Choosing your first race is one of the biggest decisions you can make as an aspiring triathlete, and it can actually be the difference between you making it to the finish or not. There are a surprising number of factors to take into account, and the race fees may well set your back three figures, so it’s important to get it right. We’ll start with the basics and slowly move our way into the more detailed, tricky stuff.
Before you even look at events, you need to decide which distance you’re going to be tackling. The standardised distances are:
400M Swim 12KM Bike 2.5KM Run
750M Swim (400M if pool based) 20KM Bike 5KM Run
1500M Swim 40KM Bike 10KM Run
1900M Swim 90KM Bike 21.1KM Run
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.
This is probably the second biggest consideration, where will you be swimming? In an icy Scottish loch? In a shallow, warm lake? Or in your local leisure centre pool? If you are new to triathlon I’m 90% certain the swim will be causing you the most anxiety, and managing this fear is paramount. If you are going to have sleepless nights thinking about open water swimming, a pool based event will be the safest choice. Alternatively if you are lucky enough to be an accomplished swimmer, then a sea swim may give you the sense of achievement and adventure that you crave.
Writing this from my London flat, I’m very fortunate in that there are hundreds of races within driving distance so I can have my pick of any event of any distance, however if you live in a more isolated area, you may have much less of a choice. It may be tempting to travel somewhere more exotic to make a holiday out of it, but for your first race it’s worth considering the other stresses this introduces into what may already be a stressful experience. You have travel, transporting your bike, hiring a car, potential language barriers, unknown local cuisine, jet lag and more, all of which can work against you and getting to the start line calm and confident. If you are lucky enough to have a local event close enough that you can travel there and back in the same day, I highly recommend you do so, so that even if you do have a sleepless night, at least it’s from the comfort of your own bed. Completing a triathlon is an exhausting experience, so having someone to drive you there and back
The chances are you’ll be looking for an event which you feel confident getting around, and this will likely equate to a nice, flat course, especially if you’re making your debut at Olympic distance or above. I personally love hilly courses as these are where I perform well, but if you’re tentative about your first event, you probably want to remove as many potential tripping points as possible. Sticking to flatter courses is a great way to save energy, increasing your chances of finishing or hitting your target time.
Number of Competitors
Many newer athletes really benefit from having constant support on the course, feeding off of the energy and noise of the crowd as they make their way towards the finish line. If this is the case for you then it’s probably best you find a large scale event such as The London Triathlon, a World Series event or a local race renowned for its support. The flip side to this is that if an event has a lot of competitors, the course can be very busy, which can be intimidating for newer athletes, and frustrating for faster athletes as they try to weave their way around slower participants.
Not all race organisers are created equal, an understatement if there ever were one. I’ve organised a triathlon and been race director a couple of times so I know how much goes into running an event, but it’s incredible how badly some organisers get it wrong. At one event I competed at they ran out of transition racking so bikes were stacked three deep against a wall, and I once arrived at a junction during a small 70.3 to discover a sign flapping around in the wind and no marshals, resulting in a 700M diversion before a group ran towards me shouting “Don’t run that way!”. Race organisers really make a difference, not just due to huge errors such as those, but smaller details such as clearing the swim course of weed, having enough aid stations that are well stocked, a professional transition area and in some cases closed roads. Yes events by premium race organisers are expensive, but you normally get what you pay for.
Are you looking at a race in the Mediterranean during summer, or a race in Yorkshire in October? Are you a larger athlete who struggles in the heat, or a featherweight who struggles in the cold? This is an important distinction to make, and you should use this to help you choose your race. You have enough to worry about during your first race without having to take layering and heat management into account.
Time of Year
This is perhaps the most underrated consideration, when in the year will you be competing? Many will have been training through the winter and be raring to go come May when the first races kick off. If this is simply your warmup event or your chance to dip your toe in the sport that’s fine, but if you’re new to open water swimming and entering an early season even which you’ve invested a lot of energy into training for, this makes me very nervous as a coach. The reason being that someone can be really strong in the pool, but get into the open water and really struggle with the cold temperature (as low as 12 degrees), murky waters and swimming amongst thousands of others, causing a major panic attack and potential DNF. By choosing a race later in the season (July or August) you will not only be able to spend more time training in open water, the temperature will also be warmer on race day, vastly improving you chances of finishing.
Do you have friends who will be racing alongside you? Or family that will come along to support you? This is especially important after your first race when you’ll either be on cloud nine crossing the line, or in need of a pick me up should the racing gods conspire against you.
This is by no means an extensive list, there are plenty of other factors you will need to take into account yourself given your unique circumstances, but hopefully this will help you make an intelligent choice for your first race, to make sure it’s an enjoyable experience rather than a battle for survival.
If you are looking for help choosing a race, you may be interested in our coaching consultation where we can look at lots of factors and use our experience of events to help you choose the right one for you, or if you want a fully comprehensive coaching package, including coach attendance at major races, head to our application page.
An Ironman, or any triathlon for that matter, is a massive undertaking and there’s a lot that can come between you and the finish line, especially over an event that can last for up to seventeen hours.
What follows is a list of problems you could encounter and how to avoid them. Triathlon is an incredibly complicated sport, and everybody has individual needs which need to be taken into account to get you to the finish, but what are universal are the reasons for not finishing, which we will be exploring here. While this article will be angled towards Ironman as there’s simply a lot more to go wrong over a longer event, most of this advice can be applied to any distances.
Not Fit Enough
This is probably the number one reason for someone not finishing 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.
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.
This is a condition where the body loses salt through sweat which isn’t replaced. This can cause relatively minor symptoms such as a headache and slower stomach emptying rates, but can also cause more extreme symptoms such as blackouts, projectile vomiting, loss of co-ordination and in extreme cases slipping into a coma. The reason for this is that as the water levels increase without sufficient sodium in the system to regulate it the brain eventually starts to swell causing the above symptoms. Avoiding this is really quite simple, you need to take on salt during your event, either in the form of electrolyte tabs in your water, sports drinks, salt tablets or salty snacks. If you find yourself starting to weave about, feeling a bit disconnected or with a persistent headache then it’s worth ensuring you take some salt on at the next aid station if you don’t have any on you.
No matter how well you prepare, there’s always the possibility you’ll end up suffering with some illness on the day. Whether it’s the local cuisine backfiring or a virus you picked up on the flight, it can put you in a very difficult position. 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.
It’s very easy to make a mistake in the days leading up to the event which can prevent you even lining up at the start. While most of these are common sense to experienced competitors, they can catch out first timers.
Forgetting your photo ID
Most triathlons require a valid form of photo ID for registration, so they can ensure you’re really who you say you are. This is for the security of others as much as it is for your own protection, so don’t forget to pack your ID! In the UK a driving license or passport are the two most commonly used forms, I wouldn’t risk anything unconventional such as student or military ID.
Not registering in time
Most long distance events require you to register the day before at the very latest, at Ironman events they close registration at midday the day before, if you turn up at 12:01 you can’t race. Don’t leave it to chance, I recommend registering the day before, giving you some peace of mind in case your car breaks down or train is cancelled on the morning you’re due to head up.
Not completing your medical certificate
Not an issue in the UK, but some countries require a doctor’s letter confirming you’re in good health to compete in the event. This can normally be acquired fairly easily for a small charge, but make sure this is done in advance and you take your copy with you, otherwise you will not be allowed to take the start.
Not racking in time
Once you’ve registered you need to ensure you rack your bike and have your transition area setup in time. For shorter events this is simply so everything is ready for you when you come out the water, for longer events that normally means you have to rack the day before. If your bike isn’t racked when transition closes you can’t start the race. If you only register at the 11th hour this may only give you a few hours to get everything in place, which is unlikely to be enough for an event split transition, where T1 and T2 are separate.
So, you’ve made it to the start line, next up is the discipline which has the highest DNF (did not finish) rate in shorter events, the swim. If you are a confident swimmer there’s not a huge amount that can go wrong here, but that’s not to say you can get complacent.
You can’t swim
Let’s be honest, some people who start a triathlon just can’t swim properly. They can make an arm/leg movement that propels them forward in a fashion, but it’s exhausting and very slow. You’ll probably be able to get through your first pool triathlon like this, but in open water and/or longer distances you will be found wanting. Breaststroke is absolutely fine, you don’t even have to put your face in the water, but you do need to be able to propel yourself through the water in a relaxed, efficient manner so you can make the time cutoff without exhaustion. If the thought of the swim is keeping you awake at night the best thing you can do is get your technique analysed by a coach and spend more time in the water to build confidence.
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.
Swimming in open water can be intimidating, it’s cold, murky and deep. Throw hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of athletes thrashing through the water into the mix and you have the perfect storm for a panic attack, especially in newer swimmers but even the most experienced of swimmers have a wobble every now and then. If you’re concerned about this start at the back, and most importantly get some open water practice in before your event. If you do have a panic attack in a race, hold onto a kayak (without capsizing the poor occupant) to catch your breath and calm yourself down. In a worst case scenario they can call the rescue craft to pull you out and take you back to shore. The best way to prevent a panic attack in the first place is to get more open water swimming done, which is one of the reasons I recommend novice athletes choose a mid/late season race to give them enough time in the lakes/sea to feel comfortable during their race,
The rotation of the swimming action can cause nausea even before you bring waves into the equation. I suffer from motion sickness, but am thankfully yet to have any problems in open water, however I know friends who it has caught out badly, and they’ve ended up emptying their stomach several times during the swim, which is a nightmare for longer events as you lose precious calories. If it’s especially bad it could lead to a retirement and a trip to shore via a safety craft, but this is extremely rare. If you know you suffer on boats, taking seasickness tablets before the swim is a sensible precaution.
The longer you’re in the water, the colder you’ll get and as most triathletes have very little body fat, we can get really quite cold. I remember getting into trouble following the two mile Swim Serpentine event, and I’d been open water swimming for five years up until this point so was hardly a newbie, but a lack of time in the open water that year had left me susceptible to the cold. Most wetsuit swimmers would have to be in the water for a couple of hours to be in real trouble with hypothermia, but that’s not to say it won’t happen. Safety crews are trained to check for the signs of hypothermia, and may pull you out against your will if they see you struggling and incoherent. To prevent this, simply spend more time in the open water to acclimatise your body for the cold temperatures. Think how cold 10 degrees feels in the early autumn and how tropical it can feel in the spring, the more time your body spends exposed to cold temperatures the better you become at dealing with them.
