Introduction to Running Power

Often the butt of many jokes on Twitter and dismissed by many experienced athletes, I believe it’s a misunderstood technology which can provide an athlete with unparalleled insight into their training. 

The running power meter was inspired by the bicycle power meter, which collects data from a strain gauge in a pedal, crank arm or wheel hub to calculate how much force is being applied by the athlete. This allows them to pace and race better on hills, into headwinds, at altitude and in the heat. The running power meter is not a true power meter in the respect that it is based on an algorithm, using accelerometers rather than a strain gauge. Combined with the pace at which an individual is running to generate a number measured in watts, this gives the athlete an insight into how much energy they are expending to achieve forward momentum. 

As a runner, I would put money on you having trained with pace, heart rate and RPE in the past. So to start with I’ll break the pros and cons of each method down to help you make the right decision for your training.

RPE
A runner participating in a race

Rate of perceived exertion is how hard you feel you are running, whether you are going eyeballs out in a race (RPE of 10) of gently jogging along on an easy run (RPE of around 4). It’s an important skill to develop for runners of all abilities even if they also use technology, as data doesn’t have all the answers and can fail at any point.

Pros:

  • If you are having a bad day, RPE will make sure you don’t over exert yourself and push you towards exhaustion or overtraining
  • It removes the risk of setting targets that are too high/low for an event
  • Free

Cons:

  • Newer runners will struggle to understand what their bodies are telling them, and may be based on what they perceive as “getting a good workout” rather than achieving the goals of the session
  • Will cause most runners to head out too fast when fresh, then fade as they didn’t pace themselves well enough 
  • Difficult to accurately measure training load, fitness or fatigue
  • Requires many years of experience to dial in, and even then the best of us make mistakes
Heart Rate
A pair of heart rate monitors

Pros:

  • Heart Rate gives us an unparalleled insight to how the body is performing, if your heart rate is outside of normal parameters, your body is trying to tell you something. This helps us avoid overtraining by pushing too hard
  • Relatively inexpensive, most modern running watches will come with a heart rate monitor built in or come with a free chest strap
  • Tracking your heart rate over time provides a valuable insight into how well your body is adapting to exercise.

Cons:

  • There is a large delay between your body’s exertion and and an increase in heart rate, so it is difficult to use it to pace races with lots of hills/surges as the feedback isn’t immediate, and your heart rate may continue to rise for up to 30 seconds after a tough section
  • Lots of factors outside of training can artificially inflate our heart rate. A lack of sleep, high levels of stress, temperature, altitude and mensural cycle to name but a few will all affect our heart rate and may result in us running faster/slower than we should
  • Prone to dropouts or false readings. Where 10BPM is a huge difference, battery or connection issues can leave you vulnerable
  • Sticking to heart rate based training can be incredibly frustrating for new athletes as they feel they need to walk to keep their heart rate in the correct zone
Pace
A Garmin wristwatch displaying a pace field

Pace is probably the most popular method of measuring running intensity, and is still the most important. If I put a running power meter on the foot of every athlete starting a 5K run, the winner wouldn’t be the one who put out the highest number of watts or the best horizontal power, it would be the one who ran the fastest. However there are issues when using a GPS watch to measure pace

Pros:

  • Cheap, comes with all fitness tracking devices, or you can use you phone
  • The winner of the race is the athlete who runs the fastest, so it’s the purest way of tracking intensity

Cons:

  • GPS watches can lose signal, or struggle to find it in areas such as woodland or around high rise buildings
  • Large events place so much strain on GPS systems that they cannot keep up. This resultis in athlete’s watches giving false readings, and getting out of sync with the race organiser’s distance markers. This can result in widespread confusion and frustration
  • GPS watches are very sensitive to changes in direction. They expect you to continue running in a straight line, so making a U turn or sharp corner can leave the GPS struggling to catch up
  • It does not take gradient or headwind into account, if you are running up a hill or down a hill, pace data is of very little use
  • Susceptible to headwinds
Power
A Stryd run pod

Finally, this brings us onto the running power meter, which for my money goes a long way to correcting the flaws of other methods:

Pros:

  • Takes hills and wind into account (new generation Stryd only)
  • Provides advanced running metrics such as stride length, ground contact time, running efficiency, form power and leg spring stiffness
  • Reliable data in all situations
  • Measures distance precisely using the accelerometer inside the power meter, giving you an exact pace rather than GPS estimate
  • Allows you to track improvements easily
  • Unparalleled treadmill accuracy

Cons:

  • Can be confusing at first, requires time investment
  • Expensive, at £200 for a Stryd unit, on top of a compatible watch, it’s a definite investment in your running
  • The data can become all consuming, and athletes run the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture (running faster)
  • Any long term changes in athlete weight require re-calibration and redundancy of previous data
  • Can be tricky to use if you are aiming for a specific finish time

The biggest benefit for running power for me is consistency and the low margin for error. While the algorithm behind running power is up for scrutiny, as long as the data that is outputted is consistent that’s the most important thing. Whether an athlete is running on a treadmill, up an alpine pass, a road marathon or simply on a jog with friends, I know I have good data which represents their effort, using it to track improvements and calculate fatigue.

