same time each week you’ll slowly get to know the swimmers you share a lane with, make an effort to learn their swimming patterns and do what you can to ensure a harmonious environment for everyone to swim in. If it all gets a bit much, consider joining a swimming/triathlon club where things are better regulated and rules enforced, you’ll also have the bonus of coached feedback and other swimmers to compare yourself against.

Swim Training Options

There are a multitude of swimming venues, ranging from council run pools to the open sea, which environment is right for triathletes to train in? Let’s look at the options.

Local Authority Pool

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Tottenham Green Pool 

 

These are found all around the western world, normally run by the local council, they provide accessible swimming for all. Their primary function is for teaching children to swim and for recreational activities. Many will ban fins and/or hand paddles as they can be deemed a risk to other pool users, and may not use ropes during fitness swim sessions.

For most of the day large areas of the pool will be roped off for swimming lessons which are the main source of income for the pool, and whenever you share water with children you run a higher risk of the pool being closed due to unwanted bodily fluids. Sadly all of this is not conclusive to a reliable and predictable training environment in a sport where constituency is key.

Pros: affordable swim only memberships available, easy to find, often the only option available
Cons: mostly non/weak swimmers with no appreciation or awareness of fitness swimmers, large areas often closed for lessons, training aids often banned

Health club pool

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Merton Abbey Pool, image credit Nuffield Health

Found in more expensive gyms, these are normally well maintained and quiet pools with very light use, in the day you can normally have the fast lane to yourself if you time it right. However they are often shorter than 25M which causes issues when calculating pace and for swim sets which are often designed for 25M pools.

Pros: quiet, clean, often include facilities like saunas and steam rooms, can use training aids
Cons: expensive, can be short and shallow

Competition pool

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London Aquatics Centre, image credit e-architect

50M in length and normally with eight lanes, these provide a very spacious and fitness focused environment to train in. They are at least 1.8M deep which can be intimidating for weaker swimmers who may feel uncomfortable swimming out of their depth for the entirety of the length. There is a considerable benefit to swimming in a 50M pool for triathletes as there is less time spent pushing and gliding from the wall, better replicating the demands of open water swimming. The calibre of swimmer you encounter in these pools is much greater than most, so lane etiquette is better observed and you’re less likely to find a breaststroker in the fast lane.

Pros: less time spent turning, mostly accommodating swimmers in lanes, full length lanes always available
Cons: less suitable for nervous swimmers, can be hard to find, you’re likely to get overtaken by a 12 year old

Lido

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The mighty 100 yard Tooting Bec Lido, image credit Nick Cooper

Once the pride and joy of the British seaside, lidos started falling into disrepair when cheap holidays to the continent started appearing and numbers fell dramatically. They are in the middle of something or a rebirth in recent years as sites are refurbished and new pools being opened. As they are outside they act as a gentle transition between indoor pool swimming and the open water, learning to share the water with wildfowl and leaves will better prepare you for your first visit to a lake.

They are normally 50M or more, with heated and unheated versions available. Unheated can actually be preferable as they allow you to swim in your wetsuit to get acclimatised to swimming in cold water. Some use lanes where as some are more of a free for all, it’s worth asking local club members what their experiences of the lido is before signing up for a membership.

Pros: gentle transition to open water swimming, quiet for most of the year, chance to swim in your wetsuit
Cons: extremely busy in summer, can be seasonal

Organised open water venue

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London Royal Docks Open Water Swim

From lakes to docklands and everything in between, these venues comprise of a marked course with water safety cover provided by organisers. Expect to pay £5-£10 a swim to cover venue and staffing costs.

These are the ideal training venue in many respects, as they replicate the environment you’ll be swimming in, even if your race is a sea swim a lake will prepare you much better than the pool, the more time you spend in open water the more comfortable you’ll become. However it is much harder to work on your stroke and receive feedback from a coach in open water,

Pros: safe environment to train in, marked courses, replicates race conditions, more enjoyable than pool swimming, builds open water confidence, coaching options available
Cons: can be pricey, difficult to work on stroke technique

Wild swimming

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The Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye. It’d be rude not to really… Image credit Visit Scotland

Whether exploring a secluded quarry or splashing around in waterfall pools, wild swimming has become increasingly popular recently as people aim to escape the boundaries of conventional swimming and just enjoy being in the water. There are however very few venues in the UK where you can legally go wild swimming, with most bodies of water being on private property, and owners keen to keep trespassers off their land, as it is a huge liability should an accident occur on their land, the exception to this is bodies of water in national parks. There will be no safety cover provided and with the sharp drop in water temperatures experienced in many bodies of water, we cannot recommend swimming in unknown bodies of water.