Yes there are jellyfish in the sea, and even in the UK they can be nasty. You’re most likely to encounter them on warm days where the water is still, so it can pay to look sightly ahead of you at times to avoid the larger specimens. Most jellyfish will steer clear of a writhing mass of bodies though, and swim safety crews will do their best to remove any particularly large jellyfish (lions mane e.t.c) they spot. If you are unlucky enough to get stung, it can smart, there’s no getting around that, but there’s not a lot you can do about it other than suck it up. If the pain stops you from swimming you may need to pull out. To reduce the likelihood of this occurring you can make sure you wear a wetsuit or swimskin when swimming in the sea, as well as wearing gloves and booties where they are permitted.
A slightly left-field one, but this is the only time one of my athletes have ever failed to make it out of the water. He was suffering with mild hayfever in London, but upon travelling to Staffordshire he reacted badly to the increased amounts of tree pollen. When he started the swim a lot of the pollen was resting on the surface of the water and his throat closed up to the point he couldn’t breathe. If you know you suffer with bad allergies at a specific time of year, it may be worth avoiding lakes surrounded by large amounts of your problem pollen where possible.
Losing your goggles
Yes, it can happen! You’re swimming along minding your own business when you take a foot to the face, knocking your goggles clear off your head. You turn around to see them engulfed in a writing mass of bodies, quite possibly heading down towards the murky depths, and the chances are this will cost you a LOT of time, perhaps even causing you to miss the cutoff in a worst case scenario. To prevent this I recommend wearing your goggles under your hat, or if that causes issues, you can try one cap over your head, then place your goggles over that, followed by the race cap on the top to ensure they don’t go anywhere! Practice this in your open water training to find a combination that works for you.
One of the old adages of triathletes is to always take a spare pair of goggles to a race, as you never know when they’ll give up on you. I invest in a brand new pair before every big race (doing a couple of practice swims first to ensure they make a good seal) to reduce the likelihood of the strap or nosepiece breaking during the race, but having a pair on standby before the swim start never hurt anyone. Another reason for a new pair on race day is to avoid having to mess around with anti-fog which can burn your eyes if applied in a panic before the swim start.
Luckily there aren’t many ways you can go spectacularly wrong here, but that’s not to say its impossible…
Not performing a walk through Once you have your transition setup do a walk through of the transition area. Start at the swim in, to your bike bag (if applicable), to your bike, and then to the bike out. I was once number 800 and placed by bike bag on the hook for 808 by accident. If I hadn’t have done a full walk through after racking and athlete 808 didn’t start for whatever reason I could have had several minutes of blind panic trying to find my bag. This also ensures you find the quickest possible route to your bike and instinctively know which direction to head in for the bike out.
Not having the right kit
It’s like one of those dreams you no doubt have (I know I do), when you get to your transition area and discover you’ve forgotten something like your bike shoes, helmet or race number. Without these you will not be able to continue your race. Ensure you avoid this by writing a checklist of the kit you need and ticking each item off as you pack them into your car. Most races have an expo for items like race belts and anti-chafe, but will have very limited stock of most big items.
Marking your bike Finding your bike can be a nightmare, there may be thousands of them in a small space and you wouldn’t be the first athlete to have the brightest idea of attaching a balloon to your bike to make it easier to find. This is banned to prevent transition from looking like a funfair, and will be removed by the commissaires, possibly resulting in a disqualification or you struggling to find your bike as you were relying on a balloon which has since been removed. If you are taking part in a race where your bike and run kit are laid underneath your bike you can mark it with a colourful towel on the floor next to your bike.
Not putting your helmet on before you leave transition
Depending on the race they may politely request you go back to your bike for your helmet, or they may disqualify you on the spot. The rules state you must put your helmet on before you even touch your bike, however I’ve yet to hear of anyone actually getting booked for this as long as they have their helmet securely fastened on their way out of T1.
Mounting before the line
A mount line will be clearly visible on the ground, hopefully accompanied by some flag waving marshals informing you of the location of the line. Mounting before the line will likely only land you a penalty unless you really take the mickey, although it may place a bearing on future penalties if you continue to flout the rules.
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.
Unfortunately this is the stage of a race where you put your trust in your bike and the competitors around you to reach the dismount line, and this doesn’t always work out. Some things are truly in the lap of the gods (if your pedal snaps off or someone crashes in front of you it just wasn’t your day), but some mistakes are avoidable, and with a bit of know how your day can be salvaged.
As we mount our bikes we are putting our faith in the machine between our legs to carry us home, however things don’t always go to plan. Whether it’s a puncture, a dropped chain, a seized rear mech, a pedal that detaches itself, rubbing brakes or any other myriad of things that could go wrong, you want to put yourself in the best place possible to come back from it. This means carrying everything you need as well as possessing the know how on how to fix it if things break. There is neutral support in larger events that will provide you with mechanical assistance if required, but they will not fix a puncture for you as they’d never get to the people who really need help. I recommend everyone purchases a book on bike maintenance and/or attends a mechanics course at your local bike shop. Being able to fix your chain, repair that puncture, adjust your limit screws or re-tighten your saddle if it slips can be the difference between your glorious finish or standing at the side of the road waiting for the broom wagon. Some mechanicals are terminal (snapped mech hanger, broken crank arm, broken spokes e.t.c.) and it just wasn’t your day, but a surprising amount of roadside mechanicals can be fixed with a bit of know how and a multi-tool.
You’re on a bike, so crashing will always be a possibility, it has been for as long as people have been riding bikes, and I can’t see that changing any time soon. Sometimes you can get over excited and leave your braking too late, sometimes you hit a patch of oil, sometimes another competitor takes you out, the result is normally the same, ending up on the deck with you and the bike damaged. Depending on how high speed the crash was, and how you landed, you may want to jump straight back on your bike, but please take a moment to assess yourself and your bike before you mount up again. Some of us are able to put up with a lot more pain than others, and may be able to push through where others will want to retire as soon as they see a bit of blood, but before you make any decisions test your range of motion. If you get any burning pain it’s possible you’ve broken something and it’s simply not worth the risk of continuing. Equally you’ll want to check your bike over, if the frame is cracked it’s absolutely not safe to continue. If you crash badly another competitor will inform the next marshal they see who will alert the medical teams, if you are ok but your bike is out of action or you simply want to call it a day, you can ask one of your competitors to inform the next marshal they see of your predicament. While I wouldn’t advise pushing your bike along a live race course, if you are in a dangerous position it is probably worth getting somewhere with relative safety, warning other riders of the hazard if deemed necessary. To reduce the risk of ending up on the tarmac altogether make sure you invest in quality high grip tyres, you keep your eyes on the road, and give competitors plenty of room. Don’t assume they’ll take the racing line in corners or know you’re passing them.
You come out of the water, you’re buzzing from excitement and ready to ride. You jump on the bike and fly out of transition, before long you start to feel the chill on your chest as the wind cuts through your tri suit. It then starts raining, there’s a long downhill, and you’re starting to shake now. Before long you’re on the long downward spiral of hypothermia, which is difficult to come back from. The way to prepare for this is to look at the air temperature as well as the water temperature. If the water is warm, but the air is cold, you’re going to get really cold on the bike. You also need to look ahead to the rest of the day, it may be 12 degrees and overcast when you start, but it could be up to 25 and dazzling sunshine by 1PM, so taking your long sleeve windproof jersey may be a poor choice. The way to get around this is to use layers, such as a windproof gilet and arm warmers to start with, which you can remove and stash away after you finish with them (make sure you have somewhere to store them first!). If you’re not comfortable you can’t put out the power you need, so time saved in T1 by jumping straight onto your bike may be lost as you start shivering and struggle to ride hard.
Poor bike comfort
As I mentioned above, you need to be comfortable to ride well, and if you’re shifting around in the saddle, suffering from genital pressure or otherwise unhappy on your bike you’re going to have a bad time. This is especially true for time trial bikes which can be especially difficult to get setup. There are two things you can do to avoid this, firstly make sure you get a proper (2 hours plus) bike fit and do some riding in your trisuit on the bike you’re planning to use. I made the mistake of neglecting this ahead of my most recent 70.3 and had to pull over for some respite in the last 10K as a result before eventually limping into T2 and waddling onto the run course.
Most races are non-drafting which means that if you are caught within the draft zone you will probably be slapped with a penalty. This will probably be for a few minutes, but if you are caught again you may be be disqualified. Most large events have a real drafting problem, as there’s simply not enough space on the road for everyone to leave 8M between the rider in front. The commissaires normally show a small amount of leniency as athletes come out of the swim together, but once you’re a few kilometres in you can expect a drafting penalty if you intentionally sit in the draft zone without making an effort to pass another rider. Repeat offenders may be disqualified, so don’t be lulled into a false sense of security because everyone else is doing it and keep your distance.
Nobody really knows what causes cramps, but you sure as hell know when it hits. Your legs feel like they’ve been replaced by searing hot iron bars and you’re unable to continue with any grace until it subsides. To reduce the chances of cramps make sure you ride over the distance of your event in training, don’t push too hard on the hills, and make sure you get enough salt/water. If you have a history of suffering with cramps it may be worth making sure you look up stretches which will help alleviate the issues should they occur on course.
Knee pain, back pain or any other number of issues can flare up with no warning during your ride, and really make you suffer. If the pain is mild and it’s your A race then you might want to crack on, but if it’s more severe or you have a much bigger race in the near future and it’s not disappearing it may be better to cut your losses and call it a day. There isn’t always an obvious answer for this, it could be the sheer amount of time spent riding without stopping, the amount of climbing, your race setup, your seatpost slipping in transit, any number of possibilities. You know your body best and whether you are able to continue, but remember you still have the run to go…
This can be either a result of high humidity or direct, relentless sunlight. In these situations you may want to choose your helmet carefully and consider a more ventilated model, furthermore make extra sure you’re getting enough water and electrolytes, as well as moderating your effort, especially on the climbs. Failure to do so can involve in your core temperature peaking, heart rate red lining and you digging yourself a huge hole.
