Taking the decision to train for a triathlon is the biggest step many will take in their sporting lives. Many will be complete novices to all three sports, captivated by the idea of stringing swimming, cycling and running together, it’s the challenge that draws us in. However it can be difficult to know where to start, there are thousands of articles, books, YouTube videos and podcasts to wade through to get a well rounded picture of how to train effectively for the sport.
To help, I wanted to condense all of the knowledge I have attained over the years into the top ten training tips for taking on your first triathlon. I could easily make a list of the top 100 training tips, so I’ll have left a few out, but these should help stop newcomers from making embarrassing mistakes, or putting themselves at the risk of injury.
You’re no doubt excited to start your triathlon journey, and I’m excited for you, but we need to dial things back to help keep training efficient. If you swim, bike and run as fast as you can every day, you’ll burn out and will never reach your full potential. Two, maybe three workouts each week should be really challenging, and the other days of the week should be spent recovering from these hard efforts, so you’re ready to go for the next one. These easy days should be undertaken at a pace where you could hold a conversation if needed. Your main concern will probably be not being fit enough at this point, but if you are so over trained that you’re exhausted and burnt out by the time you get to the start line, you’re not going to have a good race.
2. Progress your training
If you have signed up for a sprint triathlon (750M swim, 20KM cycle and 5KM run), you could be forgiven for slowly building yourself up to these distances then figuring it’s job done and you can focus on getting faster over those distances. Hitting the distances in training is a milestone you should be proud of, but you should keep extending your training beyond these distances, running 6K, 7K, 8K, or even further to keep pushing yourself. This will improve your aerobic fitness, making you more efficient over shorter distances. Plus you’ll have the confidence of knowing you can run over the distance, meaning race day should feel easier! You should also start running intervals such as one minute hard one minute easy repeated 20 times, and progress this by reducing the rest or increasing the duration of the hard running. Keep moving forward with your training on your hard days.
3. Train in the open water
If your race takes place in a lake, sea or river, you need to be training there, in the wetsuit you’re planning to wear on the day. Swimming in open water is totally different to swimming in a pool, and you need plenty of practice before the big day, otherwise you’ll find yourself panicking and disorientated. Most lakes will provide coaching, either 1 to 1 or as part of a group, to provide you a much smoother transition into the open water.
4. Learn to ride at a consistent effort
This is especially true for those training for a long or middle distance race, but it’s worth remembering for all distances. When we used to race bikes as kids we were primarily racing from lamppost to lamppost, pushing hard for short periods. While most of us are wise enough to realise this isn’t the most efficient way to train for a triathlon, it’s tempting to push hard for a few minutes, then recover, push hard for a bit, recover, then push really, really hard up a hill. This is especially prominent for riders who are big Strava users, and want to push hard where they know there’s a segment. Even if you are racing a sprint triathlon you’ll be spending a minimum of 30 minutes on the bike, so you need to learn to spread your effort evenly over this period, especially as you have a run at the end!
5. Mix up your swim training
Swimming can be intimidating and may feel like a fight for survival when all you want to do is make it out of the water. As such, you could be forgiven for getting in the pool, slowly working your way up to the required distance for your race, then repeating this every week. Not only is this pretty boring, it’s also ineffective as it won’t help you swim better. Including a warm up, main set and cool down is a good place to start, splitting your swim up into shorter segments, such as swimming 100M fast with 30 seconds rest between each interval. You should also include swimming drills to help you improve your technique, which will allow you to move faster for less effort.
6. Practice your race day nutrition
If you’re going to be competing for anything longer than 90 minutes, you will probably need to eat during your event. Carbohydrate is the body’s primary source of fuel for the body, and when you start to run out of this valuable resource your performance will fall off a cliff as your body asks for more energy. Practice this in training, find what foods work for you, and when you need to take them on. Grabbing an unknown product from a feed station when you start to feel weak could easily lead to cramps, stitches, or vomiting, none which are generally not conclusive to fast splits.
7. Research your event, and train accordingly
If you have a hilly race, train on the hills. If you have a sea swim, train in the sea. If your race is in a hot climate, try to replicate this during your training. It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many people forget this if they follow a generic training plan. You should also take the time to familiarise yourself with the course in detail, to avoid any embarrassing extra laps or getting lost in transition, as well as reading the rules to ensure you don’t fall foul of any penalties.
8. Buy a turbo trainer
Training for the bike, especially if you live in a city where a ride ride can easily turn into an all day endeavour can restrict you to one ride a week. By purchasing a turbo trainer you are able to ride from the comfort of your home on a variety of terrain (mountains, flats, rolling hills), without worrying about traffic, potholes or bad weather. It also allows you to train properly by following workouts, or take part in virtual races for a bit of fun.
9. Train in poor conditions
A turbo trainer is a fantastic tool for allowing you to ride all year round, but that doesn’t mean you should jump on it instead of a long weekend ride at the first sign of clouds. You can have the best fitness and the flashiest bike, but if you can’t race in the wet or the wind, you’ll find yourself losing time hand over fist when the weather turns. We’re not suggesting you take any risks, if your race is in August you probably don’t need to head out in sub zero temperatures on icy roads, but having the experience to adapt to different situations will pay dividends on the big day.
10. Practice your transitions
Don’t leave it till race day to practice transitioning from swim to bike, or bike to run. The first time you come out of the open water you may feel like you’re about to fall over and it’s not uncommon to see new triathletes sat on the floor next to their bike waiting for the world to stop spinning. Equally, coming off the bike onto the run will leave you with wooden legs that feel disconnected from the rest of your body. The more of these you practice in training, the smoother the process will be on race day.
I hope that has given you some insight into how to train successfully for a triathlon. There are thousands of moving parts to consider, but we take the stress out of training with our bespoke coaching programmes for athletes of all abilities. Learn more here
The fitter you are, the faster you are, right? Well, it’s not quite as clear cut as that in the real world. Fitness has an enormous effect on as athlete’s ability to swim, bike and run as fast as possible, but it’s by no means the only factor.
Let’s take the term fitness for a start, it’s a phrase I really don’t like because of how vague it is; someone could be able to bench press twice their body weight, summit Mount Everest, free climb up the Dawn Wall or walk the length of the River Thames. All impressive achievements in their own right, but how would an individual who achieves any of these impressive feats fare in a triathlon? Better than your average member of the public you’d wager, but the chances are they’d be soundly beaten by those who are physically weaker, with a lower resting heart rate and a lower V02 max but who are more experienced in the sport.
How do we measure fitness? There is no right answer or wrong answer here, lots of individuals will have a different idea of what fitness means, however as triathletes we’re interested in the bottom line, our race results . Yes improvements to our FTP and threshold heart rate are all stepping stones to success, and for some individuals these numbers are more important than race results, however I believe these individuals are few and far between. Those who measure everything objectively can often struggle on race day and find themselves disappointed when their predictions and meticulous calculations fall short, and they’re never short of an excuse to explain a poor performance (but then again, how many triathletes aren’t?!). You can be very fast and very fit, that’s what we’re all aiming for, but it’s also possible to be the highest FTP of the field, yet find yourself struggling to make the top ten.
An athlete is fast when they have the confidence, the skills and the experience to complete the race in the fastest possible time, with the resilience to keep pushing when their body is telling them to stop. The winner of the race is the one who crosses the line first, not the one with the highest power numbers, the lowest level of cardiac drift or the most expensive bike. Let’s break it down and have a look at the traits of successful triathletes in each of the disciplines.
In the water, the fast athlete goes off like a rocket at the start, finding fast feet or setting the pace themselves. They then settle into their race pace, sighting often to stay on track. They feel comfortable drafting, and come out of the water towards the front of affairs. They’re not overly concerned about optimal stroke length or stroke rate in the melee of a triathlon swim, they’re more worried about swimming fast and coming out of the water with the fast guys. They swim in the open water at least once a week, and work on their technique all year round, with plenty of hard swims thrown in as well.
The experienced triathlete knows there’s a lot of time to be made up in transition. You may shrug your shoulders at the thought of saving 20 seconds over a long event, but imagine how happy you’d be with taking 20 seconds off of your 5K PB? Fast athletes can easily save time by practicing wetsuit removal after every training swim, memorising where their bike is, leaving it in an appropriate gear, with their items left on the bike in the order they’ll need to attach them. They have also practiced their mounting technique, comfortable with whatever method they have chosen rather than simply hoping for the best.
Too many triathletes are addicted to their turbo trainer, but while time spent riding indoors will make you fitter, it doesn’t teach you how to take a the corner in the wet, carry momentum through a rolling section, fix simple mechanicals, ride up hills, brake effectively or stay on your aero bars on anything except a perfectly flat, smooth tarmac. ERG mode is especially bad for creating cyclists who can only ride at one cadence in a very narrow operating window. Fast cyclists know their bike and how it works intricately, they can carry speed through the corners and drop down the descents, making up time on fitter, less skilled cyclists hand over fist. They’re also able to spend longer in an efficient TT position without developing neck or back pain, because they’ve put in thousands of miles on their race bike, instead of treating it like it’s made of sugar glass. Rather than only taking it out on the sunniest of days, they’ve learned how to ride it in the wet and giving it a thorough clean after every ride to prolong the life of the parts. When on race day the heavens open, a strong headwind develops or strong gusts try to throw them off their bike, they keep their head down and keep making progress rather than excuses. Nobody cares about your W/KG if you’re sat on the side of the road staring at your flat tyre like someone has just asked you to fix the space shuttle. Fast cyclists do their quality training rides on the turbo, but in anything except the foulest weather they hit the road for their easy/long rides to build their confidence and road craft.
After the bike it’s tempting to take a few moments to yourself to recuperate and mentally recharge before the run. If you’re racing an Ironman, you’re new to the sport or you had some issues on the bike you need to address this is fine, but if you’re going for a good time you need to go into T2 with a detailed plan of how you will switch from bike to run. Fast athletes can picture the exact route they’ll take to their bike racking, where their shoes will be waiting with elastic laces ready for them to fly onto the run course with.
When those who focus endlessly on numbers and micro analysing their training are passed on the bike, their internal dialogue will nearly always be “They’ve gone out too fast, I’ll catch them on the run”. This may well be true in many cases, but even if they are faster on the run than someone who rode it like they stole it, the fact they arrived in transition 2 ten minutes later somewhat offsets this. Most athletes will have a target they’re aiming for on the run, and pacing is paramount, but the skill to a fast run is knowing when to push. Staying below a certain BPM is a good idea if it’s your first attempt at the distance or the conditions are unusual, but if you’re into the last third of the run and your body is screaming at you to move faster, you should probably listen to it. Proper pacing is incredibly important for the bike to ensure you have good run legs, but you want to make sure you pace your run to perfection so you cross the line having left it all on the course. Fast runners don’t even look at their watch during shorter events, they know how to push their bodies to their absolute limits, and listen to their breathing and legs rather than their heart rate.
Race winners are the athletes who practice their nutrition in training, scout the course by riding or driving it, ride their bike in full race spec, practice speedy transitions in their brick sessions, push themselves to the max in fitness tests, and are not afraid of new thresholds or tough workouts. Rather than finding excuses they step up to the challenge and have an intrinsic motivation which keeps them going even when they feel the world is conspiring against them.
Despite what you may think by reading this far, I’m a relatively data heavy coach who spends hours pouring over data files and prescribing workouts to influence power curves, embracing new technologies such as running power. However, recently it has become clear to me just how important coaching the human is rather than simply the body, and how disappearing down a rabbit hole of physiology for the pursuit of 1% improvements can result in us missing the big picture.
It’s your hobby and you can train for it however you like, but I highly recommend you spend a few years simply enjoying the sport and learning more about your body before you begin getting the textbooks out, or even better hire a coach who can help you navigate the maze of endurance coaching.
Ergonomic mode, or ERG mode as it is more commonly known, is a function of most modern smart trainers which allows the trainer to set the resistance for you. If your target is 200W and you start going above this, the trainer will reduce the resistance to stop you from going any higher. If your wattage drops below the target it will increase the resistance to encourage you to put more force through the pedals and get back up to target.