Hopefully that has given you an insight into the advantages of using running power over other methods, next up I’m going to delve into a bit more of the science:

What is running power?

Running power is measured in the arbitrary measurement of a running watt. This is a combination of force (in newtons) and speed (metres per second), with higher numbers translating into faster running. When you hit a hill the power meter will recognise this and increase the power to represent the additional effort you are using to fight gravity, while on the downhills it will recognise the gravitational assist and lower the power number to represent the reduced level of force you are having to generate yourself. This helps us pace our runs much more accurately.

Training with Running Power

Hopefully by now the concept sounds appealing at the very least. So how do you get started? First off you need a running power meter. I would recommend against any power meter which generates numbers based on speed derived from a GPS signal. This will normally involve an algorithm which looks at your cadence and your speed to generate an estimation of power. For my money though, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Running power in itself is an algorithm, so an algorithm that is required to generate another algorithm has a large margin of error. I use a Stryd footpod which is the most popular running power meter available currently, and will be writing the rest of this article on the assumption this is what you are using.

These numbers, like those from a cycling power meter are fairly meaningless without a benchmark. Is 250W a lot? What should you be hitting in your intervals? Is there a number you should be staying below during your event? When is your run too easy? To find the answer to these questions, we need to find a threshold, a point where an effort becomes unsustainable. The simplest way to use this is to use the Stryd auto CP (critical power) calculator, which harvests the data from all of your runs to give you an estimation of your ability. It’s important you feed it a variety of data points, from sprints to 5Ks and long runs. Don’t expect an accurate number after a few easy runs.

A graph illustrating a runner's personal bests across various timeframes, used to calculate a run power threshold
The WKO5 power duration curve informing us that this runner’s threshold is 231W

Zone training is nothing new as we have zones for pace and heart rate, but the fact that threshold is calculated by looking at thousands of data points rather than a single point, means our threshold is more accurate. It also updates automatically with time. Smash out a big hill session which included your best two minute power? Your threshold may improve by a couple of watts. Absolutely storm that cross country race? You may see a nice big boost to represent that. It’s important to note that these are based on a 90 day rolling average, so any data older than 90 days will disappear. This can result in sudden increases/decreases to your threshold power even if you’ve spent the day on the sofa.

The way our power threshold updates itself automatically reduces the need for formal testing every 6-8 weeks to check for improvements, which is arguably the biggest benefit of running power for me, ensuring your threshold is always up to date.

Indoor Running

I don’t like running on a treadmill, and I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that you don’t like it either, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil. This can be due to the weather or when we’re in a country where wearing sports clothing in public is not appropriate. One of the frustrating issues I encounter as a coach is accurately recording treadmill workouts. Treadmills vary significantly in accuracy, and the indoor running mode included on sports watches leaves a lot to be desired.

You may be lucky enough to have access to an indoor running facility such as a sprint track or even a full 400M. The lack of GPS signal can be a issue if we want detailed information from our session, but a running power meter provides us with all the information we need, without the GPS accuracy issues which plague even outdoor tracks.

Running with power is the perfect way to record your indoor runs as we get meaningful figures that can be directly compared to your outdoor runs. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re a serious runner who trains indoors regularly, a power meter is an essential purchase.

My preferred way to train on the treadmill is using Zwift, software which takes you through a virtual world as you run where you can join races and complete workouts. It’s free for runners and pairs with your power meter, so download it and give it a go.

A runner on a treadmill in front of a screen displaying Zwift, which she is using to record her run
Image copyright Zwift

Post Run Analysis

A graph depicting various data points during a run
Fatigue Indicators Chart developed by Steve Palladino, available on WKO5

Once you get back from your run your watch will upload your data to an analysis platform of choice. Most software now supports running power, however the level of support varies considerably. If you are a basic user the Stryd Power Centre will offer enough information for you, with the bonus of being free, although they will be offering a premium subscription in the near future to access some features. TrainingPeaks offers some basic functionality, but if you are a serious runner only looking to analyse data, and have little to no interest in purchasing a TrainingPlan then I recommend using WKO instead. It costs the same as a year of TrainingPeaks premium with far greater support for running power. There’s a steep learning curve however, so if you’re a recreational runner this is probably overkill.