Pros: free, life affirming
Cons: little scope for meaningful training, no water safety cover, extremely cold

Sea swimming 

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Sea Swimming at the Brighton Aquathlon, with adequate water safety cover in place. Image credit Brightonsports

Sea swimming comes in two flavours, lifeguarded beach swimming (read splashing around) and swimming for fitness/adventure. The first will often involve swimming in a roped area where you can barely get out of your depth, but even if you swim outside of the marked area. If you choose to venture outside of this marked area you do so at your own risk.

Sea swimming is the ultimate swimming adventure, but should be handled with immense respect. Always ensure a friend or family member is watching from the shore with a pair of binoculars, and enough mobile signal to alert the RNLI if you get into trouble. Before swimming in the sea, chat to local swimmers about the conditions and the best time to swim, some stretches of water are simply too treacherous to swim in.

Pros: The best way to prepare for a sea swim, life affirming, free
Cons: Limited lifeguard cover, no marked courses, potentially dangerous

Conclusion
In an ideal world I would recommend an athlete alternates between a competition pool, a managed open water venue and responsible sea swimming. If there are no competition pools nearby then a health club pool is the next best bet for uninterrupted swimming.

 

 

The Importance of Sports Massage

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Alex Gold of Active Biomechanics gets to work on releasing a client’s quadriceps 

Sports massage is a term that you may well have heard thrown around in magazines or at club training, which can initially conjure up images of candles and whale music while a beautiful masseur lightly releases the tension in your muscles. Unfortunately this is about as far from the truth as you can get, a sports massage normally involves being taken into the spare bedroom of someone’s flat, or dumped onto a treatment table at the finish line of a race, where someone inflicts so much pain on you that many people compare it to childbirth. However as triathletes we are no strangers to pain, and these beatings should become a regular part of your training ritual.

So what is the purpose of the pain? Why should we pay someone good money to beat us within an inch of our lives? The benefit is two fold, injury prevention/treatment and addressing imbalances. Muscles will slowly tighten over weeks, months and years of training until they become so tight that they overwork another muscle group, pull on a tendon or trap a nerve, all of which can result in substantial time sat at home unable to train, every athlete’s worst nightmare. As someone who has spent the last three years battling injury, I’m trying to help people recognise how important a regular sports massage is to your training.

When you first visit a new masseur they will ask you a few questions about any injuries you’re suffering from along with a brief history of your health to allow them to treat you effectively. They will then conduct some flexibility tests which normally involve a lot of sucking of teeth in my experience, before they knuckle down with the hard work.

Normally from the initial assessment and some prodding they’ll have a good idea of what’s causing the pain. It may be that your knee pain actually comes from your glutes or your plantar problems can be traced to your hamstring, the whole kinetic chain that runs through your body is incredibly complex and it requires an experienced professional to locate where the problem is coming from. Once they’ve located the problem, they can begin the treatment.

How painful they are depends on how supple you are, if you have been training for years and never had one, you may want to find something hard to bite into for your first visit, but if you make monthly or bi-monthly visits to the treatment table the experience will be altogether more bearable. The methods of sports masseurs vary between each individual, but primarily involve applying pressure to different areas to relax and release the muscle. Often the pain of the treatment is followed by a brief moment of ecstasy as the muscle releases, before they move onto the next area and the ordeal begins again.

How much pressure they apply depends on the severity of the injury and your own tolerance for pain, I’ve had it before when a masseur has rubbed oils to my IT band which has made me whince, “You won’t like it when I get the elbow in then!” he quipped. The experienced therapist will use conversation as a means of judging how much pain you are in and how much pressure they can apply.

If you arrange treatment for a specific injury then the vast majority, if not all of the session will be spent working on that area, however if you simply ask for a tune up they will spend more time working on various areas of the body, focusing on areas that are worked heavily by your sport of choice. Prevention is better than cure, and even if you are not experiencing any significant tightness or pain, a regular massage will help keep things supple and improve your performance.

