For many, music and triathlon training go hand in hand. They can’t imagine running without their favourite band spurring them on, and are aghast at the prospect of racing without their headphones.
To start with I’m going to look at why personal music is banned at races, then I’m going to look at the effect, and practicality training to music has on each of the three sports respectively.
The vast majority of events will ban the use of headphones. To many this will seem cruel beyond measure. They’ve done all their triathlon training with music, what will happen when it’s taken away?
The primary reason is for athlete safety. If someone is running along with music blaring in their ears, they cannot hear instructions from race officials or other athletes calling out to let them know they’re trying to pass.
Last month I ran the London Marathon, and coming into the last 3KM was in a very congested group. We were making our way through a tunnel when an ambulance appeared behind us. We all jumped onto the pavement or got out of the way somehow except for one guy who was holding up the ambulance listening to very loud music through headphones he had insisted on using, completely oblivious of the obstruction he was creating. It was not done out of any spite or malice, and I’m sure he felt dreadful when he finally realised what was happening, but it’s a textbook example of why we have the rule in races.
On race day, whether it’s your first 5K or an Ironman marathon, there will be more than enough distractions to keep your mind distracted. From cheering residents to music from boom boxes, or steel bands to chatting with other athletes, it is unlikely your brain will be starved for stimulation in the same way it might be when running laps around a local park.
The best way to prepare for the lack of music in races is to train without it, even if it’s only for short periods. The motivation and practicalities for listening to music in each sport is slightly different, so let’s break them down.
Running with music
Running and music go together incredibly well. There are very few athletes in the western world who haven’t headed out for a run while listening to music.
The primary reason for this is that, especially when you start, running is hard work. Most of us begin running under a form of duress. Everyone else at work is signing up for a charity 5K. You need to learn to run for a triathlon. Your partner is strong arming you into it. Very few of us as non-runners wake up one morning, look outside the window and say to themselves “You know what would make my day better? Pushing my body to its limit with a run”.
Now, I love running, but it can be a hard sell and it’s really tough to get started. When I started my triathlon training, music with my runs went hand in hand. I was in my early 20s and single, a time on your life where angst guitar riffs and lyrics based about frustration just hit differently.
It’s worth thinking however about the really fast runners you see when our training. You know the ones, build like a beanpole, calves like sculpted marble and what looks like an effortless stride. How many of them overtake you with Slayer blaring from their headphones at max volume? Not many.
The reason for this is that their running has evolved from being something they put themselves through, to something which brings joy and an almost mediative effect. Rather than use music to push them on, they instead soak up the sounds of the world around them, and enjoy the solace it brings.
I understand this can sound slightly flakey and woo woo, but there is more to it than that. Truly great runners are as good as they are because they listen to their body, especially their breathing pattern and footfall. If their breathing becomes more ragged, their foot strikes heavier, this is a sign they are fatiguing, and may want to back off, depending on where they are in the race/workout. Data is great, but you never know how your body will react on the day. Just because you had a target pace in mind six months ago, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to pull it off if you slept poorly the night before, had a rough bike, or simply aren’t feeling it for whatever reason. Listening for cues from your body are key here, and it’s hard to pick up on those cues while you’re listening to the Backstreet Boys.
I rarely listen to music on my runs these days, but I will do my long, easy runs listening to a podcast. I keep the volume low though, so I can hear bikes approaching me on the bridleway, or faster runners who are asking to pass me. If you run in urban environments, it’s important to be aware of traffic noise, and in some environments, to ensure there is nobody around you who could do you harm.
Cycling with music
Where running with music helps dull the pain, cycling is often more about curing boredom, or having something to focus on other than the sound of traffic. However, safety is a much bigger issue on the bike, where you need to be acutely aware of where cars are and what they’re doing. There is a lot of victim blaming in the press about cyclists being hit by drivers while wearing headphones and I don’t want to be seen to be facilitating this, but as so many motorists can be driving distracted, you need to have your wits around you to keep you as safe as possible. If you’re approaching a pinch point in the road and someone starts to accelerate aggressively behind you, this is important information you need to be aware of, so you can react accordingly.
In the past I have listened to music while road cycling, but made a rule early on of only having one earbud in to ensure I could still hear traffic. Now I can’t imagine cycling with music, because as much as anything I feel it would ruin the mood.
Indoor training is another matter however. If I’m going to be on the turbo, staring at a screen watching my avatar make his way through the same roads I’ve ridden dozens of times, you’d better believe I’m putting my tunes on. There’s no way I’m doing 45 minutes of intervals at V02 max in my garage without some help from The Chemical Brothers, and there is evidence to support an improvement in performance. You can listen to audiobooks or even watch TV, but I personally find that the general unpleasantness of turbo training means my attention has a habit of drifting.
On the run leg of a triathlon there are distractions wherever you look, but on the bike there are generally very few distractions other than the scenery, the variety of which varies drastically. You can be largely on your own for up to nine hours as you make your way round an Ironman bike course. If you require a pair of headphones to keep you occupied on a two hour ride, you’re going to have trouble maintaining focus over longer distances, which will affect your performance.
Swimming with music
Swimming is the sport where listening to music is the most difficult, and also the sport where music is the least appealing for me personally.
You can buy waterproof headphones to use in the pool, and I’ve played around with some in the past, but never got on with them. If you are using a separate device such as an MP3 player clipped to your goggles, there is very limited storage for music and operation can be fiddly. If they work wirelessly with your phone then not only will you need to take your phone onto the pool deck, which is a theft risk, but they are prone to dropouts and distortion at the other end of a 25M pool, let alone a longer pool. Some models will be better than others here, but how much money are you willing to invest?
In the 21st century we are almost permanently attached to our digital lives. Like many small business owners I like to be with my phone as much as possible to respond to enquiries from potential clients. For the rest of us we enjoy the endorphin hit of a social media comment, like, or funny video to pass the time. In the spa area at my gym I even see people scrolling Instagram or watching the match in the jacuzzi pool.
Swimming is one of the few chances we have to step away from the internet and simply exist as ourselves. Ploughing up and down a lane is one of my happy places, as I can get lost completely in my thoughts. I can take the time to think over my problems, what I want for dinner, business ideas, how I want to spend my weekend, process my emotions or anything else which has been bubbling under the surface. I essentially wrote this article in my head while swimming 2.5KM last night.
If I was swimming 4KM twice a day as part of a development squad I would probably feel slightly differently about this, but as most triathletes will swim 2-3 times a week, do we really need to go to great lengths and expense to listen to Fleetwood Mac during that time?
We’re all individuals, and there could well be a reason that you need to keep yourself as distracted as possible at all times, but most of us could probably do with unplugging for a couple of hours a week.
Strength and Conditioning
Just a footnote here really. If you include strength and conditioning in your training (which you do, don’t you?!), then there are no downsides to listening to music in the gym, the soundscape of men grunting and dropping weights is hardly atmospheric, and it’s not like your triathlon race involves any weightlifting.
There is nothing inherently wrong with listening to music while triathlon training, but it’s important not to become reliant on it to the point that the absence of it makes you feel anxious. As your relationship with training develops over time, you will likely become less reliant on music to keep you motivated, and I recommend you embrace this.
Bone conduction headphones are available to purchase which help improve your awareness while listening to music, but they are still banned at most races, so I recommend not becoming overly reliant on them.
The Ironman Hawaii in Kailua-Kona catches the imagination of thousands across the world every year. Many will see some of the fittest athletes in the world racing across the lava fields and vow that they’re going to go race there themselves. A few minutes on google however teaches us that we can’t simply pay for £100 for an entry and hop on a plane to go race, we first need to qualify. Which brings us to the question, how do I qualify for Kona?
My name is Simon Olney, I’m a British Triathlon High Performing Coach who has helped athletes qualify for various world championship events, including Kona, and wanted to share some insights and tips to help you achieve your dream of racing on the big island.
Qualifying for Kona is hard, really hard. There are a few things you probably need in place before you can start to think seriously about qualifying in most cases. You don’t need to hit every single one of these as we all have our weaknesses, but if you don’t hit at least a few of these points, you may want to reassess whether this is the right time for you to think about qualifying for Kona.
A few Ironman finishes under your belt
These don’t have to be official Ironman events, but it’s extremely rare that someone turns up to their first Ironman and punches their ticket to Kona. It happens, but if you are an Ironman virgin you should focus instead on enjoying your first race and soaking up the moment. Most athletes who qualify for Kona have around 3-5 iron distance finishes under their belts, although there are always outliers.
The ability to swim 3800M in around an hour without exhaustion
Some athletes will want to be looking at closer to 55 minutes, while some female and older athletes can afford to be close to 1:05, but for the most part you can’t afford to be swimming much slower than 1:10 in good conditions. To qualify for Kona you need to be a well rounded triathlete, you can’t really afford to hand your rivals 10-15 minutes in the first hour.
As wetsuits are banned at Kona you also need to be able to swim 3800M confidently in the sea without a wetsuit. You don’t need to be able to swim a particular speed in these conditions, but if the thought fills you with dread you may want to reconsider your objectives.
A good quality bike
I’m not sure how many people have qualified for Kona on a road bike with clip on aero bars and stock wheels over the years, but I don’t think it’s many. If you want to race in Hawaii, you need to invest some cash on your rig. This isn’t to say that you need to drop £10,000 on the latest superbike, but a £1500 TT bike and around £1000 on wheels are probably a good starting point. You can buy speed in triathlon, especially on the bike, so you may want to put some money aside here if you’re serious about qualifying. Money spend on a bike fit, aero helmet and fast tyres is also money well spent.
You of course need to be able to ride the bike very fast, but it’s generally easier to improve cycling speed than swimming or running speed, so I’m not giving any time/fitness benchmarks here.
The ability to run a good for age marathon time and no injuries
Good for age (or GFA) is a time used by some larger marathons to guarantee entrants a place. For a male under 40 this is usually around the three hour mark to give you a ballpark idea. While you don’t need to hit this time exactly, if you are unable to come close to this time you’ll need a really special swim and bike ride to put yourself in contention.
Athletes don’t generally run GFA times during Ironman marathons, and you don’t even need to run that time in training (I’d actively discourage it in the run-up to a qualifying event), but knowing that kind of time is technically achievable by you is important. For example, if a 30 something athlete run a 3:10 a few years ago, and a 1:20 half marathon last year, they know that a 3 hour marathon is probably in their wheelhouse, which will suffice.
Additionally, you want to make sure you aren’t starting your training with any notable injuries. As we get older we will likely be managing a minor chronic issue of some sort which flares up if we’re not on top of the stretching and strength work, but you can’t afford to start your training without being able to run a half marathon pain free.
At least 10 hours a week to train
Time is the currency we all wish we had more of, and this is definitely true of athletes. I’m not suggesting you need to train 10 hours every single week, and you will want to be training much more on some weeks (closer to 15-16 hours), but if you look at your schedule and can’t see a way of fitting in 10 hours in a standard week due to other commitments, you’d need to be very genetically gifted to qualify for Kona.
Qualifying and racing for Kona is eye wateringly expensive. For the qualifying event you’re likely looking at around £1000 minimum including accommodation and travel, then you’ll need to shell out the best part of another grand for your Kona slot, which must be paid for the day after the race. Once you qualify for Kona you then need to book your accommodation which can run into the thousands, especially if you qualify with only a few months until race day when there isn’t much left. Add onto this flights, expensive food (Hawaii is not a cheap place at the best of times) and the like, suddenly you’re looking at a very large bill. This isn’t to deter you, but I’d hate for someone to put a year of hard work into qualifying, only to realise closer to the time they can’t afford to go.
Choosing a Race
One of the most important choices to make in your Kona journey is picking the race you want to qualify at. This needs to be a race that suits your physiology more than your current ability. For example if you are a very lightweight athlete, it doesn’t matter how good you are on hilly courses currently, you’re unlikely be able to put out the raw power on a flat course to be competitive, so you’ll need to learn to get better on the hills if you want to make the most of your physiological advantage.
Here are a number of factors and considerations you may want to look at when choosing/booking a race.
Are you an athlete who thrives in difficult swim conditions? You may want to choose a late season sea swim to exploit this advantage, in the hope that conditions are sufficiently challenging to give you an advantage over your rivals. Are you a weaker swimmer? In that case a lake swim outside of high summer (to reduce the chance of a non wetsuit swim) is probably a safer bet for you.
Additionally, if you are a stronger swimmer you’ll want to do your research and see if the swim at an event you’re considering has a history of being shortened or even cancelled. I can think of a couple of races which to my knowledge have always had the swim modified in some way, which would be giving away your advantage. Equally, if you swim like a brick, this kind of race might be higher up your list.