To many cyclists this sounds ideal, it allows them to relax for a bit and watch some TV while they train or drift off while listening to an audiobook, safe in the knowledge that their trainer won’t let them drift too high or too low. However, it’s not without its problems, which I’ll go into here.
Riding in a vacuum
When riding in ERG mode you don’t have to think about gradients and changing gear, but as your event is probably outside, this does not prepare you for the realities of racing a bike outdoors, or even indoors on a hilly course, so you may wish to turn ERG mode off and complete some training sessions on gently rolling courses on virtual software to teach you to change gear and manage your effort effectively.
If you complete workouts in a dedicated workout mode on Zwift or TrainerRoad you’ll find yourself riding in this proverbial vacuum anyway, but for longer, steady state workouts I encourage athletes to ride outside of workout mode on an undulating virtual course to help them prepare for their race. Especially in the build phase where our riding needs to emulate race day as much as possible.
The Spiral of Death
If your cadence drops significantly, or you have to stop pedalling to fix a dropped chain, reach for your towel you left just out of reach or similar then ERG mode will instigate what many call the spiral of death, where it increases resistance as you’re not putting out enough power, which if you’re in the middle of a tough interval, can feel like riding through wet cement when you try to pick the pace up again. We all drop our chain, have to answer the door or adjust the fan sometimes, which if you get caught in ERG mode’s spiral of death can result in your having to skip the interval or bail from the workout in extreme circumstances.
Problems with Power Meters
If you own a power meter you should be using it for all your training to make sure all the numbers match if you want to keep your data clean. There is something of a problem however as the training software will listen to the power meter, check the power output against the target, and then tell the trainer to increase or decrease the resistance. When the device creating the resistance isn’t the same as the device measuring the power, the ERG mode isn’t nearly as accurate or immediate to change reistance, and you need to focus much more on holding targets, offering the worst of both worlds.
For harder workouts this can be beneficial if you feel you would struggle to complete it otherwise, however I find that more often than not it’s more effort than it’s worth.
Inability to change gear
You can physically change gear, but ERG mode will pick up on this pretty instantly and change the resistance to match. If you find yourself pedalling squares, desperate to increase you cadence, the only way to do this is by pedalling harder to lower the resistance, but if you’re really struggling in a workout, your ability to hold this cadence may be compromised, which will likely result in your cadence slowing again and ERG mode “carrying” you through the rest of the interval at 40RPM. There is a time and place for this, such as a ramp test but you can’t get through every hard interval this way. When ERG mode is disabled you can drop down to your smaller gears to get your cadence up, or change up gears to help you hit the big numbers at the right cadence for you.
Perhaps the biggest issue I have with ERG mode is the way it encourages a slow, lazy cadence. Riders who start to fatigue will slow their cadence, yet ERG will push back to ensure they stay within the power target. This can result in riders associating harder efforts with a slower cadence and ultimately spending most of their time in tempo and sweetspot at 70RPM, well below where I’d want to see athletes riding, even the low cadence advocates will race at 80-85RPM. If we use the example of an athlete racing at Olympic distance, they come out of the swim buzzing with adrenaline, they jump on their bike, and are then faced with a conundrum. They know they need to target the sweetspot intensity for their race, but without the resistance being created for them they’ll fumble around with gears, and likely using a higher cadence which they’re not familiar with, likely resulting in them being passed by athletes they’d have for breakfast in a virtual race.
Uneven wear on cassette
If you do a lot of riding in ERG mode, you will be doing a lot of riding with minimal (if any) changing of gear, which can create a lot of uneven wear on the cassette, wearing one or two cogs excessively which will lead to shifting issues.
I’ve given ERG mode a bit of a bad rep so far, but there are some definite benefits to using it.
No need to concentrate
If I have to use the turbo for my steady state rides, I’m happy with the entertainment provided by the scenery and the changing gradient, but that’s me, and I know not everyone is as easily entertained. For many, turbo training is the perfect time to catch up on the latest Netflix series or watch a film their partner isn’t interested in. With a pair of bluetooth headphones they can enjoy some televisual entertainment while riding, and ERG mode keeping them within the power boundaries. This is more useful for steady state workouts than intervals, as most software does not integrate with video, so you may end up being caught unawares by a sudden increase in resistance.
Helps you complete tough workouts
The mental element of training is just as important as the physical element of training, and for many the presence of ERG mode is the difference between them completing or failing a workout. I’d much rather someone limps over the line and completes a workout at a low cadence than they have to give up and bail twenty minutes in because they can’t hold the power without their trainer pushing back. This provides a safety net for many cyclists, and as long as they’re conscious of the shortcomings of ERG mode (not to let cadence drop too low, don’t stop pedalling, e.t.c.) then they should do whatever it takes to complete the workout.
So, should you ride with ERG mode? As ever… it depends. For workouts which include lots of micro bursts or short sharp increases in intensity such as V02 or sprints, absolutely not. If it’s an easier workout where you’re more concerned about going too hard than too easy and want to watch Breaking Bad while you do so, then it’s a good choice. The difficulty comes with the middle ground, the tempo and sweetspot rides where riders may find comfort in the knowledge ERG mode will help them complete the workout. For this, I would look at how close to race day you are, if you’re six weeks out from your A race, then switch it off and learn how to control the intensity yourself. If you’re nine months away from your next big event and just doing some base training, then do whatever it takes to get you through the session.
TrainingPeaks is a fantastic tool for planning and analysing our training, but we need good quality data to make informed decisions. If we have bad data we end up making bad decisions which can lead to burnout or even failing to finish your race! So, how do we keep our data clean? There are three areas I consider to be very important, we’ll take a look at each on a case by case basis, looking at common pitfalls and how we can avoid them.
We need to make sure that the data from one workout is comparable to the workout before it, and the ride after it. The biggest area this can be a problem is with cycling power, specifically when athletes change power meters between activities or fail to recalibrate their devices.
If you are only training indoors and using the power meter built into your trainer, you need to make sure you are re-calibrating the power meter (known as completing a spindown in most cases) every time you transport it, or every four weeks out of habit. As trainers are moved around and knocked about, they can lose their accuracy so the trainer needs to recalibrate itself to ensure the data stays accurate. I once failed to recalibrate my turbo trainer for several months, got myself up to an FTP of 4 W/KG, then re-calibrated my trainer, found workouts impossible, and discovered I was only at 3.6 W/KG! If you are planning to use your power pedals on race day, you should use your power pedals for every ride so you’re training at the same numbers you’ll be racing at, otherwise you run the risk of your intensity factor target on race day being based on turbo numbers, not power pedal numbers, resulting in you blowing up as a result. If you are using a bike based power meter (which I highly recommend) you still need to perform a zero offset (or recalibration as some brands call it) weekly, or whenever you move the power meter from one bike to another. Another issue can be the right pedal running out of battery or experiencing connectivity issues with the left pedal, so keep an eye on that.
Running power meters do not require regular calibration, however the numbers are based on your weight, so any changes to your weight will require you to reset your thresholds. As such I only recommend updating your weight if you have lost/gained weight that has been fairly static for a couple of months, or at the start of the season before your baseline testing.
Heart rate can occasionally be very low if the your chest strap takes time to make a good connection, or if your optical monitor struggles to get an accurate reading for whatever reason, such as a loose watch strap or heavy sweating. If you find yourself with a consistently low heart rate reading during a workout, make sure your monitor isn’t upside down!
GPS accuracy varies a lot, especially in urban areas or thick woodland, where you can end up with very high or low numbers. I once had an athlete run a 10K around the City of London, where the GPS trace accidentally made its way to the top of a skyscraper, leading TrainingPeaks to mistakenly believe she’d gained 150M of elevation in 10 seconds, sending the TSS score rocketing.
Finally we have elevation, if your GPS or altimeter is putting out bad data it can have you down as running thousands of metres above sea level, resulting in grossly exaggerated TSS scores.
If you find yourself with dropouts or spots of bad data, TrainingPeaks allows you to rectify this on the graph view within a workout. Simply click and drag your cursor over the problematic area, then click on the appropriate button in the top right of the graph for different data field: W for watts, KPH for speed and BPM for heart rate. From here you can select “fix”, which will allow TrainingPeaks to create a preview of the data smoothed out, with the option to apply or discard the changes. In some cases, such as with horrifically inflated elevation data, it can be better to delete the data field entirely, or switch the TSS calculation to hrTSS. If you start playing around with the data but make a mistake you can’t undo, you can simply download the workout from the “files” section in the top right hand corner of the workout view, and re-upload the original file. You’ll lose any comments or other changes you made to the workout, but the original file will always be in tact.
Sometimes bad data slips under the radar, looking at the PMC for big spikes can be helpful, as can browsing your peak performances on the TrainingPeaks mobile app and looking for numbers which you know are unrealistic. If a huge wattage or jump in pace isn’t accompanied by an increase in heart rate, you can be pretty sure it’s bad data.
The performance manager chart found in your dashboard is a coach and athlete’s best friend, it allows us to see how fit an athlete it, how fatigued they are, and how ready they are to perform. The numbers here will only be accurate if we have enough data from your training history to give us accurate insights into your training history. A world champion could create a TrainingPeaks account, but without any information on their training history TrainingPeaks will assume they are a novice, and suggest that they are incredibly fatigued after a couple of what would be a couple of very easy workouts for them.
If you are already an established athlete, you will need to sync your TrainingPeaks account to your fitness tracker/software of choice. Depending on the service you link to, it may or may not import all of your previous activities into TrainingPeaks (As an example, Garmin will, Zwift will not), and while manually uploading all of your data will seem like a gargantuan task, it is important you upload at least the last 42 days, as this is the constant that Critical Training Load (CTL) is based on. If you or your coach plan to use WKO, you will need all of your workouts from the last 90 days.
If you are a new athlete who doesn’t have any data to upload, then you will need to take the numbers with a pinch of salt for the first 42 days until TrainingPeaks has enough data to give you accurate figures. I’ve seen many posts on the TrainingPeaks Pain Cave Facebook Group group from individuals concerned that their form is -50 and wondering whether they are overtraining. More often than not they simply don’t have enough quality data uploaded so TrainingPeaks has no point of reference.
All calculations on TrainingPeaks are based on thresholds. If your thresholds are incorrect your TSS scores will be incorrect and everything else gets knocked out of place, from your PMC metrics to your workout metric, even the targets of your workouts themselves.
While I’m not going to go into testing protocols here, it’s important that you undertake fitness tests within the first 42 days for each sport you’re planning to log on TrainingPeaks. I spend the first month with each athlete focusing on fitness testing, staggering them so they’re not in close proximity, but ensuring we have good, relevant data to work with.
There are two problems athletes struggle with when setting thresholds, the first is basing their threshold off of their lifetime PB (in extreme cases, their best 10K time from 20 years ago), or not updating their thresholds regularly enough. By using a threshold that is too high you will struggle to complete workouts, by using a threshold that is too low you are doing yourself a disservice and not training hard enough, getting overly inflated TSS scored in the process.
I recommend you test each discipline every 6-8 weeks (perhaps more regularly if you’re a single sport athlete) for improvements. If you put in a slightly lower number during the test but your workouts otherwise feel good, you could put the result down to a bad day and leave the number where it is, but if you put in a noticeably lower number (+/- 10 watts or seconds per kilometre) you need to take it on the chin, lower the threshold, and review your training strategy. Do not become a victim of the vanity FTP.
To conclude, here are the main takeaway points:
Ensure you use the same power meter for all workouts, and perform a zero offset regularly
Ensure TrainingPeaks has all of your data from the last 42 days before you start using the PMC to plan your training
Keep an eye out for big drops, spikes or gaps in data, and do your best to fix them using the tools in TrainingPeaks
Be honest with yourself about your thresholds, and re-test regularly
It can be time consuming to look through your data and make sure everything is up to date. If this seems like too much work, or you don’t know what to do with your data once you have it in order, take a look at our online coaching.
Buying a road bike is one of the most exciting purchases you’ll ever make. This guide is primarily aimed at those buying their first road bike, but I hope to be able to use my experience in bicycle retail to help all cyclists make more informed choices, and save themselves some cash along the way.