However sports massage does have its limitations, sometimes the cause of the tightness is so deep within the muscle that trigger point therapy may be able to get where a masseur’s elbow cannot, and some people even report acupuncture has helped them overcome injuries. Both of these methods are considered alternative treatment by medical bodies and results cannot be guaranteed.

Sports massage is invaluable, but there is a lot that you can do to help keep muscles supple in you day to day life. A thorough warm up and cool down for every training session is very important, it’s tempting simply to collapse over the line or through the door and spend the rest of the day horizontal, but time spent gently turning the legs over followed by some gentle stretching will help prevent injury.

You should also enlist the help of a foam roller to release tension after hard training sessions. Foam rolling techniques warrant a separate article themselves but the basics are moving the foam roller up and down the tight muscle until you find the most painful spot and holding it for 30 seconds, or until the muscle releases. This will go a long way to preventing injury, but the occasional services of a professional who can reach deep into the tissue are still important.

After three years of relentless training and racing, I have since spent three years battling injury caused by neglecting sports massage and foam rolling, and hope to save my athletes/readers from the same fate. If it’s something you’ve been meaning to get round to, now is the time to take the plunge to help avoid an injury blighted season.

The Importance of the Off Season

The off season is the period between the last race of your season and the first structured training session of the next year, it is arguably the most important part of the year for athletes, as our body needs time to rest and recover from the season of hard racing and training.

This is often a period of the year I struggle to guide some athletes through, as they instinctively want to keep training and racing, especially if this if their first few years of racing in multisport. This is partly due to a puppy dog level of excitement, they’ve found this fantastic new hobby and want to keep going, but is also linked to a fear of losing hard earned fitness from the previous year. Here we take a look at why it’s so important to coast your way through the off season and vastly reduce training volume/intensity.

First and foremost, as a species we are not meant to be active for 52 weeks of the year, the winter was traditionally a time of rest and a fight for survival, stockpiling resources and trying to stay warm. While we now have innovations such as central heating and Gore-Tex to get us through these winter months, the body still expects a period of down time each year. This is why the winter is the ideal opportunity to wind down, although if you’re big into your cyclocross and/or duathlon you may wish to skew your year slightly so it starts and finishes later.

It’s natural for us to put on a little bit of weight and take things easier for a short period over the winter, but this doesn’t have to be for the duration of the season, just a handful of weeks. This should be a minimum two weeks, and even up to 6 weeks in some circumstances, which will depend on how well you recover as an athlete. If you are a lifelong competitor in their 30s then you can probably get away with only a couple of weeks, but if you’re a masters athlete or someone who is very new to the sport and feeling run down, a six week break is preferable to throwing yourself back into training too early.

Training and competing in triathlon is hard, really hard, and it’s easy to lose sight of this. When training your body will be in a near constant state of stress, which prolonged exposure to will eventually take its toll. Overtraining is the single greatest threat to an athlete’s progress, and has bought many promising athlete’s careers to a premature end. While we’re probably not looking at fatigue on this level, we still want to turn up to race day feeling fresh and ready to go, rather than beleaguered and nonchalant about our race.

I’m going to take this opportunity to tell you about a friend of mine who I used to ride with, let’s call him Jack. Jack, was and is a very talented cyclist, we both started road cycling around the same time and we both joined a low profile cycling club in the spring of 2013. He spent the year heading out on rides with groups faster than him, hanging on by the skin of his teeth, until week after week it got easier, and he eventually started leading the faster rides himself. When November came many of us took the month off, and restarted training in December with long, easy rides, however Jack declared “I don’t believe in base training”, containing to lead rides every weekend, racing people up the hills and giving it full gas all the way through the winter. When April came Jack was so exhausted that he started suffering from chronic fatigue and had to take the rest of the summer off of the sport he loved while his body slowly recovered.

While this is something of an extreme example, it serves as a reminder of the physical dangers that come with constant training. The other side of the coin is the advantages of time off. You may be keen to crack on with next year’s training, especially if you’ve just signed up to your A race, but training solidly for 11 months ahead of your race is going to involve a lot of ups and downs, a small break of a few weeks will help you come back with a renewed hunger. This is perhaps of more importance to experienced athletes than novices who will be keen to ride the wave.

