Taking the decision to train for a triathlon is the biggest step many will take in their sporting lives. Many will be complete novices to all three sports, captivated by the idea of stringing swimming, cycling and running together, it’s the challenge that draws us in. However it can be difficult to know where to start, there are thousands of articles, books, YouTube videos and podcasts to wade through to get a well rounded picture of how to train effectively for the sport.
To help, I wanted to condense all of the knowledge I have attained over the years into the top ten training tips for taking on your first triathlon. I could easily make a list of the top 100 training tips, so I’ll have left a few out, but these should help stop newcomers from making embarrassing mistakes, or putting themselves at the risk of injury.
- Slow down
You’re no doubt excited to start your triathlon journey, and I’m excited for you, but we need to dial things back to help keep training efficient. If you swim, bike and run as fast as you can every day, you’ll burn out and will never reach your full potential. Two, maybe three workouts each week should be really challenging, and the other days of the week should be spent recovering from these hard efforts, so you’re ready to go for the next one. These easy days should be undertaken at a pace where you could hold a conversation if needed. Your main concern will probably be not being fit enough at this point, but if you are so over trained that you’re exhausted and burnt out by the time you get to the start line, you’re not going to have a good race.
2. Progress your training
If you have signed up for a sprint triathlon (750M swim, 20KM cycle and 5KM run), you could be forgiven for slowly building yourself up to these distances then figuring it’s job done and you can focus on getting faster over those distances. Hitting the distances in training is a milestone you should be proud of, but you should keep extending your training beyond these distances, running 6K, 7K, 8K, or even further to keep pushing yourself. This will improve your aerobic fitness, making you more efficient over shorter distances. Plus you’ll have the confidence of knowing you can run over the distance, meaning race day should feel easier! You should also start running intervals such as one minute hard one minute easy repeated 20 times, and progress this by reducing the rest or increasing the duration of the hard running. Keep moving forward with your training on your hard days.
3. Train in the open water
If your race takes place in a lake, sea or river, you need to be training there, in the wetsuit you’re planning to wear on the day. Swimming in open water is totally different to swimming in a pool, and you need plenty of practice before the big day, otherwise you’ll find yourself panicking and disorientated. Most lakes will provide coaching, either 1 to 1 or as part of a group, to provide you a much smoother transition into the open water.
4. Learn to ride at a consistent effort
This is especially true for those training for a long or middle distance race, but it’s worth remembering for all distances. When we used to race bikes as kids we were primarily racing from lamppost to lamppost, pushing hard for short periods. While most of us are wise enough to realise this isn’t the most efficient way to train for a triathlon, it’s tempting to push hard for a few minutes, then recover, push hard for a bit, recover, then push really, really hard up a hill. This is especially prominent for riders who are big Strava users, and want to push hard where they know there’s a segment. Even if you are racing a sprint triathlon you’ll be spending a minimum of 30 minutes on the bike, so you need to learn to spread your effort evenly over this period, especially as you have a run at the end!
5. Mix up your swim training
Swimming can be intimidating and may feel like a fight for survival when all you want to do is make it out of the water. As such, you could be forgiven for getting in the pool, slowly working your way up to the required distance for your race, then repeating this every week. Not only is this pretty boring, it’s also ineffective as it won’t help you swim better. Including a warm up, main set and cool down is a good place to start, splitting your swim up into shorter segments, such as swimming 100M fast with 30 seconds rest between each interval. You should also include swimming drills to help you improve your technique, which will allow you to move faster for less effort.
6. Practice your race day nutrition
If you’re going to be competing for anything longer than 90 minutes, you will probably need to eat during your event. Carbohydrate is the body’s primary source of fuel for the body, and when you start to run out of this valuable resource your performance will fall off a cliff as your body asks for more energy. Practice this in training, find what foods work for you, and when you need to take them on. Grabbing an unknown product from a feed station when you start to feel weak could easily lead to cramps, stitches, or vomiting, none which are generally not conclusive to fast splits.
7. Research your event, and train accordingly
If you have a hilly race, train on the hills. If you have a sea swim, train in the sea. If your race is in a hot climate, try to replicate this during your training. It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many people forget this if they follow a generic training plan. You should also take the time to familiarise yourself with the course in detail, to avoid any embarrassing extra laps or getting lost in transition, as well as reading the rules to ensure you don’t fall foul of any penalties.
8. Buy a turbo trainer
Training for the bike, especially if you live in a city where a ride ride can easily turn into an all day endeavour can restrict you to one ride a week. By purchasing a turbo trainer you are able to ride from the comfort of your home on a variety of terrain (mountains, flats, rolling hills), without worrying about traffic, potholes or bad weather. It also allows you to train properly by following workouts, or take part in virtual races for a bit of fun.
9. Train in poor conditions
A turbo trainer is a fantastic tool for allowing you to ride all year round, but that doesn’t mean you should jump on it instead of a long weekend ride at the first sign of clouds. You can have the best fitness and the flashiest bike, but if you can’t race in the wet or the wind, you’ll find yourself losing time hand over fist when the weather turns. We’re not suggesting you take any risks, if your race is in August you probably don’t need to head out in sub zero temperatures on icy roads, but having the experience to adapt to different situations will pay dividends on the big day.
10. Practice your transitions
Don’t leave it till race day to practice transitioning from swim to bike, or bike to run. The first time you come out of the open water you may feel like you’re about to fall over and it’s not uncommon to see new triathletes sat on the floor next to their bike waiting for the world to stop spinning. Equally, coming off the bike onto the run will leave you with wooden legs that feel disconnected from the rest of your body. The more of these you practice in training, the smoother the process will be on race day.
I hope that has given you some insight into how to train successfully for a triathlon. There are thousands of moving parts to consider, but we take the stress out of training with our bespoke coaching programmes for athletes of all abilities. Learn more here
The fitter you are, the faster you are, right? Well, it’s not quite as clear cut as that in the real world. Fitness has an enormous effect on as athlete’s ability to swim, bike and run as fast as possible, but it’s by no means the only factor.
Let’s take the term fitness for a start, it’s a phrase I really don’t like because of how vague it is; someone could be able to bench press twice their body weight, summit Mount Everest, free climb up the Dawn Wall or walk the length of the River Thames. All impressive achievements in their own right, but how would an individual who achieves any of these impressive feats fare in a triathlon? Better than your average member of the public you’d wager, but the chances are they’d be soundly beaten by those who are physically weaker, with a lower resting heart rate and a lower V02 max but who are more experienced in the sport.
How do we measure fitness? There is no right answer or wrong answer here, lots of individuals will have a different idea of what fitness means, however as triathletes we’re interested in the bottom line, our race results . Yes improvements to our FTP and threshold heart rate are all stepping stones to success, and for some individuals these numbers are more important than race results, however I believe these individuals are few and far between. Those who measure everything objectively can often struggle on race day and find themselves disappointed when their predictions and meticulous calculations fall short, and they’re never short of an excuse to explain a poor performance (but then again, how many triathletes aren’t?!). You can be very fast and very fit, that’s what we’re all aiming for, but it’s also possible to be the highest FTP of the field, yet find yourself struggling to make the top ten.
An athlete is fast when they have the confidence, the skills and the experience to complete the race in the fastest possible time, with the resilience to keep pushing when their body is telling them to stop. The winner of the race is the one who crosses the line first, not the one with the highest power numbers, the lowest level of cardiac drift or the most expensive bike. Let’s break it down and have a look at the traits of successful triathletes in each of the disciplines.
In the water, the fast athlete goes off like a rocket at the start, finding fast feet or setting the pace themselves. They then settle into their race pace, sighting often to stay on track. They feel comfortable drafting, and come out of the water towards the front of affairs. They’re not overly concerned about optimal stroke length or stroke rate in the melee of a triathlon swim, they’re more worried about swimming fast and coming out of the water with the fast guys. They swim in the open water at least once a week, and work on their technique all year round, with plenty of hard swims thrown in as well.
The experienced triathlete knows there’s a lot of time to be made up in transition. You may shrug your shoulders at the thought of saving 20 seconds over a long event, but imagine how happy you’d be with taking 20 seconds off of your 5K PB? Fast athletes can easily save time by practicing wetsuit removal after every training swim, memorising where their bike is, leaving it in an appropriate gear, with their items left on the bike in the order they’ll need to attach them. They have also practiced their mounting technique, comfortable with whatever method they have chosen rather than simply hoping for the best.
Too many triathletes are addicted to their turbo trainer, but while time spent riding indoors will make you fitter, it doesn’t teach you how to take a the corner in the wet, carry momentum through a rolling section, fix simple mechanicals, ride up hills, brake effectively or stay on your aero bars on anything except a perfectly flat, smooth tarmac. ERG mode is especially bad for creating cyclists who can only ride at one cadence in a very narrow operating window. Fast cyclists know their bike and how it works intricately, they can carry speed through the corners and drop down the descents, making up time on fitter, less skilled cyclists hand over fist. They’re also able to spend longer in an efficient TT position without developing neck or back pain, because they’ve put in thousands of miles on their race bike, instead of treating it like it’s made of sugar glass. Rather than only taking it out on the sunniest of days, they’ve learned how to ride it in the wet and giving it a thorough clean after every ride to prolong the life of the parts. When on race day the heavens open, a strong headwind develops or strong gusts try to throw them off their bike, they keep their head down and keep making progress rather than excuses. Nobody cares about your W/KG if you’re sat on the side of the road staring at your flat tyre like someone has just asked you to fix the space shuttle. Fast cyclists do their quality training rides on the turbo, but in anything except the foulest weather they hit the road for their easy/long rides to build their confidence and road craft.