The bike course is the biggest variable at any Ironman. A very slow bike course can add up to an hour relative to a fast course. This is primarily due to elevation, but the road surface, technicality and weather conditions also play a large part.
Rather than picking a bike course which is fast and will get you onto the run faster, focus instead on a course which will allow you to put in the most time on your rivals. If you excel at short punchy climbs, the longer you’re on the bike, the bigger buffer you can start the run with. Equally, if you used to prop up a rugby scrum in years gone by, you’re unlikely to excel on the mountains of Nice, so would need to look at a flatter course, regardless of how easy Nice is to get to or connections you have with the area.
The run really doesn’t change too much between events, but if you are a pocket rocket, a hilly run course could help you make the most of your advantage.
Choosing the right location of your race is pivotal if you want to qualify for Kona. Beyond the course itself you need to think of logistics. How familiar you will be with the local cuisine and the competition you can expect. If you want to qualify in Europe you’ll need to be able to ride a bike well over challenging terrain. If you want to qualify in the US the quality of swimming will generally be higher, and you’ll want to get very used to sitting in aero for hours at a time on their long, straight roads. You will also want to make sure you’re familiar with the local language and culture to avoid finding yourself in a sticky situation, whether this is none of your payment methods being accepted by locals or being dragged down the local police station for indecency after going for a sea swim. Enough can go wrong over the course of an Ironman weekend without additional stress.
What’s the average temperature like? Chance of rain? Humidity? Elevation? Wind? While there is never any guarantee that conditions on the day will hit the average for that time of year, there are normally some givens. Such as Vichy being very hot, Weymouth being wet, Wales being windy and Bahrain being non wetsuit. While wind will slow everyone down, if you’re very aero it may give you an advantage. If you are riding on the coast where gusts are more common however, the crosswinds may run the risk of blowing you off the bike if you are a lighter athlete with deep wheels. There are dozens of factor to consider, which I can’t cover in detail here.
Kona is always going to be hot, but many see the world championship itself as a victory lap as much as a race. If you’re not great in the heat, you may want to choose a cooler climate to qualify in to avoid overheating on the run. If you are used to training in the European winter, a tougher race like Ironman UK may suit you, where the high chance of rain and poor quality roads won’t throw you as much as the newer or fair weather cyclists.
Time of Year
The Kona qualification cycle generally runs until late summer each year. Any races before this point (which changes from year to year) will help you qualify for this year’s event, while anyone who qualifies after this date will qualify for the next year’s event. If you target an early season event such as Lanzarote you may find the competition much stiffer as everyone wants to qualify for Kona nice and early so they can take a break, then focus on getting fit for Kona itself. The closer you race to Kona itself, the easier you’ll generally find qualification.
The handful of events between this cutoff and Kona itself are particularly fertile hunting ground, as anyone racing Kona that year will be starting their taper, so you’re less likely to be jostling with the fittest in your age group.
If you want to qualify for Kona, you need to forget about the roll down. Yes slots may traditionally roll down into the top 10 at your target event, but you can’t afford to rely on this if everyone ahead of you decides they want their slot. It’s impossible to know how many slots will be made available for each age group when you sign up as it depends on a number of factors, however races with a larger field will have more slots, and races designated as Women for Tri events will have more slots for female competitors. There are also slots available for executive challenge events, and a few other routes, however for the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume you’re looking at the traditional route.
As a general rule, the most popular age groups will have up to 5 slots, while the least popular age groups may only have one. Try to find out how many slots were available the year before, and look at the times the athletes finishing in those positions. If there were 5 slots available in your age group last year, look at the times the athlete who finished in 5th put in.
While overall time is more important than the individual splits, you also need to be realistic. If nobody in the top 5 swam anything over 58 minutes, and nobody in the top 10 swam anything over an hour, you need to get your swim to this level. They may have had a current on the day or the course may have been a bit short due to wandering swim buoys, but you probably can’t afford to swim a 1:15 and expect to be in with a chance. Many athletes tell themselves “It’s just the swim, it doesn’t really matter”, but can you imagine coming out of the water and standing at the swim exit for 15 minutes watching your rivals run past you? It would probably be the longest 15 minutes of your life.
To find your estimated bike time, I recommend heading over to bestbikesplit.com where you can create an account, put in some details on your bike, upload a GPX of the course you’re targeting, input your target power, and see what the model comes out with. You can play around with the sliders to see how much you would need to improve your drag coefficient or target power to hit the times required to qualify for Kona.
The saying in professional triathlon is “bike for show, run for dough”. It doesn’t matter how fast you can ride your bike if you can’t put in a solid marathon. As mentioned above, you don’t need to run a good for age time on the day, but you need to be able to run the vast majority of the course at a solid pace. The heat, elevation and wind will affect run times, so do a bit of research on the weather conditions of last year’s race before you get too confident. The winner of your age group may have run slower than your Ironman marathon PB last year, but if it was 40 degrees on the run course, that doesn’t mean you’d necessarily have been able to beat them.
At this point you should be able to put together what your ideal day might like. You may be looking at a 1 hour swim, 5:40 bike and 3:05 run. This gives you a total of 9:45. The winner of your age group last year completed the course in 9:42 and 5th place finished in 9:52. Game on. You don’t need to be able to run these times now, you should have at least nine months between these calculations and race day, but these numbers should at least feel within your reach. If they don’t, have a look at other events, do the same calculations, and see what they come out with.
The slots may well roll down, but by setting ourselves these high targets we are helping ourselves in two ways. Firstly, we may well not hit our target fitness. We may end up with covid a month out, have time off of running with a niggle or not have access to our bike for a fortnight during a warranty claim. Secondly, we may end up with a puncture on race day, another cyclist may crash into us, or you may miss a vital aid station. By setting ourselves targets based on the best case scenario from previous years times, we’re giving ourselves a buffer.
I’m not going to go into detail about training here, as it’s far too wide a subject to condense into a few paragraphs, however there are a few mistakes I recommend you avoid.
Firstly, Ironman is about building an aerobic engine. If you raced last year and did well, this doesn’t mean you should jump straight in with loads of big tempo rides and mile repeats to get faster for Kona qualification. There is absolutely a time and place for these sessions, but putting in lots of Z1/2 work will make you faster on its own without generating too much fatigue.
On the subject of starting too fast too soon, be mindful of how soon you start your training proper. If you are nine months out and start putting in 15 hour weeks in a fit of enthusiasm, your chances of maintaining that for the next nine months is… limited. Build into your volume sensibly, I recommend only dropping the hammer with 6-7 months to go in most cases. Until then strength work and easier sessions are your friend.
Focus on getting your nutrition as dialled in as you can. The athlete’s gut is a fickle beast and can malfunction on us with very little warning so there’s only so well you can safeguard yourself, but you can’t afford to just grab the nutrition on course and hope for the best. Work with a nutritionist or coach to help create a plan, and practice it in training.
Above all, stay consistent with your training. It sounds easy, but consistency is the hardest part. Make sure those in your support circle are on board, as you’re going to need them.
This is one of the few situations in triathlon where you will be directly racing those around you. Once the start list is finalised you may want to do some research on your competitors. Stick their names into google to see what comes up, or search the results list from previous events to see if their names come up. This will take a bit of time, but if you can identify those you will likely be racing against, this can be a big help.
Once you have their names and numbers, find their bikes in T1 so you can see what they look like. If you can find out what the athlete themselves look like, all the better. While I’m not suggesting you necessarily react to what they’re doing out on the bike course (they could be surging like an idiot, and may not even be looking to go to Kona), you can get an idea of where you are in the race, and more importantly get a look at them in their race suit ahead of the marathon. If you spot that athlete ahead of you in the last 5K of the run you know you’re racing them, and this could be the incentive to put in that extra surge to chase them down. Of course, unless your race or age group was a mass start the athlete up the road from you may technically be behind you, which leads me nicely onto my next point.
The best thing an athlete looking to qualify for Kona can have is a dedicated spectator with access to the app. They can use this to keep track of the race within your age group and let you know where you are, which is especially important coming out of the swim when you’ll have no idea of who’s where in relation to you. This is less useful on the bike where you’ll likely be riding to a power target and with limited chances to see your spectator, but on the marathon it can be a huge help. If they can share with you the fact you’re in 3rd place, currently the fastest in your age group on course and the leader is only ten minutes ahead of you, you know to keep doing what you’re doing without pushing any harder and risking blowing up. Equally if you’re slowly dropping down the order on the run, you may want to know this in case you decide it’s better to pull the plug to save your legs, and try again in a couple of months.
Something else you familiarise yourself with is the competition rules. One athlete at Ironman UK qualified for Kona, but was disqualified after the race simply for handing his wetsuit to his wife on his way into T1. The draft busters are also more vigilant at the sharper end of the race, so make sure you familiarise yourself with the letter of the rules.
I cannot emphasis this enough. If you want to go to Kona, you need to be at the ceremony the next day. I saw a story on social media of an athlete who qualified by default (no roll down needed) but his partner went into labour the next morning which meant he couldn’t attend. Ironman refused him a place, even when he used the birth certificate as evidence.
If your name is read out, you need to decide there and then whether you want to go or not. If you take your slot you will be required to make a payment for your entry fee there and then (card only I believe) to secure your slot. You can then focus on eating your bodyweight in whatever you can get your hands on, and putting your feet up for a well earned rest.
Having not raced Kona personally I don’t feel I’m in a position to give you insights and advice on the race itself. I understand it’s an experience like no other, but make sure you soak it all in and focus on enjoying the experience. You may only end up going once, so make the most of it, and soak it all up.
Finally, a quick disclaimer that the 2023 World Championship is currently due to follow the format of 2022 and be held over two days. This means there will be more slots available, however I have stuck to the number of slots available for the one day event to future proof this article in case the format reverts back to a one day event.
Qualifying for Kona is brutal and cutthroat, it’s one of the most demanding experiences an athlete can have. While I believe the vast majority of athletes can qualify if they have the resources to, it’s not something you can expect to fall into your lap, or you should feel entitled to.
Feeling fired up and determined to qualify for Kona? I can help. The following services may be of interest to you:
Once an athlete has entered an event, their thoughts will soon turn to training for that event, and in most cases choosing a training plan.
For those not familiar with the term, a training plan is a series of workouts for you to follow to help you achieve a goal. These workouts are progressed in a fashion which should (hopefully) protect you against injury and allow you time to recover between big workouts. However, there are various options available, from writing your own plan to hiring a coach to work closely with you. We’re going to look at the pros and cons of each.
This is the option that many newer athletes will default to, which is completely understandable. They simply start swimming, running and cycling in a way that suits them, and the gains come quickly. When you’re starting from scratch, it’s not difficult to see rapid improvements.
However, this option falls short in a number of areas. Firstly, athletes will tend to focus on their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. If you’re an accomplished marathon runner but hate swimming, chances are you’ll run three times a week and only go swimming once, maybe twice.
Secondly, there is a lack of accountability or outside perspective. If you wake up and are in two minds as whether to go training, it’s all too easy to roll over and feel there are no consequences. Following a plan, especially if supervised by a coach, creates a much greater sense of accountability if you see the workout turn red or you are unable to tick it off.
Finally, it takes a huge amount of knowledge and experience to write a plan which helps you achieve your potential without injury. You can learn to fix your car yourself if you invest in all the tools and spend hours pouring over car repair books/forums, but in many people’s minds they’d rather drive it to the garage and get someone else to do it for them. The same is true of triathlon training, though a training plan is often significantly cheaper than getting your car serviced!
Rapid results in the short term
Lack out outside perspective
Often limited understanding of the training process
Liable to injury/burnout
Free Training Plan
There are several free training plans available to athletes. These can be found in magazines, books, online or even on the website of the race organiser.
These are a step above self coaching for most as they involve some structure. You’ll have scheduled rest days, progression in your workouts and sessions designed to help simulate racing such as running after bike workouts.
They are however pretty basic, with very little detail for the most part. They may be as simple as “30 minutes in Z2” or “Long ride” in some cases. They will also be written almost exclusively for first timers who are coming to the sport from a non athletic background. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but unless it’s your first race or attempt at the distance, it may feel a bit basic.
Easy to follow
Written for first timers
Normally in paper format, which can make execution fiddly
Stock Training Plan
These are training plans written for the masses, and sold on platforms such as TrainingPeaks. These are a big upgrade from the above options, as they can be tailored to specific athlete groups, and sync up with your training devices.