It’s an important time for goal setting and reflection as well, time away from the pool and the open road will help you remember why you started in the first place, as well as helping you question what it is you want to achieve. You’ve signed up for a big race, but why are you doing it? Why did you pick that race? What do you realistically hope to achieve? This is a good opportunity to sit down with a coach to help choose some realistic goals, and devise a plan for achieving them.

Rather than feeling destitute at the lack of training, use is as an opportunity to spend more time with your family and enjoy other active pastimes. Go for walks with your family, try a new sport which interests you such as rowing, you could even have a go at improving your weaker strokes to mix up your swimming sets. I encourage athletes to do a bit of training here and there if they feel like it, but it should be purely for enjoyment and done at a steady pace.

A coach is there not simply to set you a series of workouts every week, but to get you to the finish line in the fastest time possible, and time off at the end of the year is an important part of the process.

Introduction to Running Injuries

 

Running injuries are, unfortunately, part and parcel of running, with 65% of runners experiencing some kind of injury every year. However permanent damage and elongated time off of running are avoidable, let’s start looking at different types of running injury.

Impact Injuries

These are injuries which are as a result of getting it wrong while running or in day to day life, they can be anything from tripping on a tree root, rolling your ankle off the edge of a kerb or breaking a bone. Sometimes you just drop the ball momentarily or run out of luck and this will result in enforced time off of running. Luckily these are generally easy to treat as the body will heal itself in time and allow you to gradually return to running. There can be complications along the way, especially with complex fractures around the ankle joint, so always follow the advice of a medical practitioner before you return to running. As a result, there’s not too much point me dwelling on them here, so let me move onto the more common kind of running injury.

Overuse injuries

The bane of many a runner, these occur when you run too far, too fast or with poor form. These injuries traditionally affect the tendons and ligaments in the lower body but only occur after prolonged abuse, so learning the warning signs of these injuries is vital to avoid prolonged time sidelined. Let’s look at the most common running injuries

Achilles Tendonitis

This is one of the most widespread running injuries, and can take a long time to recover from. This manifests itself as a pain in the back of the ankle, although can be felt anywhere from the base of the heel to higher up the calf. This is caused by the stretching or inflammation of the achilles tendon, normally as a result of being pulled by a tight calf muscle.

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Image credit Foot Pain Explained

Achilles tendonitis is an especially dangerous injury as it can easily lead to a rupturing of the achilles tendon, which can require a long rehabilitation period or even surgery. The rupture can occur with very little warning, and has even been known to be audible to those nearby! For this reason it is very important to monitor this injury carefully and if in doubt stop running.

If you nip this injury in the bud you shouldn’t have any problems, but leave it for a prolonged period and it can be very difficult to recover from as the achilles tendon is a long way from the heart, so it takes a long time for enough blood to reach the tendon to repair it. Foam rolling and sports massage to loosen the calf is the best treatment, combined with regular icing to encourage blood flow.

Piriformis Syndrom 

The piriformis is a little known muscle that sits deep within the glutes, and prevents the knee from rotating too much. If the piriformis becomes tight it has a tendency to squeeze the sciatic nerve and cause pain when running, which is intensified when sitting.

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Image credit Back Pain Advisor

Tightness in the muscle is often caused by weak hamstrings, glues or hip muscles, and can also be caused by excessive overpronation, causing the piriformis to work hard stabilising the knee, resulting in tightness.

Treatment involves stretches that target the glutes and foam rolling the area to release tight muscles. If you have a history of piriformis problems, you can use exercises to strengthen the glutes combined with foam rolling to ensure you stay pain free. It may also be worth getting an assessment of your kinetic chain by a coach or personal trainer to help assess whether you suffer with any weaknesses that can be addressed.

Iliotibial Band (ITB) Syndrom 

One of the hardest injuries to shift if left untreated, it manifests itself as pain in the outside of the knee, or in the IT band itself. The IT band is a very large fascial band which runs from the hip down to the knee, and can be pulled tight by a variety of problems which can include tight hip flexors, overpronating or weak core muscles/glutes.