The simpler of the two transitions, but you’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.
Once you’re off the bike a huge number or variables have been removed, now it’s just you and your body against the clock, although over long distance racing this is where the majority of athletes tend to falter as the efforts of the swim and bike take their toll on their body.
Went too hard on the bike
So, you may have got a bit carried away on the bike, overtaking dozens of people, flying up the hills, soaking up the scenery, your legs felt good and it’s a race after all isn’t it? Now you’re on the run and struggling, you can’t pick your feet up, your quads are heavy, you’re trying to shake them out, but you can’t change out of plod mode. You’ve gassed it on the bike and are now paying the price as those who you made a point of overtaking earlier now fly past you. Eventually your run turns into a walk and perhaps even a shuffle as the time cutoff looms behind you. Pace the bike well and with the run in mind to avoid this, going as little as 3-4% over target on the bike can have devastating consequences on the run. Nobody cares about your bike split when you’re sat at the side of the road with your head in your hands.
Running when you should be walking
You will in most cases have at least six hours and thirty minutes to complete the marathon, even if you leave T2 just as the cutoff kicks in. The average walking speed for your standard member of the public is 5KM per hour, so you should be able to cover the distance even if you were to walk the entire thing. I obviously wouldn’t recommend this as you want to do yourself justice, but it goes to show that you could probably power walk the run course and still make it home within the cutoff. This means you can afford to take walking breaks during the run, walking the vast majority of it if you need to. If you’re determined to run the whole marathon this can result in you actually moving slower and increases the risk of you cramping or another injury rearing its ugly head and sending you back to the medical tent in an ambulance. I’m sure you want to be able to tell your friends that you ran the whole marathon, but you really don’t want to have to explain to them how you failed to finish because you wouldn’t walk out of pride.
As anyone who has spectated at an Ironman will be able to tell you, the marathon course is littered with people on the side of the road clutching their calves or desperately trying to stretch their quads out with a face that suggests they’re undergoing surgery without anaesthetic. The cramps have struck and their race is in tatters. It’s incredibly difficult to come back from this, it may well be the beginning of the end. Nobody really knows what causes cramps, but they have been linked to poor hydration and a lack of salt, so making sure you stay topped up will help reduce the chance of you encountering any problems. A strong running background will help as well, as your body will be used to the demands of running long distances and less likely to rebel.
Your stomach can only digest so much at once, after which it struggles to empty your stomach at the rate you may be adding sports drinks, gels, nuts e.t.c. and you can end up feeling very bloated as a result, especially as it’s tougher to digest food while running. You may have been on a diet of non solids for ten hours by this point and your digestive system may well be starting to play up by this point, however there really is no way to know what your stomach will be doing at this stage. Some people have intensive IBS, some people have to make themselves sick to empty their stomach, I don’t want to put you off but a lot can go wrong so it’s a good idea to fill your special needs bag with a variety of things you think you might want/need, just like you were packing for a weekend away and didn’t know how much food there would be at the other end. This is also why it’s important to test your nutrition during your training, to see what works well and what doesn’t. It’s worth pointing out that low sodium levels have been linked to low stomach emptying rates as the body struggles to absorb the contents of the stomach into the bloodstream, so those salt tablets become all the more important.
There are two ways an injury can scupper your dream at the last hurdle, firstly you can line up knowing that you have an injury that will hamper you on the run, and simply hope that everything somehow comes together on the day. There’s not a huge amount that can be done to mitigate this, but going out with a run/walk strategy in mind when you start is probably the best way to manage this, and it’s worth practicing in training. The second possibility is that an injury springs up on you during the race. This could be an injury you picked up in training and thought had gone away, or it could be something totally new. When you start the run you will already be fatigued, and the longer you spend on the bike the more your muscles will be fatigued. This is true of not only the primary muscles used in cycling such as the quadriceps and hamstrings, but also muscle groups such as the hip flexors and glutes which provide us with stability when running. If you come off of a six hour ride and then run for another four hours, the muscles that are supposed to stop our knees from tracking or our hips from dropping are already exhausted and our legs move in ways they’re not supposed to. There’s not a huge amount you can do to mitigate this when you’re on the run and hurting other than start walking and hope you can make it to the finish before the cutoff. The general rule is that running on an injury when it hurts makes it worse, so you have to make some decisions here. Is this your A race? How much does the finish mean to you? What are your plans after the race? Would the potential worst case scenario (tendon rupture e.t.c.) prevent you from working? Or potentially from ever running again? These are questions only you can answer, however I would always advocate putting health before fitness or any athletic achievements.
I’m using this very broad term to cover skin issues including sunburn, chafing, blisters or any other temporary issue which can cause you significant pain or discomfort. If you have a history of chafing in areas such as your underarms or nipples then it’s wise to pack some vaseline or similar to help relieve this, but don’t apply it to your wetsuit before the swim as it will damage the neoprene, body glide is recommended in these situations. Avoiding sunburn on the bike and run can be tough as most suncream applied before the swim will wash off in the water so reapplication in transition can be wise, especially if you know you burn easily.
This may raise a laugh from some competitors, but happened to me at a very small middle distance event where upon arriving at a junction I was greeted with a signpost blowing around in the wind and no marshal. I chose to go right and five minutes later was greeted by three runners coming towards me shouting “Don’t run this way!”. This was incredibly poor by the race organisers, but if I had taken the time to familiarise myself with the course beforehand by checking the course map I may have been able to avoid the situation.
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.
When I first started working with Naval in the early summer he had two middle distance events booked, the Owler which he wanted to use as a sighter, and Challenge Almere which he wanted to use for a big performance. Luckily I had already known him for a couple of years by this point through the club, so knew a lot about him and his training from day one.
We changed his training quite significantly, not so much the number of sessions but the length of them and the content. He is an incredibly strong cyclist and is one of the few people who can hold my heels during a hill session, but this doesn’t translate into a strong half marathon after you’ve already been racing for around three and a half hours by the time you put your running shoes on. He was told to either sit in the wheels on group rides or keep his heart rate below zone 4 when on the front. By spending less energy showboating on the hills and sprinting allowed him to both maximise the aerobic benefit of these sessions, run well off the bike when he got home and keep training well in the first half of the week rather than spend the time recovering from a very hard ride. We also changed the majority of his run training from intervals to longer runs, as with a month to go he hadn’t run much over 12K before.
We only had a few weeks to prepare for the Owler, so when he lined up we hadn’t got close enough to 21KM in training as I would have liked, but he pulled it off and managed an impressive 1:50 run split off the back of a 2:51 ride. With some speed work and tempo runs we could get that run split down to 1:40, and hit the bike harder, taking 15-20 minutes off in the two months we had wasn’t out of the question.
Then a couple of weeks later I got a call from Naval. Instead of beating his PB in Almere, he wanted to step up to the full distance.
He explained that he was unsure if he’d have as much time to train next year due to other commitments, and worried that this may be his best chance of completing the distance, a long term ambition of his. While I always do my best to help people achieve the goals they come to me with rather than tell them what they can and can’t do, this was a big ask.
I decided to look at the facts, for a start the swim would be manageable. He’d completed Ride London in well under 6 hours, and had ridden the hilly 200KM Ditchling Devil audax, so 180KM of riding on flat roads were unlikely to cause him a problem. Using the conservative estimate of 90 minutes for the swim and 7 hours for the bike, this gave us around 7 hours to run/walk 40KM. I’ve learned to never take completing the run course for granted as cramps, digestive issues or sheer exhaustion can leave someone weaving across the road, but I thought he could do it.
Naval really wanted to step up the running distances which is understandable, but as he has a history of running injury, increasing the distance dramatically would most likely result in injury and crush his dreams, although we did need to increase the run volume to give him his best chance of success. I decided the best way to do this was to include two middle distance runs during the week to increase his weekly volume rather than jump straight up to 30KM long runs. The marathon was going to be brutal, we both acknowledged that, but there wasn’t a huge amount we could do otherwise. It seemed a risk worth taking
He pulled it out of the bag, finishing in a highly impressive 12 hours and 53 minutes. Coaching isn’t a silver bullet, but this is a perfect example of how good communication and thinking outside of the box can create results.
You won’t have been training with other triathletes for very long before someone tells you about a coach they’re working with. It may come up in conversation naturally, or they may turn down the offer of a run together as it conflicts with their training plan. The word coach brings with it a lot of connotations, most commonly associated with tennis players at Wimbledon, someone ringside providing words of support to a boxer, or a drill sergeant barking out splits at swimmers in the pool, something very much for professionals.
This is something that held very true for a long time, but in recent years this has changed, as amateur athletes seek out the help of coaches who. This is particularly true for endurance athletes, with marathon runners and cyclists working remotely with coaches on a 1 to 1 basis, setting them training plans to help come out on top in an incredibly competitive world. However in no sport is this more prevalent than triathlon, where even first time athletes will seek out the help of a coach to help them cut through all the noise and misinformation.
The reason for this is that triathlon is so incredibly complicated. Your average wannabe triathlete will have experience in one of the three sports, but be way behind with the other two disciplines. You then have the complications of balancing training for three different spots and pacing an event that can last as long as a family day out, there’s an awful lot to go wrong.
Triathlon is an incredibly popular sport though, and there is a wealth of information out there, from magazines to blogs, manufacturers websites, athlete interviews, books, scientific papers, marketing, what you’ve been told by club coaches, it’s overwhelming and often the information conflicts with what you’ve read before or heard from a friend.
By hiring a triathlon coach, you are enrolling the help of someone who has read the literature, has tried different approaches with different clients training for different goals, and can use their experience to recommend the best way to train for your event. Can you only train for 7 hours a week? 80/20 isn’t going to work for you. Do you only have six weeks before your first event? There’s no point trying to schedule preparation, base and build training, Do you have an injury? We can help you design a programme to get you back on your feet again. Do you always find yourself worn out? We can help you balance your intensity and volume for maximum performance.