By choosing a training plan through TrainingPeaks you can pick one that matches your ability. If you’re a first time Ironman athlete there are thousands of plans for that. If you’ve been competing at sprint duathlon events for several years but want to qualify for a world championship event, there’s a plan for that. No matter your ability or experience, someone will probably have written a plan for you to follow. Ot may require a bit of tweaking depending on your ability and availability, but you’ll likely get a much better result then you would training ad-hoc or using a plan from a book.
Workouts are uploaded to your watch, cycle computer or training software for you to follow in real time. If you’re following a run workout your watch will beep at you if you go over or under the target range. If you’re following a cycle workout on Zwift it will let you know when you are outside the target range. This removes a lot of fiddling, creating custom workouts on platforms or trying to remember your workout while you’re training.
If you were my friend signing up for an event, I would recommend a plan from TrainingPeaks as a starting point. Our selection of plans can be found here.
There is a plan out there for most people
Workouts sync to devices
If you are especially strong/weak in one discipline you may find the plans limiting
Some sports/distances aren’t catered for as well as others
Choosing the right training plan from those available can seem intimidating, but remember that the best training plan is the one that you will follow. If in doubt, go for a slightly easier plan which you know you’ll be able to complete, rather than choosing a training plan you will struggle to keep up with. There are various filter options on the TrainingPeaks store to help you choose plans of a suitable duration, weekly hours and intensity, which work well with the devices you own (power meter, heart rate monitor e.t.c.).
Custom Training Plans
The vast majority of stock plans work on a number of assumptions. That you work Monday-Friday, you have around an hour on the weekdays for training, you are roughly the same ability in each sport, and you have a standard period of time to train for an event (3-4 months for a sprint, 9 months for an Ironman e.t.c.), and you are young/healthy enough to train for six days a week. If you fall outside of these parameters, you may find yourself struggling to find a plan that works for you.
This is where you may find a custom training plan better suited to your needs. A custom training plan can be whatever you want it to be. If you only have a handful of hours a week, a custom training plan can help you make the most of the time available. If you want to go under 10 hours for an Ironman, a custom plan can help you focus on your weaknesses and maximise the time you have available. You may be looking for a plan for eight weeks or for a whole year, a custom plan can be written to suit your needs.
They are more expensive than stock training plans as you are paying for a coach’s time to write a plan for you, but it will almost certainly be cheaper than your entry fee. We charge £10 a week for our plans, to make them affordable to the masses.
The big downside of a custom training plan is that you have limited contact with the individual who wrote the plan. After the plan is written it’s generally a case of a handshake, good luck, and let me know how you get on. If you miss several weeks due to illness, your bike is out of action or you pick up an injury, I will be able to advise the best way forward, but won’t be able to re-write the plan or have a phone call with you about it. This is of course no different to any of the above options, but this is where the final option comes in.
Build around you as an individual, fitting around your lifestyle
In the vast majority of cases it will be delivered on a platform such as TrainingPeaks where workouts will be synced to your devices
Relatively low cost
Limited contact with the coach once the plan is delivered
Plan cannot be adjusted for free
Full Coaching Relationship
This is the ultimate option for the athlete who can afford it, and would feel best placed to benefit from the guidance. If you hire a coach to help you develop in the long term, plans will be written on a rolling (generally weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis) depending on how you have responded to the training so far, and changes to your availability.
If you hire me as your coach I will analyse all of your workouts and be in daily contact to discuss your training. You can reach out to me at any point with questions about training, equipment, nutrition, your race or any other triathlon related matters. You receive a bespoke strength and conditioning plan, and catch up calls.
This of course comes at a cost (£200 a month to hire me), however there are cheaper options available for less experienced/qualified coaches who you may have less contact with, and there are equally much more expensive options available for those who want to hire the likes of Dave Scott or Mark Allen as their coach. If you are serious about the sport, feel you would benefit from the additional contact, or simply have the disposable income to justify it, then hiring a coach is the quickest way to see improvements.
Hiring a coach also brings with it accountability, and someone to turn to when things aren’t going so well. Having someone in your corner who is dedicated to helping you have the best race possible takes a huge load off of someone’s mind, knowing that they will have workouts ready for them every Monday morning and someone to ask all their triathlon questions.
Some athletes may struggle to hand control of their training over to someone else
I hope this has provided you with an insight to the options available, and help you choose a training plan that’s right for you. If you are interested in any of our training plan services, drop us an E-mail.
For many athletes, deciding they’d like to be coached, and then choosing a triathlon coach is a rite of passage. If you have the budget and the inclination, coaching is the best way to get faster.
However, there are many things to consider when choosing a triathlon coach. You need to consider their experience, their qualifications, the kind of athletes they work with and their methodology. There are very few right and wrong answers in triathlon, and different coaches will work in different ways to achieve the same thing.
In this piece I’m going to look at different considerations when choosing a triathlon coach, pitfalls to avoid, and red flags you may want to look out for. Full disclosure, I am a coach myself and you are reading this on my website (sorry about that), however more than anything I want people to enjoy their triathlon and have a positive coaching experience, whether that’s with me or someone else.
Are You Ready to be Coached?
This may sound like a silly question, but I’ve worked with athletes over the years who aren’t truly ready to hand the reins over to someone else. Doing so can be scary, as you are giving up your autonomy and putting a lot of trust in someone. If you are still improving at a rapid rate with your current programme, it may be worth waiting until you hit a bit more of a plateau before you hire extra help, as otherwise the coaching relationship can be stressful for both parties and become strained over time.
You need to be able to show true vulnerability. This goes beyond simply telling your coach “My swimming sucks, I need your help to improve”. It means telling your coach when you’re tired or having doubts about the training. When you feel you’re not making progress or you’ve picked up a potential injury. Honesty is so incredibly important in coaching, to the point I’ve terminated coaching relationships when an athlete has been deliberately dishonest. Most coaches will not judge or think less of you for missing sessions, going off plan or switching sessions around, but transparency with the coach is incredibly important, so we can understand why you aren’t following the plan, allowing us to attempt to fix it.
Starting Your Search
If you feel ready to work with a coach, you can begin your search. Ask around any triathlon friends you have to see if they have recommendations. If nothing comes up that you think will work for you, it’s time to take your search online.
You can either start by searching for simple terms such as “Triathlon Coaching London”, or you could use a coach finder website to find a suitable coach for you. I recommend the latter, as you can then compare dozens of coaches like for like, without flashy websites to distract you from what really matters. Once you find a coach’s profile who appeals to you, it’s worth visiting their website to learn a bit more about them, and creating a shortlist to come back to later.
The first thing you need to consider is location, as this will have a large impact on your search. Do you see yourself spending a lot of time in person with your coach? Or are you completely self sufficient in that regard? Newer athletes tend to need a bit more in the way of in person coaching while more established athletes tend to need much less. I have worked with several athletes I have never met before, from Syria to India, and the US to Russia. If you have the choice between working with a mediocre coach in your local area, or a high quality coach virtually, it’s worth asking yourself just how important face to face is for you.
When I was living in London I had dozens of athletes sign up with me who wanted a local coach. Many of them I never met face to face. Coaching means different things to different people, and some I saw at least once a month, but it’s worth being realistic with how much time you genuinely intend to spend with your coach. Coaching sessions aren’t generally free, so your budget is worth considering as well. If you are towards the upper end of your budget from monthly coaching fees alone, will you really have the disposable income to pay them for in person sessions? You may want simply to meet up with them occasionally over a coffee to discuss how training is going, but in the post pandemic era, Zoom is a time efficient relatively personable way to have these conversations wherever you are in the world.
The next big consideration when choosing a triathlon coach is monthly fees. Coaches can charge anything from £40 a month all the way up to £1000. Triathlon is already an expensive sport, so pick a coach in your price range. I love triathlon, but it’s really not worth putting yourself into debt over, and those coaches charging the higher fees may not necessarily be that much better than coaches charging less, they may simply have a very high opinion of themselves.
I charge £200 a month, which is roughly the going rate for the level of service I offer, taking me nicely into my next point.
Level of Service
Choosing a triathlon coach is much more than just hiring the best coach you can find, it’s important that it matches the level of service you desire. You may be able to work with a legendary coach for a surprisingly affordable fee, but if your only contact with them is one E-mail a month, are you really being coached? Equally, if you have a coach who analyses all your workouts, messages you every day to check in and is always asking questions, is that too much for you personally?
If you want someone to write you a comprehensive plan then just leave you alone to get onto it, you may want to consider hiring someone to write you a custom training plan instead, and save yourself money in the process.
I provide a bespoke service including mobility assessments, nutrition coaching, strength and conditioning, power modelling, feedback after every session and training plans written on a weekly basis. Open minded athletes who engage with all of this get the most out of their coaching experience. However, the time I spend on each athlete bumps the price up, and many athletes won’t have any interest in some of the elements. Those athletes might be better off finding another coach with lower fees who they won’t feel are holding them to account all the time.
Checking a triathlon coach’s formal credentials should be your next step. Many triathlon coaches out there don’t have any formal qualifications, and simply decide one day they’re going to offer to help people out for a bit of extra cash. This is how many coaches including myself started out, however it’s safe to say the service I provided was less than outstanding in those early days. If you have a lot invested in an event it’s worth looking for a triathlon coach with a variety of experience and qualifications who can support you across your journey. While we will never be experts in swim, cycle, run, strength or nutrition coaching, we should as coaches have a strong working knowledge of them all, which is best developed through qualifications.
Not all qualifications are created equal either. My status as a British Triathlon High Performing Coach is the result of six years of professional development. On the other hand, someone with very little experience can complete an online coaching certification in a matter of weeks. I don’t want to be seen as a gatekeeper here, but if you’re looking to put your trust in someone, it’s worth checking the levels of qualifications they hold before you hand over any money.
Experience and Other Credentials
However, qualifications aren’t the be all and end all. Some of the best coaches out there have no qualifications. They may have decades of experience in the sport as a competitor, or simply have decided against following any formal education pathway. Time spent coaching athletes in different scenarios over several years, and development outside of formal education are arguably more important than certificates, so it’s worth considering this when looking at coaches. I have been coaching for six years as I write this which is perfectly respectable amount of time in the eyes of many, but I couldn’t pretend to know as much as someone who has been in the job for 25 years.
However, consider when choosing a triathlon coach that experience and qualifications do not equal competence. I have met some coaches who got qualified in the 80s and haven’t changed their approach since. Most qualifications delivered by national governing bodies (British Triathlon, US Triathlon e.t.c.) aren’t especially challenging and are normally an experience in providing a safe, inclusive training environment as much as anything.
The results of their previous athletes can be something of a red herring. A coach may boast that they’ve helped over 2o athletes qualify for the Ironman World Championships. Like most coaches I have helped athletes qualify for world championship events, but many of them would have probably made it without me. If someone comes to me with an FTP of 320W and the ability to run a 1:30 half marathon off the bike, I can’t truly claim too much credit for their performance. Equally, someone I coach may finish 17th in their age group and get a Kona slot through roll down as nobody else turned up on the Monday morning. However, if a coach has helped several athletes win their age group at world championship events or medal at national championships, they’re probably the real deal.
What are Your Goals?
It’s important to keep this at the forefront of your mind when choosing your first triathlon coach. I love triathlon and have experience working with participation athletes as well as high performance athletes and enjoy them both for different reasons. I change my approach depending on what the athlete wants to achieve, to make sure they receive coaching suitable for them.
However, some coaches are much more specialised, especially if coaching is not their full time occupation. If you are looking to improve your Ironman PB, you will likely want someone who has experience competing and coaching at this distance over the very enthusiastic coach in your hometown who writes people training plans for a few bucks. Equally, if you struggle to submerge your face in the water and have never ridden a road bike before, then hiring a legendary Ironman coach on the other side of the world may not be the best use of your money.
Choosing your Triathlon Coach
Once you have considered all of the above, you have probably narrowed the search down to a handful of coaches who you feel have rates you can afford, the credentials you are looking for, and who can provide you with the level of support they are looking for. It’s now time to start calling them up or sending them E-mails to organise a first conversation.
I try to get back to potential clients as soon as possible to show I take them seriously, so I would expect a reply within 24 hours in most cases, however don’t make the mistake of simply hiring the coach who responds fastest. At this point, a coach will hopefully offer to setup a call or a meeting to get to know you better. I’d personally be cautious of a coach who immediately send you through some paperwork to sign and welcome you on board. I would also expect a coach to offer this without any money changing hands.