IT-band-syndrome-illustration
Image credit Vive Health

For all cases of ITBS I recommend immediately seeing a physiotherapist to help locate the cause of the pain, as it can come from various sources. To prevent problems ensure you foam roll regularly to keep muscles loose and strengthen your core/glutes to give your body a stable platform to run on, reducing strain on other areas.

Plantar Fasciitis 

A phrase that fills many runners with dread, this is an especially troublesome running injury not because of excessive pain but the difficulty many face in returning to running after suffering with symptoms.

The planter fascia is a strip of connective tissue that runs along the bottom of your foot from your heel to your metatarsals (long bones that run along your toes). It has the rather unfortunate position of being at the bottom of the kinetic chain, so tightness in any muscles on the lower body could eventually work their way down the leg to pull on the plantar. The function of the planter is to stabilise the foot, which means that those with high arches, which will put the planter under more strain, are at more of a risk.

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Image credit First Aid 4 Sport

The pain will normally manifest itself as a pulling in the heel, although can be experienced along the bottom of the foot towards the arch in rare circumstances. To treat the injury a two pronged approach is recommended, both releasing the plantar itself using a golf or tennis ball, alongside stretching and releasing the calf to reduce any pulling on the planter from further up the kinetic chain. These exercises along with barefoot running can be used to prevent an athlete from developing plantar fasciitis.

If you suffer with symptoms it is important to treat them immediately to stop the injury becoming chronic, which can result in a long time away from running.

Runner’s Knee

Patello-femoral knee syndrome, also known as runner’s knee is a common running injury that causes pain around the knee joint, and is especially painful when ascending or descending stairs.

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Image Credit Body Heal

This is traditionally caused by weak or tight quadriceps which will pull the knee tight during exercise, but can also be caused by overactive or weak hamstrings, something a medical professional will have to evaluate.

The best prevention is loosening your quads with a sports massage and regular foam rolling combined with strengthening exercises such as plyometric jumps. It is worth mentioning that unlike other injuries, rest will not help you recover from runner’s knee.

Shin Splints

There are two types of shin splints, muscular and skeletal.

Most cases are skeletal and if left untreated can lead to fractures so it’s important to rest and slowly increase running volume. This is especially common in new runners who increase the load too quickly when their body is not used to the strains that running places on the body. It is also more common in larger athletes who put more strain through their body with every step. There is little that can be done to help strengthen the body to prevent against shin splints, but it may be worth reviewing whether you are getting enough vitamin D.

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Image credit physiopedia

If you run your finger along the inside of your tibia and feel the muscle is sore rather than the bone, it is possible the pain is muscular, which accounts for roughly 10% of cases. The best treatment is rest combined with foam rolling of the muscles in the area to loosen them and release pressure. The causes of muscular shin splints are similar to skeletal, running too far/fast too soon.

Hopefully this has given you an insight into the most common injuries, to summarise the warning signs you should look out for:
Pulling on the back of the heel- Achilles tendonitis
Pain on the bottom of your feel- Plantar fasciitis
Pain on the outside of your knee- ITB syndrome
Dull pain above/below the knee- Runner’s knee
Pain in the shin during or after running- Shin splints
Pain deep within your glutes- Piriformis syndrome

Each running injury should be treated in the same fashion

  1. Immediately stop running or drastically lower running volume. If you are experiencing pain when running, it is for body’s way of warning you that you are doing damage.
  2. Locate the cause of the injury, preferably by visiting a professional. They will not be able to cure the injury for you, rather prescribe you with a series of exercises to help recovery.
  3. Follow up on the exercises prescribed by the professional. If there is no improvement after several weeks it may be worth visiting your GP to ensure it is nothing more serious.
  4. Get your running gait analysed to check for any areas of weaknesses that may have caused the injury, or any effects the injury may have had on your gait.
  5. Slowly return to running and try not to adjust your gait to favour the afflicted area, as this will likely cause issues elsewhere. Continue with the stretching and strengthening exercises prescribed to you to reduce the risk of the injury relapsing.

If you have taken time off with injury and are looking to get back into training E-mail Simon@phazontriathlon.com or call on 07515666325 and we can discuss the best way for you to make a successful return to running.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed to educate athletes on the symptoms, causes and basic treatment of the most common running injuries and should not be considered to be medical advice. If symptoms last more than a week or you are in any doubt, visit a medical professional for advice on the causes of your injury and a rehabilitation program.