Assuming your threshold is accurate, you will be able to see in detail how hard you ran. This data will be far more insightful than pace or heart rate, and pick up small, rapid changes much better, such as jumping over a fallen tree or sprinting for a couple of strides to make it across the road before the lights turn green. While these aren’t necessarily actionable data points, the power meter ensures that these efforts are recorded and reflected in your training load calculations. 

If you are so inclined, you can take a real deep dive into your data looking at the advanced metrics offered by WKO where you can see your leg spring stiffness, duty factor, percentage of power generated horizontally or vertically, and all manner of other metrics, which I’m not going to go into here.

Two metrics that are worth paying attention to however are running efficiency and horizontal power. 

Running efficiency (RE) looks at how effective you are at turning watts into speed. As you may remember, higher speed means higher watts, but you can also create power simply by jumping up and down on the spot, so this metric looks at how efficient you are. Running efficiency is quite a finite metric, but when running at threshold, anything below 0.97 requires improvement, 1.0 is a good score, and 1.03 or above is likely the realm of elite runners. An improvement in RE over time at the same pace/power suggests that you are improving as a runner.

Percentage of power generated in a horizontal plane (or horizontal power) tells you how much power generated is transferred into forward momentum. As mentioned above, you can create power by jumping up and down on the spot, which would create 0% horizontal power, and 100% vertical power. You can’t create 100% horizontal power, but if you can get it up to around 75-80% this suggests you are moving fluidly.

These metrics will vary from run to run, and will be lower on easy or hilly runs so make sure you’re only comparing these with like for like runs.

The real danger here is getting lost in the numbers and over analysing every single data point, or believing you aren’t capable of more than the software’s predictions. We should still be runners at heart, hitting the roads/trails for fun and the challenge of pushing our limits. Running power data is so in depth we can run the risk of becoming data analysts first instead of athletes.

Running Power for Triathlon

So, if you’re a triathlete, how does this fit into your training? How can you use it to run faster off the bike? The answer is in form power.

When we run off the bike we’re never going to run as well as we will at a standalone event. Depending on your event and ability you may be up to ten hours into the race at this point, and your legs will be stiff from the repeated pedalling action on the bike. Your mobility may be impaired and your legs will be fatigued. This can mean you find yourself not running as quickly as you’d hoped. Add to this the accumulation of fatigue over the rest of the run and we’re looking at a very different picture to training.

Running power takes this into account, recognising that you’re putting in the effort, even if you’re not travelling as quickly as you would normally. This is form power, it looks at the vertical and lateral movement from the foot compared to the horizontal power which we touched on above. While generating a high amount of form power is bad news for our running, what’s worse is not taking this into account and pushing harder because we feel we’re slacking off.

This becomes imperative to our pacing. We may know we can hold 5:00 for a marathon when fresh, but after a hard 180Km on the bike this may be 5:20, maybe even 5:30. If we stick to our guns (and pride) aiming for 5:00 per KM we could well be slowly running ourselves into the red and find ourselves walking. Aiming for a power target instead takes our loss of form into account, ensuring we focus on what our body is doing, as opposed to what we think it should be doing.

Conclusion

So, you may be wondering why more people don’t run with power at this point. I’ll break down a few most common issues people have with running power

Elite athletes don’t use it

It’s true, not many professional runners use Stryd, with some notable exceptions such as Ben Kanute and Olympic Triathlon Champion Gwen Jorgennson. More often than not this is the choice of their coach rather than the athlete, who will adapt an “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. Truth be told, if I had an athlete who was winning races training with pace and/or heart rate, I probably wouldn’t suggest they switch to running power. Elite athletes are often training at a level where they can’t afford to try something new, especially going into an Olympic year, so they stick to what they know.

Technophobes

Some very successful coaches out there won’t even want their athletes to wear watches. They’ll stand next to the start/finish line of a track with their stopwatch, barking splits out to runners as they complete every lap. While this is an extreme example, many coaches who qualified in the 20th Century aren’t interested in opening their minds to new training methods. There is nothing inherently wrong with this if they’ve been coaching for 30 years and had great success with their current methods, but they may not be getting the most out of their athletes.

This also extends to athletes who may not understand what running power is, how to set it up, or how to use it to make themselves faster, to them it’s just a number that appears on their watch. I hope to demystify it in more detail with more articles in future.