Chances are that until now you’ve been riding around on a mountain or hybrid bike, and are looking for some serious speed gains by upgrading to a road bike. However, it can seem like a complete maze. How much should I spend? What makes bikes more expensive? What’s a groupset? What’s the right size? Should I get a women’s bike? What can I upgrade? Having spent two years working on the shop floor at a highly reputable bike retailer, these are all questions I hope to answer in the course of this article. We’ll assume you’re a triathlete at this stage, but if you are simply looking to get fit or look to take place in road cycling events, then disregard the references to triathlon, the rest of the points will be just as relevant.
What is a road bike?
This may seem like a silly question to ask, but it’s worth making sure we’re on the same page before we start. A road bike is a lightweight bike designed exclusively for use on the road, traditionally with narrow tyres and dropped handlebars. It is not a:
Normally identifiable by the flat rather than dropped handlebars, these have wider tyres with more tread in them to handle minor off road sections more easily such as bridleways and towpaths.
You don’t want one because: It is much heavier, and you’ll be slower due to the drag created by wider handlebars. A few manufacturers make high end hybrid bikes, but most are cheap with components that will break/wear quickly, and wheels which will buckle easily. The saddles also tend to be awful.
Very similar, and easily confused with a road bike by newbies, check for the wider, lumpier tyres and greater clearance around the tyres themselves as they get clogged with mud.
You don’t want one because: The geometry is different on a cyclocross bike, with the bottom bracket (where the cranks connect to the frame) being higher, and often further forwards than on a road bike. These are designed for an hour of hard riding, not a long day in the saddle.
Used on velodromes, these often catch the eyes of customers because they are so cheap and light.
You don’t want one because: They have no brakes! Even if you were skilled enough to ride one on the road, they are banned in triathlons as they do not have functional brakes, you slow down instead by slowing your pedalling and pushing against the pedals. They also have no gears, making them very challenging to ride in traffic or on hills, for experienced riders only.
The gravel bike is a recent addition to the bike world, it has a very similar geometry to a road bike but the wheels/tyres of an off road bike. They are setup for comfort, and are very popular in North America where there are large amounts of roads/tracks are gravel.
You don’t want one because: They tend to be slightly heavier and not as responsive as proper road bikes, and the heavier tyres will have a notable effect on your speed. Additionally many only have one chainring which can make life harder for you on steep uphills or downhills. However, if you’re only going to be taking part in short triathlons and don’t plan on spending much time riding on the road, then you could certainly get away with it.
I know it has triathlon in the title, but if you don’t know what a triathlon bike is, you don’t need one. These are bikes designed for pure speed, where your elbows rest on specially designed pads and your arms rest on aluminium/carbon fibre bars, putting your body in a very aerodynamic position, narrowing your body and reducing the amount of drag.
You don’t want one because: You have no access to the brakes when in the aero position and it can feel very twitchy. They’re the Ferrari of the cycling world, so to use one with any confidence you need to have first pushed the limits of cheaper, more accessible machinery.
Now we know we need a road bike, we need to look at what kind of road bike we’re after. There are three different types of road bike, just to confuse matters even more!
Examples: Trek Emonda, Cervelle R series, Specialised Tarmac, Cannondale SuperSix
These are the lightest and most responsive road bikes out there, built to be as quick as possible uphill. On hilly or rolling courses these are the bikes pros will be using, where every gram matters to help them get to the top of the hill in first place. These tend to be fairly aggressive bikes, and you may struggle to get comfortable on one if you have limited mobility. For triathletes weight is rarely the primary concern however, so these aren’t bikes I generally tend to steer athletes in the direction of.
Examples: Cervelo C series, Cannondale Synapse, Specialized Roubaix, Trek Domane
These bikes are perfect for those getting into the sport later in life, or those who are more worried about all day comfort than outright speed. If you’re looking at at Ironman event, a road endurance bike is probably your best bet. Some models include various springs/suspension tricks to soften the ride, but at the expense of stiffness.
Examples: Trek Madone, Specialized Venge, Cannondale SystemSix, Cervelo S Series
This subcategory appeared relatively recently, a bike where the tubing and cabling is all designed to be as fast as possible in a straight line. Where performance and endurance bikes normally have rounded tubing, a road aero bike will be comprised of tubes shaped like aerofoils much like the wing of a plane, to allow for extra speed. That being said, you have to be going quite fast to gain any real benefit from this, close to 30KPH, to see the very small improvements. Some of the higher end models come with handlebars which are tapered for additional aero benefit, which can restrict your ability to fit aftermarket aero bars (to retrofit your bike into a cheap triathlon bike), so bear this in mind before you splash your cash.
Finally, we have the contentious matter of women’s bikes. Many women will look only at women’s bikes believing they are the only bikes that will fit them, but the bike industry is slowly turning its back on the idea of a women’s specific range. Your traditional women’s bike will have a slightly shorter top tube as women are perceived to have relatively shorter arms than men… and that’s about it, apart from a different paint job. Specialized (the brand) looked at the bike fit data from thousands of riders who came to them for fits over the years, realising that the majority of women would be perfectly comfortable on a unisex bike, and that those who struggled with the long reach could go for a slightly shorter stem without any major effect on the handling. I know far more women who ride unisex bikes than who ride women’s bikes, so don’t feel you’ll come across as being masculine or be uncomfortable on a unisex bike, the items you need to worry about gender specificity for are saddles and clothing.
How much should I spend?
This question comes down to your individual budget, but I can provide you an outline of what you can expect for your money when looking at new, fully priced road bikes.
These are entry level road bikes. I bought a Specialized Allez for £500 as my first bike, and overtook hundreds of people on fully specced triathlon bikes over the years I had it. They’re not as light as others, and won’t have the fanciest groupset, but they’re still perfectly lethal in the right hands. You’ll probably find yourself looking to upgrade components on this kind of bike within a year or two from a mixture of performance concerns and wear, leaving you with a bike you’ve spent several times the cost of the bike upgrading, so bear this in mind.
This is about as much as anyone needs to spend on a road bike, you don’t get a whole lot more for your money beyond this price point. Compared to entry level bikes, you get lighter, more responsive groupsets, stronger wheels, a lighter, stiffer frame and often a few little extras depending on brand, such as an integrated hydration system or special forks that reduce vibration.
These are high end road bikes, once you’re spending over £2000 the diminishing returns start ramping up considerably. You can get high end groupsets, nicer wheels and very lightweight frames, but you probably wouldn’t have noticed the differences unless the salesperson pointed them out. These bikes can also be tricky to maintain due to their design, so aren’t really suitable for the novice bike mechanic.
So, if we assume for a moment that the money isn’t a problem, how much should you spend on your first road bike? On the one hand you could accept that you’re probably going to crash/drop the bike a few times in the first year, you could opt for a cheaper bike to play with so that when you upgrade to a nicer bike in the future you’ll have got all the rookie mistakes out of the way. On the other hand, you may get frustrated with a cheaper bike, realise that to upgrade the groupset costs almost as much as a new bike, and figure you may as well pay the extra £200 at the bike shop for the next groupset up (I’ll explain groupsets soon, I promise). It really is up to you, but the next section on where you money actually goes should help.
Where does your money go?
It’s not just weight that you save when you upgrade, everything about a top end bike is different to a cheaper bike, let’s look at some examples:
There are four main materials used to build bicycle frames, each with their own pros and cons.
“Steel is real” the purists claim, and they’re right. No other bike frame can be repaired with a blowtorch. The versatility of the material makes it very popular with custom frame builders, who can build you a frame bespoke to your measurements. The properties of the material also means it will provide a dampening effect, ironing out some smaller bumps in the road for you, but very few new bikes are made of high quality lightweight steel, and are instead made of heavy, thick tubes which give the material a bad name. One for the connoisseurs more than your garden variety cyclist, but not to be written off either.
Pros: Malleable, comfortable ride, cheap
Cons: Difficult to find a high quality option
This is the most popular material for bikes under the £1000 mark, but is often given a bad name by those who believe carbon is the only way to go. I have always ridden aluminium road bikes, and while I can tell a difference when I throw my leg over my carbon TT frame, it’s far from the heavy and bone shaking riding experience some would have you believe. Aluminium is more durable than carbon fibre, which can be prone to fracturing if it’s hit in the wrong way at the wrong angle, making it the material of choice for many criterium racers where they’ll be looking for a cheaper, more durable frame to throw around corners elbow to elbow with other riders. Cannondale have made a great success of aluminium with their CAAD range, affordable, speedy bikes that look great and handle well.
Pros: Light, responsive, durable
Cons: Slightly harsher ride
“You need to get yourself a carbon bike, it’s what Tour de France riders use” is the advice given to many aspiring road cyclists. Carbon fibre sounds sexy, it’s somewhat mysterious, has connotations with F1 and will feel light as a feather compared to the chopper they used to ride around the local park in their childhood. Many road cyclists will only have ever ridden a carbon fibre bike so the material is accredited with all the benefits that come with upgrading to a road bike. The truth of the matter is that not all carbon fibre is made equal, and a cheap carbon fibre frame is less desirable than a nicely made aluminium frame. That being said, it is probably the ideal material to make bikes out of, providing stiffness while also dampening road vibrations. When you ride a carbon fibre bike it just feels different, it wants to be ridden fast. I made a comment earlier about carbon fibre being more fragile than aluminium, but that’s not to suggest these bikes are made out of sugar glass and should be handled with extreme care, these are durable and well made pieces of kit designed to take knocks from potholes and survive a minor crash. The issues come when you stress the material in an unusual way – bikes are designed to take a lot of punishment vertically. But, I once watched someone’s frame become unrideable after being blown over and landing on its side, hitting the ground horizontally in a way that cracked the material. Even if you are unlucky enough to find a fracture when inspecting your bike, repairing it isn’t as expensive as you may think.
Pros: Light, stiff, yet smooth ride
Cons: Expensive, not as durable as other materials
Arguably the highest quality material out there, this is the one material I have zero experience of riding, as I’ve never met anyone with a titanium frame brave enough to let me ride it! The material is a lot like steel in that it can be used to make very custom frames, making it the material of choice for some boutique brands. The material is very difficult to work with due to the temperatures and environment it is malleable in, but I understand it gives a “unique” ride quality that’s very smooth. It won’t jump out of the blocks like a carbon frame will, but it’s no slouch either.
A groupset refers to all parts of your drivetrain, this is typically the gear shifters, the front and rear mechs, chainrings, cranks, bottom bracket, cassette and brake callipers. The combination of these parts saves a huge amount of weight and also had an effect on how smoothly your bike shifts, how responsive the brakes are e.t.c.
As I alluded to earlier, upgrading your groupset is very expensive, so it’s worth spending a bit more to get the one you want when purchasing the bike. But what’s a good groupset? Here are the most popular Shimano groupsets. I have nothing against SRAM or Campagnolo, but replacement parts can be tricky to find in a pinch and very few bikes are sold with these groupsets as standard.
Found primarily on budget bikes such as those found in Halfords, it’s very basic and the components don’t last long, probably best avoided if you can afford to. It has eight gears which can make it difficult to find the right gear compared to more expensive groupsets.
This is a nine speed groupset aimed at newer cyclists, it can feel a bit clunky and it’s fairly heavy, but does the job reliably.
Now we’re looking at a ten speed groupset, this gives us more flexibility and the gear changes are just that much nicer, to the point that you’d probably notice if you rode both groupsets blindfolded. Please don’t ride bikes blindfolded.
In my humble opinion this is all anyone really needs. It’s light, very responsive and now 11 speed as standard. I don’t buy bikes which have anything less than 105 on them, and I only run Ultegra on my triathlon bike as that was the only option when I bought it. Shimano 105 is an incredible groupset and does everything you could reasonably ask for from a mechanical setup, anything else will make minimal difference.
The only real difference between Ultegra and 105 is the materials used, which means the Shimano Ultegra R8000 is 191g lighter than the Shimano 105 R7000. As the price difference for the new groupsets is the best part of £500, you have to ask yourself how much 200g really matters to you. It does have the option of smaller shifters which could be appealing for those with smaller hands, and it also comes in a Di2 (electronic) format which has some benefits I’ll go into shortly.