There’s nothing wrong with shopping around and having meetings with different coaches, but they will appreciate it if you are up front about the fact you are shopping around so they can pitch the conversation appropriately.
This is very much my opinion, but the following would be red flags to me if I was looking for a coach:
Significant minimum commitment
All clients should reserve their right to change their mind. It may be that you realise coaching doesn’t suit you, you change your goals, or a life event means you can no longer train for/attend your race. If any of these happen, you should be able to walk away only losing a month’s worth of coaching fees, instead of paying for six months of fees you can no longer use. A coach should also reserve the right to walk away from an athlete if the relationship isn’t working, so this benefits both parties.
They advertise themselves as being a certain kind of coach
It may be that they advertise themselves as being a coach who specialises in polarised training, they follow a certain programme of swim coaching or they are associated with a certain kind of diet such as vegan, low fat or carnivore. While there is nothing wrong with a coach getting as much knowledge as possible, if they make a big deal out of the fact they work in a certain way, that’s the kind of coaching you’ll receive whether you respond well to it or not. Coaching should be all about finding what works for the athlete, not trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
They no longer train/race in any capacity
In days gone by it was very common for coaches to be retired athletes who spent the rest of their days at the running track with a stopwatch. In triathlon however things are different and it’s very easy to dip in/out. While they may not be able to race long distance events or their days of podium finishes may be behind them, if they’re not doing any kind of swimming, cycling or running, I personally would wonder how much their heart is in it.
They won’t stop talking about their racing
They may have competed at Kona, won their age group at major events or even had a career as a pro themselves. This is great and can give them a unique insight into the sport, but it may also be a smokescreen. Just because someone knows what works for them doesn’t mean they know what works for you, and even if they do they may not be able to communicate that well. Some coaches are exceptional athletes and exceptional coaches, however this isn’t always a given, so do a bit of digging and find out about more of their coaching achievements/experience before blindly handing over your money.
They have strict time limits on phone calls
You may not be able to afford a coach who you includes unlimited contact in their package, and instead look at coaches who offer a monthly call. There is nothing wrong with this as a more budget friendly option, however if they are cutting you off at exactly 30 minutes on the dot then I would suggest they’re not all that interested in your development.
Your training plan is written months ahead of time
Sometimes when you hire a coach, you are also provided with a full training plan. I would be unhappy with this personally as it’s probably a copy/paste job and won’t take into account any of my unique availability or my strengths as an athlete. Using a training plan as a foundation isn’t necessarily the wrong way to go about things, but if it’s never reviewed or adjusted, is it really coaching? If all you want is a training plan, check out the plans on the TrainingPeaks webstore or our selection of plans.
They try to upsell you from day one
“If you want help with your nutrition that’s an extra £40 a month. If you want strength and conditioning exercises, that’s an extra £200. You’re a weaker swimmer so we should be working together once a week, which is £60 an hour”. Coaches may offer what appear to be more reasonable monthly fees to get people to sign on the dotted line, but will then rather forcefully suggest you purchase lots of extras which can more than double the monthly cost. There is no replacement for face to face sessions, but you should feel you are purchasing them because you want to, not because you’re being coerced to.
There are no right answers or wrong answers when it comes to choosing a triathlon coach. There are thousands of different coaches around the world from those just starting out with their first client to those with 30 years experience overseeing huge coaching companies. There is (probably) a coach out there for everyone, so make sure to do your research and only sign up with someone who you trust. Coaching is the fastest way to improve, but nothing will kill your enthusiasm for the sport faster than working with the wrong coach, so choose wisely and don’t be afraid to walk away if it’s not working for you.
DISCLAIMER: This is not the official race guide for IRONMAN 70.3 Staffordshire. This is an unofficial guide written to help athletes familiarise themselves with the course. The official IRONMAN Athlete Guide is compulsory reading and will become available close to race day at https://www.ironman.com/im703-staffordshire
All information provided here is based on my experience at the 2022 event, however things may well be different when you compete. Always defer to the information in the athlete guide and that which is provided by team members on site.
I have written a guide for a generic M-dot branded race day which goes more into the nitty gritty that can be found here, where this article will focus more on what makes the Staffordshire course itself unique.
Congratulations on taking the plunge and signing up for IRONMAN 70.3 Staffordshire. Whether this is your first 70.3 or your 100th, I’m sure you’re going to have a great day. The course is the toughest half distance event I’ve ever raced, so underestimate it at your peril. The swim can be choppy, the rolling bike course has a real sting in its tail, and the run features a punishing hill up to Staffordshire Castle and back.
This will probably be the longest section of this article, all of the logistics involved with setting your transition area up. I remember thinking on the Saturday how I was looking forward to the Sunday morning, as the amount of faffing I had to do to get myself setup on the Saturday was mind boggling. This is a very difficult race logistically, and you have little hope of getting everything done without access to a vehicle of some sort.
Firstly, if at all possible, I recommend you travel up to Staffordshire and stay over on the Friday night, and register on the Friday if at all possible. The reason for this is two fold. Firstly, you have more time to get everything done, and don’t run the risk of running out of time. Secondly, if you get ready to leave on the Saturday morning and your car won’t start or your train is cancelled, you have time to sort it out. The registration tent closes midday on Saturday, and if you arrive any later than this you won’t be able to race.
Registration and T2 Setup
Registration and T2 are both in the town centre, so I recommend you head down with everything you need for your run bag. This should include your running shoes and any additional clothing and/or nutrition you may want for the run course. For registration you will need photo ID (passport or driving license) as well as your proof of entry, in 2022 this took the form of a QR code we needed ready to be scanned. T2 is a long way from the town centre car park recommended by IRONMAN, so make sure you factor this into your timings.
Upon registering you will receive an IRONMAN 70.3 Staffordshire backpack, wristband, race number, series of stickers, swim cap, blue bag, red bag, white bag and some promotional items. You will receive your timing chip in T1, so don’t worry about that just yet. Apply your stickers to your red bag and place the items you need for the run inside of it. It is worth running through in your mind the things you’ll have on you at the time, and the things you think you might need.
You can now enter T2 (using your wristband as ID) to hang your red bag onto your hook in the marquee. From here, walk all the way from your bag to the entry to T2, where you’ll be arriving with your bike on Sunday. From here, plot out your walk to your bike racking point. This is denoted by stickers on each piece of racking, one of which will have your race number on it. Plan your exact route from racking your bike over to the marquee, so you don’t run the risk of getting confused on the day.
While you’re in T2 you can check out the merchandise tent if you’re that way inclined, but it’s worth bearing in mind that you will get a free technical T-shirt when you finish tomorrow.
Transition 1 for IRONMAN 70.3 Staffordshire is a bit of a nightmare. Firstly you have to find the car park for T1, avoiding the directions your satnav will give you over a bridge that is closed to traffic. Once in the T1 car park you then unload all the gear you need, build your bike back up (giving it a test ride to make sure it works as it should), then wait for a shuttle bus to take you to T1 itself. Once you disembark the bus, you then have a 10-15 minute walk to transition. After leaving T2, you should budget between 60 and 90 minutes to get to T1. As a result of the logistics involved, it’s worth triple checking you have everything you need before leaving for T1. You will have access to your blue bags on Sunday morning if you forget something small such as your sunglasses, but it’s a stress you can do without.
Before entering T1 itself you will need to ensure your stickers are on your helmet, bike and blue bag. Your helmet will need to be on your head, with the strap tightened so marshals can check it is fitted correctly.
Once inside T1, your first job is to find your racking point. Like T2, you will have a designated racking point denoted by a sticker with your race number. Rack your bike in a way which doesn’t cause an obstruction to other athletes, and make your way to the marquee to hang your bike bag in the same manner as your run bag. You can then collect your timing chip from the volunteers at the far end of the marquee.
While a walkthrough of T2 is a nice to have, a walk through of T1 is essential. When you come out of the swim you will probably be slightly disorientated with your heart rate pounding and the excitement of making it out of the water. As a result, it’s easy to misplace your bag and even your bike, costing you time, but more importantly, causing you stress.
If at all possible, it’s ideal that you coincide your visit to T1 with the official swim practice. this gives you a chance to experience the waters of Chasewater Reservoir. Perhaps it was a one off, but despite very little wind in 2022, it was the choppiest fresh water swim I’ve ever experienced. Nothing you can’t handle, but if it’s as bad the year you race, it will help your confidence knowing what to expect on the day itself to avoid any panic attacks.
With your bike and run kit in place, you have everything you need to succeed on race day in place. Time to head back to your accommodation, take a load off, and focus on rest and nutrition ahead of the big day tomorrow.
Due to the inaccessible nature of T1, IRONMAN put on a shuttle bus from the town centre to the start. Make sure you have everything you need for the swim (including your timing chip) and head to the pickup point with a lot of time to spare. The first few shuttle buses are for athletes only, where the following buses are also open to spectators. You can’t get to T1 early enough in my opinion, as this allows for faff time, getting changed, and a final toilet visit.
Once you are changed into your trisuit, wetsuit, goggles, swim cap and any other accessories, place your other clothing in your white bag and hand it into the volunteers at the trucks. These will be waiting for you to collect at the finish. IRONMAN recommend you don’t leave any valuables in these bags, so it’s best to leave your phone and keys with a spectator if at all possible.
The swim will likely be wetsuit optional, with the vast majority of swimmers opting for the wetsuit option thanks to improved buoyancy and warmth.
Once you are ready for your IRONMAN 70.3 Staffordshire race day, take your place by lining up alongside the board with your expected swim time. If in doubt, go for a little bit slower, as it’s preferable to pick your way past slower swimmers, than to be half drowned by faster, potentially aggressive swimmers. If you are a faster swimmer yourself, it’s worth getting to the swim pens extra early, as they fill up fast and you could find yourself surrounded by swimmers aiming for a much slower time.
Once the race officially starts athletes will make their way though the wooden hut and onto the pier itself, which provides an opportunity for you to wash your goggles with water to reduce fogging, if that works for you.
You will then be asked to line up in threes, and released at five second intervals. Once you cross the timing mat your race has begun and you are on the clock.
IRONMAN 70.3 Staffordshire Swim Course
There is a gentle ramp which takes you down into the waters of Chasewater reservoir. If you are an experienced swimmer you can enter with some gusto, where more nervous swimmers are better off making a slow entry. The course is made up of a series of left hand turns, followed by a right hand turn at the end. You will make three major left hand turns, so count these as you go, and visualise the map in your head to give you a good idea of how far you have left to go.
If you are a stronger swimmer and holding pace, then staying to the left will be the slightly faster way round, where if you’re a nervous swimmer, it may be worth taking a slightly wider line to stay out of trouble.
As mentioned earlier, the water was pretty choppy in 2022. If this is the case when you are racing, you can compensate for this by lifting your head slightly higher out of the water to breathe, and slightly increasing your stroke rate. This isn’t the time or place for a slow, aesthetically pleasing pool stroke, this is all about adapting your stroke for speed in tough conditions. Focus on keeping your breathing relaxed, and roll onto your back if you need to catch a breath. Despite the chop, I didn’t take a single mouthful of water while swimming, in part due to my ability to breathe to both sides. If there is chop coming in from the right, and you can only breathe to your right, you might be in for a rough swim. As it’s a course made up of left turns, the ability to breathe to your left will also make your sighting more effective.
In the last 50M you may want to try kicking your legs a little harder to get the blood flowing and prevent disorientation coming into T1. At the end of the swim you will come out at a launching ramp for watercraft. This ramp is very slippy, so don’t be too proud to refuse help from the volunteers. Once off the ramp you can make your way into T1.
There is a sizeable run up to T1, so keep this in mind. If you are feeling disorientated then you may want to walk rather than run. When swimming you are in a horizontal position surrounded by cool water, which keeps your heart rate low. Once you stand up and start walking/running, your heart rate shoots up to adapt, which can result in light headedness. You can work on reducing this by practicing a very short run out of the water in open water training sessions. If you can practice removing your wetsuit at the same time, even better.
Once you make it to the marquee you can head straight for your bag, then straight out the other side where there will be a collection of benches available for you to sit down and change on. Unlike a sprint or Olympic where seconds lost in transition are vital, it’s worth taking a bit more time in a 70.3 transition to put on socks if desired, apply suncream or extra layers if the weather demands them. It may cost you an extra 15 seconds, but you’ll lose a lot more than that if you get hypothermic, sunburnt or develop blisters. Once you are ready for the bike, you can pass your blue bag (now full of your swim kit) to a volunteer, who will place it on a truck destined for the finish line.