After the bike it’s tempting to take a few moments to yourself to recuperate and mentally recharge before the run. If you’re racing an Ironman, you’re new to the sport or you had some issues on the bike you need to address this is fine, but if you’re going for a good time you need to go into T2 with a detailed plan of how you will switch from bike to run. Fast athletes can picture the exact route they’ll take to their bike racking, where their shoes will be waiting with elastic laces ready for them to fly onto the run course with.
When those who focus endlessly on numbers and micro analysing their training are passed on the bike, their internal dialogue will nearly always be “They’ve gone out too fast, I’ll catch them on the run”. This may well be true in many cases, but even if they are faster on the run than someone who rode it like they stole it, the fact they arrived in transition 2 ten minutes later somewhat offsets this. Most athletes will have a target they’re aiming for on the run, and pacing is paramount, but the skill to a fast run is knowing when to push. Staying below a certain BPM is a good idea if it’s your first attempt at the distance or the conditions are unusual, but if you’re into the last third of the run and your body is screaming at you to move faster, you should probably listen to it. Proper pacing is incredibly important for the bike to ensure you have good run legs, but you want to make sure you pace your run to perfection so you cross the line having left it all on the course. Fast runners don’t even look at their watch during shorter events, they know how to push their bodies to their absolute limits, and listen to their breathing and legs rather than their heart rate.
Race winners are the athletes who practice their nutrition in training, scout the course by riding or driving it, ride their bike in full race spec, practice speedy transitions in their brick sessions, push themselves to the max in fitness tests, and are not afraid of new thresholds or tough workouts. Rather than finding excuses they step up to the challenge and have an intrinsic motivation which keeps them going even when they feel the world is conspiring against them.
Despite what you may think by reading this far, I’m a relatively data heavy coach who spends hours pouring over data files and prescribing workouts to influence power curves, embracing new technologies such as running power. However, recently it has become clear to me just how important coaching the human is rather than simply the body, and how disappearing down a rabbit hole of physiology for the pursuit of 1% improvements can result in us missing the big picture.
It’s your hobby and you can train for it however you like, but I highly recommend you spend a few years simply enjoying the sport and learning more about your body before you begin getting the textbooks out, or even better hire a coach who can help you navigate the maze of endurance coaching.
TrainingPeaks is a fantastic tool for planning and analysing our training, but we need good quality data to make informed decisions. If we have bad data we end up making bad decisions which can lead to burnout or even failing to finish your race! So, how do we keep our data clean? There are three areas I consider to be very important, we’ll take a look at each on a case by case basis, looking at common pitfalls and how we can avoid them.
- Consistent data
- Enough data
- Accurate Thresholds
We need to make sure that the data from one workout is comparable to the workout before it, and the ride after it. The biggest area this can be a problem is with cycling power, specifically when athletes change power meters between activities or fail to recalibrate their devices.
If you are only training indoors and using the power meter built into your trainer, you need to make sure you are re-calibrating the power meter (known as completing a spindown in most cases) every time you transport it, or every four weeks out of habit. As trainers are moved around and knocked about, they can lose their accuracy so the trainer needs to recalibrate itself to ensure the data stays accurate. I once failed to recalibrate my turbo trainer for several months, got myself up to an FTP of 4 W/KG, then re-calibrated my trainer, found workouts impossible, and discovered I was only at 3.6 W/KG! If you are planning to use your power pedals on race day, you should use your power pedals for every ride so you’re training at the same numbers you’ll be racing at, otherwise you run the risk of your intensity factor target on race day being based on turbo numbers, not power pedal numbers, resulting in you blowing up as a result. If you are using a bike based power meter (which I highly recommend) you still need to perform a zero offset (or recalibration as some brands call it) weekly, or whenever you move the power meter from one bike to another. Another issue can be the right pedal running out of battery or experiencing connectivity issues with the left pedal, so keep an eye on that.
Running power meters do not require regular calibration, however the numbers are based on your weight, so any changes to your weight will require you to reset your thresholds. As such I only recommend updating your weight if you have lost/gained weight that has been fairly static for a couple of months, or at the start of the season before your baseline testing.
Heart rate can occasionally be very low if the your chest strap takes time to make a good connection, or if your optical monitor struggles to get an accurate reading for whatever reason, such as a loose watch strap or heavy sweating. If you find yourself with a consistently low heart rate reading during a workout, make sure your monitor isn’t upside down!
GPS accuracy varies a lot, especially in urban areas or thick woodland, where you can end up with very high or low numbers. I once had an athlete run a 10K around the City of London, where the GPS trace accidentally made its way to the top of a skyscraper, leading TrainingPeaks to mistakenly believe she’d gained 150M of elevation in 10 seconds, sending the TSS score rocketing.
Finally we have elevation, if your GPS or altimeter is putting out bad data it can have you down as running thousands of metres above sea level, resulting in grossly exaggerated TSS scores.
If you find yourself with dropouts or spots of bad data, TrainingPeaks allows you to rectify this on the graph view within a workout. Simply click and drag your cursor over the problematic area, then click on the appropriate button in the top right of the graph for different data field: W for watts, KPH for speed and BPM for heart rate. From here you can select “fix”, which will allow TrainingPeaks to create a preview of the data smoothed out, with the option to apply or discard the changes. In some cases, such as with horrifically inflated elevation data, it can be better to delete the data field entirely, or switch the TSS calculation to hrTSS. If you start playing around with the data but make a mistake you can’t undo, you can simply download the workout from the “files” section in the top right hand corner of the workout view, and re-upload the original file. You’ll lose any comments or other changes you made to the workout, but the original file will always be in tact.
Sometimes bad data slips under the radar, looking at the PMC for big spikes can be helpful, as can browsing your peak performances on the TrainingPeaks mobile app and looking for numbers which you know are unrealistic. If a huge wattage or jump in pace isn’t accompanied by an increase in heart rate, you can be pretty sure it’s bad data.
The performance manager chart found in your dashboard is a coach and athlete’s best friend, it allows us to see how fit an athlete it, how fatigued they are, and how ready they are to perform. The numbers here will only be accurate if we have enough data from your training history to give us accurate insights into your training history. A world champion could create a TrainingPeaks account, but without any information on their training history TrainingPeaks will assume they are a novice, and suggest that they are incredibly fatigued after a couple of what would be a couple of very easy workouts for them.
If you are already an established athlete, you will need to sync your TrainingPeaks account to your fitness tracker/software of choice. Depending on the service you link to, it may or may not import all of your previous activities into TrainingPeaks (As an example, Garmin will, Zwift will not), and while manually uploading all of your data will seem like a gargantuan task, it is important you upload at least the last 42 days, as this is the constant that Critical Training Load (CTL) is based on. If you or your coach plan to use WKO, you will need all of your workouts from the last 90 days.
If you are a new athlete who doesn’t have any data to upload, then you will need to take the numbers with a pinch of salt for the first 42 days until TrainingPeaks has enough data to give you accurate figures. I’ve seen many posts on the TrainingPeaks Pain Cave Facebook Group group from individuals concerned that their form is -50 and wondering whether they are overtraining. More often than not they simply don’t have enough quality data uploaded so TrainingPeaks has no point of reference.
All calculations on TrainingPeaks are based on thresholds. If your thresholds are incorrect your TSS scores will be incorrect and everything else gets knocked out of place, from your PMC metrics to your workout metric, even the targets of your workouts themselves.
While I’m not going to go into testing protocols here, it’s important that you undertake fitness tests within the first 42 days for each sport you’re planning to log on TrainingPeaks. I spend the first month with each athlete focusing on fitness testing, staggering them so they’re not in close proximity, but ensuring we have good, relevant data to work with.
There are two problems athletes struggle with when setting thresholds, the first is basing their threshold off of their lifetime PB (in extreme cases, their best 10K time from 20 years ago), or not updating their thresholds regularly enough. By using a threshold that is too high you will struggle to complete workouts, by using a threshold that is too low you are doing yourself a disservice and not training hard enough, getting overly inflated TSS scored in the process.
I recommend you test each discipline every 6-8 weeks (perhaps more regularly if you’re a single sport athlete) for improvements. If you put in a slightly lower number during the test but your workouts otherwise feel good, you could put the result down to a bad day and leave the number where it is, but if you put in a noticeably lower number (+/- 10 watts or seconds per kilometre) you need to take it on the chin, lower the threshold, and review your training strategy. Do not become a victim of the vanity FTP.
To conclude, here are the main takeaway points:
- Ensure you use the same power meter for all workouts, and perform a zero offset regularly
- Ensure TrainingPeaks has all of your data from the last 42 days before you start using the PMC to plan your training
- Keep an eye out for big drops, spikes or gaps in data, and do your best to fix them using the tools in TrainingPeaks
- Be honest with yourself about your thresholds, and re-test regularly
It can be time consuming to look through your data and make sure everything is up to date. If this seems like too much work, or you don’t know what to do with your data once you have it in order, take a look at our online coaching.