As you will have probably noticed by now, the majority of triathlon coaching is conducted remotely, a stark contrast to most sports where a coach will be there for the vast majority, if not all of the athlete’s training sessions, some triathletes will never meet their athletes. I’m currently working with someone in Damascus who I am unlikely ever to meet face to face, however through a mixture of video of his form, data analysis and good communication we are working to help him beat his personal best at the Olympic distance.
A training plans is of course the most important part of triathlon coaching, knowing what to do and when, but to really develop an athlete I feel communication is paramount. I may have created a textbook training plan that ticks all the boxes, but this may not be challenging enough as the athlete develops at a rate faster than I anticipated, or they may find themselves exhausted and not making any inroads into their fitness and at risk of over training. Constant communication with an athlete helps us avoid these pitfalls and ensures optimal training. Not only to optimise athletic performance, but to ensure the athlete is maintaining a positive relationship with training. Triathlon is a hobby for the vast majority of us, and while we can’t enjoy every workout, what’s the point if we’re resenting time spent training?
To ask the right questions however we need to understand the data. After every athlete uploads a workout I take the time to look over the numbers to analyse what happened. Did they hit the power targets? Did they exceed them? How did the heart rate compare to the power? Did the temperature affect their heart rate? How did the elevation affect their speed? Could it be that they’re going down with a bug? All of these are questions that need answering, and the analysis applied to the next week of training.
I deliver training plans on a week by week basis, so that I can take into account the findings and feedback from the week. If they’re on the brink of burnout we need to back off, if they’ve had a very difficult week with work we may need to ease into the next week gently, loading up the second half of the week once they’ve de-stressed a bit.
Triathlon coaching also allows you access to world class software, and more importantly someone who can operate the software to interpret the results and apply it to your training and racing. Whether it’s using WKO4 to view the quadrant analysis of your last ride or using Best Bike Split to create a race plan that reflects your ability and allows you to pace your bike split to perfection, you don’t have to spend hundreds on accessing this software and endless hours learning how to use it, the results are there for you on tap as the coach sinks hours into analysing your data and picks out what you need to know.
The biggest benefit for some is accountability, knowing that if they don’t get out there and run, their coach will be asking them questions. Knowing that if they run too fast or cut the workout short that questions will be asked. While a good coach will of course take into account any issues you may have on a day to day basis, we all miss workouts sometimes, they will also hold you to account if the excuses don’t wash.
Training for three sports means learning how to excel in three sports and, as we touched on earlier, it’s unlikely that as a newcomer you are knowledgable in more than one sport, when I started training for a triathlon I was pretty clueless about all three! Even if armed with a fantastic training plan, the chances are you will struggle with the execution of the workouts in one way or another. Whether it’s your swim technique, not knowing which bike to purchase or looking for help with your nutrition, a coach can help provide you with pragmatic, impartial advice on the best way forward. This is one of the reasons why at Phazon Triathlon we do not hold any strong affiliations with sponsors, to ensure we are able to advise athletes honestly and objectively, helping them select the right products for them. Coaches are fountains of knowledge for you to dip into whenever you have a query or are conflicted over something, dedicated to help you perform to be the best of your ability at your event.
Most triathlon coaches will also provide 1 to 1 coaching sessions, most popular of which tend to be swimming as this is the discipline where coaching. has the biggest impact. So if you’re looking for someone to help you dip your toe into open water, teach you how to corner properly on your bike or hold a correct running posture, booking time with a coach can help you take huge leaps forwards and improve your times much quicker than years spent plugging away with poor technique/form.
And at the end of the day, once all the training plans have been written, charts scrutinised and equipment purchased, there is still the human condition. The fear that you’re not doing enough, the bad workout that leaves you feeling destitute, the drop in motivation, the self doubt after a poor race result, these are all part of triathlon as much as swimming, cycling and running. A coach helps you put things in perspective, helps lift you up, shows you the silver linings and even act as a shoulder to cry on when things go wrong.
Triathlon coaching is all of the above, but it can also be whatever you want it to be. I work with some athletes who obsess over every data point, and some who simply want me to handle the numbers and tell them how fast to run. Some athletes need more reassurance and always have a lot of questions, others only check in much less frequently. I also have some athletes book regular 1 to 1 training sessions, some athletes I have never met in person! We offer a huge variety of support through our services, but it’s up to the individual how you utilise them.
I hope this has given you some insight into the value of working with a triathlon coach, the next step is choosing the right coach for you! Every coach has a different personality and every athlete has different needs so there’s no hard and fast answer, however we believe that here at Phazon Triathlon we provide some of the best quality and best value triathlon coaching available, including:
-Training plans delivered on a weekly basis to take into account your ever changing availability and feedback
-Unlimited coach contact, no charge for phone calls, text messages or E-mails
-Access to Best Bike Split and help creating your perfect plan for race day
-Detailed analysis and post activity comments after every workout, a chance to talk through what went well, what didn’t, and how this affects training going forward.
-In depth data analysis and dynamic FTP calculations using WKO4, the world’s most powerful analytics software.
-Advice with equipment, from basic troubleshooting to recommendations on the best products to purchase
I’m bucking the trend here for a change, rather than a technical post on the details of triathlon, I’m writing this out of a sense of frustration of the messages that are peddled by major fitness brands, gyms, and some personal trainers; often preying on the fears and insecurities of people to sell their products. This post is the equivalent of a ski resort manager shouting at an avalanche to stop in its tracks, but I hope it has enough of an impact on those who read it to feel better about themselves, make informed decisions, and save themselves a lot of money. As a disclaimer, I’m going to be focusing on areas we can control with exercise, not wading into the world of anti ageing or plastic surgery as while I certainly have opinions on it, it’s well beyond my scope of understanding.
As a triathlon coach, I’ve never had anyone come to me with body related goals. Clients have said they’re carrying a bit of extra timber they’re looking to shift, but nobody has ever come to me saying they want to drop a dress size, hit a target weight or build muscle. Why might this be? While I can’t say for certain, I believe it’s because by the time athletes come to me they already run, cycle or swim, and have gained body confidence through this.
If you look at fitness models there is a very strong theme setting expectations for us, lots of people will look at the front cover of mainstream fitness magazines and believe that is what they should be aspiring to. However I want you to take a moment to think about watching the Olympics, think about a 100M runner compared to a marathon runner, a high jump athlete compared to a shot putter, a road cyclist compared to a track sprinter, a boxer compared to a marathon swimmer. Do you think the shot putter wants to look like the marathon runner? Does the cyclist lie awake at night wishing they looked like a boxer?
We all have things we aren’t 100% happy with about our bodies, but we need to remember that our body serves a purpose, and there is no perfect body. Do you think the cover star of a running magazine would last a round in the ring? Can a bodybuilder leg press as much as a track cyclist? No, these models are aspirational figures who have sculpted their bodies to match what will get them the gigs and Instagram followers they need, and they’ve shown remarkable dedication in doing so, but do you think they see themselves plastered across a centre spread and believe they look the a Greek god? No, the chances are they’re cringing at their small shoulder muscles, wishing they had more definition in their abs, it becomes a game of whack a mole where they’re constantly shifting their training to give them the body they want, and who am I to judge them if it makes them happy and earns them a living?
However, not all of us have the time or the body type to meet these stereotypes. I’ve been careful not to point fingers at anyone or use any images so far as I don’t want it to seem like I’m shaming or bullying anyone, but there is someone I feel I’m in a position to judge and rip it out of mercilessly.
So here I am taking part in my last middle distance triathlon, is this an image you’ll ever find in a magazine? No it’s not for various reasons, but I’m sure you can all see I’m in possession of a fine pair of noodle arms. However, those who know about triathlon will notice that I’m the only person in this shot which is unusual, that’s because I was in third place at this point.
Yes I have some of the skinniest arms you’ll ever see, but I still managed to swim faster than the vast majority of other swimmers, and can get round a 1900M swim course quicker than 99.9% of the population. So do I really need to worry about getting bigger biceps? By sitting in the gym and doing bicep curls I would gain some extra muscle definition, the ladies might like it, but it would slow me down on the bike as I’d be carrying extra weight, for an extremely small benefit in the swim. So should I be ashamed of my skinny arms? They propelled me to 3rd place out of the water, they were some of the finest arms in Lincolnshire that day!
The point I want to push home is to focus on functionality, worry less about what your body looks like, and worry more about what it can do. If you want to feel better about your body, start training it to do something exceptional that you can be proud of, rather than worrying about what it looks like in the mirror.
However when I was 21 and I did no exercise do you think I looked in the mirror and was proud of my body? Absolutely not, it was the result of a process, here are a few guides to making the most of this process:
‘You are what you eat’, is the phrase parroted by nutritionists, personal trainers and mums across the world, however there are few things people over complicate more than nutrition. The golden rule here is everything in moderation, don’t think of good foods and bad foods, think of good diets and bad diets. Don’t get drawn into the hype surrounding different diets and the pseudo science surrounding them, you don’t need to worry about micro analysing your diet unless you are looking to perform at a VERY high (world class) level.
The key to a healthy diet is quite simple, eat 5 portions of fresh fruit and veg a day, don’t go overboard on the saturated/trans fats, cut out the fast food and ensure you are getting some protein in every meal. If you tie yourself into a strict diet you’ll find yourself lacking energy and willpower to train, which will have a far greater impact on speed on race day. If you consider yourself to be overweight this should solve itself with training, which brings me to my next point.
Developing a healthy relationship with exercise
Do you despise getting out of bed at 5AM for a 6AM gym class? Do you hate every moment of your weekly run? Is there anywhere you’d rather be than sat in an air conditioned gym pumping iron? Then do yourself a favour and find something you enjoy. If you dread something you’ll find any excuse not to do it, and you’ll never find a way to improve. When I first started swimming in 2012 I had a terrible time of things, I panicked in my first events, coming out of the water in the bottom 10%, but I enjoyed it and wanted to improve, I kept chipping away until in 2018 I won my first swimming event.
So don’t expect instant success in what you do, but if you enjoy the process the results will follow. Take time off when your body tells you to, make an effort to be social in your chosen sport, and you’ll turn into what you used to refer to as a “fitness freak”, which in hindsight was simply someone with a passion and drive for something beyond Netflix and beer. Enjoy the process and the results will follow.