Just not appealing

For some, training with heart rate and pace is enough, or even too much in some cases. If you live a very busy life and don’t have the time, headspace or inclination to look through your numbers after a run. For some, running is a time for them to switch off, lose themselves in nature, or blow off some steam, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s not a “mature technology”

It’s true that our understanding of running power is accelerating at a rapid pace, in fact it could be argued that the entire concept is in beta testing with rapid developments and new interpretations of the data on a regular basis. The concept is based on an algorithm and it’s hard to see how that could be changed currently, so it’s hard to see it becoming as reliable as cycling power any time soon. That being said, look at the way Team Sky and British Cycling advanced the knowledge of cycling power, first developed in the 80s, to emerge as a dominant force in 2012. There is a lot of potential in running power, and early adopters with the right guidance can capitalise on its benefits.

Early versions were poor

Running power meters first arrived on the scene back in 2015, and by the company involved’s own admission more recently, left a lot to be desired. New generations have improved the accuracy and the stability of running power significantly.

The best thing of all though? Just because you record running power doesn’t mean you can’t also run with pace, heart rate or RPE. You can record all four at once, and choose whichever you want to dictate the intensity of your workout. Following a MAF plan? Increases in power can reassure you the training is working.

It may be you want a running power meter simply to record your pace more accurately, or you’re only interested in a single metric such as leg spring stiffness or horizontal power. As with everything in our sport, you only need to take it as seriously as you want. If you have the cash I recommend you give it a go though, it may be just what you need to take your running to the next level.

Further Reading

There are limited resources out there for running power, but I have a few recommendations:

Palladino Power Project

Steve Palladino is an accomplished running coach who has invested heavily in running power, and has created a Facebook group to act as an open forum to discuss running power. With up to date information and good discussions, I recommend you join: https://www.facebook.com/groups/PalladinoPowerProject

Run With Power by Jim Vance

Unfortunately this book is slightly out of date now and I’m hoping for a second edition, but it’s still the primary source of information for running power.

Cover of "Run with Power" book

The Secret of Running by Hans van Dijk and Ron van Megen

This is a more up to date book which includes useful information on Running Power

Cover of "The Secret of Running book"

Stryd Materials

As a company, Stryd have done a good job of creating a number of resources for runners. This includes articles on their website, their podcast and their Facebook group where runners can ask questions and discuss training with Stryd staff https://www.facebook.com/groups/strydcommunity

I hope this has opened your eyes to the potential benefits of running with power. If you have a running power meter and are struggling to understand your data, why not book in a coaching consultation with us here where we can talk you through the process and help get your training on track.

Choosing a Road Cycling Cassette

Also known as a sprocket or rear block by newer riders, choosing a road cycling cassette is probably one of the most underrated ways to improve your riding, especially on the hills.

So, what are the most important factors here? We’ll look at the following factors:

  • Range of cassette
  • Size of biggest/smallest cogs
  • Cassette weight

Range of cassette

A cassette will either be described by cyclists as wide or narrow. A wide cassette has a large range, meaning the differences between your biggest and smallest gears will be large. This allows you to ride fast on the flats and still ride at a sensible cadence on the hills. Meanwhile a narrow cassette will make it much harder to ride up hills, as the rings tend to have fewer teeth.

If a cyclist is looking for one cassette to use in all situations I recommend a cassette with a wide range. You never know when you might find yourself at the bottom of a leg sapping climb on tired legs with no gears left. A narrow cassette is generally only used for specific events like flat triathlons or time trials. The small gaps between gears helps you find your “Goldilocks” gear while wide cassettes can make it hard to get comfortable if you’re forever in a gear slightly too hard or too slightly too easy.

As an example, an 12 speed 11-23 has rings with the following number of teeth: 11/12/13/14/15/16/17/18/19/21/23. In comparison a 32-11 has 11/12/13/14/16/18/20/22/25/28/32. If I was riding on my 11-32 at a power which suited a 15 tooth cog gear on the back, I’d have to choose between a 14 tooth or a 16 tooth, where if I was riding an 11-23 I could ride in the 15 tooth cog I was after. If you’re riding on rolling terrain this isn’t such an issue as you’ll never be in the same gear for long enough for it to be noticeable. But if you’re taking on a flat course such as Ironman Barcelona, you don’t want to spend 180KM unable to find a comfortable gear.

Range is intrinsic to the size of your biggest ring, which we’ll look at next.

Size of biggest/smallest rings

Cassettes are expressed numerically, such as 12-28 or 11-32. The first number refers to the smallest ring, the larger number to the biggest ring.

If choosing a road cycling cassette for a series of punishing climbs you’ll want to take a 28 at the very least. Potentially even a 30 or 32 if it’s an especially hilly ride.