Choosing your first race is one of the biggest decisions you can make as an aspiring triathlete, and it can actually be the difference between you making it to the finish or not. There are a surprising number of factors to take into account, and the race fees may well set your back three figures, so it’s important to get it right. We’ll start with the basics and slowly move our way into the more detailed, tricky stuff.
Before you even look at events, you need to decide which distance you’re going to be tackling. The standardised distances are:
750M Swim (400M if pool based)
Hopefully you’ll have decided on a distance before you even begin your training, but if you haven’t yet started then it’s crunch time and you need to make a decision before the races start selling out. I recommend a distance you feel is realistic, yet will provide you with a feeling of reward upon completion. If you are new to endurance sport then a super sprint will likely prove to be a challenge in itself, however if you’re an experienced ultra runner and long distance cyclist who has been competing for many years and just needs to master the swim, then an Ironman may, in extreme cases, provide you with the challenge you’re after.
This is probably the second biggest consideration, where will you be swimming? In an icy Scottish loch? In a shallow, warm lake? Or in your local leisure centre pool? If you are new to triathlon I’m 90% certain the swim will be causing you the most anxiety, and managing this fear is paramount. If you are going to have sleepless nights thinking about open water swimming, a pool based event will be the safest choice. Alternatively if you are lucky enough to be an accomplished swimmer, then a sea swim may give you the sense of achievement and adventure that you crave.
Writing this from my London flat, I’m very fortunate in that there are hundreds of races within driving distance so I can have my pick of any event of any distance, however if you live in a more isolated area, you may have much less of a choice. It may be tempting to travel somewhere more exotic to make a holiday out of it, but for your first race it’s worth considering the other stresses this introduces into what may already be a stressful experience. You have travel, transporting your bike, hiring a car, potential language barriers, unknown local cuisine, jet lag and more, all of which can work against you and getting to the start line calm and confident. If you are lucky enough to have a local event close enough that you can travel there and back in the same day, I highly recommend you do so, so that even if you do have a sleepless night, at least it’s from the comfort of your own bed. Completing a triathlon is an exhausting experience, so having someone to drive you there and back
The chances are you’ll be looking for an event which you feel confident getting around, and this will likely equate to a nice, flat course, especially if you’re making your debut at Olympic distance or above. I personally love hilly courses as these are where I perform well, but if you’re tentative about your first event, you probably want to remove as many potential tripping points as possible. Sticking to flatter courses is a great way to save energy, increasing your chances of finishing or hitting your target time.
Number of Competitors
Many newer athletes really benefit from having constant support on the course, feeding off of the energy and noise of the crowd as they make their way towards the finish line. If this is the case for you then it’s probably best you find a large scale event such as The London Triathlon, a World Series event or a local race renowned for its support. The flip side to this is that if an event has a lot of competitors, the course can be very busy, which can be intimidating for newer athletes, and frustrating for faster athletes as they try to weave their way around slower participants.
Not all race organisers are created equal, an understatement if there ever were one. I’ve organised a triathlon and been race director a couple of times so I know how much goes into running an event, but it’s incredible how badly some organisers get it wrong. At one event I competed at they ran out of transition racking so bikes were stacked three deep against a wall, and I once arrived at a junction during a small 70.3 to discover a sign flapping around in the wind and no marshals, resulting in a 700M diversion before a group ran towards me shouting “Don’t run that way!”. Race organisers really make a difference, not just due to huge errors such as those, but smaller details such as clearing the swim course of weed, having enough aid stations that are well stocked, a professional transition area and in some cases closed roads. Yes events by premium race organisers are expensive, but you normally get what you pay for.
Are you looking at a race in the Mediterranean during summer, or a race in Yorkshire in October? Are you a larger athlete who struggles in the heat, or a featherweight who struggles in the cold? This is an important distinction to make, and you should use this to help you choose your race. You have enough to worry about during your first race without having to take layering and heat management into account.
Time of Year
This is perhaps the most underrated consideration, when in the year will you be competing? Many will have been training through the winter and be raring to go come May when the first races kick off. If this is simply your warmup event or your chance to dip your toe in the sport that’s fine, but if you’re new to open water swimming and entering an early season even which you’ve invested a lot of energy into training for, this makes me very nervous as a coach. The reason being that someone can be really strong in the pool, but get into the open water and really struggle with the cold temperature (as low as 12 degrees), murky waters and swimming amongst thousands of others, causing a major panic attack and potential DNF. By choosing a race later in the season (July or August) you will not only be able to spend more time training in open water, the temperature will also be warmer on race day, vastly improving you chances of finishing.
Do you have friends who will be racing alongside you? Or family that will come along to support you? This is especially important after your first race when you’ll either be on cloud nine crossing the line, or in need of a pick me up should the racing gods conspire against you.
This is by no means an extensive list, there are plenty of other factors you will need to take into account yourself given your unique circumstances, but hopefully this will help you make an intelligent choice for your first race, to make sure it’s an enjoyable experience rather than a battle for survival.
If you are looking for help choosing a race, you may be interested in our coaching consultation where we can look at lots of factors and use our experience of events to help you choose the right one for you, or if you want a fully comprehensive coaching package, including coach attendance at major races, head to our application page.
An Ironman, or any triathlon for that matter, is a massive undertaking and there’s a lot that can come between you and the finish line, especially over an event that can last for up to seventeen hours.
What follows is a list of problems you could encounter and how to avoid them. Triathlon is an incredibly complicated sport, and everybody has individual needs which need to be taken into account to get you to the finish, but what are universal are the reasons for not finishing, which we will be exploring here. While this article will be angled towards Ironman as there’s simply a lot more to go wrong over a longer event, most of this advice can be applied to any distances.
Not Fit Enough
This is probably the number one reason for someone not finishing a triathlon. Excuses will be made about nutrition, pacing, blaming their equipment, but most people who fail to make the cutoffs simply aren’t fit enough. This is often the result of two possibilities, either not starting training soon enough, or doing the wrong kind of training. If you are a complete novice then hiring a coach or reading up on endurance training yourself is the best bet to get you in shape for a big event. Training for a triathlon no matter the distance is a serious undertaking and isn’t something you can simply push through like a Tough Mudder.
Arriving at the start of an event 10% undercooked is much better than arriving at an event 1% overcooked, if you are slightly undertrained you can still pull it out of the bag with some grit and determination. If you’re overtrained however you’ll struggle to get your power up to where it should be, you’ll fatigue quicker and end up very frustrated that all of the hundreds of hours you’re putting in aren’t producing results. In a worst case scenario you may even find yourself struggling to focus and find yourself weaving around a lot as your body tries to shut itself down to protect itself. The way to avoid this is to back off your training before the event (tapering), to ensure you’re raring to go on the day. It can feel counter intuitive, and you may feel like you’re losing fitness, but keeping the sessions shorter and sharper in the weeks/days leading up to the race will really help. You also need to take into account the length of your event and the priority of the event. If the race is a low priority sprint then you probably only want to back your training off in the last few days, whereas if this is a high priority Ironman event you probably want to back off for up to a month before race day to ensure your legs are good on the day. If you have a busy life with a job and a family you’ll also want more taper time than a pro who may be able to get away with a taper of a fortnight for a big event such as Kona.
Accepting outside help
The vast majority of races do not permit any kind of outside help, this is either you handing people items, or them handing you items, as well as accepting mechanical assistance from spectators. You can accept help from other athletes (an inner tube if you’re lucky), but from spectators on course is a big no-no as it could give some competitors an unfair advantage by having various friends/family out on course providing nutrition.
Wrong time of the month
You know how your body reacts to different stages of your cycle so I’m not going to tell you how to manage it, but where you are in your mensural cycle can have a big effect on your race. You can use a period tracking app such as Fitr, Clue or Garmin Connect to log how you have felt at that point in previous months to ensure you know what to expect on the day. If you suffer badly with cramps it may be worth taking some pain relief with you on the bike and run.
This is a condition where the body loses salt through sweat which isn’t replaced. This can cause relatively minor symptoms such as a headache and slower stomach emptying rates, but can also cause more extreme symptoms such as blackouts, projectile vomiting, loss of co-ordination and in extreme cases slipping into a coma. The reason for this is that as the water levels increase without sufficient sodium in the system to regulate it the brain eventually starts to swell causing the above symptoms. Avoiding this is really quite simple, you need to take on salt during your event, either in the form of electrolyte tabs in your water, sports drinks, salt tablets or salty snacks. If you find yourself starting to weave about, feeling a bit disconnected or with a persistent headache then it’s worth ensuring you take some salt on at the next aid station if you don’t have any on you.
No matter how well you prepare, there’s always the possibility you’ll end up suffering with some illness on the day, whether it’s the local cuisine backfiring or a virus you picked up on the flight, it can put you in a very difficult position, especially as the first discipline is the swim which can exacerbate feelings of nausea or congestion. You’re the only one who can make the call on whether you’re able to take the start, but if you’re feeling a bit rough round the edges a PB is probably off the cards, and you might have to adjust your expectations. If your only goal is a personal best, you may want to sit this one out rather than incur the fatigue from a long day of racing, and enter another event in the near future instead. If the affliction is anything more than a stomach bug or cold though, I’d seriously recommend you sit it out to avoid any complications. There’s no way you can bulletproof yourself against illnesses, but you can make sure you back off your training in the weeks before (so your body can dedicate more energy to your immune system) and ensure sure you’re getting enough fruit and veg.