This is the kingpin of the groupsets, the absolute top end, have it all version used by professional racers, using the latest technology available. It is significantly more expensive than Ultegra, and offers very little in the way of tangible benefit, providing more of a conversation point than any performance gains. Technology from Dura-Ace tends to trickle down over the years, and as such the current Sora will probably perform better than the Dura-Ace of the mid 90s. For a first road bike, this is probably overkill, if only for the cost of replacing parts that become worn/damaged.
One thing to watch out for is brands adorning their bike with an Ultegra rear mech and Chainset (where the branding is most visible) but using 105 shifters, cassette, front mech e.t.c. as this is a good way to lure customers in. This won’t make much of a difference to your riding, but there will be a sense of being deceived when you find out. A good question to ask is “Does it have full Ultegra?”.
Riding a Dura-Ace and Claris bike back to back you’ll notice a difference, and this is one of the primary reasons you’d want to spend more on a bike, however it’s important to note that no matter how lightweight or responsive a groupset is, it won’t ride up the hills for you. If someone tries to tell you that you’d be able to keep up on the hills if you bought Dura-Ace, they’ve probably got shares in Shimano.
With regards to electronic shifting, this opens up a world of possibilities for us. Electronic shifting uses buttons rather than levers for changing gear, meaning less strength is required to change chainrings (you can laugh now, but after ten hours in the saddle these things matter), as well as requiring much less in the way of maintenance. Rather than having to index gears on a regular basis as the mech gets knocked or the cable stretches over time, you simply fit and forget, making sure to recharge the battery. SRAM Etap allows you to place shifters anywhere on the bike using its wireless system, and the new Dura-Ace allows you to shift all the way through your gears only using the right hand shifter, changing chainring for you automatically. The batteries and junction box can add some extra weight but this is offset somewhat by the loss of gear cables, and I’d go for electronic shifting over mechanical in nearly every scenario. However for your first road bike, it’s probably overkill.
There are currently two braking standards available for road bikes, disc brakes and calliper brakes. I would recommend disc brakes if you are just starting cycling as this is the way the industry is moving and they perform much better in the wet. I won’t go into detail here as I’ve already covered the points in this article: Should you run disc brakes? They do raise the price slightly, but I believe it’s a price worth paying.
It’s not very common for manufacturers to throw in upgraded wheels on bikes, normally they’re pretty cheap and nasty, as wheels are so expensive they bump the price up massively. However once you get to the £2500+ mark bikes may come with some higher end wheels as standard, which help save weight, improve acceleration and last longer thanks to higher quality bearings and a stronger build quality. This isn’t the place to go into the nitty gritty of wheels, but if you can’t see why one bike is a lot more than another with similar specs, check the wheels, these are very expensive to upgrade further down the line.
This is often overlooked in the second hand bike market, the peace of mind that comes with having a warranty. Generally components are covered for a few years, with most manufacturers offering a lifetime warranty on the frame. This means that not only can you ride around safe in the knowledge that financially you’ll be covered if you have an accident, but the bikes are manufactured to a standard where they feel confident that it will not fail on you.
Big brands such as Specialized will provide bikes for multiple teams in the World Tour, have a wide ranging print and web advertising strategy, hold events, run competitions and do everything they can to sell more bikes. The money for this has to come from somewhere, so you can be pretty certain that a portion of any Specialized bike you guy goes towards covering the cost of the Tarmac that Peter Sagan totalled in a group sprint.
Research and Development
As I alluded to when talking about Dura-Ace, when you buy a top of the range product, you’re paying for the R+D that went into the technology involved, not just the materials and manufacturing costs. This is where diminishing returns really kicks in, the more expensive the bike, the larger proportion of the cost went into research and development, for what will likely be a marginal benefit.
To conclude the section on pricing, I don’t believe there’s much point spending over £1500 on a road bike, especially your first. You are of course welcome to spend as much as you like, but don’t expect a £5000 bike to go five times as fast as a £1000 bike.
Geometry and fit
Far more important than brand, price, wheelset, groupset or colour is whether you are comfortable on the bike. Let’s look at some basic concepts.
This is the difference between the saddle height and height of the bars. The higher the drop the more of an aggressive, aerodynamic position you’ll find yourself in, but at the cost of comfort. Drop can be decreased by lowering the saddle or adding spacers to the headset, but most road bikes will have at least 2CM of drop, as otherwise you’ll be sitting bolt upright. There’s nothing wrong with this if you have back pain or are incredibly nervous, but you’ll get much more out of your cycling if you start to increase the drop. Drop can be increased by raising the saddle or removing spacers on the headset, but I recommend you try this slowly rather than jumping from 2CM right up to 10CM, anything in double digits is extremely aggressive and unlikely to be comfortable for longer rides. The drop is very flexible and should not usually determine which bike you buy, but it’s worth checking how many spacers are available at the front of the bike, as you may not be able to get the handlebars as high as you like on some of the more aggressive models out there.
The reach quite simply represents how long the bike is, measured from the saddle to the stem by bike fitters, however bike manufacturers tend to measure from an imaginary line extending up from the bottom bracket across to the headset. As you would expect, more aggressive bikes have a longer reach, with more relaxed bikes having a shorter reach which doesn’t require as much flexibility to maintain. Reach can be increased or shortened by swapping out the stem, however this will also have effect on the handling, which may be unwanted. Having a longer stem may make it feel like you’re riding a boat, where a short stem can result in some unwanted oversteer.
The stack height is measured from the bottom bracket to the top tube, the tube which sits between your legs. A stack height which is too low will make it a very ungainly experience riding the bike while a stack height which is too high will make it incredibly difficult to get an effective, comfortable saddle height as well as making mounting/dismounting an extreme sport. You should expect to lean the bike slightly to the side to mount/dismount for an effective road riding position, only bringing it completely upright when you push off and mount the saddle.
This is simply the length of a bike, but has a noticeable effect on handling. A bike with a longer wheelbase will feel more stable but sloppier in the corners, while a bike with a short wheelbase will feel like it’s on rails in the corners, at the tradeoff of feeling twitchier. Endurance and TT bikes will normally have longer wheelbases for stability, with performance bikes being slightly shorter making them better suited to twisting switchbacks or a criterium circuit. The differences can be very small here, so don’t expect to be able to spot them with the naked eye.
Shape of saddle
Moving away from the bike itself slightly here, the type of saddle you’re running is second in importance only to the saddle height when it comes to your comfort on the bike. We all have soft tissue down there which doesn’t like to be squished, and we all have sit bones which are different widths and shapes, choosing the right saddle is essential for all day comfort on the bike, and I’m 95% sure that the saddle that comes with your bike will be wrong for you. Look for a saddle with a cutout in the middle (very few individuals suit saddles without) which offers a 30 day exchange programme, where you can try the saddle for 30 days and exchange it for another from the same manufacturer if it’s not working for you. Unfortunately a saddle can feel great when you try it at the shop, only to leave you in agony after two hours of riding. Please don’t be tempted by the big, cushioned saddles, they may be comfortable for nipping down the shops, but they will be uncomfortable on longer rides for the same reason you’ll start shifting around if sat in a big, soft chair for too long. More minimal saddles are more comfortable for long rides for the same reason you can spend all night perched on a bar stool with minimal discomfort. The best way to find the right saddle for you is to have a bike fit.
The fore/aft of the saddle represents how far the saddle is behind or in front of the bottom bracket. Getting this nailed in can be notoriously difficult, but those planning to use clip on aero bars will probably need to move their saddle slightly forwards to accommodate for the more forward position.
This is easily solved with an Allen key and a spirit level so isn’t a factor when looking at bikes, but it’s something that can ruin cycling for many if they hit a pothole and don’t realise their saddle has slipped forward slightly. Saddles should by and large be completely level, there are only a handful of situations where a couple of degrees of tilt back or forth may prove to be advantageous, but this is for a bike fitter to recommend on. If you’re suffering with saddle discomfort, whip out a spirit level and make sure it’s dead level.
How wide your handlebars are will have an effect on both your comfort and the handling of the bike. As you can probably guess, narrower bars will result in a twitchier ride, but keeping your shoulders narrow also provide you with a slight aerodynamic benefit. Wider handlebars will provide you with more stability, but at the cost of some top end speed. What’s more important than aerodynamics or handling is comfort, as you want to avoid any back or shoulder pain from riding bars that are too narrow or wide. Rather than requiring a different bike, this is simply a case of swapping out handlebars, but it’s worth looking into this when you purchase your bike as you may be able to sweet talk the bike shop into swapping the handlebars out for you if it secures them a sale.
Riding on the drops can be intimidating for many, lowering your body position even further. The reason many riders find it difficult to ride the drops is that they don’t have the right handlebars, and can’t reach the gears or brakes. You may need help from your bike shop or bike fitter to get the right bars for you, but either way you’ll probably have to look at different manufacturers to find a shape that works for you. It may upset some riders to have a pair of Pro handlebars on their Specialized bike, but comfort and fit really are king, and these things are best sorted out when purchasing the bike and you can sell on the original bars as new.
Nothing will affect your riding enjoyment as much as your saddle height. Too high and your hips will rock from side as you strive for each pedal stroke, feeling unsteady and out of control; while a saddle height which is too low will restrict your ability to put out power and risk knee injury. Even a couple of millimetres can make a difference over long distances. Forget any methods you dad may have taught you about having one foot on the floor, you want to set your saddle height so your knees are just short of locking out at the bottom of the pedal stroke. The best way to get your saddle height spot on is to, you guessed it, get a bike fit. If you live in the London area, we can provide you with a bike fit and advise on the best bike for you to buy, details here.
You can use these measurements to compare your current bike (if applicable) to the bike you’re looking at purchasing. If your current bike has a stack height of 45CM which you find a real struggle to throw your leg over, then you’ll be looking at a size where this is lower. Some websites will ask for your height and inseam measurement (from the floor up to your privates) recommending a size for you based on this, but the best way to find your right size is to throw your leg over the bike itself. Most shops don’t have every bike in every size ready for you to go and try, so if you know there’s a bike you’re dying to get your hands on, phone them up ahead of time, and they’ll build it up for you to come in and try, normally within a few days.
A chap I used to work with tried to pilot a “fit first, but second” movement which seems ludicrous at first, paying for a bike fit before you know which bike you’ll be buying, but where all the charts told me I’d be looking at a 51CM Cervelo P3, he got me on the jig and discovered that while I could fit on a 51, the saddle would be super high, I may have to swap the stem, and it would look pretty ungainly, ordering me a 54CM instead. If you’re looking at spending serious money on a bike, you should consider this as an option.
Apologies if I threw a bit too much bike jargon around there, but these are the biggest factors in bike fit and this is overlooked by many buying their first bike, resulting in discomfort, injury, and just not getting the most out of their cycling.
Choosing the right bike for you
By this point I hope you have a rough idea of what you’re looking to buy, you may decide that you’re going to go for the cheapest frame you can find, or you may be leaning towards an endurance bike, with a 105 groupset and a very relaxed geometry for around the £1500 mark. Alternatively you may be targeting city centre events looking for a top of the range road aero frame with electronic shifting on it where money isn’t a problem. Either way you’re now faced with the question of which bike to order. When visiting a specialist this choice can be overwhelming, should you go for the Cannondale? The Specialised? The Giant? A few factors to consider:
Some cyclists are adamant that all frames are made in the same factory in Taiwan, badged up with different logos and sold as individual bikes. While this is a gross over-exaggeration, the truth is that there isn’t nearly as much difference between brands as you may be lead to think, especially towards the cheaper end of their range. What does make a big difference though is the customer service and after sales support. I don’t want to land myself in hot water here, but while some brands are known for going out of their way to replace damaged components with minimal fuss, other brands are known for dragging customers through a soul destroying warranty process where they have to pay for their bike to be shipped to a factory in Europe, examined at some point in the next six weeks, where they will most likely declare it wasn’t their responsibility and charge you to courier you broken bike back to you.
I would think no less of someone if they told me the reason they went for the Trek Domane rather than the Specialized Roubaix because they preferred the colour. You’re going to be spending a lot of money on your bike (even £500 isn’t chicken feed), you want your bike to sit in your hallway begging to be ridden. Your new steed needs to excite you and going for an ugly colour scheme because the salesperson told you it had slightly stiffer cranks than the bike that really spoke to you doesn’t set you up for several years of two wheeled bliss together. Sometimes the go faster stripes are the only thing that get you out the door on an overcast, damp morning.