23 is the lowest number of teeth you’re likely to find on the biggest ring of most cassettes. This is only recommended for strong cyclists riding on flat courses. 25 is traditionally what a lot of professional riders will use, dropping to 28s on mountain stages. For us mortals however 28 is a sensible all round cassette as we don’t have the power to push round a 25 tooth cog on a steep grade without wobbling all over the road.

The smallest rings are generally 11 or 12t (the t denoting number of teeth). These won’t make an enormous difference to your riding unless you’re planning to ride hard on the downhills.

Weight of cassette

Some cassettes cost £50 and some cost well over £300 (Campagnolo we’re looking at you). So what’s the difference? Assuming it’s the same brand and has the same number of gears/teeth, it’s just the weight. You can buy an expensive cassette to shave off a few grams, but that really is it. Shimano’s cheapest 11 speed 11-28 cassette, the 105, weighs in at 284g, with their top of the range Dura-Ace equivalent topping the scales at 192g. The 105 cassette retails at £50, the Dura-Ace at £199, so this is a very expensive way to save <100g. There may be minute differences in shifting performance, but you’re unlikely to notice them if your gears are indexed properly.

Weight data courtesy of https://ccache.cc/blogs/newsroom/2019-road-groupset-weight-comparison

Conclusion

If I were to advise a new road cyclist, I’d recommend an 11-28 at the very least to help them up the hills. As they get stronger or if they live somewhere with very few hills they might consider a 25. I would only recommend a 23 for competition day, or race simulation rides, as the ability to get up a hill efficiently far outweighs the benefit of the smaller jumps in gears for me.

Most road cyclists will acquire a collection of cassettes over the years. This gives them the flexibility to choose the right cassette for different rides. I wouldn’t necessarily swap between a 30 for my hilly training rides and my 25 on flat training rides, but if I had a big ride (100 miles plus) or a race, I’d take the time to choose the right tool for the job.

Technical info

Hopefully we’ve enlightened you to the benefits of choosing a road cycling cassette. But before you go and place your order, some really boring stuff. It’s easy to buy a cassette incompatible with your bike, so make sure you avoid the following pitfalls

Manufacturers are generally not cross compatible. Some Shimano and SRAM products will work with each other, but check with your bike shop before buying. Campagnolo is not compatible with any other manufacturer.

Make extra sure you’re buying a cassette which has the right number of gears. As both 11 and 10 speed cassettes are still expressed as 12-28, this is an easy trap to fall into. To complicate matters, older versions of group sets have less gears, so make extra certain it’s the product you’re after before ordering. Each generation of a groupset will have a code (such as Shimano R7000), so make sure you’re getting the right kit. It’s worth checking with your bike shop if you’re unsure what you have on your bike. As long as you order it through them, they’ll be happy to help.

The cassette that was on your bike when you bought it is often the largest it can take. If you want to go above this you’ll need to upgrade to a long cage rear mech. This isn’t an expensive upgrade, but it’s best to order and install the parts together to save on labour costs if you’re unsure how to do it yourself.

Finally, your cassette is a consumable part and will wear over time. The best way to prevent this is to keep your drivetrain clean. Find out how in our article here

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What Will the 2021 Triathlon Season Look Like?

Image copyright Ironman

The 2020 triathlon season has been the strangest we’ve ever seen, so what will the 2021 triathlon season look like? As a coach and race director who has been involved with the sport for eight years I wanted to share some thoughts (and speculations) on what 2021 will look like.

Will races go ahead?

Yes. As lots of events started happening late in 2020, I don’t currently see any reason why 2021 would be a complete washout. Not all events will go ahead, some race organisers didn’t survive 2020 so some events will disappear for good. The exact numbers and what that will look like we’ll find out in due time, but it depends on a wide range of factors.

But we have vaccines right?

In the last fortnight a number of highly effective vaccines have been announced, giving everybody hope that life can return to something resembling normal in the next six months. Whether these vaccines get approved, are free of side effects or enough can be manufactured to reach remote regions remains to be seen, but this is a massive boost. Here in the UK our government are forecasting the population could be immunised to the point where social distancing is no longer required by April. Even allowing for logistical issues, we should have a good rate of vaccination by summer.

Will I need a vaccine to race?

This is the big question no organiser wants to commit to this far out, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that to start with, probably. As the best vaccines are only 95% effective (which I should point out is still incredible), organisers will not want anyone who has a higher than usual risk of infection on their start line as the law of averages suggests there’s still an above average risk they’ll infect another person. As herd immunity starts to take effect from the majority of the public being vaccinated this may well be relaxed in time, but for the 2021 season I expect many organisers will be asking for proof of vaccination before you can take the start.

What if I can’t get vaccinated?