This is one of the few offences which will earn you an instant DQ, intentionally dropping litter on the course. Traditionally this is energy bar/gel wrappers, but this also extends to bottles, visors, salt tablets or anything else you feel you have no more use for and need to relinquish as soon as possible. Harry Wiltshire discovered this at Ironman UK 2017 when he was disqualified for tossing his helmet visor which was steaming up, as even though it wasn’t litter as such (and he would have probably been back later to pick it up) it was still considered littering. If you run out of pockets/storage areas for your gel wrappers you can stuff them down your suit until you reach the next aid station. Even if you don’t get caught, the locals will take understandable umbrage to gel wrappers and C02 canisters lining their roads, making race permits harder to obtain for future years.
Giving up prematurely
During my first Ironman I had completed the first lap of the bike course and already racked up 1500M in elevation gain. I was on an energy low, my left knee was in pain and as I started my second lap, it was so very tempting to call it a day and climb off. I had the misfortune of experiencing a low point as I passed transition where it would have been easy to duck out, but I knew this was a low point that would pass, I rallied and kept going. Partly this was because I was already a seasoned triathlete by this point, partly because I knew this moment was coming. Nobody feels good for the entirety of the 180KM, and you have to trust the feeling will pass. It’s very easy/tempting to climb off, but sticking it out, taking on some more food, having a drink and using some self talk can help prevent you from calling it a day. It may feel like a good idea at the time, but you don’t want to sit at the finish watching everyone cross the line with their arms in the air, knowing you’ll have to explain to everyone why you pulled out for months on end. The best way to help with this is to really push yourself to your limit during your fitness tests so you can differentiate between when you’re genuinely done and when you just need to suck it up.
It’s very easy to make a mistake in the days leading up to the event which can prevent you even lining up at the start. While most of these are common sense to experienced competitors, they can catch out first timers.
Forgetting your photo ID
Most triathlons require a valid form of photo ID for registration, so they can ensure you’re really who you say you are. This is for the security of others as much as it is for your own protection, so don’t forget to pack your ID! In the UK a driving license or passport are the two most commonly used forms, I wouldn’t risk anything unconventional such as student or military ID.
Not registering in time
Most long distance events require you to register the day before at the very latest, at Ironman events they close registration at midday the day before, if you turn up at 12:01 you can’t race. Don’t leave it to chance, I recommend registering the day before, giving you some peace of mind in case your car breaks down or train is cancelled on the morning you’re due to head up.
Not completing your medical certificate
Not an issue in the UK, but some countries require a doctor’s letter confirming you’re in good health to compete in the event. This can normally be acquired fairly easily for a small charge, but make sure this is done in advance and you take your copy with you, otherwise you will not be allowed to take the start.
Not racking in time
Once you’ve registered you need to ensure you rack your bike and have your transition area setup in time. For shorter events this is simply so everything is ready for you when you come out the water, for longer events that normally means you have to rack the day before. If your bike isn’t racked when transition closes you can’t start the race. If you only register at the 11th hour this may only give you a few hours to get everything in place, which is unlikely to be enough for an event split transition, where T1 and T2 are separate.
So, you’ve made it to the start line, next up is the discipline which has the highest DNF (did not finish) rate in shorter events, the swim. If you are a confident swimmer there’s not a huge amount that can go wrong here, but that’s not to say you can get complacent.
You can’t swim
Let’s be honest, some people who start a triathlon just can’t swim properly. They can make an arm/leg movement that propels them forward in a fashion, but it’s exhausting and very slow. You’ll probably be able to get through your first pool triathlon like this, but in open water and/or longer distances you will be found wanting. Breaststroke is absolutely fine, you don’t even have to put your face in the water, but you do need to be able to propel yourself through the water in a relaxed, efficient manner so you can make the time cutoff without exhaustion. If the thought of the swim is keeping you awake at night the best thing you can do is get your technique analysed by a coach and spend more time in the water to build confidence.
You’re doing your wetsuit up, and the zipper comes off in your hands. Or you bend over to start pulling the slack up from your legs and the suit rips open along the seam. There are several things that can go wrong with your wetsuit which leaves you with three options. Either you swim with the damaged suit, you swim without a wetsuit, or you don’t start the race. To prevent this conundrum make sure your wetsuit is looked after well (don’t leave it out to dry in the sun, rinse it after every use, fold carefully) and make you you always get someone to do your wetsuit up for you, as this puts less strain on the zipper.
Swimming in open water can be intimidating, it’s cold, murky and deep. Throw hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of athletes thrashing through the water into the mix and you have the perfect storm for a panic attack, especially in newer swimmers but even the most experienced of swimmers have a wobble every now and then. If you’re concerned about this start at the back, and most importantly get some open water practice in before your event. If you do have a panic attack in a race, hold onto a kayak (without capsizing the poor occupant) to catch your breath and calm yourself down. In a worst case scenario they can call the rescue craft to pull you out and take you back to shore. The best way to prevent a panic attack in the first place is to get more open water swimming done, which is one of the reasons I recommend novice athletes choose a mid/late season race to give them enough time in the lakes/sea to feel comfortable during their race,
The rotation of the swimming action can cause nausea even before you bring waves into the equation. I suffer from motion sickness, but am thankfully yet to have any problems in open water, however I know friends who it has caught out badly, and they’ve ended up emptying their stomach several times during the swim, which is a nightmare for longer events as you lose precious calories. If it’s especially bad it could lead to a retirement and a trip to shore via a safety craft, but this is extremely rare. If you know you suffer on boats, taking seasickness tablets before the swim is a sensible precaution.
The longer you’re in the water, the colder you’ll get and as most triathletes have very little body fat, we can get really quite cold. I remember getting into trouble following the two mile Swim Serpentine event, and I’d been open water swimming for five years up until this point so was hardly a newbie, but a lack of time in the open water that year had left me susceptible to the cold. Most wetsuit swimmers would have to be in the water for a couple of hours to be in real trouble with hypothermia, but that’s not to say it won’t happen. Safety crews are trained to check for the signs of hypothermia, and may pull you out against your will if they see you struggling and incoherent. To prevent this, simply spend more time in the open water to acclimatise your body for the cold temperatures. Think how cold 10 degrees feels in the early autumn and how tropical it can feel in the spring, the more time your body spends exposed to cold temperatures the better you become at dealing with them.
Yes there are jellyfish in the sea, and even in the UK they can be nasty. You’re most likely to encounter them on warm days where the water is still, so it can pay to look sightly ahead of you at times to avoid the larger specimens. Most jellyfish will steer clear of a writhing mass of bodies though, and swim safety crews will do their best to remove any particularly large jellyfish (lions mane e.t.c) they spot. If you are unlucky enough to get stung, it can smart, there’s no getting around that, but there’s not a lot you can do about it other than suck it up. If the pain stops you from swimming you may need to pull out. To reduce the likelihood of this occurring you can make sure you wear a wetsuit or swimskin when swimming in the sea, as well as wearing gloves and booties where they are permitted.
A slightly left-field one, but this is the only time one of my athletes have ever failed to make it out of the water. He was suffering with mild hayfever in London, but upon travelling to Staffordshire he reacted badly to the increased amounts of tree pollen. When he started the swim a lot of the pollen was resting on the surface of the water and his throat closed up to the point he couldn’t breathe. If you know you suffer with bad allergies at a specific time of year, it may be worth avoiding lakes surrounded by large amounts of your problem pollen where possible.
Losing your goggles
Yes, it can happen! You’re swimming along minding your own business when you take a foot to the face, knocking your goggles clear off your head. You turn around to see them engulfed in a writing mass of bodies, quite possibly heading down towards the murky depths, and the chances are this will cost you a LOT of time, perhaps even causing you to miss the cutoff in a worst case scenario. To prevent this I recommend wearing your goggles under your hat, or if that causes issues, you can try one cap over your head, then place your goggles over that, followed by the race cap on the top to ensure they don’t go anywhere! Practice this in your open water training to find a combination that works for you.
One of the old adages of triathletes is to always take a spare pair of goggles to a race, as you never know when they’ll give up on you. I invest in a brand new pair before every big race (doing a couple of practice swims first to ensure they make a good seal) to reduce the likelihood of the strap or nosepiece breaking during the race, but having a pair on standby before the swim start never hurt anyone. Another reason for a new pair on race day is to avoid having to mess around with anti-fog which can burn your eyes if applied in a panic before the swim start.
Luckily there aren’t many ways you can go spectacularly wrong here, but that’s not to say its impossible…
Not performing a walk through
Once you have your transition setup do a walk through of the transition area. Start at the swim in, to your bike bag (if applicable), to your bike, and then to the bike out. I was once number 800 and placed by bike bag on the hook for 808 by accident. If I hadn’t have done a full walk through after racking and athlete 808 didn’t start for whatever reason I could have had several minutes of blind panic trying to find my bag. This also ensures you find the quickest possible route to your bike and instinctively know which direction to head in for the bike out.