If there are two very similar bikes you’re considering, one is full price and one is 20% off, it’s a bit of a no brainer. Your friends may swear by their Canyon, Trek or Binachi, but as we’ve already discussed, the manufacturer of the frame makes very little difference most of the time so as long as the specs are similar, save yourself a bit of cash and go for the discounted bike.
Towards the end of the bike retail year (late summer/autumn) you can get some fantastic deals on bikes, but popular sizes such as 54cm and 56cm may be difficult to get hold of. If you are in love with a bike but it’s got a six week lead time, where a very similar model is making eyes at you from across the showroom floor, you have to ask yourself how much you prefer the other bike, and how much riding you’d miss out on. If you have an event in six months, six weeks is a good chunk of training you’ll miss out on, especially as there’s always a chance they’ll come back and tell you they couldn’t get hold of it after all. These are all factors you have to take into account based on your individual situation.
Budgeting for extras
Many would be cyclists walk into their local bike shop with £1500 of savings and their eye on a new bike they’ve been courting through the window for a few months. They get measured up, pick out their colour, and head to the bike shop for the big day when they ride their dream bike home.
Shop owner: “Which pedals would you like?”
Customer: “What do you mean?”
SO: “The bike doesn’t come with pedals, which would you like?”
C: “What kind of £1500 bike doesn’t come with pedals?”
SO: “Pedals are very individual, so manufacturers don’t ship them with pedals, as most riders will swap them out to their preferred standard”
C: “How individual can pedals be?”
SO: “Well, you have SPD, SPD-SL, Look Keo, Time, Speedplay…”
C: “Yes, I get the picture, which is the cheapest?”
SO: “We have some Shimano SPD pedals for £30”
C: “That’ll do”
SO: “Great, the shoes are over here”
SO: “Yes, the shoes which clip into the pedals”
C: “Clip in?”
SO: Yes, the shoes clip into the pedals so you’re attached to the bike, improves acceleration and efficiency” C: “Blimey, how much are the shoes?”
SO: “Well, they start at £70, shall we try some on?”
This is a familiar conversation for many, and the customer who has stringently saved up (and told their partner) they’d be spending £1500 on a road bike is now going home at least another £100 lighter. Once they’ve picked the shoes, they will be advised to look at other items he’ll have a difficult time without. Let’s look at a full list of items a new cyclist needs to budget for:
This is an essential for any riding except the most leisurely cycle path rider in my opinion, all helmets are made to the same safety standard (with the exclusion of MIPS systems) so don’t need you have to spend a fortune to stay safe. More expensive helmets will be lighter and more ventilated, perhaps more aerodynamic, but you don’t need to spend more than £50 for a comfortable lid. Try a few on until you find one that sits securely.
Of all the different standards I recommend either Shimano SPD-SL or Look as they use the three bolt system found on the majority of cycle shoes. Shimano SPD is cheaper and less obstructive when walking around so may appeal to touring cyclists or off road riders, but it can be hard to find shoes which fit you as the range is a lot more restrictive. Spending more than £50 gets you carbon fibre pedals which get lighter and include better quality bearings, but there are better places to spend your money in all honesty so keep it cheap for now.
Shoes generally start at the £70 mark and need to fit your foot. As in, they REALLY need to fit your foot. A lot of cycling shoes come up very narrow, some very long, so try on lots of brands. They should hug your foot very nicely with a little space in the toe box for the foot to swell in the heat.
The tyres on your new bike are awful. I can say that with relative confidence unless you are spending over £2000 on your bike. High performance tyres provide you with extra puncture protection, reduced rolling resistance and vastly improved grip. Nobody has ever sat at the side of the road grappling with a puncture repair kit in the freezing rain or found themselves in the back of an ambulance with a broken collarbone really smug that they saved £60 on a quality set of tyres. Find more information on the right tyres for you here
Saddle bag and basic tools: £40
You’ll want a saddle bag to sit behind your seat post with enough supplies to get you out of trouble. I recommend a multi tool (including chain tool), spare chain link, spare inner tube, tyre levers, puncture repair patches and mini pump or C02 canisters. Learn how to fix a puncture on YouTube and you’ll be able to head out feeling a lot more self sufficient.
I recommend running a pair of small flashing lights during the day, and if you’ll be cycling in the half light or darkness, a second more powerful pair you can switch on when visibility starts to drop. When I started cycling lights were big and heavy, chewing through a small fortune’s worth of batteries on the way home from my friend’s house, but today they’re light, compact and for the most part USB rechargeable. It’s a legal requirement in the UK to run lights after sunset so don’t get caught out, or even worse end up under the wheels of someone’s car. For now a small set of flashers will do you just fine.
Bottle cage and bottle £20
This doesn’t need to be fancy, just a way to transport water around as cycling is thirsty work. Some riders opt for a rucksack with a camelback which is better than nothing, but the rucksack will leave you sweating heavily and place extra stress on your shoulders.
Cleaning products and lubricants £30
A bicycle that is neglected will rust, seize up, make a racket when riding and eventually break. Keeping your bike clean and lubricated is incredibly important. You’ll need some bike cleaner, degreaser, sponges, brushes and a bottle of lubricant as a minimum.
Cycling shorts and jersey £100
Spending prolonged time on your bike without padded shorts will be… uncomfortable. Even with the shorts it takes time to build up a bit of resilience down there so these are not a purchase you will regret. A jersey is very useful for transporting essentials in the back pockets (food, pump, phone e.t.c.)
Rain cape: £50
It will rain when you’re cycling, whether it’s forecast or not, and having a small packaway waterproof in your pocket will have you covered in these situations.
Arm and leg warmers: £40
Not 80s fashion accessories, these are arm and leg sleeves that keep you warm on chilly mornings or when the sun sets. Cheaper than buying a long sleeved jersey or tights, and more flexible as can be removed when the sun comes out. If you’re riding in properly cold weather you’ll want windproof clothing to keep the wind off your chest and tights for maximum warmth, but as not many people take up cycling in the dead of winter (chapeau if you are!), arm and leg warmers go a long way.
You’ll want some glasses to keep the sun out of your eyes on bright days as well as to protect you from small stones and insects. There are options for persimmon lenses to brighten up an overcast day and clear lenses for night riding, or even photochromic lenses that adjust to conditions.
If we forego the recommended section, we’re looking at £340 for what are pretty essential purchases, and closer to £500 when we include the clothing we need to ride in comfort. This isn’t (normally) a salesperson trying to take you for a ride, they just want to make sure you can really enjoy the sport. If you’re really on a budget or looking to spread the cost you could pick up some flat pedals now and look into the shoes later, but a pair of flat pedals can be £20 in themselves, so if you have the money in your account it’s probably better to do it right first time.
Where to buy the bike
One of the biggest factors to consider is where you buy your bike from. If you head somewhere where cycling isn’t the sole purpose of the business, the salesperson may have gone on a one day course on bike sales if you’re lucky, and their experience of riding bikes may extend to a visit to Center Parks where they pootled around a flat trail on mountain bikes. I really wouldn’t recommend going to one of these shops unless you take a friend who knows exactly what they’re looking for, as you could end up spending a lot of money on something completely unsuitable.
Next on the pecking order is your cycling specific retailer, where they have a broader range of bikes and will go out of their way to order in the right bike in the right size for you, but might also be inclined to sell you a bike in the wrong size to get it off the shop floor. I bought my first bike from one of these, and the sizing process involved an argument between the manager and one of his staff over which size I should take. These outlets are well established enough to offer a reasonable level of advice, but too big to be flexible or guarantee a good level of service across their stores.
Finally you have your specialist retailers, the independent bike shops or very exclusive chains. I really recommend you shop here where possible for a number of reasons. Firstly, many are struggling to make ends meet and these shops provide an important role in our communities. If you need to pick something up quickly, the chances are your local bike shop is closer than the closest retail giant in an industrial estate but they can’t rely on sales of inner tubes and lubricants alone. They’re also great fountains of knowledge as the staff will tend to be experienced passionate cyclists who can help you make the right decisions, although this can come at a premium as they won’t always be as competitive as larger retail outlets having comparatively larger overheads for the volume they sell. However these are also the retailers most likely to swap the stem/handlebars for free, and fix the bike for free or a reduced rate if you take it back to them with an issue. That being said, some local bike shops are run by misogynistic middle aged men who look down on newcomers, or are so inflexible that they probably deserve to go out of business, but the quality local bike shop is an asset to both the sport and the community, deserving of our financial support.
I’m writing this in what I hope is the second half of the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is difficult to buy bikes from bricks and mortar establishments currently. Buying online isn’t the sin that some would have you believe it to be, however you run the risk of getting completely the wrong bike, in a colour that looks different in the flesh, which you’re not the right size for at all. If you’re planning to buy a bike online and use a local bike shop as a showroom, please don’t waste the salesperson’s time by playing a game of 99 questions.
I know that’s quite a lot to take in, but I hope it’s given you an insight into just how much thought needs to go into buying the right bike. To conclude, here are the biggest takeaway points:
A good quality aluminium or steel bike is better than a cheap carbon frame
Spending more money won’t make you quantifiably faster
Budget for accessories
Get a bike fit
Buy the bike which speaks to you
Bikes have very different geometries
Make sure you’re buying a road bike
Shop at a store where staff can help you make informed decisions
Remember to buy pedals
Upgrade your tyres
I hope this has helped inform you of the common pitfalls that come with buying a bike. Once you have your bike and your event booked, why not check out our training plans?
Are you struggling to complete workouts? Has it been suggested you may have a vanity FTP? Confused as to what this may mean? I’ll try to explain in this article what a vanity FTP is and what you can do about it. Firstly we need to look at what Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is, or more importantly, what it isn’t. FTP is not (always):
The highest power you can sustain for 60 minutes
95% of your best 20 minute power
Your aerobic threshold
Your anaerobic threshold
The definition of FTP that most coaches and sports scientists now use is:
“The highest power that a rider can maintain in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing for approximately one hour” – Andrew Coggan
That’s quite a mouthful, so let’s have a look at it visually on a chart created using WKO5 from two athletes:
What you’re looking at is each rider’s power duration curve for the last 90 days. Without going into the details right now, you have time on the X axis and watts on the Y axis, so you can see that both riders can hold higher power over shorter durations, and the power they maintain drops over time, as you’d expect! The yellow line shows personal bests for each timeframe and the red line joins the dots to create a mathematical model that is used to calculate modelled FTP, or mFTP, which is denoted as the bottom dotted line.
Between around 10 minutes and 60 minutes (depending on the rider) the line starts to level off, this is where we find your FTP, the maximum power you can hold in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing for around an hour.
Rider A has an FTP of 223W with a TTE of 1:02:22, and rider B has an FTP of 215W with a TTE of 32:21. Most riders will have a TTE between 30 minutes and 70 minutes, which gives us an insight into how well trained an athlete is at holding high power. As a coach looking at each of these athletes I can work out how to develop each athlete and improve their training. Athlete A needs to lift his chart upwards, he’s unlikely to get much benefit from trying to increase TTE at this point, so we’ll look to increase his power over shorter durations such as 20-30 minutes, then when he increases his FTP significantly we could turn our attention to increasing TTE again. Athlete B however would benefit from extending the time he can hold his FTP for by spending extended periods at higher intensity (tempo, sweetspot) allowing him to hold 215W for longer, vastly improving his performance over an event such as an Olympic triathlon or standard duathlon.
Now we understand what FTP is, we can start talking about vanity FTP. As a coach I want my athletes to have the highest FTP possible, and every athlete wants to have the highest FTP possible, however this is where a lot of athletes get into trouble, and find themselves training to a vanity FTP, which is an overinflated estimation of what they’re capable of, let’s have a look at this and why it happens.