Most triathletes don’t qualify for “vulnerable” status and are under 60 so we’ll be towards the bottom of the list for immunisation. It may be that races will also accept a negative test result within the last 24 hours in lieu of a vaccination certificate to begin with if vaccinations are not available in your area, but once vaccines become widely available within each country, expect race organisers to take a harder line on this. If you’re unable to get vaccinated for medical reasons, I imagine most race organisers will be able to waive this requirement.

What if I don’t want to get vaccinated?

It’s your right not to get vaccinated, but it’s also the event organiser’s right to potentially refuse entry to anyone who isn’t vaccinated. Hopefully within the next few years the virus will have been stamped out for the most part and proof of vaccination will no longer be required. Until then, you may have to sit on the sidelines or find races which allow unvaccinated athletes. National governing bodies may provide guidance on this, meaning organisers may not have a choice in the matter if they want a race license.

Will there be any spaces?

When countries around the world started locking down in spring 2020 race organisers started postponing events until the autumn, before rolling them into 2021 when it became apparent there was very little chance of the most events going ahead. As these events were rolled over, so were their entries, with all athletes registered for 2020 guaranteed places in the 2021 event. Not all of these athletes will take these places, some will have been so angry at the race organiser they refuse to have anything to do with them. Some will be unable to make the new date, some will simply have lost interest, but I estimate a take-up rate of roughly 60-70%. Even this low estimate means places in 2021 will be very limited, so it’s entirely possible that places at triathlons in 2021 will be hard to come by. 2020 was a tough year for event organisers, but they still had entry fees coming in for the events. Next year will be the real test as their income is slashed due to lack of places they can sell.

I hope organisers add extra dates (races on Saturday and Sunday for instance) or new events appear to provide more athletes with the chance to race, but there’s a chance next year will be very lean when it comes to available slots. If you’re on the fence about making the jump, I recommend you act now.

Will there be social distancing measures in place?

To start with, more likely than not. This may cause frustration for many who may have only been vaccinated to allow them to race, but when you consider how many athletes will live with immunosuppressed individuals who may not be able to get vaccinated for medical reasons, while the virus is still in heavy circulation it’s very likely sensible precautions will be taken to minimise transmission.

This all sounds a bit ominous, will racing ever return to normal?

Probably not in 2021, but you never know. It depends largely on the take-up of vaccines and the resulting infection rates. My inclination is that for as long as daily infection rates remain in the triple figures within most countries/states, that organisers will have to keep measures in place to minimise the spread. As important as triathlon is to us, racing is ultimately a privilege, and we can’t expect to receive special treatment because of how hard we trained.

Conclusion

As events went ahead in 2020 while no vaccines were available and daily deaths were in the thousands globally, I can say with confidence that races will be going ahead in 2021 in some shape or form. Whether your event will go ahead, you’ll need a vaccination or what the format looks like none of us can say, but by the time these details become clear you’ll likely be out of time to train for your event from nothing, so I recommend you take a leap of faith and act as if they’re going ahead.

All predictions made in this article were made on the 27th November 2020, and are purely speculative

How Much Faster Will A New Bike Make You?

New bike day (or NBD) is one of the greatest feelings a cyclist can experience. You have saved up your hard earned pennies to splash out on a new two wheeled piece of joy. The frame is in mint condition, the handling is smooth, and the gears are responsive. You immediately imagine yourself achieving great feats, confident that PBs are on their way.

But, are they? How much faster will a new bike genuinely make you? Or does it just feel faster? Was the purchase really necessary? We’ll start by breaking down the advantages of a new bike, and what they can offer you.

Lighter

The Trek Emonda, one of the lightest mass produced bicycles available.

This is easily the biggest reason for most people purchasing a new bike, they want something lighter. If you are currently riding a cheap hybrid you’re replacing with a £1500 road bike you’ll notice a huge difference in weight. However, if you’re upgrading from a £500 road bike to a £1500 one, the weight gains may not be as great as you may think. You might save a kilogram or two, but that’s not enough to make any significant gains on the hills. This is known as diminishing returns, once you are at a certain level of quality you have to spend an awful lot of money to see any improvements beyond that point. 

So yes, a lighter frame might shave a few seconds off your favourite climb, but you could easily make the same improvements through training.

Aerodynamics

The Cervelo S5, one of the most popular road aero frames available

Road aero frames have become very popular in the last five years, primarily as a result of amateurs watching professional riders winning prestigious sprints on gorgeous aerofoil frames. The idea is that they make you faster as they cut through the air easier, reducing resistance encountered. Unfortunately they also slow you down on hills due to increased weight due to additional frame material. This is why you’ll see professional riders swap aero frames for the traditional rounded tubing on hilly stages. The majority of aerodynamic drag is created by the rider, with the frame only accounting for around 10%.