Not having the right kit
It’s like one of those dreams you no doubt have (I know I do), when you get to your transition area and discover you’ve forgotten something like your bike shoes, helmet or race number. Without these you will not be able to continue your race. Ensure you avoid this by writing a checklist of the kit you need and ticking each item off as you pack them into your car. Most races have an expo for items like race belts and anti-chafe, but will have very limited stock of most big items.
Marking your bike
Finding your bike can be a nightmare, there may be thousands of them in a small space and you wouldn’t be the first athlete to have the brightest idea of attaching a balloon to your bike to make it easier to find. This is banned to prevent transition from looking like a funfair, and will be removed by the commissaires, possibly resulting in a disqualification or you struggling to find your bike as you were relying on a balloon which has since been removed. If you are taking part in a race where your bike and run kit are laid underneath your bike you can mark it with a colourful towel on the floor next to your bike.
Not putting your helmet on before you leave transition
Depending on the race they may politely request you go back to your bike for your helmet, or they may disqualify you on the spot. The rules state you must put your helmet on before you even touch your bike, however I’ve yet to hear of anyone actually getting booked for this as long as they have their helmet securely fastened on their way out of T1.
Mounting before the line
A mount line will be clearly visible on the ground, hopefully accompanied by some flag waving marshals informing you of the location of the line. Mounting before the line will likely only land you a penalty unless you really take the mickey, although it may place a bearing on future penalties if you continue to flout the rules.
If you are happy doing the flying mount then you can give it a go, however I’m not a huge believer for most events as it is marginally faster, but time gained by the speed at which you get in the saddle is offset to an extent by time spent getting your feet into the shoes and tightening them, even the best athletes are only looking at a few seconds of benefit, and while this is incredibly important in draft legal races it does carry with it an element of risk if you get it wrong and end up on the deck. Far be it from me to recommend which mount is right for you, but make sure you’re happy performing the mount of your choice and practice it in training, whatever you do don’t attempt it for the first time on the day.
Unfortunately this is the stage of a race where you put your trust in your bike and the competitors around you to reach the dismount line, and this doesn’t always work out. Some things are truly in the lap of the gods (if your pedal snaps off or someone crashes in front of you it just wasn’t your day), but some mistakes are avoidable, and with a bit of know how your day can be salvaged.
As we mount our bikes we are putting our faith in the machine between our legs to carry us home, however things don’t always go to plan. Whether it’s a puncture, a dropped chain, a seized rear mech, a pedal that detaches itself, rubbing brakes or any other myriad of things that could go wrong, you want to put yourself in the best place possible to come back from it. This means carrying everything you need as well as possessing the know how on how to fix it if things break. There is neutral support in larger events that will provide you with mechanical assistance if required, but they will not fix a puncture for you as they’d never get to the people who really need help. I recommend everyone purchases a book on bike maintenance and/or attends a mechanics course at your local bike shop. Being able to fix your chain, repair that puncture, adjust your limit screws or re-tighten your saddle if it slips can be the difference between your glorious finish or standing at the side of the road waiting for the broom wagon. Some mechanicals are terminal (snapped mech hanger, broken crank arm, broken spokes e.t.c.) and it just wasn’t your day, but a surprising amount of roadside mechanicals can be fixed with a bit of know how and a multi-tool.
You’re on a bike, so crashing will always be a possibility, it has been for as long as people have been riding bikes, and I can’t see that changing any time soon. Sometimes you can get over excited and leave your braking too late, sometimes you hit a patch of oil, sometimes another competitor takes you out, the result is normally the same, ending up on the deck with you and the bike damaged. Depending on how high speed the crash was, and how you landed, you may want to jump straight back on your bike, but please take a moment to assess yourself and your bike before you mount up again. Some of us are able to put up with a lot more pain than others, and may be able to push through where others will want to retire as soon as they see a bit of blood, but before you make any decisions test your range of motion. If you get any burning pain it’s possible you’ve broken something and it’s simply not worth the risk of continuing. Equally you’ll want to check your bike over, if the frame is cracked it’s absolutely not safe to continue. If you crash badly another competitor will inform the next marshal they see who will alert the medical teams, if you are ok but your bike is out of action or you simply want to call it a day, you can ask one of your competitors to inform the next marshal they see of your predicament. While I wouldn’t advise pushing your bike along a live race course, if you are in a dangerous position it is probably worth getting somewhere with relative safety, warning other riders of the hazard if deemed necessary. To reduce the risk of ending up on the tarmac altogether make sure you invest in quality high grip tyres, you keep your eyes on the road, and give competitors plenty of room. Don’t assume they’ll take the racing line in corners or know you’re passing them.
You come out of the water, you’re buzzing from excitement and ready to ride. You jump on the bike and fly out of transition, before long you start to feel the chill on your chest as the wind cuts through your tri suit. It then starts raining, there’s a long downhill, and you’re starting to shake now. Before long you’re on the long downward spiral of hypothermia, which is difficult to come back from. The way to prepare for this is to look at the air temperature as well as the water temperature. If the water is warm, but the air is cold, you’re going to get really cold on the bike. You also need to look ahead to the rest of the day, it may be 12 degrees and overcast when you start, but it could be up to 25 and dazzling sunshine by 1PM, so taking your long sleeve windproof jersey may be a poor choice. The way to get around this is to use layers, such as a windproof gilet and arm warmers to start with, which you can remove and stash away after you finish with them (make sure you have somewhere to store them first!). If you’re not comfortable you can’t put out the power you need, so time saved in T1 by jumping straight onto your bike may be lost as you start shivering and struggle to ride hard.
Poor bike comfort
As I mentioned above, you need to be comfortable to ride well, and if you’re shifting around in the saddle, suffering from genital pressure or otherwise unhappy on your bike you’re going to have a bad time. This is especially true for time trial bikes which can be especially difficult to get setup. There are two things you can do to avoid this, firstly make sure you get a proper (2 hours plus) bike fit and do some riding in your trisuit on the bike you’re planning to use. I made the mistake of neglecting this ahead of my most recent 70.3 and had to pull over for some respite in the last 10K as a result before eventually limping into T2 and waddling onto the run course.
Most races are non-drafting which means that if you are caught within the draft zone you will probably be slapped with a penalty. This will probably be for a few minutes, but if you are caught again you may be be disqualified. Most large events have a real drafting problem, as there’s simply not enough space on the road for everyone to leave 8M between the rider in front. The commissaires normally show a small amount of leniency as athletes come out of the swim together, but once you’re a few kilometres in you can expect a drafting penalty if you intentionally sit in the draft zone without making an effort to pass another rider. Repeat offenders may be disqualified, so don’t be lulled into a false sense of security because everyone else is doing it and keep your distance.
Nobody really knows what causes cramps, but you sure as hell know when it hits. Your legs feel like they’ve been replaced by searing hot iron bars and you’re unable to continue with any grace until it subsides. To reduce the chances of cramps make sure you ride over the distance of your event in training, don’t push too hard on the hills, and make sure you get enough salt/water. If you have a history of suffering with cramps it may be worth making sure you look up stretches which will help alleviate the issues should they occur on course.
Knee pain, back pain or any other number of issues can flare up with no warning during your ride, and really make you suffer. If the pain is mild and it’s your A race then you might want to crack on, but if it’s more severe or you have a much bigger race in the near future and it’s not disappearing it may be better to cut your losses and call it a day. There isn’t always an obvious answer for this, it could be the sheer amount of time spent riding without stopping, the amount of climbing, your race setup, your seatpost slipping in transit, any number of possibilities. You know your body best and whether you are able to continue, but remember you still have the run to go…
This can be either a result of high humidity or direct, relentless sunlight. In these situations you may want to choose your helmet carefully and consider a more ventilated model, furthermore make extra sure you’re getting enough water and electrolytes, as well as moderating your effort, especially on the climbs. Failure to do so can involve in your core temperature peaking, heart rate red lining and you digging yourself a huge hole.
The simpler of the two transitions, but you can’t let your attention drift.
There is a much greater risk of hurting yourself with a flying dismount than a flying mount, so ask yourself whether it’s really worth the risk. Make a careful assessment of the speed you’re travelling at and whether your legs can keep up with your current speed before you commit.
Mounting after dismount line
This will land you a time penalty, which if combined with a drafting penalty may result in you being disqualified after you finish the event. The line should be marked with a line and marshals holding flags, just make sure you slow yourself quickly enough to get your feet on the ground before the line.
Racking your bike in the wrong space
While you may not be able to receive an outright penalty for this (depending on the race), an angry competitor who finds your bike in their space may remove your bike and place it somewhere where it could be deemed to cause an obstruction resulting in a penalty. Take the time to find your racking space rather than panicking and placing it in the wrong spot.
Once you’re off the bike a huge number or variables have been removed, now it’s just you and your body against the clock, although over long distance racing this is where the majority of athletes tend to falter as the efforts of the swim and bike take their toll on their body.