From here you can make your way to your bike, grab it from its rack, and make for the bike mount line. It’s quite a distance to the mount line if your bike is close to the marquee, so keep this in mind. Once at the mount line hop on your bike in a way which won’t block other athletes and get ready for the bike course.
IRONMAN 70.3 Staffordshire Bike Course
The ride is a 90KM point to point route, which to my knowledge has remained largely unchanged in recent years, so it’s unlikely it will be different for you if you are reading this the right side of 2030.
To start with, you will head out on a pretty rough road out of the reservoir. The tarmac is broken up, and any nutrition not firmly attached to your bike is likely to be ejected rather unceremoniously. If you have rear mounted bottle cages, it may be worth using some rubber bands or velcro to keep them more secure for this part of the course. Even if you’re not running rear mounted bottle cages, keep and eye out for bottles in the road, which may have been ejected. Once you’re onto smoother roads it’s worth thinking about nutrition. It’s probably the best part of an hour since you had anything to eat by now, so worth keeping on top of those energy stores.
There is a gentle but prolonged uphill from here. For those who have not ridden in the UK before, the roads are pretty narrow, potholed and rolling for the entirity of the route. You can only fit an absolute maximum of three riders on one side of the road (you’re not allowed to cross the centre line of the road) and there is very little flat. It’s definitely a course for triathlon bikes or aero bars if you own them, but make full use of your gears on the hills, and stay cautious on the unsighted corners.
The first half of the bike will probably pass by relatively quickly, but once you reach the 35 mile mark, you’re in for a challenge. Now, at 55KG and I have an FTP of 4W/KG, I’m well suited for long climbs. However, I struggled here. You will be reaching this climb with 2-3 hours of racing under your belt, and unless your pacing and nutrition have been on point, this climb will find you wanting. Of the club members I attended the race with, the vast majority of us underestimated this climb, and suffered their way to the top.
The loop of the Chase Climb section is 18Km long, and the KOM is 27 minutes, so the average competitor should budget around 40 minutes for this section alone. At the top of the climb you will reach a wooded area where a feed station is located. Take the time to stock up on what you need here. Don’t fall into the trap of “I’m almost off the bike, I don’t need to stop” as you still have 15 miles to ride, including a couple of small hills, as well as T2 and the first 2KM of the run before you reach the next aid station. After this is a technical downhill including a very sharp left hand turn. Don’t get too carried away here, and ride within your ability.
The main takeaway point here is to keep something in reserve for this section. Rather than scrapping for position and fighting to get ahead of other riders on the smaller hills earlier in the course, it’s better to keep things comfortable, and save a bit of energy for this climb. You’ll still be around halfway through your race by the time you reach this climb, so can’t afford for it to send you into the red.
If you are hurting from the climb the last 15 miles will be tough, but they’re not overly challenging. Keep eating and drinking, maybe avoiding solids ahead of the run. Get your head down, and start shifting your focus towards the finale.
The mount line is just before a sharp left hander, and is well sighted. Make sure you dismount in time or you may have to make a visit to the penalty tent, which is stress you don’t need. Rack the bike you’re likely to see the back of onto your designated space, then make your way with everything towards the marquee, where you’ll grab your red bag and choose a bench like you did in T1.
Change into your run kit, and stuff everything from the bike into your red bag, and thank the volunteer as you hand them your kit bag. There are toilets available in T2 if you’re busting.
Now all that stands between you and the finish line is 13.1 miles of running. Oh, and a massive hill you have to run up twice.
IRONMAN 70.3 Staffordshire Run Course
As you head out of T2 you’ll run alongside the river for just short of a mile before you pick up the course. You will follow this for a short while, then reach a junction where you bear left for laps, or right for the finish. Keep to the left and follow it through a town centre section.
As you are on your way out of the town centre you will make your way over a humpback bridge. This is worth mentioning as it’s pretty steep and will likely burn your quads as you make your way over it. If you are already suffering, you may want to consider walking this. I saw a lot of people vomiting in proximity to this hill, so it’s far better to knock it off a bit and keep your energy gels where they belong, rather than trying to be a hero.
On your way out of town you’ll make your way out towards a main road where you’ll bear right onto a pretty uninspiring out and back section along a dual carriageway. Upon completing this you’ll make your way onto Newport Road.
Newport Road is a slight uphill which will last for just short of a mile, which seems unfair for a triathlon run course. However, this isn’t the end of the fun. You will then do a right onto a narrow road which takes you up to the castle. I hope it’s not an understatement to say that this hill will rip your legs off. Between the bottom of Newport Road all the way up to the castle is 60M of elevation gain, and the gradient maxes out at 17%. I was suffering with significant stomach problems by this part in the race, so for the first lap I walked the entirety of this section. On the second lap once the stomach cramps had subsided I ran the Newport Road section, but still felt the steep road up to the castle was difficult to justify running, as it’s not an awful lot faster than walking for me.
Once you reach the castle you’ll run a lap before making your way towards the downhill section, where it really is worth running if your legs will let you, maximising the momentum to let gravity pull you down. Once at the bottom of Newport road you’ll follow it along, make a short lap around a pond, back over the humpback bridge then back into town to start lap two. Once you have completed your second castle hill rep it’s only 5K to the finish (one parkrun to go), so put on the afterburners here if you still have something in the tank to push onto the largely downhill/flat finish.
While the bike course is challenging, but manageable with the right pacing strategy, this run course is probably the most brutal of any M-dot branded event I’m familiar with. It’s not impossible to run all of it by any means, you just need to consider the amount of elevation when deciding on your pacing strategy. If you have run a flat 70.3 at a pace of 5:00 per KM for instance, you may want to head out at 5:10 or maybe even 5:20 per KM, at least on the first lap, to ensure you still have the legs to run the hills.
On completion of your second lap you’ll bear right at the junction to take in your finish line experience. Savour the moment here, whip up the crowds, be generous with the high fives, and collect your well earned medal in the finisher’s area. Here you can grab a slice of pizza, collect a paper bag with some freebies, then follow the path around to the left where you can collect your white bag with your clothing in.
Next up you need to collect your bike and other equipment from T2. It’s a long walk from the finish line, so factor this into your plans for the day. Regardless of your time, you should feel proud of your achievement and wear your finisher’s T-shirt with pride. I was a full 90 minutes slower on this course than my PB at the distance, which should give you an idea of how challenging it is.
Most athletes have wondered at some point what the relationship is between alcohol and triathlon. Should they drink at all? How much is too much? Why is alcohol free beer such a big thing in our sport? In this article I hope to sort fact from fiction, and help you make informed choices. The first half will be science focused, in the second half we’ll look at a few strategies you can employ, and my personal feelings on the subject. If you’re looking for a quick wrap up, scroll on down to the conclusion at the bottom.
I’m not going to try to talk you out of drinking, rather help you decide whether one more pint really is a good idea, help you understand the effects it has on your performance, and make more informed choices. We’re all individuals with our own set of values, and I’m not going to try to impose mine on you.
The Metabolism of Ethanol
Ethanol is known by some as the fourth macronutrient. We already have carbohydrate, fats and protein, with ethanol sneaking in as a fourth. So what role does ethanol play? Well, it doesn’t play a role at all in a healthy diet, it’s completely optional and of no benefit to an athlete. Carbohydrate and protein both contain 4 calories per gram (so 100g of sugar would contain 400 calories), while fats contain 9. Ethanol contains 7 calories per gram, so is calorifically dense. This can add quickly over the course of a night out.
The body has no way to store ethanol, so it is perceived as a toxin. The quickest way to remove ethanol from the body is to metabolise (burn) it, so the body prioritises burning ethanol over carbohydrates, in the same way the body prioritises carbohydrates over fats when training. This means that the food we were already digesting prior to alcohol consumption or following it becomes excess calories. When you consider that some of the food decisions we make during and after alcohol consumption can be… interesting… combined with the fact the body is getting all the energy it needs from ethanol, this has the potential to leave us with a lot of excess calories
What does the body do with excess calories? It stores them as body fat. When you consider that dietary fats can take up to seven hours to digest, any fats you had for lunch or dinner before you start drinking may be translated directly into body weight. Ethanol metabolism also creates acetates in our body, which reduces our body’s need to utilise its fat stores. When you consider this alongside the fact that a small glass of wine contains 100 calories and a pint of real ale can easily hit 200, you can start to appreciate how counter productive alcohol consumption is for an athlete trying to watch their weight. One night of heavy drinking can undo a week’s worth of healthy eating and training.
The Effects of Alcohol on Health
I’ve yet to meet a doctor which recommends the consumption of alcohol. There are a few studies you can find which will talk about the benefits of certain types of alcohol (normally on the front page of a tabloid newspaper) due to the presence of antioxidants, but these effects aren’t always repeatable in other studies, or may only be limited to specific population groups. If there are any health benefits from certain drinks, they’re outweighed by the effect that regular alcohol consumption itself has on the body, as the diagram below shows.
I probably don’t need to talk you through the above, but it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Alcohol is a class 1 carcinogenic, which means it has a very significant risk of causing cancer at some point compared to other substances.
Alcohol consumption also increases heart rate, which in turn increases blood pressure. It affects our testosterone and/or oestrogen levels, which are critically important for sexual function as well as athletic performance.
You may believe that alcohol helps you get a good night’s sleep, but it disrupts our sleep patterns by restricting the amount of REM (rapid eye movement) and deep sleep we can access. I can’t think of many individuals who feel refreshed and well rested after a big drinking session. No matter how late they sleep in the next day.
The Effect of Alcohol on Triathlon
Now we’re done with the theory, let’s put it into practice. How will alcohol affect your triathlon performance and training?
The biggest issue is with regards to recovery. As mentioned above, alcohol has a huge effect on sleep quality (not quantity). Swimming, cycling, running and lifting don’t make us fitter, they just create a training stimulus. Without sufficient recovery we won’t actually get any fitter, we’ll just run ourselves into the ground. If you sink a few pints to “recover” from your ride, you will undo some, if not all of your hard work. While the exact effects alcohol has on adaptation to endurance training haven’t been researched extensively at the time of writing, it has been proven to have a notable effect on muscle protein synthesis (Duplanty et al., 2017; Parr et al., 2014). This is the process of your body using proteins to create new muscle fibres, giving us bigger, stronger muscles. This is more of a concern for bodybuilders than triathletes, but may make an endurance athlete’s DOMS last for longer than they’d like.
Chemistry aside, what are the real world implications of heavy drinking? Alcohol affects your proprioception, which is your awareness of the world around you and how to react to it. This can result in entirely avoidable injuries such as a sprained ankle or fracture from missing a step on your way to/from the toilets. More than once an athlete of mine has been coming into good form after a hard winter of base training, but come back to the UK with their foot in a medical boot and their season in tatters after a heavy drinking session combined with ice on a ski holiday.
If you drink so much that you vomit, you lose a lot of the nutrient stores in your body, and are unlikely to feel up to high quality training the next day. If you wake up hungover, you may well miss a day’s training, or have a very poor session as you try to push through a thumping headache and nausea. Considering the weekend is both the time you’re most likely to drink heavily, and have your important training sessions, this can cause significant long term disruption to your training schedule.
The Social Aspect of Alcohol
There are a lot of uncomfortable truths in relation to triathlon and alcohol, but the more information we have, the better informed we are to make our own decisions. What follows is less backed up by science, and based more on my opinions/experiences.
At this point you probably think I’m a tee totaller. The truth is that I do mix alcohol and triathlon, enjoying a drink or two with friends once every couple of months, for the reasons that it’s social and helps us relax. If an alien species observing us saw the pros and cons of combining triathlon and alcohol they would find it hard to justify, but it’s ingrained in our society. Any major life event from a new arrival to a new job or leaving drinks to a funeral will be marked with alcohol in most circles. Alcohol helps us let go of our inhibitions, tell some tall tales and switch off that background noise in our head. It leaves most people feeling more relaxed and friendly, which as a sociable species is important.
The key in my opinion is moderation. If you have a couple of drinks once a month when catching up with old friends, get to bed at a reasonable time and still hit your workout the next day, I would be a very unreasonable coach to tell someone this wasn’t acceptable. If however your average Friday night looks like consuming 10+ drinks, falling face first into a kebab shop on the way home, then spending the next day with your head down a toilet as you bring it all up when you could be getting a long run in, this becomes more of a problem.