Don’t get sucked in by marketing
Selling products that promise a shortcut to your dream body is like shooting fish in a barrel. people will spend huge amounts of money on supplements, equipment and recovery products endorsed by social media influencers that do very little beyond lighten your wallet, they prey on those with little time and a high disposable income. I’m not saying these products are useless, but they’re no substitute for hard work. You can’t spend 30 minutes spinning away on the gym bikes, take a wonder supplement and expect to see results. Brands like to over complicate simple things to trick you into buying their products, there is nothing their products do that real food can’t, you’re paying for the convenience and marketing.
Don’t track weight
Weight fluctuates a lot on a day to day as well as hour to hour basis. Weighing yourself first thing in the morning after using the toilet compared to straight after dinner can yield very different results, I once weighed in at 49KG the day after a very hot triathlon!
Weight doesn’t take muscle mass into account either, you can be making great improvements in your fitness yet actually gaining weight due to an increase in muscle mass. It’s much more inspiring to dip under 30 minutes for 5K or to cycle 20 miles for the first time than to become a slave to the bathroom scales.
If you really want to track your weight, use a system such as Boditrax, which I use intermittently out of curiosity. The below reading tells you all you need to know about using weight as a way to track fitness.
If I was just looking at the bathroom scales I would see that I’d gained half a kilo, this would be incredibly disappointing considering the amount of training I’d been doing, but look a little closer, my fat percentage has dropped and my muscle mass has increased, I weigh more because I have more muscle mass.
To conclude, the way to improve your body confidence is to make the most of it, to do things you never thought possible, and see your body for what it is, a powerful tool rather than a mannequin.
After one of my athletes qualified for the 70.3 World Chamopinsip in Port Elizabeth at Edinburgh on the 1st July, in a haze of excitement I told him that I’d go out there with him, the race was his hometown and it was his dream come true to race there. As he was the first athlete I had trained to qualify for a world championship, it seemed like a good opportunity to see a part of the world I’d heard so much about.
In the days preceding the event I made the most of the local area, going on Safari, checking out some of the local history and getting escorted out of a park because it was too dangerous to be there on my own, but before I knew it Thursday had come around and the event programme was kicking off, starting with the parade of nations.
This is a traditional event held in the days preceding world championships where countries line up under their country’s flags and engage in a parade with their compatriots, complete with commentary from the race announcers.
The biggest country by some margin was the USA, but Great Britain, South Africa, Germany and Australia also bought their fair share of athletes to the event dubbed “The fiercest race in the friendliest city”. The parade made its way through the Boardwalk area where the event was based, and towards Hobi beach where the race finished. Several thousand athletes converged on the seafront to hear speeches from the top brass on the World Triathlon Corporation (who own Ironman), as well as being treated to some traditional African music by a choir.
This was followed fairly soon after by the welcome banquet. My roommate who had his possessions stolen in London finally joined us in time for the food, which was surprisingly good quality and followed by a welcome ceremony and series of (mercifully) short speeches by a series of dignitaries, including the shortest ever speech by a politician courtesy of the newly elected mayor of Nelson Mandella Bay, who has been in the job for two days after a vote of no confidence in his predecessor. The oldest competitor was bought onto the stage, and was asked what kept bringing her back. After an evening of people predictably towing the corporate line it was amusing to see the borderline chaos that broke out when she replied simply with “stupidity”.
The next day had an altogether different feel, the women’s race was taking part on the Saturday so everything was much more subdued as people started to get their race face on. The expo was busy with people buying last minute nutrition and spares (hopefully not temped into buying some bling piece of kit they planned to use on the day of the race) and the practice swim was looking very busy. I had a go myself and was amazed at the clarity of the water, as well as the speed at which I was overtaken at a couple of points, I was certainly swimming with the sharks!
On race morning itself we were treated to the most incredible sunrise over the beach as the Ironman machine was in full swing, dozens of safety craft in the water booming music and the very best athletes in the world warming up in the water, I’m pretty sure it gave everybody present goosebumps at one point or another. The pros received a traditional blessing before the start, then when the cannon went they sprinted into the ocean as I sprinted over to the swim exit for a good view of the leaders.
Lucy Charles was first out of the water in a time of 23 minutes followed by Fenella Landridge who I met in Johannesburg airport and spent a few hours chatting with. I thought she had an amazing swim, which she did, but it turns out she managed to gap the field so impressive by body surfing a wave into shore, giving her 5 seconds on the main pack, impressive!
Onto the bike course Lucy Charles and Daniella Ryf made it clear that it was a two horse race for the win, both averaging the best part of 40KPH for the 90KM, admittedly with a tailwind that appeared on the way back but most of us are happy to see 40KPH appear on our bike computer at any point, let alone as an average speed for a middle distance.
On the run Daniella immediately started to pull away from Lucy, although the gap did stabilise after the first few kilometres as Charles made it clear she was not letting go. It wasn’t to be for the Brit though and Ryf took the win in stunning style, before subsequently covering up as her tri suit had been stuck open for the entirety of the race leaving her sports bra on show and her tri suit flapping around, hopefully she’ll look back on the race for the tour de force it was rather than feel embarrassed because of a wardrobe malfunction.
The following day I was awoken by my roommate’s 4:30AM alarm call and I laid there in bed so caught up in the emotion of the event, questioning why I was lying in bed rather than getting ready to race myself. I’ve dedicated nearly all of my time and energy on growing my business in recent years so time for training has been limited and I’ve struggled with injury, but these were still excuses at the end of the day. A visit to the British Triathlon website later and I had signed myself up for a middle distance in seven days time with absolutely no specific training. “I think I’m going to live to regret this” I thought to myself, but I could at least use it as a marker of where my fitness is currently and how I can get to the start line of the world champs in Niece.
Sadly the weather wasn’t quite as glorious for the men, it was a grey day with drizzle which isn’t what springs to mind when you think of racing in Africa, but it was what it was and there was nothing anybody could do about it. Having scouted the swim start area out the day before I placed myself at what I believed to be the best spot to watch the start, which was also next to the entrance the pros took to the start, allowing me to wish every pro male good luck, by name if I recognised them!
The lead men came out of the water in a stunning 21 minutes (Brownlee later lamented the lack of pace in the swim), and were quickly onto the bike. A much larger group formed at the front of affairs in the men’s race consisting of Brownlee, Gomez, Kanute and Frodeno. Coming off of the bike Brownlee was unable to hold the pace as Gomez and Frodeno lead the charge. Unfortunately Gomez suffered a stitch causing him to stop briefly, allowing Frodeno to take the win in emphatic style and Brownlee to pass the Spaniard for silver as Gomez hung on for third.
My athlete did incredibly well, finishing in the top 50% of his age group with a new PB by 5 minutes. We were concerned about his heel which he fractured during Edinburgh (how he managed to qualify with that I’ll never know), but he pulled a textbook race out of the bag to come home in 4:40. To PB in his hometown clearly meant the world to him and I’m proud to have been part of his journey.
I hoovered up some merchandise and made my way home, it truly was the trip of a lifetime, and I don’t use that phrase lightly. Since starting my coaching in 2016 it was the first time I had away from London, acting as both a break and a real surge of inspiration for me, showing me what can be achieved and what we’re working towards. I’m determined to get at least one of my athletes to Niece in 2019 so I can attend myself an go some way to reliving that incredible week I spent in South Africa.
I can’t wait till my first athlete qualifies for Kona so I have an excuse to head out there!
The London Triathlon is the world’s biggest multisport event, attracting thousands of athletes year on year. Its location in one of the world’s largest cities and beginner friendly nature makes it very popular for those looking to compete in their first event, while the flat, fast nature of the course also appeals to PB hunters.
There are multiple distances available:
Super Sprint: 400M swim, 10 KM bike, 2.5KM run
This distance is ideal for those just looking to dip their toe into the world of triathlon, there are limited spaces available for this distance compared to the others so it’s worth ensuring you get your entry in soon to avoid disappointment.
Sprint: 750M swim, 20KM bike, 5KM run
Very popular with first timers, this is a challenge in endurance in its own right. Most people will be looking at somewhere between 1:20 and 2:00 for a finishing time in this distance, so it’s far from a sprint in reality!
Olympic: 1500M swim, 40KM bike, 10KM run
This distance gets its name from its inclusion in the Olympic Games, a true test of endurance but without getting silly as with the Ironman 70.3 and full Iron distance events. The winners may go just under the two hour mark, with most people coming in somewhere between 2:20 and 3:10. There is a separate wave for those who can go under 2:30 to allow them a clearer, less congested course.
Olympic Plus: 1500M swim, 80KM bike, 10KM run
For the strong cyclists out there, this event isn’t too far removed from a half Ironman distance, and is a good stepping stone for those nervous about the step up to 70.3.
Getting to the start of the event can be a bit of a challenge due to the road closures for the event, especially on the Sunday where the road closures are more extensive, as a result I highly recommend you take public transport to the start if based in London, or find yourself a hotel close by if you are travelling from afar. The DLR technically has a limit on the number of bikes that are permitted on each train, but I’ve never heard of anyone enforcing this during the triathlon weekend.
Make sure you arrive at least two hours before your wave starts where possible, this allows you time to set up your transition area, collect your number, mark up your bike, get changed into your wetsuit, make multiple trips to the toilet and still be there 20 minutes before your swim start.
Ensure you take time to watch the briefing video and familiarise yourself with the layout of transition area to save you valuable seconds during your race as the clock doesn’t stop between sports!
The swim is held in the London Royal Docks, which isn’t as dirty as it looks or sounds! The docks have long been abandoned and the water quality improved dramatically in the last 15 years with the installation of a filter at the intake point. NOWCA run swim sessions most days at the west of the docks and I have spent several hours in the water coaching sessions without ever falling ill, so the likelihood of you picking something up during a race are incredibly low, just try to avoid swallowing any water.
Wetsuits are compulsory for this event, while they don’t give an explicit reason for this I believe it is due to the large mixture of abilities in the water, so make sure you have a suit ready to go as there are none available to hire on the day. As of the 2018 edition, if the water temperature is over 25 degrees wetsuits will be banned and athletes will instead be forced to swim with no wetsuit and use a tow float instead. To my knowledge this has never occurred in the history of the race, but given the summer we’re experiencing at the time of writing it’s not out of the realms of possibility.