If you rarely go above 30KPH on the flats without riding behind someone (rendering the aerodynamic advantage redundant), then a more aerodynamic frame will do very little to make you faster.

Improved Groupset

Shimano Dura-Ace R9120 disc, one of the most advanced groupsets available

You may be tempted to upgrade to a new bike by the latest and greatest groupset. You’ve rightly noticed that a new groupset can cost the best part of a new bike, so why not go all in?. This is thrifty logic in itself, but we also have to reflect back on the title of this post. How much faster will it makes us? The differences between mid range and top end groupsets is marginal for the most part (under 100g in weight savings), and the smoother shifting promised by the marketing will be barely noticeable. Electronic shifting can provide benefits, but not significant enough to warrant a new bike.

This may be especially appealing to those who find their current groupset is being a bit of a nightmare. You may have lost the ability to shift into the smallest gear, the gear changes rattle, and it sounds like you’re riding a bag of nails around. Buying a new bike is an obvious way around this, the current bike has clearly just had its day right? Well, most of your shifting problems could be fixed by turning the barrel adjustor on your rear mech a quarter turn to the left. Even if it’s more complicated, paying a mechanic £15 to index your gears will probably solve most of your problems. 

As far as time saved goes, upgraded groupsets offer truly marginal gains for a hefty price tag. 

Stiffer frame

Cannondale SuperSix Evo, one of the stiffest frames out there

Good quality carbon fibre bike frames are very stiff and responsive. When you put the power down they leap forwards with you, screaming to go faster. Compared to an old steel frame which will flex and feel more pedestrian, this definitely feels racier. This is most beneficial when putting down sudden bursts of power such as those encountered in a race scenario. This can include launching a surprise attack or lunge for the line in a sprint. Realistically, the vast majority of cyclists will never take part in an event where this is important.

It will feel nicer, but few riders will see a tangible difference in performance from a stiffer frame. 

Riding the Latest Bike

You may be an individual who wants the latest and greatest of everything available to you. You’ve convinced yourself that you need the same bike your favourite professionals are riding, that it must be faster than last year’s. The truth is that most years the only difference is the paint job, and potentially the groupset if it’s been updated in the last 12 months. Every five years or so a manufacturer will overhaul most models in its range, but even these “all new” versions can be very similar with only a few minor tweaks to geometry or the carbon layup.

Manufacturers need to keep their range fresh and interesting to entice new customers into their range, but if you’re an existing customer with a recent model, there is very little to be gained by upgrading.

Smoother riding, better braking, just feels nicer

When you roll a new bike off of the shop floor it will have been inspected by a professional mechanic. The tyres will be pumped up, the brakes will be tight, the chain will be lubricated and the bearings box fresh. As you ride these parts will start to wear if you don’t perform basic maintenance on them. The simplest way to get this “new bike” feeling is by booking it in for a service with a mechanic who will tighten everything up for you, replacing worn parts (at an additional cost) and making simple tweaks to help it ride better. 

Putting your bike in for a service can replicate that new bike feeling for a fraction of the cost.

Conclusion

So, am I advocating hanging onto the same bike forever? Not at all, although we all know someone who has been riding the same frame for twenty years so it’s certainly possible. Personally, the only time I look at buying a new bike is when all of the components have come to the end of their life at roughly the same time and the frame is old/damaged enough that it doesn’t warrant spending several hundreds pounds on fixing.

However, there is more to buying new bikes than just getting faster. You may be looking for a different kind of bike entirely (TT bike, mountain bike, cyclocross, downhill e.t.c.), may want a cheaper bike for winter, one to keep in a second home, one that you use for racing, one with disc brakes or one that just fits you better. Maybe you just love the look of a bike you’ve seen or simply don’t like your current bike. These are all valid reasons for buying a new one, but the main point I wanted to convey was that spending large amounts of money on a new bike won’t necessarily make you that much faster.

 Things that will probably make you faster than a new bike include:

A turbo trainer for structured training

A training plan/coach

Improving your diet

Keeping your bike well maintained

Better tyres

A new bike will probably make you faster while it’s still in perfect working order and you’re motivated to ride it hard. Realistically however, it may only be a matter of months before you find yourself in the same position you’re in now, so think twice before you feel the need to blow the budget on a new bike.

If after reading you still see a new road bike if in your future, make sure you choose the right one by following our guide here

Top Ten Triathlon Training Tips For Beginners

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.

1. Slow Down

You’re no doubt excited to start your triathlon training as a beginner, 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. This ensures you’re ready to go for the next hard session. 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, worried about failing to finish. But if you are so over trained that you’re exhausted on the start line, you’re not going to have a good race.