However, peer pressure is massive for some. They simply can’t turn down a drink, and the only social activity they can enjoy with any regularity in their friendship circle is heading to the local bar for a few drinks. In their eyes, they’re not making a choice between alcohol and triathlon, they’re making a choice between a social life and triathlon. As a social support circle is a huge part of training, it would be very short sighted to expect your average triathlete to choose between the two. It may actually do more harm to their performance to ask them to walk away from their friendship groups than is caused by the alcohol intake itself.
This is where non alcoholic beers come in. Many athletes enjoy the taste of alcohol and don’t want to miss out on a summer evening in a pub garden with old friends. You can you stick to non alcoholic beer all night or simply switch to them when you feel you’ve had enough and are worried how it may affect your training tomorrow. They are now widely available to enjoy in most drinking establishments, and come without the connotations associated with sitting in front a glass of cranberry juice.
As well as avoiding the metabolic effects of ethanol and the negative effects on our central nervous system, non alcoholic beers also contain less calories than their full strength counterparts. Most brands non alcoholic offering contains between 20-30% of the calories of their alcoholic counterparts.
However, some people might still take issue here. They’ll berate you for “not keeping up” or suggest you’re weak for avoiding having a “real” drink. At this point, I would be reviewing my relationship with these people and looking to surround myself with more like minded individuals who share my current values. Your local triathlon, cycling or running club is a good place to start if you want to mix training with socialising.
So, we’ve ascertained that alcohol is inherently bad for you, but it can be important for social and relaxation purposes. So how as triathletes should we apply this knowledge?
Firstly, it all depends on your goals. Are you trying to go under 10 hours in an Ironman, or are you hoping to complete your first super sprint? How much have you already invested in your performance? Would the happiness and sense of accomplishment you get from achieving your goals offset some potential social isolation?
If you’ve spent thousands on a high end bike, invested in high quality coaching, optimised your nutrition, and are looking for that extra 5% to help you excel, then cutting out or reducing alcohol intake is an easy win. If however you are just doing a short race for fun with some friends and training 2-3 times a week, it would be disproportionate to go tee total if moderate alcohol consumption is an important part of your social life.
When trying to make decisions, I always ask myself what I’m more likely to regret. If I fail to make the bike cutoff at an Ironman and reducing alcohol intake may have made the difference between me getting round or not, how would I feel? Equally, if I abstain completely for the sake of a race where I have a mediocre performance, will I regret taking such a hardline approach? In the same way athletes periodise their training, you may want to consider periodising your alcohol consumption. Being a bit more relaxed when the training is easier, then cutting back as you approach race day.
Finally on a more sombre note, athletes can be more susceptible to excessive alcohol consumption than non athletes. This often takes the form of having a single drink in the evening after a training session, which can tip your weekly drink consumption into the double digits if you’re not careful. If you feel the need to use alcohol to moderate your mood or others comment on the amount of alcohol you are consuming, I recommend you seek support from your local health provider. I can’t recall anyone telling me they regret going sober. For athletes in the UK, here are some NHS approved resources and support services where you will be able to receive non judgemental support and advice: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-advice/alcohol-support/
The author Simon Olney is a British Triathlon High Performing Coach and Certified Nutrition Coach
First things first, this is not the official Ironman UK athlete’s guide with all the information you’ll need on the day itself. That all important document can be found on the Ironman website in the last couple of months before the event. This is a piece written by me, Simon Olney, professional triathlon coach and Ironman UK finisher, here to share some pragmatic advice with you ahead of race day. The information provided here is based on the knowledge I have acquired over the years of training athletes for this event and racing myself. The race changes every year in some respect, so always trust information from the race officials over anything you read here.
Secondly, I have written an in depth article on generic race day tips for Ironman events, which can be found here. For the purposes of this article I will assume you have read the other article, or already be familiar with other Ironman branded events, as combining the two would be unwieldily.
With all that taken care of, let’s dive in.
About The Race
Ironman UK is one of the hardest Ironman races in the world. It may not have the brutal winds of Lanzarote, the humidity of Kona, or the mountain ascents of Nice; but the relentless steep climbs, unpredictable weather and hilly run course gave the race a DNF rate of over 20% in 2019. That means that for every five people who collect their number from registration, at least one will have gone home without a medal. 2019 was a particularly difficult year with 2500M of elevation gain on the bike, but the race traditionally has a high DNF rate.
The support from the locals is pretty outstanding, with the population of the local area taking to the roads with signs, banners and musical instruments to cheer athletes on. At a couple of points it can feel like you are riding up a mountain in the Tour de France, with spectators filling the road either side of you.
Ironman UK has a traditional 17 hour time cutoff. You have 2:20 to finish the swim, 10:30 to finish the bike and the swim, then 17 hours to cross the finish line. All times are taken from the time you cross the timing mat at the start of the swim, so don’t think you’re at a disadvantage by starting at the back.
Long Term Planning
You are best off booking accommodation in the centre of Bolton if you can. This is so your room is only a short hobbling distance from the finish line. A minibus service runs from the city centre to the Pennington Flash on race day, as well as parking being available in the nearby Leigh Sports Village. You’ll need to book well in advance to get a spot in the centre though, so don’t put off booking a room.
You may also want to check whether they’re serving breakfast early at the hotel you’re looking at. Many do, to ensure you can get some proper food ahead of the start.
I highly recommend travelling up on the Friday if at all possible, as registration closes midday on Saturday, and if you’re delayed on the Saturday morning you won’t be racing, or eligible for a refund. You also have a busy schedule on the Saturday, so need all the time you can get to avoid a panic.
On the Weekend
Once you arrive, the first thing you should do is register, as this is time sensitive. Once you have your race number and wristband, it’s time to head back to your hotel to pack your bags. This is covered in depth in our main article (link at the top of the page), but pay close attention to the forecast on the day, and pack anything you think you might need in your bike bag.
Once your bags are packed, it’s time to head to the Pennington Flash to rack your bike. Parking is available on the Saturday, but there is a one way stretch of road coming into the venue so it can be a bit sticky at busy times. Once you re-build your bike, take it for a quick ride around the car park, trying all the gears and brakes, to ensure everything is working as it should. If it isn’t, or you need some last minute spares, mechanics are available in T1 who can help you. Mechanical tweaks are normally free, but you will have to pay for any parts.
Once you rack your bike, it’s time to head into the marquee to collect your timing chip. Protect this like your firstborn child, as getting a replacement in the morning will not be easy, and you’ll be charged for a replacement. It’s a level of stress you can probably do without. In the marquee you’ll also be hanging your bike bag on a hook for collection once you exit the swim. Make sure your bag is hanging on the correct hook, as they will be numbered.
After everything is in place, take the time to walk down to the swim exit (the left most of the ramps as you look at the water), and walk to T1 tracing the steps you’ll take on race day. In previous years, this has always ran to the left of transition. From here head into the marquee, over to where your bag is, then outside to where your bike is waiting. This will help it become second nature on the day, and save you getting confused. It’s also a good way to check your bag is on the correct hook!
Once T1 is setup, it’s time to head to T2 which is a much simpler affair, simply hanging your bag up in the marquee, though a walk through is still a good idea. Take the time while you’re here to find where your bike racking spot is, so you have one less thing to think about on race day.
The most difficult part of preparing T2 is parking, as the traffic wardens will be out in force ticketing cars which are parked on pavements or left on double yellows, so it’s worth finding somewhere legitimate to park. Contrary to the demands of many, Ironman will not refund your parking fine.
At this point, you should be ready to go, all you need to do is turn up tomorrow in your wetsuit and perform one of the single greatest single day challenges in the world. You’ve got this.
In an ideal world you would have breakfast around 3 hours before the start, however this just isn’t practical for the most part. That being said, you ideally want to avoid eating within 90 minutes of the start, so try to get something down you early if you can. I recommend you change into what you plan to wear for the swim before you leave the hotel, as there are no changing facilities at Pennington Flash and you don’t really want to be changing in a portable toilet.
If you’re driving and parking in Leigh Sports Village, it’s a five minute walk. You will need to load special needs bags and your streetwear into the waiting trucks which normally close up around 45-60 minutes before the swim start. You will also want to pop into transition to check your bike and pump up your tyres before the start, so I recommend arriving 90 minutes before the start, as this time will disappear very quickly, and you don’t want to be stressed on the morning of your big day.
Once you are in your wetsuit with goggles at the ready, it’s time to take your place in the starting pen. This takes the form of a long line of barriers running from the swim start all the way back to transition. There will be boards placed at intervals along this, which designate estimated swim times, ranging from 50 minutes all the way up to 2:20.
It’s imperative you place yourself in the correct area of the swim start. Your time is taken from when you start the swim, not from when the gun goes, so there is nothing to be gained from starting further towards the front of the race. All that will happen is you’ll get swim over by faster swimmers coming from behind, vastly increasing the chances of you having a panic attack as you are pushed under the water.
Once the race starts, it may take up to 30 minutes for you to enter the water as the swimmers slowly shuffle forward. Once you get to the edge of the ramp you’ll hear two beeps in short succession as your timing chip registers on the mat. You are now on an Ironman race course.
Enter the water very carefully, as the water is shallow, and the entry point is wet. I’ve seen plenty of swimmers fall into the water here, so take it steady.
Once in the water, I recommend you swim slightly to the right, unless you are a confident swimmer. As the course is a series of left hand turns, those looking to put in a fast time will be staying as far left as possible, and if you’re a novice swimmer you don’t want to get caught up in the brawl. Swimming off line will add a bit of distance to your swim, but in my opinion it’s worth it to avoid being half drowned.
The first turn buoy will be just over 1KM away, which is the equivalent of 40 lengths of a 25M pool. It may look like a long way, but your training should have prepared you well for this. After a couple of hundred metres the adrenaline and fear should have receded and you’ll find yourself in the state of mind you’ll find yourself in all day, which should be a calm, controlled mindset.
At this point, check in on your pacing. Can you sustain this effort for the duration of the race? This isn’t an Olympic distance race where you want to find some fast feet and sit in, this is an all day adventure and your pacing strategy starts now.
Once you reach the far end of the course it’s a pair of left hand turns before you head back to shore. These turn buoys really are a pinch point, so give them a wide berth if you don’t want to risk getting dragged under. Once you have navigated these, it’s back to the shore to complete your first lap.
As you approach the swim exit, it’s worth sighting more regularly to ensure you’re on track for the arch. Kicking a bit more will help your legs wake up here, and make you less prone to dizziness when you come out of the water. You will run (or walk) a short, left hand loop back to the a jetty next to the swim entry ramp to start your second lap, but be aware of potentially feeling light headed as blood starts rushing around your body. Lap two will be largely the same as the first, but with more in the way of traffic in the water. Be prepared for some very slow swimmers you may not expect, so sight a bit more often. As there will be fewer swimmers around you by now, you should be able to swim slightly closer to the buoys without incident, should you wish.
As you come out of the water, you’ll be making your way to the marquee, just like your walk through the day before. Grab your bike bag and don’t rush your transition like you might in shorter races. It’s worth taking the extra 15 seconds to get yourself in a good place, rather than rush out and realise you left some food in your bag. On your way you your bike, stick your blue bag into the big crate of bags to be delivered to T2 later.
As you make your way towards the bike mount line, give other athletes plenty of space. Some will be disorientated from the swim, others will not be in control of their bike, and you don’t want to be part of a clash of bikes before you’re even in the saddle. Mount your bike in your preferred method (nothing you haven’t practiced extensively) and get ready to take on the 180Km bike course.
I wish I could give you a blow by blow account of the bike course, but the course changes every year, so instead I’ll offer some general advice which is applicable every year.
There is no Flat
You may laugh, but I’m being serious. There is next to no flat on the bike course, the only the exception of the run back into town after Sheephouse Lane. You will spend the entirety of the race either going up or down, which plays havoc with your pacing. It’s easy to get carried away passing people on the hills early on, caught up in the atmosphere and generally having a great time. However you have a long way to go, over a lot of hills, and with a marathon waiting for you at the end. Keep the heart rate reasonable on the hills, and don’t go tearing up them like a road cyclist attacking on a mountain stage.
The Road Surface is Terrible
In the UK, we are not known for the quality of our roads, and it’s especially bad north of the Watford Gap. While the local authority does make a point of repairing the worst offenders from the course in the runup to the event, you still need to keep an eye out. Ironman highlight most of the holes with spray paint in the runup to the race, but you need to keep your wits about you. There is also a lot of debris on the roads, so don’t carry 60KPH into the corners and expect to stay upright.