When you arrive in your swim pen you will be given a briefing on the course and any updates on the weather/conditions, as well as a few chants to get you fired up. Once you walk outside and down the steps you will find yourself on a floating pontoon, and you can enter the water however you like, whether you prefer to dive, jump or tentatively lowering yourself in. You can be waiting for quite some time if you’re one of the first in the water, so if you’re nervous hang towards the back to avoid time spent treading water.
The swim course is as simple as can be, a one lap clockwise loop dependent on the distance that you are swimming. Make sure you start on the right to shorten the distance to the first buoy, and start towards the back if you are feeling nervous or are a slower swimmer to avoid getting swum over, which is an unpleasant as it sounds.
Once you climb yourself out of the water you have to remove your wetsuit, which there are wetsuit strippers on hand to assist you with. Your suit will then be placed inside a plastic bag and you will be pointed in the direction of the stairs that lead you back up to transition, bagged wetsuit in hand.
The reason for removing your wetsuit is to avoid getting water all over the stairs which will create a slipping hazard, in years gone by I know they placed some hessian sacking on the steps/floor on the way into transition, but this didn’t stop people stacking it spectacularly as they ran to their bike so be careful, especially if you are experiencing some dizziness after the swim.
After mounting your bike and pushing it to the mount line you will be saddle up before being sent down a ramp to ground level where you will commence the longest of the three disciplines.
The course varies depending on the time and the day you are racing, on the Saturday you will be on a much shorter course while on Sunday the course will be longer, going all the way out to Westminster if you are lucky enough to be heading out first thing.
The course is fast and flat but technical in parts due to the amount of roundabouts and 180 degree turns. I believe this has improved since I last did the event, but it’s worth keeping your wits about you on course.
The biggest factor to remember is that even though it’s closed roads doesn’t mean you can switch off, if anything it means you have to keep your wits about you even more as you will be sharing the course with a large amount of cyclists, some who may be riding in a very unpredictable fashion. Ensure you always ride on the left and check over your shoulder before any change of direction. If you hear a call of “right!” that means a rider is about to pass you on your right and this is a polite reminder to hold position or move over to let them past. Also be wary when taking corners of riders going around the inside or outside of you, hold your line and avoid erratic movements to enjoy your ride.
After you complete the bike your legs will already be tired, but it’s time for the most physically demanding discipline, the run!
The run course is 2.5KM long and absolutely pancake flat, however it is also incredibly busy as hundreds of athletes are crammed into a 2.5KM stretch of tarmac and concrete. Things have improved in recent years with a simple out and back course rather than the twisty narrow course previously used, but you may still find yourself having to weave around and sharpen your elbows to fight your way through the crowds. This is the only run course where I’ve never been overtaken by anyone, primarily as many are competing in their first triathlon and are starting to run out of gas and walk portions by this point. If you are a stronger runner be prepared to do a bit of dodging and weaving to hold your pace, if you are starting to struggle then stay to the left of the course to allow faster athletes past.
The run starts and finishes in the Excel centre with previous years including a 200M section inside the exhibition hall itself so GPS struggles, but the course comes up considerably shorter than advertised, especially at the 10K distance, I believe the distance is much closer to 9KM in total, although as I haven’t competed since 2015 this may have been addressed.
Once you cross the line you will find yourself in the finisher’s area where you will receive your medal, you can have your photo taken, pick up some alcohol free beer and relax for a bit before you make your way back to transition to collect your belongings.
If this is your first triathlon you may need to brush up on some basic British Triathlon Federation (BTF) rules to avoid any penalties/disqualifications. I’ll run you through some of the most essential rules to avoid embarrassment:
Drafting is the act of riding behind another cyclist and gaining an advantage in doing so due to . Different races have different drafting zones but at London they have a 10M drafting zone behind each competitor you are not allowed to enter unless you are overtaking. If you are caught gaining an advantage in this way you can expect a time penalty or disqualification.
Helmet on before touching bike
Not only are helmets mandatory, you must have your helmet on your head and fastened securely before you even touch your bike, not doing so can result in a time penalty, and riding with an unfastened helmet is a good way to get yourself disqualified.
Ok, so this goes without saying I hope, but most importantly this extends to keeping your torso covered, so if you have a full length zip on your trisuit you can’t run with it open if it gets hot.
Bike in good working order
This should go without saying, but if you pull a rusty bike out of the shed and wheel it down to the Excel, they won’t allow it on course. While it doesn’t have to have the top components and a thorough safety check, they will check that the brakes are in good working order and the handlebars have plugs on them to avoid injury. If they see anything else that concerns them they may run it past a BTF referee before letting it out on course.
Hopefully this has given you a good idea of what to expect and will ease the pre race nerves. Whether this is your first triathlon or you are taking part in an elite wave, I wish you the very best of luck with your race!
Nutrition is the single most complex issue in long course triathlon, and the most subjective from individual to individual. While less of a concern for the sprint and Olympic distances, by the time you look at half Iron and Iron distance events it can be the difference between finishing strong and not making it off of the bike. Many marathon runners talk about “Hitting the wall”, a point in the race where you are suddenly blindsided and unable to walk. In triathlon we normally refer to this as bonking (pipe down at the back), but by the time you reach this stage you’ve already made a mistake by letting your energy reserves become depleted. The bad news is that you can’t simply “push through” the wall, your body is literally empty and will start breaking down muscle fibre in search of energy. The good news is that it’s completely avoidable with the right fuelling strategy.
During any event over 90 minutes you need to take on extra calories to maintain performance, let’s take an Ironman as an example. We normally start around 6:30AM, and most people are on the bike by 8:30AM when your body is already expecting the calories from Breakfast. We need to keep topping up our energy stores throughout the day, and the only way we can do this is by taking on calories in a way that won’t upset our stomach. If we pull over to enjoy a Sunday roast halfway through the bike and then jump back on our trusty steed to put out 200W our stomach will be less than cooperative. We need to find a way to take on calories in a consistent and measured manner that is easy for our digestive system to process.
Fuelling slows us down, that much we can’t deny, and when you’re feeling strong tearing up the bike course, you don’t want to slow down by reaching into your back pocket/bento box to extract and unwrap our fuel source of choice. Our heart says to keep pressing on, but our head tells us to be smart and take on food, guess which one we should listen to?
There are various different ways to take on calories, each with their pros and cons which we’ll look at here:
A sweet semi solid substance that you slurp up, these provide a (nearly) instant injection of energy, breathing life back into tired muscles. If you’re wobbling all over the road and shaking, nothing will get you back in the game quite like an energy gel, it achieves this by containing very simple sugars that are easily absorbed. However as soon as you start to get back in your rhythm you will start to crash again as they quite simply put you on a sugar high, followed by a predictable crash. I wouldn’t want to fuel any event longer than an Olympic triathlon solely on energy gels, something that releases energy in a slower, more sustainable manner is essential for success at middle and long distance.
Pros: Easy to digest, give you an instant boost
Cons: Can be sickly, some require water to wash down, only give a short term pick up
All nutrition manufacturers will have their patented energy bars, these vary from brand to brand but are generally oat based, very dense and energy rich. These are a much more sustainable way of replacing depleted energy stores than energy gels, and are a much more natural way of taking on energy which will appeal to many simply out of principal. The oats will release energy slowly, and the bonding agent is normally sugary, as a result these can still be fairly sweet and are normally very chewy. This is all well and good if you’re rolling along at 70% of FTP chatting to friends, but I’ll never forget the time I came across a 20% gradient in Yorkshire with a mouth full of an apple and blackberry energy bar.
Pros: Sustainable energy release, individually wrapped for easy transportation
Cons: Can be very expensive, difficult to chew, still quite sweet
As time goes by and I see past the marketing that brands push, I have found myself moving towards real food over branded energy products. This is a personal choice as I have very low fat reserves so my nutritional demands are quite unique, but I find myself craving something substantial to line my stomach, items such as pistachio cookies, crisps and ginger cake to keep my stomach from turning itself over and protect against stitches and cramps. This is also the cheapest way to fuel yourself, a batch of homemade flapjacks will cost far less than half a dozen branded energy bars and allows you to control the texture, sweetness and portion size to taste.
Pros: cheap, more satisfying, enormous variety
Cons: Can be difficult to transport, preparation time for homemade food
I use this as an umbrella term to cover various branded products that contain carbohydrate in the form of sugars and electrolytes to replace lost salt. This is a fuel source favoured by many long distance athletes due to its easy consumption and transportation, some (very successful) athletes even manage a diet of nothing but sports drink and energy gels. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse but we’re all individuals and need to find what works for us.
Pros: Very easy to digest, take on fluids and calories at once, less likely to neglect hydration
Cons: Has to be mixed (difficult mid race), slow absorption into bloodstream, easy to take on too many calories.
It’s worth mentioning here the role that course nutrition plays, for most middle and long distance races fuel stations will be provided for athletes to get a drink and something to eat. I encourage my athletes not to rely too heavily on these stations and to be as self sufficient as possible, it’s not unheard of for feed stations to run dry, and the products there may not be to your liking. Aim to be self sufficient, but do your research on the nutrition that will be available at the feed stations, the brand and the products they will be stocking, if this information isn’t available on the race website, E-mail the organiser and ask. If they are only carrying peanut and vanilla Powerbars, then buy some and try them while training, if you find one of them really upsets you, then you know to avoid it on race day. Many races will also provide you with a special needs bag at the halfway point, make use of this and ensure you have enough nutrition in there to comfortably get you to the end of the race, just in case you previously hit a pothole and jettisoned all of your nutrition in the process.
Electrolytes is simply a fancy sounding word for salt, but if they tried to sell salt tablets they’d probably sell an awful lot less. As I alluded to earlier, replacing salt is critical for endurance athletes, especially if you’re a heavy sweater, we work with all of our athletes to create a bespoke hydration plan to improve performance and avoid a potentially fatal condition known as hyponatremia where the blood becomes so diluted that it starts to affect brain function. Luckily getting your electrolyte balance right is a lot simpler than food, and there are four ways to keep yourself topped up.