Went too hard on the bike
So, you may have got a bit carried away on the bike, overtaking dozens of people, flying up the hills, soaking up the scenery, your legs felt good and it’s a race after all isn’t it? Now you’re on the run and struggling, you can’t pick your feet up, your quads are heavy, you’re trying to shake them out, but you can’t change out of plod mode. You’ve gassed it on the bike and are now paying the price as those who you made a point of overtaking earlier now fly past you. Eventually your run turns into a walk and perhaps even a shuffle as the time cutoff looms behind you. Pace the bike well and with the run in mind to avoid this, going as little as 3-4% over target on the bike can have devastating consequences on the run. Nobody cares about your bike split when you’re sat at the side of the road with your head in your hands.
Running when you should be walking
You will in most cases have at least six hours and thirty minutes to complete the marathon, even if you leave T2 just as the cutoff kicks in. The average walking speed for your standard member of the public is 5KM per hour, so you should be able to cover the distance even if you were to walk the entire thing. I obviously wouldn’t recommend this as you want to do yourself justice, but it goes to show that you could probably power walk the run course and still make it home within the cutoff. This means you can afford to take walking breaks during the run, walking the vast majority of it if you need to. If you’re determined to run the whole marathon this can result in you actually moving slower and increases the risk of you cramping or another injury rearing its ugly head and sending you back to the medical tent in an ambulance. I’m sure you want to be able to tell your friends that you ran the whole marathon, but you really don’t want to have to explain to them how you failed to finish because you wouldn’t walk out of pride.
As anyone who has spectated at an Ironman will be able to tell you, the marathon course is littered with people on the side of the road clutching their calves or desperately trying to stretch their quads out with a face that suggests they’re undergoing surgery without anaesthetic. The cramps have struck and their race is in tatters, it’s incredibly difficult to come back from this point on the run, it may well be the beginning of the end. Nobody really knows what causes cramps, but they have been linked to poor hydration and a lack of salt, so making sure you stay topped up will help reduce the chance of you encountering any problems. A strong running background will help as well, as your body will be used to the demands of running long distances and less likely to rebel.
Your stomach can only digest so much at once, after which it struggles to empty your stomach at the rate you may be adding sports drinks, gels, nuts e.t.c. and you can end up feeling very bloated as a result, especially as it’s tougher to digest food while running. You may have been on a diet of non solids for ten hours by this point and your digestive system may well be starting to play up by this point, however there really is no way to know what your stomach will be doing at this stage. Some people have intensive IBS, some people have to make themselves sick to empty their stomach, I don’t want to put you off but a lot can go wrong so it’s a good idea to fill your special needs bag with a variety of things you think you might want/need, just like you were packing for a weekend away and didn’t know how much food there would be at the other end. This is also why it’s important to test your nutrition during your training, to see what works well and what doesn’t. It’s worth pointing out that low sodium levels have been linked to low stomach emptying rates as the body struggles to absorb the contents of the stomach into the bloodstream, so those salt tablets become all the more important.
There are two ways an injury can scupper your dream at the last hurdle, firstly you can line up knowing that you have an injury that will hamper you on the run, and simply hope that everything somehow comes together on the day. There’s not a huge amount that can be done to mitigate this, but going out with a run/walk strategy in mind when you start is probably the best way to manage this, and it’s worth practicing in training. The second possibility is that an injury springs up on you during the race. This could be an injury you picked up in training and thought had gone away, or it could be something totally new. When you start the run you will already be fatigued, and the longer you spend on the bike the more your muscles will be fatigued. This is true of not only the primary muscles used in cycling such as the quadriceps and hamstrings, but also muscle groups such as the hip flexors and glutes which provide us with stability when running. If you come off of a six hour ride and then run for another four hours, the muscles that are supposed to stop our knees from tracking or our hips from dropping are already exhausted and our legs move in ways they’re not supposed to. There’s not a huge amount you can do to mitigate this when you’re on the run and hurting other than start walking and hope you can make it to the finish before the cutoff. The general rule is that running on an injury when it hurts makes it worse, so you have to make some decisions here. Is this your A race? How much does the finish mean to you? What are your plans after the race? Would the potential worst case scenario (tendon rupture e.t.c.) prevent you from working? Or potentially from ever running again? These are questions only you can answer, however I would always advocate putting health before fitness or any athletic achievements.
I’m using this very broad term to cover skin issues including sunburn, chafing, blisters or any other temporary issue which can cause you significant pain or discomfort. If you have a history of chafing in areas such as your underarms or nipples then it’s wise to pack some vaseline or similar to help relieve this, but don’t apply it to your wetsuit before the swim as it will damage the neoprene, body glide is recommended in these situations. Avoiding sunburn on the bike and run can be tough as most suncream applied before the swim will wash off in the water so reapplication in transition can be wise, especially if you know you burn easily.
This may raise a laugh from some competitors, but happened to me at a very small middle distance event where upon arriving at a junction I was greeted with a signpost blowing around in the wind and no marshal. I chose to go right and five minutes later was greeted by three runners coming towards me shouting “Don’t run this way!”. This was incredibly poor by the race organisers, but if I had taken the time to familiarise myself with the course beforehand by checking the course map I may have been able to avoid the situation.
Completing an Ironman is an enormous undertaking, and the road to the finish is littered with hazards and pitfalls that can catch out the fittest of competitors. I hope this hasn’t come across as overly negative and I’ve provided useful advice on how to manage these risks, but if I’ve missed anything or you have any further questions, pop them in the comments below or E-mail me at Simon@phazontriathlon.com and I’ll do my best to answer them.
If you have read this and are starting to think you might be in over your head, then make your way to our apply page where you can enlist the help of our experienced sports professionals to help you achieve your goals.
When I first started working with Naval in the early summer he had two middle distance events booked, the Owler which he wanted to use as a sighter, and Challenge Almere which he wanted to use for a big performance. Luckily I had already known him for a couple of years by this point through the club, so knew a lot about him and his training from day one.
We changed his training quite significantly, not so much the number of sessions but the length of them and the content. He is an incredibly strong cyclist and is one of the few people who can hold my heels during a hill session, but this doesn’t translate into a strong half marathon after you’ve already been racing for around three and a half hours by the time you put your running shoes on. He was told to either sit in the wheels on group rides or keep his heart rate below zone 4 when on the front. By spending less energy showboating on the hills and sprinting allowed him to both maximise the aerobic benefit of these sessions, run well off the bike when he got home and keep training well in the first half of the week rather than spend the time recovering from a very hard ride. We also changed the majority of his run training from intervals to longer runs, as with a month to go he hadn’t run much over 12K before.
We only had a few weeks to prepare for the Owler, so when he lined up we hadn’t got close enough to 21KM in training as I would have liked, but he pulled it off and managed an impressive 1:50 run split off the back of a 2:51 ride. With some speed work and tempo runs we could get that run split down to 1:40, and hit the bike harder, taking 15-20 minutes off in the two months we had wasn’t out of the question.
Then a couple of weeks later I got a call from Naval. Instead of beating his PB in Almere, he wanted to step up to the full distance.
He explained that he was unsure if he’d have as much time to train next year due to other commitments, and worried that this may be his best chance of completing the distance, a long term ambition of his. While I always do my best to help people achieve the goals they come to me with rather than tell them what they can and can’t do, this was a big ask.
I decided to look at the facts, for a start the swim would be manageable. He’d completed Ride London in well under 6 hours, and had ridden the hilly 200KM Ditchling Devil audax, so 180KM of riding on flat roads were unlikely to cause him a problem. Using the conservative estimate of 90 minutes for the swim and 7 hours for the bike, this gave us around 7 hours to run/walk 40KM. I’ve learned to never take completing the run course for granted as cramps, digestive issues or sheer exhaustion can leave someone weaving across the road, but I thought he could do it.
Naval really wanted to step up the running distances which is understandable, but as he has a history of running injury, increasing the distance dramatically would most likely result in injury and crush his dreams, although we did need to increase the run volume to give him his best chance of success. I decided the best way to do this was to include two middle distance runs during the week to increase his weekly volume rather than jump straight up to 30KM long runs. The marathon was going to be brutal, we both acknowledged that, but there wasn’t a huge amount we could do otherwise. It seemed a risk worth taking
He pulled it out of the bag, finishing in a highly impressive 12 hours and 53 minutes. Coaching isn’t a silver bullet, but this is a perfect example of how good communication and thinking outside of the box can create results.
You won’t have been training with other triathletes for very long before someone tells you about a coach they’re working with. It may come up in conversation naturally, or they may turn down the offer of a run together as it conflicts with their training plan. The word coach brings with it a lot of connotations, most commonly associated with tennis players at Wimbledon, someone ringside providing words of support to a boxer, or a drill sergeant barking out splits at swimmers in the pool, something very much for professionals.
This is something that held very true for a long time, but in recent years this has changed, as amateur athletes seek out the help of coaches who. This is particularly true for endurance athletes, with marathon runners and cyclists working remotely with coaches on a 1 to 1 basis, setting them training plans to help come out on top in an incredibly competitive world. However in no sport is this more prevalent than triathlon, where even first time athletes will seek out the help of a coach to help them cut through all the noise and misinformation.
The reason for this is that triathlon is so incredibly complicated. Your average wannabe triathlete will have experience in one of the three sports, but be way behind with the other two disciplines. You then have the complications of balancing training for three different spots and pacing an event that can last as long as a family day out, there’s an awful lot to go wrong.