Lots of Corners Tighten
In the UK we have a habit of planting hedgerows along our roads. These act as a boundary for farmers and are great for wildlife, but terrible for visibility. What you may think is an innocent left hander may actually be a long, sweeping corner which then tightens. I’ve seen lots of bikes in hedges, and ambulances collecting riders from the other side of drystone walls on the course, so do yourself a favour and take it easy out there, especially if you haven’t driven or ridden the course before.
I don’t use this word lightly, but some of the downhill sections in the past have been nothing short of dangerous. Steep gradient, poor road quality and restricted visibility combine to create some testing downhill sections. These sections are signed well by the organisers with instructions to slow down, but it’s worth developing your confidence riding downhill in the runup to the event if it’s something you struggle with.
In the past three editions the event has both had an edition where the bike was nearly shortened due to wildfires, and another edition where a rainstorm appeared out of nowhere, causing dozens of DNFs due to hypothermia and crashes. This isn’t a course you can prepare for by sitting on a turbo trainer all year round, you need good bike handling skills and resilience to the elements to succeed here.
The bike will be between two and three laps depending on the year, with a cutoff for each lap if you’re not moving at a pace fast enough to finish the course within the time limit. In recent years transition has moved into Bolton city centre where you will dismount your bike, rack it in your spot, and head into the marquee to don your running gear.
If you make it out of T2, you already have one hand on the finishers medal. Even if you power walk large sections of the course you should have enough time left to make it across the line within 17 hours.
To start with, you run through a rather uninspiring industrial area, before finding yourself in the pedestrianised area of Bolton City Centre. This is the spectating hot point, so be sure to lap up the support and keep an eye out for loved ones. The road will winds its way through the streets until it takes you past the finish line. You will have to run past the finish line no less than three times before you can finally turn right and run down the chute. Better get a wiggle on then.
Once you have passed the start/finish line you will find yourself in Queens Park, which is the steepest section of the course. It’s tempting at this point to run up the hill, but unless you’re confident in your ability to run the entire marathon nonstop, you’re probably better off walking this section to save your legs for later.
You will turn left onto Chorley New Road, somewhere you will become very familiar with for the next 3+ hours. The road is a long false flat (slight uphill) for 3KM, followed by a U-turn, and 3KM of a slight downhill. Once you finish the downhill, you will collect your marathon band. This will be green for your first lap, blue for your second lap, red for your third, and yellow for your fourth. It’s imperative you collect a band, and the right coloured one at that, to avoid having to get into any “discussions” with the race director after you finish.
Just like the bike course, the organisers will pull athletes with no chance of finishing off the course. If you’re worried about finishing within the cutoffs, but are collecting marathons bands at the end of each lap, you are on course to finish within the time limit. Keep your head down.
After this you will turn back into another section of Queens Park where you can admire the swans, and make your way back towards the town centre for another tantalising peek of the finish line.
The lap based nature of the course may mean that as you start your run, you will be seeing people finish, or at the very least with lots of bands on. Try not to think about this, and simply focus on your own race. Don’t be lulled into panic and increasing your pace, as this will almost certainly backfire.
After you collect your yellow band, you should feel unstoppable. It’s now a simple case of making your way back to the finish line, turning right, and down the red carpet. Make the most of the crowd and savour the moment.
Once you collect your medal and assume your new title of Ironman UK finisher, you will return your timing chip and make your way through to the finisher’s area. Here you will find massage, food and a finisher’s T-shirt for you to proudly wear in the gym. From here it’s time to make your way back to T2, collect all your belongings, and bask in your achievement. You are now one of the 1% of the world who has crossed an Ironman finish line, and not only that, you did it at one of the toughest events on the calendar.
For the cyclist or triathlete looking to train in a more structured way, indoor training is a must. It allows you to ride hard without interruption, worrying about road surface or other road users.
There are two primary options available for indoor training. One the one hand we have the ubiquitous turbo trainer. This is a device you mount your existing bike onto, providing resistance and power readings. Most modern turbo trainers are also what we call “smart” turbos. These change the resistance for you based on both manual input and that from a 3rd party app.
Next up we have the smart bike. These are a relatively recent invention, with the first Wattbike released in 2008, designed for use primarily by track cyclists. This was updated more recently with the Wattbike Atom, a bike designed for integration with modern training apps. In recent years other manufacturers including Wahoo, Stages and Tacx have launched their own smart bikes to rival this, seeing a gap in the market.
So, which option is superior? A turbo trainer or a smart bike? Of curse, it’s not quite as simple as that, but there are definite pros and cons to each. Let’s start by looking into each in a bit more detail.
When you purchase a turbo trainer, you will be choosing between one of two options, wheel on or wheel off.
With a wheel on trainer you can simply mount the whole bike onto a trainer using a clamp, however there’s a bit more to it than that. You have to make sure the drum the tyre presses against is at the correct tension and the tyre is at the correct pressure. The trainer will also place a lot of wear on your tyres. To get around this many cyclists buy a second wheel to place an indoor specific tyre on, which they will swap out when they ride indoors. As many cyclists will look at wheel on trainers to avoid having to remove their rear wheel, this removes much of the appeal.
Most turbo trainers are wheel off trainers, where you remove the back wheel and place the bike on the trainer itself. The advantages provided by these trainers are a greater potential for creating resistance, quieter operation, improved accuracy, more realistic ride feel and smaller unit size. The only real downside is if you plan to share the trainer with another rider whose groupset isn’t compatible with yours, as the cassette lives on the trainer. A cassette swap is a five minute job with a bit of practice, but it’s a barrier to getting your workout done, especially if you’re not feeling motivated that day.
One downside of all turbos is that by riding your bike indoors, you are putting wear on it. All components have a shelf life, and riding a turbo trainer will place wear on your components. Making sure your drivetrain is clean before placing it on the turbo trainer, and regularly checking your chain length can help with this.
Some frame manufacturers don’t cover turbo use under their warranty, so you may find yourself out of pocket if your bike is damaged on the turbo trainer. Damaging a bike on a turbo trainer is incredibly difficult, and as long as you attach it to the turbo tightly, the chances of damage are incredibly low unless you do something silly.
Correct position every time
Minimal setup or fussing
Can take with you when travelling
Places wear on your parts
Potential frame warranty issues
Next up, we’ll look at what you can expect from a smart bike
There are two very noticeable differences between turbo trainers and smart bikes. The size, and the price tag.
While many turbo trainers can fold up and fit behind your sofa if you are tight on space, a smart bike needs a dedicated space, perhaps even dedicated room to use. They also come in at over twice the prize of a top end turbo trainer. So, what do you get for your money?
Smart bikes are almost silent, due to the absence of a moving parts. While the latest turbos are whisper quiet compared to classic trainers which would give jet engines a run for their money, you still have the mechanical nose of the chain, which smart bikes remove. There will still be some humming as you put down the big watts, but if you have a sleeping baby in the house or live somewhere with thin walls/floors, this could justify the purchase of a smart bike over a turbo trainer.
Smart bikes also require less calibration, due to not only their ability to self calibrate, but the fact they don’t get moved around as often as a turbo trainers do. This means your power readings will be more accurate, if you are using the Smart bike’s power meter. I encourage everyone who uses a power meter outside to also use it inside, overriding the power meter on your turbo/smart bike for more consistent readings, so this won’t be as much of an issue for many.
The big downside to smart bikes for me is adjustability. While you generally have a great degree of freedom to get yourself in the right position with smart bikes, 1mm can be the difference between a great ride and a painful one for some cyclists, so replacing your position fully on a smart bike is an ongoing battle for many. A little higher, a little shorter, try a little lower again, the tweak are often endless, especially if sharing with another rider and you have to adjust each time you ride. One client I’m working with was using a smart bike, but the fixed crank length on his model meant it exacerbated a hip issue. As a result, he had to sell his smart bike and buy a turbo trainer.
Getting the basic measurements (reach, saddle height, frame size) right can take a bit of work, but once you look at replicating a TT position on a smart bike, you’re in a world of pain. TT positions are incredibly difficult to get comfortable in at the best of times, let alone replicate on another piece of machinery. Getting the stack height, length of bars, angle of bars and gap between the bars millimetre perfect on two separate bikes is maddening. Some smart bikes allow you to use your own handlebars, but the front end of triathlon bikes are not cheap, you’d be looking at around £500 minimum to replicate the cockpit of your aero bike onto your smart bike. When you consider you’re already paying a premium to be riding a smart bike in the first place, any extra expense to get comfortable on it seems difficult to justify.
Some bikes will also have features such as showing your pedalling technique, and automatic adjustments to gradient or road feel. If a manufacturer develops both smart bikes and
As close to silent as you’ll get
Some models have intuitive features
Save wear on your components
Less calibration issues
Very difficult to replicate exact road position, especially for TT setups
Next up we answer the question you came here for. Turbo trainer vs smart bike, which ones wins out?
For my money, the downsides to a smart bike do not outweigh the cost. You may save yourself money on components, but if you consider a chain costs around £20, and you’re paying a premium of around £1000 to upgrade to a smart bike, it’s probably something of a false economy. Getting the position right on them can be incredibly difficult, and they just don’t feel as good to ride. The purchase of a smart bike should come down to the following question:
Will it make you a faster triathlete?
The answer here, compared to to a turbo trainer, is an emphatic ‘no’. Smart bikes have the potential to provide some convenience, but their features don’t justify the price for my money. If you’re primarily an indoor cyclist, are a road cyclist less sensitive to position, or are just looking to get fit at home, smart bikes may well be the product for you.
None of the professional triathletes I know have switched to a smart bike and they’re not aggressively marketed in triathlon media. You may see lots of triathletes on Instagram riding smart bikes, or hear your club mates taking about their flashy new indoor bike, but the root of this is the assumption that the most expensive option is the best option. If money is no object and you want to be the best athlete you can, the £2500 option must be better than the £1000 option. That’s how it works, right?
If you’re torn between a turbo trainer and a smart bike, make the decision that’s right for you, your budget, goals and lifestyle. I don’t want to tell you what to do. However if you’re a happy turbo trainer user, wondering if a smart bike will take your training to the next level, the chances are it won’t justify the investment.
I hope this article doesn’t come across as too negative, I have a lot of love for all the manufacturers of smart bikes, I think they’re great products which do the job they’re designed to do incredibly well. However, the demands on triathlon just don’t line up with the functionality of the bikes, and it won’t be an easy problem for manufacturers to fix.
If you had already justified a smart bike to yourself, you could instead consider some race wheels, an aero helmet, or some coaching. All of which are almost guaranteed to provide more bang for your buck.
It’s the question that has crossed the mind of every aspiring cyclist or triathlete, why is cycling so expensive? You may have had a budget in your head of £100 (or regional equivalent) for your bike, but it seems even that is unlikely to leave you walking away with a bike. Let alone a road bike. That’s before you even get to the clothing and accessories.
Why is cycling so expensive? Is the whole industry a rip off? In this article we’re going on a deep dive into the cycling industry to find out. We’re going to be focusing on road cycling as this is the area I’m mot familiar with. The majority of the points here apply to off road as well.
Why Shouldn’t I Buy a £100 bike?
These bikes are what I have seen fondly referred to as “bike shaped objects” by mechanics. This may come across as snobbery, but there’s logic here.
These bikes are designed to be taken out for a short ride on flat terrain a couple of times a year. The quintessential family bike ride. They’re heavy, sluggish and will break very easily. When it does break, you will probably pay 30-40% of the value of the bike to fix it. The tyres will puncture easily, the chain will probably fall off without much encouragement, and you’ll struggle to get spare parts.
What Should I Buy Instead?
In contrast, let’s look at the classic starting bike, the Specialized Allez. Like many cyclists, I started out on one of these dream machines. Other brands are available.
So, what does this bike offer which our bargain basement bike doesn’t?
For many cyclists, a lighter bike is a better bike. If you get passed on the hills by those on much lighter bikes, this is very demoralising as you feel powerless. An entry level road bike like an Allez could be twice as light as a cheap bike. It still isn’t that expensive in the grand scheme of road cycling, but it’s a big step up.
I’m probably not exaggerating by much when I estimate that this bike will last 100 times longer than a cheap bike. I rode mine for the best part of 15,000 miles without major issue. Yes I needed to replace some parts, but when you consider you’re lucky to get 100 miles out of a cheap bike without needing to take it to a mechanic, the difference in longevity is remarkable. It’s actually cheaper to pay more up front in the long run.
The Specialized pictured above uses a Shimano Sora groupset. This refers to the brakes, gears, shifters, chain e.t.c.