Yes, sports drinks again. The vast majority of sports drinks will include electrolytes required for peak performance without having to worry about taking on extra supplements. If unsure, check the ingredients and look for potassium, sodium and/or chloride.
There is such a thing as too many calories (more on that later), so electrolyte tablets in water allows us to keep our levels topped up without excess calories. These will often be mildly flavoured, and are more palatable than sports drinks although personally I find myself craving good old plain water when I hit the 4/5 hour mark in an event.
If you don’t take to the taste of dissolvable electrolytes you can use a small oral tablet at regular intervals instead. These are easy to swallow and tasteless, although easier to forget to take, and can be fiddly to transport, if you lose your stash of tablets you can find yourself in big trouble.
Some athletes simply prefer to take some pretzels with them, providing calories and electrolytes in one tasty combination. The only issue is how you plan to transport them, although salty snacks will be available at most aid stations.
Now we have an idea of how we are going to replace our calories and electrolytes, we need to understand how much to eat and when, there are two main problems people can run into, eating too little, or eating too much.
When you bonk, it’s not something you can push through, it is your body quite simply breaking down like a car spluttering its way to a halt with an empty fuel tank. This can come almost without warning, and is often preceded by a feeling of strength as you throw yourself out of the saddle and hurl yourself up a hill, before your body starts to shake and you start to weave around the road. Once this has happened to you a few times you don’t take any chances out there and always make sure you have a spare gel or bar to fall back on, picking a cornershop flapjack up on your way through the next village when you use your last bar up. You can also find yourself in big trouble if you get lost and have to ride/run longer than you were expecting, nobody ever regretted taking extra food on a ride.
While the effects are less dramatic than under fuelling, taking on too many calories poses a risk in itself. Once you’ve bonked a couple of times you find yourself taking all precautions to try and prevent it happening again, which can present other issues. The primary issue is stomach emptying rates, your digestive system can only work so fast, especially when exercising hard as it’s diverting the vast majority of its energy to the muscles. Think of how long it takes to digest a big Sunday Roast, now imagine trying to digest that while running an Ironman marathon rather than in front of the Antiques Roadshow. If you keep pushing food down your throat when your body is already full it will protest violently, and this is often the cause behind the gastronomical distress that athletes experience during a race. This can result in stitches, stomach cramps, violent bowel movements and/or vomiting, which you want to avoid at all costs.
The easiest way to avoid over fuelling is to ensure your carry some water without any carbohydrate content. A lot of athletes know they have to keep hydrated throughout a race, but if all they have is sports drinks they will start taking on 500ml+ an hour of sugary liquids along with energy gels, bars and real food, a recipe for disaster as the stomach simply can’t keep up with the calories you’re filling it with.
One point I’ve tried to hammer home is that what nutrition is incredibly individual, and you shouldn’t try to copy the nutrition plans of your training partners or favourite pro athletes. There are more factors that affect nutritional needs than I could possibly list without boring you all to death, but it’s important you experiment in your training. Standing at the side of the road draped over your handlebars struggling the find the energy to clip back in is a rite of passage in triathlon, and you have to get it wrong a few times to find out what works for you. It’s important you make these mistakes in training rather than on race day, so play around and find what works for you. Unfortunately the chances are you will experience GI distress to a greater or lesser extent during a long distance triathlon, which leads me onto arguably the most important piece of advice in this entire article.
Tyres, how much can be written about those pieces of rubber that sit on your wheels? Have you ever given a second thought to these since buying your bike? If not then you really should, they’re the contact patch between you and the road, and spending a few pennies on upgrading them can reap huge benefits, being the difference between you smashing a PB, sat on the side of the road fixing a puncture with everyone else streaming past you.
There are three types of tyre available to the cyclist, and not every type of tyre is compatible with every wheel, so pay attention to the wheels you have and the type of tyre you pick off the shelf. If in doubt, pop into your local bike shop for advice.
Far and away the most popular choice and what I’d currently recommend for the vast majority of my athletes, the standard tyre that you most likely have on your wheels. It holds a butyl/latex inner tube in place under high pressure, and if a sharp object makes its way through the tyre then this will pierce the inner tube, resulting in a puncture. This is relatively easy to fix and you’ll be back on the road in no time at all.
There was a time when clincher tyres were heavy with poor grip, and the racing cyclist used tubular tyres, also known as tubs. These work in the same way as a non tubeless car tyre, the entire tyre inflates rather than a replaceable inner tube which means that if you get a puncture you have to change the entire tyre. This involves gluing the tyre onto your rim, so not only would you have to carry a spare tyre, you’d also have to carry the kit to affix it to the rim. As the glue takes 72 hours to set fully, you can’t even roll home safely, so very few cyclists will use them for training. They still have a place in racing when you’re followed by a team car, or in a time trial where a puncture is essentially a DNF and their marginally improved grip, ride feel and weight saving can pay off, but now that clinchers have come so far, there’s very little reason for the amateur triathlete to run tubs.
These work in a similar fashion to clinchers in that they are held in place by your rim, the difference being that there is no inner tube, with direct inflation of the tyre pinning itself in place. Tubeless tyres have improved rolling resistance (more on that later) and are more lightweight than clincher tyres with tubes, as well as providing unparalleled puncture resistance. Before inflating the tyre the majority of people then insert a sealant into the which will immediately seal any holes that appear as the result of a stray nail or shard of glass. If your tyre rips or you experience an especially large puncture then the tyre may not seal itself
So why isn’t everyone running tubeless? If you get a puncture which the sealant fails to repair as it is too large then, you’re up a famous creek without a paddle. Another problem is the historic lack of choice in the tubeless market, manufacturers like Hutchinson have been making tubeless tyres for years, but it’s only recently that the heavy hitters in the tyre market have been making tubeless tyres, and even more recently that wheel manufacturers have started bringing out a bigger range in tubeless ready rims. There is also the difficulty in getting them setup which is an art in itself, and unless you know what you’re doing is probably best left to a bike shop.
However I believe that these problems will be overcome and in five years time most of us will be running tubeless setups. The cycling market is traditionally very superstitious, however markets like triathlon are pushing innovation forward at an increased rate and bringing old fashioned cyclists around to the benefits of new tech.
So which system should you run? At the time of writing (early 2018) I would recommend clincher tyres to most for their ease of use and the large variety of compounds available. Most of us know how to change a puncture and tubeless would likely involve a reinvestment in wheels, something not appealing to many.
So which compound should you go for? What’s the difference between the tyres that came on your bike and the tyres that cost £50 a pop? Let’s look into the factors that make tyres such an important consideration.
Let’s start with the big one for many new triathletes, the dreaded puncture. If you are unlucky enough to ride over a sharp object it will try to make its way through your tyre and pierce your delicate inner tube, resulting in a flat tyre, which for some is as good as a DNF. However don’t think that more expensive tyres have better puncture protection as that’s just not the case. The more puncture proof material that you place between the tyre and the inner tube, the heavier the tyre becomes, and the more sluggish the handling, so it really is a balance between performance and puncture protection. You can even get solid tyres which are obviously completely immune to punctures, but handle like an absolute turd. This is acceptable for your hipster commuter making their way through Shoreditch, but for the discerning road cyclist is nothing short of heresy.
The biggest factor for most cyclists is the grip that a tyre offers, which allows you to corner faster and can be the difference between making a corner or ending up on the side of the road as your bike washes out from underneath you. Upon upgrading to a nice grippy tyre you’ll feel confidence in the way it sticks to the road, reducing the amount of speed you need to scrub off before cornering. Grip and TPI (threads per inch) tend to go hand in hand, so look for a tyre with a high TPI for improved grip.
Without wanting to get too wrapped up in science here, this refers to how well the tyre rolls on the tarmac, and the energy which is saved from having a tyre with improved rolling resistance. This comes down to the rubber used and the friction that is created between the tyre and the road, using the same principle as fuel saving tyres that you see advertised for cars. Think of the difference between riding a mountain bike tyre on the road compared to a slick racing tyre, that’s an extreme example of rolling resistance.
Well it wouldn’t be an article on road cycling kit without discussing the weight of the item in question would it? Choosing high end tyres is a very economical way of saving weight on your bike, and it also on the most important area (the wheels) which allows for faster accelerations.
How wide a tyre is dictates the amount of grip it offers, the pressure it can be run at, and how aerodynamic it is. The industry has made a huge lurch towards wider tyres and rims in recent years as testing suggests that a wider tyre run at a lower pressure provides much improved rolling resistance, comfort and grip. The only scenario where you may want to run a slimmer (under 25mm) tyre is in triathlons or time trials, which provides the triathlete with a bit of a problem.
A slimmer tyre will provide us with improved aerodynamics, but this may be outweighed by the improved rolling resistance of a slightly wider tyre. In years gone by 19mm tyres were the norm, where now it’s very rare to see a 23mm tyre as most roadies move towards 25s and 28s. I don’t have a silver bullet answer as everyone is different, however personally I advocate comfort and grip over aerodynamic performance. The differences will be incremental either way so feel free to experiment and see what works for you.
One word of caution is that many older road and even some newer TT frames, are designed to run 23mm tyres, and may not be able to run anything wider. This is dictated primarily by the clearance around the frame, although your brake calliper will also play a part in dictating how wide you can go. To add another variable into the mix, some tyres will balloon up larger than others, with some brands 25mm tyres coming up closer to 28mm. This can even be affected by the width of the rim you are using, it can be a real can of worms, however Schwable have created the below table to help people calculate what they can and can’t run on different rims. This is designed for their own tyres, however as long as you’re not at the extremes of the range you should be fine.
A tyre manufacturer has to weigh up its options between how soft and grippy they want their tyre to be, and how many miles you’ll get out of it. Think of Formula 1 tyres which only last for an absolute max of an hour, or even the moto GP qualifying tyre which will start to go off after a single hard lap. The gripper a tyre is the shorter its lifespan, which means there is no perfect tyre for every situation. Some cyclists will use a very high mileage tyre such as the Vittoria Zaffiro for their training and a softer compound for racing. Personally I prefer to use a softer compound all year round as I like to get a feeling for how grippy my tyres are before I race, and I’m passionate about keeping it rubber side down.