Triathlon is an incredibly popular sport though, and there is a wealth of information out there, from magazines to blogs, manufacturers websites, athlete interviews, books, scientific papers, marketing, what you’ve been told by club coaches, it’s overwhelming and often the information conflicts with what you’ve read before or heard from a friend.
By hiring a triathlon coach, you are enrolling the help of someone who has read the literature, has tried different approaches with different clients training for different goals, and can use their experience to recommend the best way to train for your event. Can you only train for 7 hours a week? 80/20 isn’t going to work for you. Do you only have six weeks before your first event? There’s no point trying to schedule preparation, base and build training, Do you have an injury? We can help you design a programme to get you back on your feet again. Do you always find yourself worn out? We can help you balance your intensity and volume for maximum performance.
As you will have probably noticed by now, the majority of triathlon coaching is conducted remotely, a stark contrast to most sports where a coach will be there for the vast majority, if not all of the athlete’s training sessions, some triathletes will never meet their athletes. I’m currently working with someone in Damascus who I am unlikely ever to meet face to face, however through a mixture of video of his form, data analysis and good communication we are working to help him beat his personal best at the Olympic distance.
A training plans is of course the most important part of triathlon coaching, knowing what to do and when, but to really develop an athlete I feel communication is paramount. I may have created a textbook training plan that ticks all the boxes, but this may not be challenging enough as the athlete develops at a rate faster than I anticipated, or they may find themselves exhausted and not making any inroads into their fitness and at risk of over training. Constant communication with an athlete helps us avoid these pitfalls and ensures optimal training. Not only to optimise athletic performance, but to ensure the athlete is maintaining a positive relationship with training. Triathlon is a hobby for the vast majority of us, and while we can’t enjoy every workout, what’s the point if we’re resenting time spent training?
To ask the right questions however we need to understand the data. After every athlete uploads a workout I take the time to look over the numbers to analyse what happened. Did they hit the power targets? Did they exceed them? How did the heart rate compare to the power? Did the temperature affect their heart rate? How did the elevation affect their speed? Could it be that they’re going down with a bug? All of these are questions that need answering, and the analysis applied to the next week of training.
I deliver training plans on a week by week basis, so that I can take into account the findings and feedback from the week. If they’re on the brink of burnout we need to back off, if they’ve had a very difficult week with work we may need to ease into the next week gently, loading up the second half of the week once they’ve de-stressed a bit.
Triathlon coaching also allows you access to world class software, and more importantly someone who can operate the software to interpret the results and apply it to your training and racing. Whether it’s using WKO4 to view the quadrant analysis of your last ride or using Best Bike Split to create a race plan that reflects your ability and allows you to pace your bike split to perfection, you don’t have to spend hundreds on accessing this software and endless hours learning how to use it, the results are there for you on tap as the coach sinks hours into analysing your data and picks out what you need to know.
The biggest benefit for some is accountability, knowing that if they don’t get out there and run, their coach will be asking them questions. Knowing that if they run too fast or cut the workout short that questions will be asked. While a good coach will of course take into account any issues you may have on a day to day basis, we all miss workouts sometimes, they will also hold you to account if the excuses don’t wash.
Training for three sports means learning how to excel in three sports and, as we touched on earlier, it’s unlikely that as a newcomer you are knowledgable in more than one sport, when I started training for a triathlon I was pretty clueless about all three! Even if armed with a fantastic training plan, the chances are you will struggle with the execution of the workouts in one way or another. Whether it’s your swim technique, not knowing which bike to purchase or looking for help with your nutrition, a coach can help provide you with pragmatic, impartial advice on the best way forward. This is one of the reasons why at Phazon Triathlon we do not hold any strong affiliations with sponsors, to ensure we are able to advise athletes honestly and objectively, helping them select the right products for them. Coaches are fountains of knowledge for you to dip into whenever you have a query or are conflicted over something, dedicated to help you perform to be the best of your ability at your event.
Most triathlon coaches will also provide 1 to 1 coaching sessions, most popular of which tend to be swimming as this is the discipline where coaching. has the biggest impact. So if you’re looking for someone to help you dip your toe into open water, teach you how to corner properly on your bike or hold a correct running posture, booking time with a coach can help you take huge leaps forwards and improve your times much quicker than years spent plugging away with poor technique/form.
And at the end of the day, once all the training plans have been written, charts scrutinised and equipment purchased, there is still the human condition. The fear that you’re not doing enough, the bad workout that leaves you feeling destitute, the drop in motivation, the self doubt after a poor race result, these are all part of triathlon as much as swimming, cycling and running. A coach helps you put things in perspective, helps lift you up, shows you the silver linings and even act as a shoulder to cry on when things go wrong.
Triathlon coaching is all of the above, but it can also be whatever you want it to be. I work with some athletes who obsess over every data point, and some who simply want me to handle the numbers and tell them how fast to run. Some athletes need more reassurance and always have a lot of questions, others only check in much less frequently. I also have some athletes book regular 1 to 1 training sessions, some athletes I have never met in person! We offer a huge variety of support through our services, but it’s up to the individual how you utilise them.
I hope this has given you some insight into the value of working with a triathlon coach, the next step is choosing the right coach for you! Every coach has a different personality and every athlete has different needs so there’s no hard and fast answer, however we believe that here at Phazon Triathlon we provide some of the best quality and best value triathlon coaching available, including:
-Training plans delivered on a weekly basis to take into account your ever changing availability and feedback
-Unlimited coach contact, no charge for phone calls, text messages or E-mails
-Access to Best Bike Split and help creating your perfect plan for race day
-Detailed analysis and post activity comments after every workout, a chance to talk through what went well, what didn’t, and how this affects training going forward.
-In depth data analysis and dynamic FTP calculations using WKO4, the world’s most powerful analytics software.
-Advice with equipment, from basic troubleshooting to recommendations on the best products to purchase
I’m bucking the trend here for a change, rather than a technical post on the details of triathlon, I’m writing this out of a sense of frustration of the messages that are peddled by major fitness brands, gyms, and some personal trainers; often preying on the fears and insecurities of people to sell their products. This post is the equivalent of a ski resort manager shouting at an avalanche to stop in its tracks, but I hope it has enough of an impact on those who read it to feel better about themselves, make informed decisions, and save themselves a lot of money. As a disclaimer, I’m going to be focusing on areas we can control with exercise, not wading into the world of anti ageing or plastic surgery as while I certainly have opinions on it, it’s well beyond my scope of understanding.
As a triathlon coach, I’ve never had anyone come to me with body related goals. Clients have said they’re carrying a bit of extra timber they’re looking to shift, but nobody has ever come to me saying they want to drop a dress size, hit a target weight or build muscle. Why might this be? While I can’t say for certain, I believe it’s because by the time athletes come to me they already run, cycle or swim, and have gained body confidence through this.
If you look at fitness models there is a very strong theme setting expectations for us, lots of people will look at the front cover of mainstream fitness magazines and believe that is what they should be aspiring to. However I want you to take a moment to think about watching the Olympics, think about a 100M runner compared to a marathon runner, a high jump athlete compared to a shot putter, a road cyclist compared to a track sprinter, a boxer compared to a marathon swimmer. Do you think the shot putter wants to look like the marathon runner? Does the cyclist lie awake at night wishing they looked like a boxer?
We all have things we aren’t 100% happy with about our bodies, but we need to remember that our body serves a purpose, and there is no perfect body. Do you think the cover star of a running magazine would last a round in the ring? Can a bodybuilder leg press as much as a track cyclist? No, these models are aspirational figures who have sculpted their bodies to match what will get them the gigs and Instagram followers they need, and they’ve shown remarkable dedication in doing so, but do you think they see themselves plastered across a centre spread and believe they look the a Greek god? No, the chances are they’re cringing at their small shoulder muscles, wishing they had more definition in their abs, it becomes a game of whack a mole where they’re constantly shifting their training to give them the body they want, and who am I to judge them if it makes them happy and earns them a living?
However, not all of us have the time or the body type to meet these stereotypes. I’ve been careful not to point fingers at anyone or use any images so far as I don’t want it to seem like I’m shaming or bullying anyone, but there is someone I feel I’m in a position to judge and rip it out of mercilessly.
So here I am taking part in my last middle distance triathlon, is this an image you’ll ever find in a magazine? No it’s not for various reasons, but I’m sure you can all see I’m in possession of a fine pair of noodle arms. However, those who know about triathlon will notice that I’m the only person in this shot which is unusual, that’s because I was in third place at this point.
Yes I have some of the skinniest arms you’ll ever see, but I still managed to swim faster than the vast majority of other swimmers, and can get round a 1900M swim course quicker than 99.9% of the population. So do I really need to worry about getting bigger biceps? By sitting in the gym and doing bicep curls I would gain some extra muscle definition, the ladies might like it, but it would slow me down on the bike as I’d be carrying extra weight, for an extremely small benefit in the swim. So should I be ashamed of my skinny arms? They propelled me to 3rd place out of the water, they were some of the finest arms in Lincolnshire that day!
The point I want to push home is to focus on functionality, worry less about what your body looks like, and worry more about what it can do. If you want to feel better about your body, start training it to do something exceptional that you can be proud of, rather than worrying about what it looks like in the mirror.