When you shift a gear on this bike, it will jump to the new gear less than a second. When you shift a gear on a bike shaped object, it will make a slow, clunky shift. If you’re lucky it’ll end up in the gear you wanted to without jumping around. If you’re not changing gear much this doesn’t matter. But if you’re on rolling terrain and want to use your gears to make life easier, this can be frustrating.
In addition, when you turn a corner, the steering will feel silky smooth for a long time. Meanwhile, a cheaper bike’s bearings will wear quickly. Especially when it gets wet.
Once you’ve been riding for a year or two, you’ll probably find yourself looking at some upgrades for your bike. This could be more gears, better brakes or a new saddle. These upgrades are designed to fit traditional road bikes. Cheaper bikes often have non standard fixtures, as they don’t expect to be upgraded.
When you can be looking at £80 for a comfortable saddle, you will very quickly get to the place where you’re almost spending as much on single components as you did on a cheap bike.
If you buy a cheap bike and get bitten by the cycling bug, you’ll end up regretting it. Whether you ride with friends who leave you for dust, or it breaks down yet again at the furthest point from home and you need to call for a pick up; you’ll end up having to sell it for a fraction of what you paid for it, and buying a more expensive bike anyway.
So, where does my money go?
The Specialized Allez starts at £650, which is a lot of money to spend on a bike. So where does the money go? And why would someone look to spend £5000 on a bike?
Quality of Materials
The biggest factor which makes cycling expensive is the materials used in manufacture of the parts. If you want a cheap steel frame, you can get this for a song. However, it will be very heavy. There are Chinese factories which manufacture counterfeit bikes, which they sell on for a fraction of the cost. However, there’s a good chance these will break, potentially injuring you in the process.
When looking to purchase something it can be cheap and light. Or strong and cheap. Most bikes need to be both light and strong, but this doesn’t come cheap. For a bike to be able to withstand thousands of miles on the road without damage the materials have to be carefully chosen. They also have to be treated in a specific way to ensure performance and safety.
This extends beyond the frame materials to everything on the bike. Wheels are notoriously expensive because they have to both be incredibly light, and withstand huge forces from hitting potholes without buckling. There will always be a cheaper option out there, but this will come with a penalty to performance and longevity.
Research and Development
If you want to create the lightest and fastest bike on the market, this involves a considerable amount of research and development. This involves paying designers and engineers to build prototypes, time spent in a wind tunnel, stress tests on the frame itself, and dozens of other steps between concept and the bike appearing for sale at your local bike shop. These costs are passed onto the consumer when they purchase the bike, to help the bike manufacturer stay in business. And help them keep pushing the boundaries.
Pro Team Sponsorship
A bike sponsor will provide a World Tour team with hundreds of bikes over the course of a year. When you consider many manufacturers will sponsor multiple teams, you’re looking at companies spending hundreds of thousands over the course of a year to support professional teams. They hope to recoup the cost by inspiring customers to buy their bikes via the team. If you think recreational cycling is expensive, wait until you see the costs involved with running a professional team!
Running of the Business
Smaller bike manufacturers will only really make money from selling frames. The sale of bikes cover everything from the receptionist’s salary to the van they use for deliveries. If companies did not make a profit from each sale, they wouldn’t be able to stay in business, offer warranties or provide any customer service. While some products provide manufacturers and retailers with a large profit margin, bike frames are not one of them, and the whole industry relies on bike manufacturers staying in business.
But What About Expensive Cycling Clothing? Some Kit Costs As Much as Cheap Bikes
It’s true that you can get a cheap bike for the cost of some waterproof jackets, but it all comes back to performance. When cycling you build up a huge amount of heat. When you cover yourself with what is essentially a plastic bag, this traps the heat and causes the rider to overheat. You may keep the rain off you with cheap jackets, but you’ll get soaked with sweat, losing a lot of sodium in the process which hurts your performance in itself. A high end waterproof jacket will be far more breathable, while still keeping you dry.
Expensive cycling jerseys may be incredibly lightweight for summer riding, aerodynamic for use in time trials, or windproof for riding in poor weather. However, they may also be expensive simply for the sake of fashion. Where bikes themselves are all about performance, clothing is far more susceptible to trends, and you can get away with spending a bit less here. Cheaper kit will be heavier, not as breathable and won’t fit as nicely, but this will have far less of an effect on your ride than a bike which is constantly breaking.
Do I Need to Spend a Lot on a Helmet?
All of the helmets for sale will meet basic safety standards, so you don’t need to spend a lot on a helmet to keep you or a loved one safe. Money spent on an expensive cycling helmet can make it more aerodynamic (faster), lighter and more breathable. Cheaper helmets will feel like a block of polystyrene on your head, where you won’t notice you’re wearing a more expensive one. There are safety systems such as MIPS available on some models, which is suggested to improve safety for a small price increase.
Fit is more important than cost when it comes to safety. You shouldn’t be able to fit more than two fingers under the chin strap, and it shouldn’t be too tight, or too loose on your head.
Manufacturers Will Charge What People are Willing to Pay
This is true in many industries, but is especially true in cycling. Many people will walk into a bike shop, ask for the latest bike, and price won’t even be discussed. They might not even look at the total. Manufacturers will push the very limit of what current technology permits, because they know someone will buy it and justify the investment in developing the product. It will also win professional races, building their brand.
The good news is that these customers help keep manufacturers in business, which allows them to keep the price down on their entry level bikes. Top end bikes will rarely be discounted in a meaningful way, but many components and accessories will be discounted within a matter of months following their release.
There are many factors which make cycling expensive, but you don’t have to remortgage your house to get started. A budget of £1000 will get you up and running with a setup that lasts years, and prove to be more economical than going for the cheapest possible option.
Once you’ve completed your first event or two, you’ll be riding the high of achievement, yet also slightly downbeat. While you’re proud as punch of your performance, you can’t quite get over why you got dropped so quickly at the start, how fast the cyclists who lapped you were going, or quite how it’s possible for the announcer to be calling in the winner as you come into T2. You make a vow, it’s time to take your triathlon training to the next level.
But what does this mean? The intention is clear, you want to get faster, but how do you plan to achieve that? There’s a lot of information out there, but much of it is conflicting. What you may think makes you faster just exhausts you for no tangible improvement to your times.
What follows is a list of recommendations to help you improve how you train, and therefore your performance. We cover the very basics first, the low hanging fruit which will provide the greatest benefits, before we start digging in a little deeper.
The focus here is on improving the training process, rather than the best way to improve your performance. While there are all sorts of products, gadgets and tips to help you race 1% faster, consistent, considered training needs to be the foundation.
Follow a Structured Plan
This doesn’t have to be a complex paid for plan from a website such as TrainingPeaks, but having some structure to your training will really help you develop as an athlete. This could be as simple as knowing you will have a long ride and a long run on the weekend which gets progressively longer each weekend, with two swims in the week and other workouts dotted in as and when you can fit them in. Alternatively, it could be an incredibly specific plan, tailored for you as an individual with specific targets on each day.
The benefit of a structured plan is that it holds you to a kind of accountability, and if you follow the basic principles of periodisation, will help ensure you’re doing the right kind of training at the right time of year. There are plenty of free, basic training plans available online, the race organiser of your event may even have one on their website.
Consistency is king in triathlon, and following a plan ensures you stay consistent. This is a guaranteed way to take your triathlon training to the next level.
Take Rest Days and Recovery Weeks
Training breaks your body down, recovery makes it stronger. You may think that training for seven days a week proves your dedication and will propel you to greatness, but the chances are this will just result in non-functional overreaching and long term exhaustion. When we back off and allow our body to recover, we reap the benefits of our training, and are able to go hard at the next time of asking. One day of complete rest a week, and an easier recovery week every 3-4 weeks is recommended for the vast majority of athletes.
Get More Sleep
Most of us don’t get enough sleep. Between work, family, training and the desire for some “me” time in front of the TV, we can slip into the habit of getting less than six hours sleep per night. While rest days allow our body a break from training, adaptation to the training stimulus itself happens primarily during deep sleep. Ever wonder why you can do a hard session in the morning, feel fine for the next 12 hours, then upon waking the next day feel like the tin man? It’s only when we sleep that our body sends the signals to repair the muscles and generate more mitochondria. If we’re stingy with our sleep, our performance will suffer, and we increase the risk of burnout. There’s no point taking your triathlon training to the next level if you’re not receiving the benefits.
Eight hours may not be achievable for everyone due to work/family, but heading to bed at 10:30PM and waking at 6:30AM isn’t unreasonable for most people, and ticks the box of the magic eight hours.
Work on Your Weaknesses
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re not the world’s greatest swimmer. In fact the mere smell of neoprene may initiate a fight or flight response in you. I struggled with this for many years. I overcame this not by hiding from it, but by getting in the pool three times a week and slowly chipping away.
It’s human nature to focus on what we’re good at, however if we really want to succeed in triathlon, we need to focus on where we can make the most time. If I spent an eight week training block focused on running with weekly hill reps, track work and long runs, I might be able to save a minute over 5K. This is a huge amount of time, and I’d feel very satisfied. But I’m not a runner, I’m a triathlete. If I had spent the time swimming instead focused on my running, I could have saved 2-3 minutes over 750M, resulting in a much greater improvement to my overall performance.
Get Some Swim Coaching
Swimming is the most technical sport by a long way, and you can only improve so much by ploughing up and down on your own. Whether you want to hire a coach on a 1to1 capacity or join a swim squad where the coach provides intermittent feedback, having an experienced set of eyes look at your stroke will work wonders. Coaching for cycling and running is also very valuable if you feel you struggle, but swimming provides the most gains for the majority of athletes.
Introduce Strength and Conditioning
Strength and conditioning for triathletes? Sacrilege! Well, it may not be your idea of a good time, but an effective strength and conditioning plan will provide you with a number of benefits to take your triathlon training to the next level, including but not limited to:
Reduced chance of injury
Improved muscular force
Greater range of motion
Reduced rate of technique breakdown
Moving better in day to day life
This doesn’t have to mean taking out a gym membership and tackling the free weights if you don’t want, but taking the time to strengthen your core, improve your balance and stretch/roll your tight muscles, even if only for 10 minutes a day, will provide an invisible yet important benefit to your training.
Get a Bike fit
Hopefully when you bought your bike they helped you choose the right size bike, and may have raised/lowered the saddle for you to get it in the right ballpark. However there’s much, much more to being comfortable on a bike than this. From choosing the right saddle, right handlebars and right shoes to getting these setup millimetre perfect, a professional can really help you get dialled in. When we’re comfortable on our bike we can put out more power for longer, and run better off the bike. Visiting a fitter based in a shop comes with benefits as they have lots of different components on hand for you to try out. Expect to pay £200 for a comprehensive experience, before parts or labour installing them.
Take Your Bike Training Indoors
Chances are we took up triathlon because we love the outdoors. But if it’s February, raining, and we only have an hour available, by the time we’ve bundled up and head out the door, we’re not going to get much of a session in. Combined with the risk of ice and low light levels in winter, training indoors becomes a very efficient alternative. The benefit of riding hard without worrying about traffic is not to be underestimated, which combined with software such as Zwift can provide an engaging experience.
Riding inside help maintain consistency, and consistency breeds success. This combined with the ability to ride intervals is essential when taking your triathlon training to the next level.
Monitor Training Intensity
Swimming, riding and running to feel will get you a long way. However if you really want to get fitter, you need a gauge to tell you what’s easy and what’s hard. Whether you use heart rate, power or pace isn’t of huge importance at this stage in your triathlon journey, but measuring your data, understanding it and reviewing it is key to high level triathlon performance. I recommend picking up a book on training to help you understand the data and decide what to do with the results.
Get Race Specific With Your Training
You’re swimming in open water on the day? You’d better get to your local lake once a week. If you’re planning to ride 180KM on a triathlon bike, you need to be doing your long rides on it. If the on course nutrition is a brand you’re not familiar with, you’d do well to try training with it ahead of race day to see if it works for you. When training for a hilly race, you’d better get some climbing in your legs. Once you get within a few months of your event, you need to start thinking about your workouts and how they help prepare you for race day.
Work With a Coach
Triathlon is an incredibly complex sport where we have a lot to fit into our training schedule, and need to learn to pick our battles. Working with a coach who understands you, communicates well with you and knows how to get the best out of you is the best investment you can make in your triathlon training, and will help you race much faster than spending thousands on fancy wheels for your bike. There are hundreds of coaches out there, offering different levels of service for different budgets, so don’t assume you can’t afford it.
We offer very comprehensive training programmes, as well as consultations for athletes looking for someone to point them in the right direction. Take a look if you’re dedicated to taking your triathlon training to the next level.