Yes, colour can have an effect on the performance of the tyre, why do you think the vast majority of tyres are black? Rubber is black in it natural state, and to add pigment to a compound manufacturers have to reduce the silicon content. This is only marginal, but worth bearing in mind as you don’t want to find yourself climbing out ofa ditch and wondering if you’d be in a less compromising situation had you gone with plain old black.
While it is a subject that warrants another article in itself, when choosing tyres it is worth checking the pressures you can run them at. Running tyres at a higher pressure gives a firmer ride and is preferred by those riding on smoother roads, however there is increasing evidence that running lower pressures actually reduces rolling resistance unless you are riding on roads that resemble glass. The graph below should give you a rough idea on what pressure to run, but some trial and error is involved to help you find a ride quality you feel suits you.
So as you can see there is an awful lot more to the humble bike tyre than first meets the eye, and by now you are probably starting to realise there is no one tyre that is perfect for everyone. A city commuter will have very different demands to a time trialist, and someone who is riding on gravel paths will choose a different tyre to someone riding the perfectly smooth roads of Switzerland. Let’s look at some of the notable tyres on the market and what they provide:
Continental Grand Prix 4000s
My go to tyre since I started cycling, I’ve never received a puncture or dropped it on a corner while running these, they have a solid puncture protection strip combined with a nice grippy compound that works well in all weathers. Traditionally I switch to their 4 season compound in the winter but just never got round to it this year and haven’t had any problems. These tyres are a staple choice of many road cyclists and it’s hard to go wrong.
Continental Grand Prix 4 Seasons
This is an evolution of the GP4000 tyre, using a harder compound that works better in the wet and at lower temperatures. This is combined with an increased puncture protection strip which increases weight and slightly affects handling slightly, however you’re unlikely to notice until you start giving it some real gas. These tyres also last longer than the GP 4000s, so many people choose to run them all year round.
A staple of the city cyclist, these tyres are pretty much bulletproof. They’re an absolute nightmare to get on and off, but as the chances of anything making it through the thick puncture protection strip are so minimal, there’s a chance that once you’re attached them they’ll never need removing. All of this comes at great compromise to the grip of the tyre, and they are affectionately known as “Skaterskins” in some circles, after the number of riders who lose it in the corners trying to follow someone on superior tyres, especially in wet conditions. For the cyclist who simply wouldn’t be able to repair a puncture themselves or for a pure commuting bike they are an appealing choice, but unstable for the performance cyclist.
Specialized S-works Turbo
I dabbled with these for a few months after picking them up on the cheap a couple of years ago. They rolled well, but didn’t inspire the confidence in the corners I had become accustomed to, not due to outright grip so much as the balance of the tyre. A perfectly functional tyre, but when I swapped them out for my 4 Seasons come winter, I wasn’t in a hurry to switch back to them come the following summer.
Specialized S-works Turbo Cotton
This is one of the grippiest tyres on the market, boasting an impressive 320 TPI this tyre corners like it’s on rails, however is quite prone to punctures. An out and out race day tyre, which you’ll want to swap for the non-cotton version for training.
Pirelli P-Zero Velo
The last name in vehicular tyres, Pirelli returned to the cycling scene last year with their velo series which have arrived to critical acclaim. While I have not tried them myself (as an F1 fan it’s on my to do list) I have heard great things from those who have tried them, although anecdotally they are not as resistant to puncture as similar tyres.
Pirelli P-Zero Velo 4S
The winter version of Pirelli’s standard velo tyre, this tyre is the lighetst and highest performance winter tyre available, well suited for winter races such as duathlons. It is lightweight compared to other winter tyres and makes compromises with puncture protection to achieve this, however if you are looking to push hard in cold conditions, this tyre provides the highest level of grip in cold and wet conditions.
Pirelli P-Zero TT
An out and out performance tyre it only comes in 23mm which is something of a shame as for longer events many prefer a wider tyre. However it is ultralight and boasts one of the lowest rolling resistances on the market, although this comes at the expense of puncture protection, making this the ideal tyre for PB hunters for who a puncture is as good as a DNF.
Vittoria Corsa G+
Vittoria are interesting as they are at the forefront of graphene technology, an ultralight yet strong material used by frame manufacturer Dassi to reinforce their frames and by Vittoria to provide puncture protection. Many riders I know have moved to Corsa tyres in recent years, but given my six years of no punctures with Conti tyres I haven’t had a reason to join them myself. They also look the part with a tan sidewall on the tyres.
These are the tyres I’m currently familiar with, there are more manufacturers out there, and many more tyres available from the manufacturers above, however I would only be lifting information from other websites to include them here. Each manufacturer has a website which includes a wealth of information on each tyre and the technologies involved, so are a good place to start for more information.
To summarise, tyres fall into four main categories, all rounders, race specific, heavy duty and winter specific. This is the one component of the bike I’d always encourage people to maximise their budget for, as they can be the difference between a fast bike leg and sitting at the side of the road waiting for a lift home.
If you are looking at buying a new bike ahead of next season and have been visiting some bike shops in search of your new steed, you will have noticed that many bikes come in disc and non disc brake versions. Disc brakes use two brake pads to pinch a disc rotor that is affixed to the wheels of your bike, one on the front and one on the rear. In this respect they work like rim brakes, by creating friction that slows the wheel, however the big difference is that they are pinching disc rotors and not the rims of the wheel.
So what are the advantages of disc brakes? Let’s take an objective look at the benefits.
Improve performance in the wet People talk about disc brakes having “more power”, which suggests they probably didn’t have their rim brakes set up correctly, it’s perfectly possible to lock up your front or rear brakes with rim brakes, but where discs definitely give you more stopping power is in the wet. When you apply rim brake pads to rims in the wet, the first two rotations the wheel makes are simply dispersing water from the rim before the pads bite and start slowing the bike. Even when the rims are cleared of water braking performance is vastly reduced, which can be the difference between keeping it rubber side down or ending up under a tree, or even worse, a car. Disc brakes achieve this improved performance by using far more viscous brake pads than rim brake equivalents.
Save on expensive wheels
Wheels are the most expensive upgrade you can buy for your bike. If you’re shelling out four figures on a new set of hoops, you don’t want to have to replace or re-rim them a couple of years down the line because the rims have worn away after thousands of hours of braking. Replacing a disc rotor will cost a maximum of £60 to replace when it wears down, a significant saving compared to replacing your expensive carbon wheels.
Resistant to brake fade
If you encounter long descents when riding, disc brakes can help keep you safe, especially if you are a nervous or inexperienced descender. Some descents can last the best part of an hour, and the novice rider may find themselves riding the brakes for the majority of this time as they speed towards hairpins and sheer drops. Doing so will keep you safe in the short term, but using rim brakes like this will result in temperature building in your rims. There are three problems with this, braking performance decreases, tubes are prone to exploding due to the build up of heat, and carbon rims can be damaged. With disc brakes the only problem you need to worry about is a reduction in braking performance, which they don’t suffer nearly as badly as rim brakes, especially high end disc rotors which provide improved heat dissipation. This means you can sit on your brakes for much longer before you notice a fall off in performance.
However there are some downsides to running discs as well
Risk of bending rotors
If you crash in a very specific way or your bike is not properly handled during transit, there is a possibility your rotor can become bent out of shape and cause brake rub as a result. However such crashes are rare and rotor covers are available to buy to protect your bike in transit.
Sharp edge hazard
Anyone who follows professional cycling will be aware of the controversy surrounding disk brakes. The UCI (international governing body for cycling) ran a trial on disc brakes in the pro peloton. During one race, a rider got caught up in a crash and ended up with a gash on his leg, which he blamed on a disc brake rotor. There is no evidence the cut was caused by a disc brake rotor, however the UCI suspended the trial following the incident, before introducing them again following a review. The jury is out on just how much of a hazard rotors present as there are no confirmed incidents of a rider being injured by a disc brake rotor, but the risk is almost nonexistent in non draft legal triathlon where we have to maintain a minimum distance between us and the rider in front. I’d wager far more accidents have been prevented by reliable braking in the wet that will ever be caused by disc brake rotors. Nonetheless certain governing bodies (including France and Spain) have got cold feet about disc brakes and are currently not permitting them in their events, so it’s worth checking the race information for your event before you make a purchase.
This is a problem for many riders who already have a garage full of wheels, your disc brake bike will not be compatible with any of your current wheels. This means you will have to restart your wheel collection if you make the switch to discs, a costly endeavour indeed.
For the weight weenies or aero obsessives out there, yes disc brakes weigh marginally more and are slightly less aerodynamic than standard rim brakes, but the differences really are tiny, and any time lost due to this penalty can be made up again with improved confidence when braking. Bear in mind that one of the world’s most advanced triathlon bikes, The Cervelo P5X, is only available with disc brakes, and if it’s good enough for the world’s greatest IRONMAN athletes, it’s good enough for me.
Cervelo P5X, possibly the world’s most advanced triathlon bike, available only with disc brakes (image credit Cervelo)
On balance I believe that disc brakes are a superior product and are the way the industry is going to move in the next 5-10 years. There will always be a place for rim brakes due to their simplicity and the fact we’ve been running rim brakes for as long as anyone can remember, but it’s already come to the point where some bikes such as the P5X, are disc brake only.
If you spend a lot of time around road cyclists and have bought up the possibility of switching to disc brakes, there’s a good chance at least one of them will have tried to talk you out of it, even if they don’t seem to have much of an argument against them. The truth is that roadies are very resistant to change, they’re a superstitious bunch who have probably been riding rim brakes for 30 years and don’t see the need to change. If they are comfortable riding rim brakes, I’m certainly not going to try to change their minds, people should run whatever they feel comfortable riding. However you are not a road cyclist, you are a triathlete, and we’re looking for outright performance over tradition and romanticism.
My next bike will be a disc brake bike, as I believe the pros outweigh the cons, however it is a personal decision and comes down to your personal circumstance. If you are an experienced racer who is perfectly in tune with their rim brakes and their limits, then it probably isn’t worth the reinvestment for you, however if you are new to the world of road cycling and looking for your first bike, I strongly recommend you consider disc brakes.