One of the many benefits of using WKO5 is it estimates the effect the anaerobic system is having on your efforts. FTP is an aerobic effort, as is everything up to around 120% of FTP (depending on the athlete), after which we start working anaerobically. This is where our muscles are demanding oxygen faster than our body can provide it, and we start to create an oxygen debt. This is our body’s fight or flight system and allows us to put in a huge effort up a short hill or sprint for a finish line, but leaves us gasping for air afterwards. As triathletes this is of limited use to us during most events as we opt for a steady, smooth application of power, but we can’t ignore it and the effect it has on our training. This chart for athlete B looks at the contribution the aerobic and anaerobic system makes to their effort.
The blue shaded area represents the contribution of the anaerobic system to the effort, the green represents the contribution of the aerobic system to the effort. As you can see, up to the 50 second mark the majority of energy being used to fuel his effort is anaerobic, beyond 50 seconds the aerobic system takes over pretty quickly, although the anaerobic system still makes a small, yes statistically important contribution beyond this point.
Using 95% of your average power from the standard 20 minute test is designed to account for the contribution made by your anaerobic system. This athlete however isn’t an especially gifted sprinter so at 20 minutes, only 3.3% of his energy is coming from his anaerobic system. Using the standard 95% equation he would only get an FTP of 210W, the 5W he’s lost here could be worth a lot of time over an Ironman and result in them wasting time with ineffective training.
On the other hand you could have a very talented sprinter, who has either come from a power lifting background or is simply blessed with a high number of fast twitch muscle fibres genetically. In this situation, they could well generate 10% of their 20 minute power anaerobically. Let’s say they put in 300W during their 20 minute test. As 10% of their power was generated anaerobically their FTP should be 270W, but using the median figure of 5%, they would get an FTP of 285W. They’d no doubt be able to smash short, hard workouts with their strong anaerobic system, but ask them to spend prolonged time at the high end of their aerobic zones and they’ll really struggle. This is because their FTP is too high, which can result in them working in zone 2 when they should be in zone 1, zone 3 when they should be in zone 2, e.t.c.
Many athletes out there may not have such a problem with this, they think that if they train at an FTP which is higher than their ability level, they’ll get fitter sooner. This is possible, but it’s far more possible they’ll burn out after several days of struggling through easy workouts and failing difficult ones, feeling demotivated and no doubt blaming the training plan for being too hard, especially if they’re following a standalone training plan where a coach can’t spot these trends and the athlete can’t feed back on how hard they’re working.
The bigger issue however is race planning, the vast majority of age group athletes will race to a set intensity factor, or IF. For an Olympic distance this may be 0.9, for a 70.3 this may be 0.8, for an Ironman this may be 0.75, this helps ensure that we get the most out of our bike leg, without burning our legs out ahead of the run. This is all based on the assumption that your FTP is accurate. If you are working to a vanity FTP you’re not willing to lower, you could find yourself riding an Ironman at 80% of your FTP instead of 75%, which is unlikely to end well for you, perhaps even resulting in a DNF. This is all because your FTP is based on the assumption that the anaerobic contribution to your 20 minute effort will be available to you indefinitely.
To understand why this is a problem, think of a racing driver who runs nitrous oxide in his car. By flicking a switch on his gearstick he can get a short, high powered, likely illegal injection of speed, but he only has enough for a 30 second boost. He could post a 1:45 minute lap when using his nitrous oxide, and 1:50 without using his nitrous oxide. If he was pacing a 12 hour endurance race he would be a fool to base his fuelling strategy on the lap time of 1:45, as this is only available to him once. For this same reason, a cyclist would be foolish to base his pacing strategy for a long event based on a figure which don’t account for the anaerobic contribution to their FTP.
This isn’t a perfect metaphor as cyclists will recharge their anaerobic battery slowly, and sometimes you need to dip into that reserve on a steep hill, but it should help you understand the dangers of having an FTP that’s not actually useful to train to or pace with.
Now that you understand why we need to account for this anaerobic contribution we need to understand how to account for it within our FTP. The best way to do this is using modelling software such as WKO5 (my preference), Xert or Golden Cheetah, but these can be truly overwhelming for the novice cyclist. You could use the Suffertest’s 4DP which tests you over 15 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes and 20 minutes back to back, to give you a figure which accounts for anaerobic contribution, but these aren’t ideal as you’ll already be cooked by the time you start your 20 minute effort. Finally, if you want to keep it as simply as possible, you can aim to empty your anaerobic tank by doing a five minute all out effort, followed by a few minutes rest, before you start your 20 minute test, of which you can use 100% of the average 20 minute power.
If this is all sounds a bit too complicated but you struggle to complete workouts, try reducing your FTP by 2-3%, a vanity FTP is rarely a conscious decision by an athlete, rather an overestimation by a piece of software or algorithm, and an athlete who isn’t willing to accept the figure may not be accurate.
FTP Doesn’t Win Races
If you’re still refusing to reconsider your inflated FTP, let’s look at why FTP isn’t the be all and end all of racing success.
You would be forgiven for looking at the podium of a time trial or the top three of the bike leg of a triathlon and thinking the rider in first had the highest FTP, followed by the rider in second place with the second highest FTP and so on down the positions.
However there are dozens of other factors which can affect the results of an event, the athlete’s bike, aerodynamics, W/KG, clothing, bike handling skills, start time, V02 max, time to exhaustion, ability to resist fatigue, nutrition, hydration, weight, these are all factors which will affect their finishing position.
Let’s return to athlete A and athlete B from earlier. Athlete A has an FTP of 223W with a TTE of 1:02:22, and athlete B has an FTP of 215W with a TTE of 32:21. They both took part in an 20K time trial yesterday on the same course pancake flat course on Zwift (removing a number of the variables), so who do you think won?. It would probably surprise you if I told you it was athlete B, who averaged 218W for a time of 29:29, while athlete A averaged 210W for a time of 34:16. Let’s start by expanding on the quantitive data:
V02 Max: 38
W/KG at FTP: 2.4
CTL on day of TT: 55
V02 Max: 61
W/KG at FTP: 3.8
CTL on day of TT: 33
Ultimately athlete B set the faster time because he’s won club championship titles, finished over 100 events, is an Ironman finisher and has been training for eight years where athlete A is training for his first 70.3 distance event. There are dozens, if not hundreds of factors which influence your performance, your FTP does not determine your value as an athlete.
I hope this has illustrated to you that higher FTPs do not win races, and that it is instead a combination of many factors.
To get the most out of your training, you have to be honest with yourself about your ability. Training to an accurate FTP will allow you to really develop as a rider, improving all areas of your fitness quicker, resulting in faster times.
If you would like more help with your FTP, E-mail Simon@phazontriathlon.com for a coaching consultation session where we can analyse your data, ask you to perform additional tests where required, then provide you with a rider profile, along with workouts designed to improve your riding.
Following government advice last night instructing individuals to stay in their homes in all but a handful of circumstances, we believe that riding your bike outside for leisure/training purposes is irresponsible. This is because cycling is a great way for key workers to get to work, and if thousands of cyclists descend on the country’s roads this could cause the government to ban cycling outright.
Additionally, by cycling on the roads you are putting yourself at a low level of risk. If you were to crash, have. a serious mechanical, get knocked off or a pedestrian was to step out in front of you, this would place an unnecessary burden on our already strained health service. The turbo trainer may not be glamorous or as fulfilling as riding outside in spring, but it’s certainly preferable to losing fitness, and lots of fun can be had with Zwift events.
UPDATE- 19th March 2020 10:03 GMT
Following announcements from England athletics and Triathlon England, all regular group training sessions should now have stopped, and most pools have now closed. This means that most triathletes are now only able to cycle and run on their own, or socially in smaller groups.
To get around the lack of pool time, I’m recommending my clients purchase resistance bands to replicate the action of swimming.
It also looks like a vaccine may be 12-18 months away, so the return to racing may be further away than anticipated, and triathletes can now confidently return to the base phase of training as a result. This means longer, slower rides and strength work, with less in the way of race pace intervals and brick sessions.
For now in the UK it seems we are free to run and ride outside, however if things get more serious and we go into lockdown, the turbo trainer, treadmill and weights will become our best friends.
Don’t lose heart though, this will pass in time.
13th March 2020- 06:33 GMT
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you’ll be well aware of the Coronavirus currently spreading across the globe. Here I’ll be taking a quick look at how this will affect your training and racing. As of this morning in the UK very few containment measures have been put in place, so take this advice with a pinch of salt, always consider recent developments in your area.
A quick reminder that I am not in any way a healthcare professional, simply a coach who has been keeping up with current affairs and who has the sport’s best interests at heart.
Will my race be cancelled?
This is the big one, will your event you paid good money for and have been training for religiously be cancelled? Each race organiser is taking a different approach, but the world’s biggest triathlon organiser, Ironman, has released a statement you can find here: https://www.ironman.com/updates along with rolling updates on upcoming races and whether they’re going ahead or not. It seems that the Ironman group are listening to the advice of local governments on a national and regional level to decide whether events will go ahead or not rather than making the call themselves currently. It does not appear that they are cancelling races more than a week or two in advance. In the statement they have outlined measures they will introduce to reduce infection risk at their events, so you assume they’re not waiting for the international all clear to start holding races again.
The majority of events will be postponed rather than outright cancelled, with organisers hoping to find slots later in the year when they can run the race. In some circumstances the race will be outright cancelled if they know there is no chance of rescheduling, this will result in your entry being deferred to 2021, or in some cases being outright cancelled without a refund. I understand this can be very frustrating/upsetting, but you have to remember that organisers will already have spent tends, maybe hundreds of thousands on the race so far, and smaller race organisers would face bankruptcy if they gave everyone a full refund, resulting in all future editions being cancelled.
When will races resume?
When racing resumes will depend entirely on how the virus spreads. Many of you will be familiar with this image:
The path that the epidemic takes will dictate how race organisers react. If there is an sudden surge in cases on an international level, hospitals becoming overwhelmed and shops closing en masse as has been seen in Italy, then there’s a good chance race organisers will pull the plug several weeks or even months ahead of race day. If however measures are introduced which flatten the curve and things seem to be under control, race organisers will be more likely to proceed with caution.
Looking at the most likely scenario of the virus peaking within the next few weeks, I expect most races in May/June to go ahead. This is simply speculation based on what I’ve read, it could be much later than that, but none of us are in possession of a crystal ball, and a lot of it depends on when a vaccine can be developed.
What about training?
If you are self isolating or working from home this opens up possibilities for extra training time. You may be restricted in the training you can undertake (pools and gyms may close, cyclists are not allowed to ride in Italy currently), but you can use the time that you would have otherwise spent commuting to extend your morning workout, or squeeze one in where you weren’t able to before. If you normally ride into work, swap it out for a high quality turbo session instead.
If you’re in the northern hemisphere race was set for March/April then you can use this opportunity to go back your base phase but in warmer weather, enjoying those long, easy rides/runs in the warmer weather rather than battling headwinds and floods. You can never have enough base miles, and the chances are that by the time a new date is announced you’ll have enough time to go back to your build phase and peak in time for the event . If you were just coming into peak fitness and want to find a use for it, you could have a go at a Zwift race or have a stab at some Strava KOMs, potentially taking a week or two off of formal training before you start going back to base training.
This is also a good chance to work on your weaknesses. If you are already in pretty decent shape but won’t be racing for some time, you can focus more on your weaknesses without compromising on general fitness. Whether this is putting in big swim sets or spending lots of time running, this is a great time to focus on becoming a better rounded athlete.
What precautions should we take?
Your standard triathlete is probably a pretty low risk individual, even if you have underlying health issues your active lifestyle will have improved your immune system, your large lungs will reduce the chances of complications and your strong heart will aid the healing process, but we can’t afford to get complacent, not least because we could well pick up the virus, show very little/no symptoms and yet pass it onto other, more vulnerable individuals around us.
The gym is the one area you should probably reconsider your attendance to as it can be quite crowded and sweaty, especially as many exercises can be performed at home with minimal/no equipment. If you buy yourself a kettlebell, some resistance bands and some dumbbells (not as expensive as you may think) you could engage in a daily strength session if you find yourself in self isolation. We could all use more functional strength work.
If however you start to show any symptoms (coughing, fever, shortness of breath) you should stop training immediately so you can recover as quickly as possible, with minimal risk of any complications.