However when I was 21 and I did no exercise do you think I looked in the mirror and was proud of my body? Absolutely not, it was the result of a process, here are a few guides to making the most of this process:
‘You are what you eat’, is the phrase parroted by nutritionists, personal trainers and mums across the world, however there are few things people over complicate more than nutrition. The golden rule here is everything in moderation, don’t think of good foods and bad foods, think of good diets and bad diets. Don’t get drawn into the hype surrounding different diets and the pseudo science surrounding them, you don’t need to worry about micro analysing your diet unless you are looking to perform at a VERY high (world class) level.
The key to a healthy diet is quite simple, eat 5 portions of fresh fruit and veg a day, don’t go overboard on the saturated/trans fats, cut out the fast food and ensure you are getting some protein in every meal. If you tie yourself into a strict diet you’ll find yourself lacking energy and willpower to train, which will have a far greater impact on speed on race day. If you consider yourself to be overweight this should solve itself with training, which brings me to my next point.
Developing a healthy relationship with exercise
Do you despise getting out of bed at 5AM for a 6AM gym class? Do you hate every moment of your weekly run? Is there anywhere you’d rather be than sat in an air conditioned gym pumping iron? Then do yourself a favour and find something you enjoy. If you dread something you’ll find any excuse not to do it, and you’ll never find a way to improve. When I first started swimming in 2012 I had a terrible time of things, I panicked in my first events, coming out of the water in the bottom 10%, but I enjoyed it and wanted to improve, I kept chipping away until in 2018 I won my first swimming event.
So don’t expect instant success in what you do, but if you enjoy the process the results will follow. Take time off when your body tells you to, make an effort to be social in your chosen sport, and you’ll turn into what you used to refer to as a “fitness freak”, which in hindsight was simply someone with a passion and drive for something beyond Netflix and beer. Enjoy the process and the results will follow.
Don’t get sucked in by marketing
Selling products that promise a shortcut to your dream body is like shooting fish in a barrel. people will spend huge amounts of money on supplements, equipment and recovery products endorsed by social media influencers that do very little beyond lighten your wallet, they prey on those with little time and a high disposable income. I’m not saying these products are useless, but they’re no substitute for hard work. You can’t spend 30 minutes spinning away on the gym bikes, take a wonder supplement and expect to see results. Brands like to over complicate simple things to trick you into buying their products, there is nothing their products do that real food can’t, you’re paying for the convenience and marketing.
Don’t track weight
Weight fluctuates a lot on a day to day as well as hour to hour basis. Weighing yourself first thing in the morning after using the toilet compared to straight after dinner can yield very different results, I once weighed in at 49KG the day after a very hot triathlon!
Weight doesn’t take muscle mass into account either, you can be making great improvements in your fitness yet actually gaining weight due to an increase in muscle mass. It’s much more inspiring to dip under 30 minutes for 5K or to cycle 20 miles for the first time than to become a slave to the bathroom scales.
If you really want to track your weight, use a system such as Boditrax, which I use intermittently out of curiosity. The below reading tells you all you need to know about using weight as a way to track fitness.
If I was just looking at the bathroom scales I would see that I’d gained half a kilo, this would be incredibly disappointing considering the amount of training I’d been doing, but look a little closer, my fat percentage has dropped and my muscle mass has increased, I weigh more because I have more muscle mass.
To conclude, the way to improve your body confidence is to make the most of it, to do things you never thought possible, and see your body for what it is, a powerful tool rather than a mannequin.
After one of my athletes qualified for the 70.3 World Chamopinsip in Port Elizabeth at Edinburgh on the 1st July, in a haze of excitement I told him that I’d go out there with him, the race was his hometown and it was his dream come true to race there. As he was the first athlete I had trained to qualify for a world championship, it seemed like a good opportunity to see a part of the world I’d heard so much about.
In the days preceding the event I made the most of the local area, going on Safari, checking out some of the local history and getting escorted out of a park because it was too dangerous to be there on my own, but before I knew it Thursday had come around and the event programme was kicking off, starting with the parade of nations.
This is a traditional event held in the days preceding world championships where countries line up under their country’s flags and engage in a parade with their compatriots, complete with commentary from the race announcers.
The biggest country by some margin was the USA, but Great Britain, South Africa, Germany and Australia also bought their fair share of athletes to the event dubbed “The fiercest race in the friendliest city”. The parade made its way through the Boardwalk area where the event was based, and towards Hobi beach where the race finished. Several thousand athletes converged on the seafront to hear speeches from the top brass on the World Triathlon Corporation (who own Ironman), as well as being treated to some traditional African music by a choir.
This was followed fairly soon after by the welcome banquet. My roommate who had his possessions stolen in London finally joined us in time for the food, which was surprisingly good quality and followed by a welcome ceremony and series of (mercifully) short speeches by a series of dignitaries, including the shortest ever speech by a politician courtesy of the newly elected mayor of Nelson Mandella Bay, who has been in the job for two days after a vote of no confidence in his predecessor. The oldest competitor was bought onto the stage, and was asked what kept bringing her back. After an evening of people predictably towing the corporate line it was amusing to see the borderline chaos that broke out when she replied simply with “stupidity”.
The next day had an altogether different feel, the women’s race was taking part on the Saturday so everything was much more subdued as people started to get their race face on. The expo was busy with people buying last minute nutrition and spares (hopefully not temped into buying some bling piece of kit they planned to use on the day of the race) and the practice swim was looking very busy. I had a go myself and was amazed at the clarity of the water, as well as the speed at which I was overtaken at a couple of points, I was certainly swimming with the sharks!
On race morning itself we were treated to the most incredible sunrise over the beach as the Ironman machine was in full swing, dozens of safety craft in the water booming music and the very best athletes in the world warming up in the water, I’m pretty sure it gave everybody present goosebumps at one point or another. The pros received a traditional blessing before the start, then when the cannon went they sprinted into the ocean as I sprinted over to the swim exit for a good view of the leaders.
Lucy Charles was first out of the water in a time of 23 minutes followed by Fenella Landridge who I met in Johannesburg airport and spent a few hours chatting with. I thought she had an amazing swim, which she did, but it turns out she managed to gap the field so impressive by body surfing a wave into shore, giving her 5 seconds on the main pack, impressive!
Onto the bike course Lucy Charles and Daniella Ryf made it clear that it was a two horse race for the win, both averaging the best part of 40KPH for the 90KM, admittedly with a tailwind that appeared on the way back but most of us are happy to see 40KPH appear on our bike computer at any point, let alone as an average speed for a middle distance.
On the run Daniella immediately started to pull away from Lucy, although the gap did stabilise after the first few kilometres as Charles made it clear she was not letting go. It wasn’t to be for the Brit though and Ryf took the win in stunning style, before subsequently covering up as her tri suit had been stuck open for the entirety of the race leaving her sports bra on show and her tri suit flapping around, hopefully she’ll look back on the race for the tour de force it was rather than feel embarrassed because of a wardrobe malfunction.
The following day I was awoken by my roommate’s 4:30AM alarm call and I laid there in bed so caught up in the emotion of the event, questioning why I was lying in bed rather than getting ready to race myself. I’ve dedicated nearly all of my time and energy on growing my business in recent years so time for training has been limited and I’ve struggled with injury, but these were still excuses at the end of the day. A visit to the British Triathlon website later and I had signed myself up for a middle distance in seven days time with absolutely no specific training. “I think I’m going to live to regret this” I thought to myself, but I could at least use it as a marker of where my fitness is currently and how I can get to the start line of the world champs in Niece.
Sadly the weather wasn’t quite as glorious for the men, it was a grey day with drizzle which isn’t what springs to mind when you think of racing in Africa, but it was what it was and there was nothing anybody could do about it. Having scouted the swim start area out the day before I placed myself at what I believed to be the best spot to watch the start, which was also next to the entrance the pros took to the start, allowing me to wish every pro male good luck, by name if I recognised them!
The lead men came out of the water in a stunning 21 minutes (Brownlee later lamented the lack of pace in the swim), and were quickly onto the bike. A much larger group formed at the front of affairs in the men’s race consisting of Brownlee, Gomez, Kanute and Frodeno. Coming off of the bike Brownlee was unable to hold the pace as Gomez and Frodeno lead the charge. Unfortunately Gomez suffered a stitch causing him to stop briefly, allowing Frodeno to take the win in emphatic style and Brownlee to pass the Spaniard for silver as Gomez hung on for third.
My athlete did incredibly well, finishing in the top 50% of his age group with a new PB by 5 minutes. We were concerned about his heel which he fractured during Edinburgh (how he managed to qualify with that I’ll never know), but he pulled a textbook race out of the bag to come home in 4:40. To PB in his hometown clearly meant the world to him and I’m proud to have been part of his journey.
I hoovered up some merchandise and made my way home, it truly was the trip of a lifetime, and I don’t use that phrase lightly. Since starting my coaching in 2016 it was the first time I had away from London, acting as both a break and a real surge of inspiration for me, showing me what can be achieved and what we’re working towards. I’m determined to get at least one of my athletes to Niece in 2019 so I can attend myself an go some way to reliving that incredible week I spent in South Africa.
I can’t wait till my first athlete qualifies for Kona so I have an excuse to head out there!