2. Progress Your Training

Progressing training throughout a year with TrainingPeaks

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. After reaching 5K run 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. Progress this by reducing the rest or increasing the duration of the hard running. Keep moving forward with your training on your hard days.

I recommend athletes use www.trainingpeaks.com to track and plan their training.

3. Train in the open water

Nervous swimmers at the start of The London Triathlon

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 likely find yourself panicking and disorientated. Most lakes will provide coaching, to provide you with a much smoother transition into the open water.

4. Learn to ride at a consistent effort

Riding at a steady pace is imperative for triathlon cycling

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. Split 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 is free speed.

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. When you start to run out of this valuable resource your performance will fall off a cliff as your body runs out of glucose. Practice eating 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 race 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. This avoids any embarrassing extra laps on the bike or getting lost in transition.

8. Buy a turbo trainer

Turbo training allows you to ride your bike anywhere, in a controlled environment (image copyright Wahoo)

Training for the bike, especially if you live in a city 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). You don’t even have to worry about traffic, potholes or bad weather. It also allows you to train properly by following workouts, or take part in virtual events.

9. Train in poor conditions

When the heavens open, the hardy will thrive

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

Transition can be dangerous, so it’s worth practicing at your own pace before your event

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

Faster, not fitter

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

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

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

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

Swimming

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Image copyright IOC

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

Transition 1

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

Cycling

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Image Copyright Ironman 

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

Transition 2

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

Running

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

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

 

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

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

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

Keeping TrainingPeaks Data Clean

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

Consistent Data

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.

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As the heart rate is so low for the first half of the ride, yet the power remains constant, we can be confident that the heart rate in the first half is bad data

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.

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A huge spike in this athlete’s PMC tells me one of their workout includes bad data, which should be removed to ensure accurate data

Enough 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.

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PMC data from a brand new athlete after 35 days of working together. Notice how their form (yellow line) hits freefall within the first few days of easy workouts

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.

Accurate Thresholds

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 Triathlon

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.

Distance

Before you even look at events, you need to decide which distance you’re going to be tackling. The standardised distances are:

Super Sprint

400M Swim
12KM Bike
2.5KM Run

Sprint

750M Swim (400M if pool based)
20KM Bike
5KM Run

Olympic 

1500M Swim
40KM Bike
10KM Run

Half Iron

1900M Swim
90KM Bike
21.1KM Run

Iron

3800M Swim
180KM Bike
42.2KM Run

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.

Swim Type

London Triathlon Swim
A freshwater swim in summer is the gentlest introduction to open water

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. 

Location

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 

Course Profile

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A hilly course makes for a great challenge and spectacle, but does it really suit you?

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

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The London Triathlon is a very beginner friendly course, with spectator access along the majority of the course

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. 

Race Organiser

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Ironman branded events aren’t cheap, but they are the best in the business

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.

Temperature

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Is jumping from a boat into 12 degree water at 5AM your idea of fun?

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

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If you struggle in the cold, you may want to wrap your season up by early September

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.

 

How To Finish an Ironman

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.

GENERAL

Not Fit Enough
This is probably the number one reason for someone not finishing an Ironman. 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.

Overtraining
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.

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.

Hyponatremia
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.

Illness
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. These symptoms can be exarcabated on the swim which exacerbates nausea and 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.

Littering 
This is one of the few offences which will deny you an Ironman finish, 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.  

PREPARATION 
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.

SWIMMING

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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.

Wetsuit malfunction 
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.

Panic attack
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,

Seasickness
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.

Hypothermia
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. 

Jellyfish Sting
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.

Allergies
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.

Goggle Malfunction
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.

TRANSITION 1

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.

Dodgy mount
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.

BIKE

Votwo Eton Dorney Tri – 24.9.17 – www.votwo.co.uk
Votwo Eton Dorney Tri – 24.9.17 – http://www.votwo.co.uk

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.

Mechanical
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.

Crashing
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.

Hypothermia
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.

Drafting
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.

Cramps
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.

Injury
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…

Overheating
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. 

TRANSITION 2

The simpler of the two transitions, but you’ll be tired and can’t let your attention drift.

Dodgy dismount
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. If in doubt, dismount normally.

Dismounting after the 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.

RUN

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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.

Cramping
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, 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.

Digestive Discomfort
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.

Injury
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. 

Abrasions
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.

Getting Lost
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. 

Conclusion 

Finishing an Ironman is an enormous undertaking, and the road to the line 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.

From First Middle Distance to Sub 13 Iron Distance in 2 Months

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.

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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.

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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.