It can be very frustrating when your race is cancelled, you’ll have invested a lot of time and money in it, but we all have our part to play in preventing the spread of the virus to the most vulnerable in our society. If the measures are effective the race cancellations will seem like an overreaction, so please don’t take out your disappointment on race organisers trying to do the right thing. Racing will resume in due course and the sun will rise tomorrow.
Choosing your first race is one of the biggest decisions you can make as an aspiring triathlete, and it can actually be the difference between you making it to the finish or not. There are a surprising number of factors to take into account, and the race fees may well set your back three figures, so it’s important to get it right. We’ll start with the basics and slowly move our way into the more detailed, tricky stuff.
Before you even look at events, you need to decide which distance you’re going to be tackling. The standardised distances are:
750M Swim (400M if pool based)
Hopefully you’ll have decided on a distance before you even begin your training, but if you haven’t yet started then it’s crunch time and you need to make a decision before the races start selling out. I recommend a distance you feel is realistic, yet will provide you with a feeling of reward upon completion. If you are new to endurance sport then a super sprint will likely prove to be a challenge in itself, however if you’re an experienced ultra runner and long distance cyclist who has been competing for many years and just needs to master the swim, then an Ironman may, in extreme cases, provide you with the challenge you’re after.
This is probably the second biggest consideration, where will you be swimming? In an icy Scottish loch? In a shallow, warm lake? Or in your local leisure centre pool? If you are new to triathlon I’m 90% certain the swim will be causing you the most anxiety, and managing this fear is paramount. If you are going to have sleepless nights thinking about open water swimming, a pool based event will be the safest choice. Alternatively if you are lucky enough to be an accomplished swimmer, then a sea swim may give you the sense of achievement and adventure that you crave.
Writing this from my London flat, I’m very fortunate in that there are hundreds of races within driving distance so I can have my pick of any event of any distance, however if you live in a more isolated area, you may have much less of a choice. It may be tempting to travel somewhere more exotic to make a holiday out of it, but for your first race it’s worth considering the other stresses this introduces into what may already be a stressful experience. You have travel, transporting your bike, hiring a car, potential language barriers, unknown local cuisine, jet lag and more, all of which can work against you and getting to the start line calm and confident. If you are lucky enough to have a local event close enough that you can travel there and back in the same day, I highly recommend you do so, so that even if you do have a sleepless night, at least it’s from the comfort of your own bed. Completing a triathlon is an exhausting experience, so having someone to drive you there and back
The chances are you’ll be looking for an event which you feel confident getting around, and this will likely equate to a nice, flat course, especially if you’re making your debut at Olympic distance or above. I personally love hilly courses as these are where I perform well, but if you’re tentative about your first event, you probably want to remove as many potential tripping points as possible. Sticking to flatter courses is a great way to save energy, increasing your chances of finishing or hitting your target time.
Number of Competitors
Many newer athletes really benefit from having constant support on the course, feeding off of the energy and noise of the crowd as they make their way towards the finish line. If this is the case for you then it’s probably best you find a large scale event such as The London Triathlon, a World Series event or a local race renowned for its support. The flip side to this is that if an event has a lot of competitors, the course can be very busy, which can be intimidating for newer athletes, and frustrating for faster athletes as they try to weave their way around slower participants.
Not all race organisers are created equal, an understatement if there ever were one. I’ve organised a triathlon and been race director a couple of times so I know how much goes into running an event, but it’s incredible how badly some organisers get it wrong. At one event I competed at they ran out of transition racking so bikes were stacked three deep against a wall, and I once arrived at a junction during a small 70.3 to discover a sign flapping around in the wind and no marshals, resulting in a 700M diversion before a group ran towards me shouting “Don’t run that way!”. Race organisers really make a difference, not just due to huge errors such as those, but smaller details such as clearing the swim course of weed, having enough aid stations that are well stocked, a professional transition area and in some cases closed roads. Yes events by premium race organisers are expensive, but you normally get what you pay for.
Are you looking at a race in the Mediterranean during summer, or a race in Yorkshire in October? Are you a larger athlete who struggles in the heat, or a featherweight who struggles in the cold? This is an important distinction to make, and you should use this to help you choose your race. You have enough to worry about during your first race without having to take layering and heat management into account.
Time of Year
This is perhaps the most underrated consideration, when in the year will you be competing? Many will have been training through the winter and be raring to go come May when the first races kick off. If this is simply your warmup event or your chance to dip your toe in the sport that’s fine, but if you’re new to open water swimming and entering an early season even which you’ve invested a lot of energy into training for, this makes me very nervous as a coach. The reason being that someone can be really strong in the pool, but get into the open water and really struggle with the cold temperature (as low as 12 degrees), murky waters and swimming amongst thousands of others, causing a major panic attack and potential DNF. By choosing a race later in the season (July or August) you will not only be able to spend more time training in open water, the temperature will also be warmer on race day, vastly improving you chances of finishing.
Do you have friends who will be racing alongside you? Or family that will come along to support you? This is especially important after your first race when you’ll either be on cloud nine crossing the line, or in need of a pick me up should the racing gods conspire against you.
This is by no means an extensive list, there are plenty of other factors you will need to take into account yourself given your unique circumstances, but hopefully this will help you make an intelligent choice for your first race, to make sure it’s an enjoyable experience rather than a battle for survival.
If you are looking for help choosing a race, you may be interested in our coaching consultation where we can look at lots of factors and use our experience of events to help you choose the right one for you, or if you want a fully comprehensive coaching package, including coach attendance at major races, head to our application page.
As someone once said to me, “Training for a sprint is a hobby, training for an Ironman is a lifestyle”, something many of us can relate to. You likely started out at sprint and Olympic distance where a long ride was three hours and you rarely ran for longer than an hour. However when taking on an Ironman, this just won’t cut it, and your longer workouts tend to dominate the day once you include the preparation, execution, recovery, cleaning/washing and the obligatory nap afterwards.
All of this can take a strain on your relationships, which can leave your other half feeling neglected and overwhelmed with jobs such as looking after kids and food shopping which you can’t help with while you’re out putting in the miles. Training for an event like an Ironman will likely change the dynamic of your relationship, but there are some simple steps you can take to stop it being a change for the worse.
Choose your moment
If you’re moving house, expecting a new arrival, your workplace have announced redundancies or a family member is unwell, you have to ask yourself whether this is really the best time to engage in an expensive and time consuming challenge such as an Ironman. When you get closer to the race you may be out of the house for six hours at a time on your long ride, you may find yourself stressed if things aren’t going to plan and the physical exhaustion you’ll experience towards the end of the hard weeks can make the best of us come across as a bit short tempered and surly. The Ironman distance isn’t going anywhere, so don’t feel you have to cram it into an already stressful period in your life.
Make time for them
If you love someone the greatest gift you can give them is your presence, just to be around, even if it’s just sitting on the sofa watching a film together. Ironman training will reduce the time you can spend together, and your other half may take this personally if they believe you are growing tired or bored of their company. Even if you’re not able to spend as much time together as previously, making an effort to put time aside for them, and following up on this goes a long way. If you can’t spend an evening sat on the sofa browsing Netflix for five hours together, take them out to dinner for a couple of hours to make them feel special.
Involve them in the process
If your partner is less than keen on your Ironman habit the best way you can turn it around is to involve them so they feel some ownership over the process. This doesn’t mean forcing them to train with you, but it can be something as simple as asking them to hold you accountable to your training plan, asking them which event you should enter or combining your training/racing with a family holiday. If your partner is a stickler for organisation, sharing your precise schedule with them, or inputting the times you plan to train into a shared calendar can help ease any anxieties about you disappearing at short notice.
Keep the sex life going
If you’ve already spent six hours sweating away on the bike in the morning, the thought of spending more time getting sweaty between the sheets can be less than appealing, especially for male athletes as prolonged aerobic exercise decreases levels of testosterone. While every couple has their own preferences on how regularly fornication should occur, it’s important not to let this slide too much when you start training. Your intimate sessions may be shorter than normal and you may have to adapt if you’re feeling truly exhausted, but leaving your partner to their own devices for several weeks or even months because you deem your training to be more important is unlikely to go down well.
Your training may mean the world to you at this point in time, but the saying goes that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. If you duck out of seeing your in laws for the sake of a big swim session or refuse to spend time with your sick children because you’re afraid you’ll catch a bug that will stop you training this can add up over time. No single session in your training plan will make or break your race, but the anxiety and stress of relationship problems that stem from being inflexible and selfish will have a far greater effect on your performance as not only will you struggle to keep a clear mind, those around you may remove their support for your quest and that run down the finishing chute will feel very lonely.
Show them the Strava file from your run, show them the photo you and your friends took together at the top of the climb, maybe let them track you while you ride/run for safety purposes (most devices allow this), and just generally keep them up to date with what you’re doing. This will help ease any anxieties about where you’re spending your time and who you’re spending it with.
Pick up the slack on your rest day
Most athletes should be taking one day completely off a week. If you have a young family you should see this as an opportunity to pull your weight and pick up the slack; looking after your children to allow your partner some time to to socialise, relax or exercise themselves. Even if you don’t have children, this is a good opportunity to clean the bathroom, mow the lawn, do the dishes, fold the laundry, all jobs which you’ve probably let slide in favour of ploughing up and down the pool. This gives you the double header of a grateful spouse and a clean, organised environment to train and live in.
Look into home training solutions
In this day and age there are several solutions for training indoors; treadmills for running, smart trainers for cycling and endless pools for swimming. While some of these are more affordable than others, something affordable like a turbo trainer not only allows you to work in a very efficient way, it also allows you to be in the house waiting for that parcel, keeping an eye on the kids or allowing you to stay on standby if your other half is in bed feeling unwell. It’s often preferable to train outside, but sometimes this is unrealistic, and it’s better to take your ride/run indoors than to miss a session.
Go easy on the credit card
Yes, triathlon is an expensive sport, there’s no getting around that, but you really don’t need to spend £100 on titanium skewers, £700 on a wetsuit, £10,000 on a bike or £70 on a carbon fibre bottle cage. We all like toys, but there comes a point where you have to put the family budget first. It’s only a hobby at the end of the day and most of the equipment won’t actually make you that much faster. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position where you’re able to splash some cash, don’t be surprised if your other half wants a new set of golf clubs, a weekend skiing, or for you to finally get round to replacing the dated three piece suite.
If you spent more on your new bike than you said you would, fess up. If you’re going to be out for seven hours then don’t tell them you’ll be back for lunch. If you know you’ll be exhausted after your long run, don’t make plans you know you’ll probably have to cancel when you get home and collapse onto the sofa. Honesty is the cornerstone of any relationship and being flexible with the truth or hiding receipts from them is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.
Talk problems over
If you can tell there’s a sense of resentment growing at the time/money you’re investing, rather than ignoring it, ask them what you can do to make things work better. This also gives you a chance to explain why you’re disappearing for six hours every Sunday (You need to get your long rides in to boost your aerobic capacity as part of your base training, these rides will become less frequent in the build phase which starts next month). If your partner vocalises concerns about how much you’re spending, explain your rationale behind your decisions and talk them through any more expenses that are due before the big day. By explaining the rationale behind your decisions you can help them understand why you’re making the decisions you are, and that there’s no ulterior motives.
Successful relationships are all about give and take, and while training for an Ironman there’s a good chance you’ll be taking a lot more than you’re giving; making a few adjustments to time management and how you go about your training can help prevent any conflict.
I always take my client’s family life into account when setting training, arranging days off and hard workouts on days that suits them best. If you’re struggling to balance training and family life, head to our apply page to find out how we can help you successfully train for your event while keeping everyone on side.
An Ironman, or any triathlon for that matter, is a massive undertaking and there’s a lot that can come between you and the finish line, especially over an event that can last for up to seventeen hours.
What follows is a list of problems you could encounter and how to avoid them. Triathlon is an incredibly complicated sport, and everybody has individual needs which need to be taken into account to get you to the finish, but what are universal are the reasons for not finishing, which we will be exploring here. While this article will be angled towards Ironman as there’s simply a lot more to go wrong over a longer event, most of this advice can be applied to any distances.
Not Fit Enough
This is probably the number one reason for someone not finishing a triathlon. Excuses will be made about nutrition, pacing, blaming their equipment, but most people who fail to make the cutoffs simply aren’t fit enough. This is often the result of two possibilities, either not starting training soon enough, or doing the wrong kind of training. If you are a complete novice then hiring a coach or reading up on endurance training yourself is the best bet to get you in shape for a big event. Training for a triathlon no matter the distance is a serious undertaking and isn’t something you can simply push through like a Tough Mudder.
Arriving at the start of an event 10% undercooked is much better than arriving at an event 1% overcooked, if you are slightly undertrained you can still pull it out of the bag with some grit and determination. If you’re overtrained however you’ll struggle to get your power up to where it should be, you’ll fatigue quicker and end up very frustrated that all of the hundreds of hours you’re putting in aren’t producing results. In a worst case scenario you may even find yourself struggling to focus and find yourself weaving around a lot as your body tries to shut itself down to protect itself. The way to avoid this is to back off your training before the event (tapering), to ensure you’re raring to go on the day. It can feel counter intuitive, and you may feel like you’re losing fitness, but keeping the sessions shorter and sharper in the weeks/days leading up to the race will really help. You also need to take into account the length of your event and the priority of the event. If the race is a low priority sprint then you probably only want to back your training off in the last few days, whereas if this is a high priority Ironman event you probably want to back off for up to a month before race day to ensure your legs are good on the day. If you have a busy life with a job and a family you’ll also want more taper time than a pro who may be able to get away with a taper of a fortnight for a big event such as Kona.
Accepting outside help
The vast majority of races do not permit any kind of outside help, this is either you handing people items, or them handing you items, as well as accepting mechanical assistance from spectators. You can accept help from other athletes (an inner tube if you’re lucky), but from spectators on course is a big no-no as it could give some competitors an unfair advantage by having various friends/family out on course providing nutrition.
Wrong time of the month
You know how your body reacts to different stages of your cycle so I’m not going to tell you how to manage it, but where you are in your mensural cycle can have a big effect on your race. You can use a period tracking app such as Fitr, Clue or Garmin Connect to log how you have felt at that point in previous months to ensure you know what to expect on the day. If you suffer badly with cramps it may be worth taking some pain relief with you on the bike and run.
This is a condition where the body loses salt through sweat which isn’t replaced. This can cause relatively minor symptoms such as a headache and slower stomach emptying rates, but can also cause more extreme symptoms such as blackouts, projectile vomiting, loss of co-ordination and in extreme cases slipping into a coma. The reason for this is that as the water levels increase without sufficient sodium in the system to regulate it the brain eventually starts to swell causing the above symptoms. Avoiding this is really quite simple, you need to take on salt during your event, either in the form of electrolyte tabs in your water, sports drinks, salt tablets or salty snacks. If you find yourself starting to weave about, feeling a bit disconnected or with a persistent headache then it’s worth ensuring you take some salt on at the next aid station if you don’t have any on you.
No matter how well you prepare, there’s always the possibility you’ll end up suffering with some illness on the day, whether it’s the local cuisine backfiring or a virus you picked up on the flight, it can put you in a very difficult position, especially as the first discipline is the swim which can exacerbate feelings of nausea or congestion. You’re the only one who can make the call on whether you’re able to take the start, but if you’re feeling a bit rough round the edges a PB is probably off the cards, and you might have to adjust your expectations. If your only goal is a personal best, you may want to sit this one out rather than incur the fatigue from a long day of racing, and enter another event in the near future instead. If the affliction is anything more than a stomach bug or cold though, I’d seriously recommend you sit it out to avoid any complications. There’s no way you can bulletproof yourself against illnesses, but you can make sure you back off your training in the weeks before (so your body can dedicate more energy to your immune system) and ensure sure you’re getting enough fruit and veg.
Littering This is one of the few offences which will earn you an instant DQ, intentionally dropping litter on the course. Traditionally this is energy bar/gel wrappers, but this also extends to bottles, visors, salt tablets or anything else you feel you have no more use for and need to relinquish as soon as possible. Harry Wiltshire discovered this at Ironman UK 2017 when he was disqualified for tossing his helmet visor which was steaming up, as even though it wasn’t litter as such (and he would have probably been back later to pick it up) it was still considered littering. If you run out of pockets/storage areas for your gel wrappers you can stuff them down your suit until you reach the next aid station. Even if you don’t get caught, the locals will take understandable umbrage to gel wrappers and C02 canisters lining their roads, making race permits harder to obtain for future years.
Giving up prematurely
During my first Ironman I had completed the first lap of the bike course and already racked up 1500M in elevation gain. I was on an energy low, my left knee was in pain and as I started my second lap, it was so very tempting to call it a day and climb off. I had the misfortune of experiencing a low point as I passed transition where it would have been easy to duck out, but I knew this was a low point that would pass, I rallied and kept going. Partly this was because I was already a seasoned triathlete by this point, partly because I knew this moment was coming. Nobody feels good for the entirety of the 180KM, and you have to trust the feeling will pass. It’s very easy/tempting to climb off, but sticking it out, taking on some more food, having a drink and using some self talk can help prevent you from calling it a day. It may feel like a good idea at the time, but you don’t want to sit at the finish watching everyone cross the line with their arms in the air, knowing you’ll have to explain to everyone why you pulled out for months on end. The best way to help with this is to really push yourself to your limit during your fitness tests so you can differentiate between when you’re genuinely done and when you just need to suck it up.
It’s very easy to make a mistake in the days leading up to the event which can prevent you even lining up at the start. While most of these are common sense to experienced competitors, they can catch out first timers.
Forgetting your photo ID
Most triathlons require a valid form of photo ID for registration, so they can ensure you’re really who you say you are. This is for the security of others as much as it is for your own protection, so don’t forget to pack your ID! In the UK a driving license or passport are the two most commonly used forms, I wouldn’t risk anything unconventional such as student or military ID.
Not registering in time
Most long distance events require you to register the day before at the very latest, at Ironman events they close registration at midday the day before, if you turn up at 12:01 you can’t race. Don’t leave it to chance, I recommend registering the day before, giving you some peace of mind in case your car breaks down or train is cancelled on the morning you’re due to head up.
Not completing your medical certificate
Not an issue in the UK, but some countries require a doctor’s letter confirming you’re in good health to compete in the event. This can normally be acquired fairly easily for a small charge, but make sure this is done in advance and you take your copy with you, otherwise you will not be allowed to take the start.
Not racking in time
Once you’ve registered you need to ensure you rack your bike and have your transition area setup in time. For shorter events this is simply so everything is ready for you when you come out the water, for longer events that normally means you have to rack the day before. If your bike isn’t racked when transition closes you can’t start the race. If you only register at the 11th hour this may only give you a few hours to get everything in place, which is unlikely to be enough for an event split transition, where T1 and T2 are separate.
So, you’ve made it to the start line, next up is the discipline which has the highest DNF (did not finish) rate in shorter events, the swim. If you are a confident swimmer there’s not a huge amount that can go wrong here, but that’s not to say you can get complacent.
You can’t swim
Let’s be honest, some people who start a triathlon just can’t swim properly. They can make an arm/leg movement that propels them forward in a fashion, but it’s exhausting and very slow. You’ll probably be able to get through your first pool triathlon like this, but in open water and/or longer distances you will be found wanting. Breaststroke is absolutely fine, you don’t even have to put your face in the water, but you do need to be able to propel yourself through the water in a relaxed, efficient manner so you can make the time cutoff without exhaustion. If the thought of the swim is keeping you awake at night the best thing you can do is get your technique analysed by a coach and spend more time in the water to build confidence.
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 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.
Mounting after dismount line This will land you a time penalty, which if combined with a drafting penalty may result in you being disqualified after you finish the event. The line should be marked with a line and marshals holding flags, just make sure you slow yourself quickly enough to get your feet on the ground before the line.
Racking your bike in the wrong space While you may not be able to receive an outright penalty for this (depending on the race), an angry competitor who finds your bike in their space may remove your bike and place it somewhere where it could be deemed to cause an obstruction resulting in a penalty. Take the time to find your racking space rather than panicking and placing it in the wrong spot.
Once you’re off the bike a huge number or variables have been removed, now it’s just you and your body against the clock, although over long distance racing this is where the majority of athletes tend to falter as the efforts of the swim and bike take their toll on their body.
Went too hard on the bike
So, you may have got a bit carried away on the bike, overtaking dozens of people, flying up the hills, soaking up the scenery, your legs felt good and it’s a race after all isn’t it? Now you’re on the run and struggling, you can’t pick your feet up, your quads are heavy, you’re trying to shake them out, but you can’t change out of plod mode. You’ve gassed it on the bike and are now paying the price as those who you made a point of overtaking earlier now fly past you. Eventually your run turns into a walk and perhaps even a shuffle as the time cutoff looms behind you. Pace the bike well and with the run in mind to avoid this, going as little as 3-4% over target on the bike can have devastating consequences on the run. Nobody cares about your bike split when you’re sat at the side of the road with your head in your hands.
Running when you should be walking
You will in most cases have at least six hours and thirty minutes to complete the marathon, even if you leave T2 just as the cutoff kicks in. The average walking speed for your standard member of the public is 5KM per hour, so you should be able to cover the distance even if you were to walk the entire thing. I obviously wouldn’t recommend this as you want to do yourself justice, but it goes to show that you could probably power walk the run course and still make it home within the cutoff. This means you can afford to take walking breaks during the run, walking the vast majority of it if you need to. If you’re determined to run the whole marathon this can result in you actually moving slower and increases the risk of you cramping or another injury rearing its ugly head and sending you back to the medical tent in an ambulance. I’m sure you want to be able to tell your friends that you ran the whole marathon, but you really don’t want to have to explain to them how you failed to finish because you wouldn’t walk out of pride.
As anyone who has spectated at an Ironman will be able to tell you, the marathon course is littered with people on the side of the road clutching their calves or desperately trying to stretch their quads out with a face that suggests they’re undergoing surgery without anaesthetic. The cramps have struck and their race is in tatters, it’s incredibly difficult to come back from this point on the run, it may well be the beginning of the end. Nobody really knows what causes cramps, but they have been linked to poor hydration and a lack of salt, so making sure you stay topped up will help reduce the chance of you encountering any problems. A strong running background will help as well, as your body will be used to the demands of running long distances and less likely to rebel.
Your stomach can only digest so much at once, after which it struggles to empty your stomach at the rate you may be adding sports drinks, gels, nuts e.t.c. and you can end up feeling very bloated as a result, especially as it’s tougher to digest food while running. You may have been on a diet of non solids for ten hours by this point and your digestive system may well be starting to play up by this point, however there really is no way to know what your stomach will be doing at this stage. Some people have intensive IBS, some people have to make themselves sick to empty their stomach, I don’t want to put you off but a lot can go wrong so it’s a good idea to fill your special needs bag with a variety of things you think you might want/need, just like you were packing for a weekend away and didn’t know how much food there would be at the other end. This is also why it’s important to test your nutrition during your training, to see what works well and what doesn’t. It’s worth pointing out that low sodium levels have been linked to low stomach emptying rates as the body struggles to absorb the contents of the stomach into the bloodstream, so those salt tablets become all the more important.
There are two ways an injury can scupper your dream at the last hurdle, firstly you can line up knowing that you have an injury that will hamper you on the run, and simply hope that everything somehow comes together on the day. There’s not a huge amount that can be done to mitigate this, but going out with a run/walk strategy in mind when you start is probably the best way to manage this, and it’s worth practicing in training. The second possibility is that an injury springs up on you during the race. This could be an injury you picked up in training and thought had gone away, or it could be something totally new. When you start the run you will already be fatigued, and the longer you spend on the bike the more your muscles will be fatigued. This is true of not only the primary muscles used in cycling such as the quadriceps and hamstrings, but also muscle groups such as the hip flexors and glutes which provide us with stability when running. If you come off of a six hour ride and then run for another four hours, the muscles that are supposed to stop our knees from tracking or our hips from dropping are already exhausted and our legs move in ways they’re not supposed to. There’s not a huge amount you can do to mitigate this when you’re on the run and hurting other than start walking and hope you can make it to the finish before the cutoff. The general rule is that running on an injury when it hurts makes it worse, so you have to make some decisions here. Is this your A race? How much does the finish mean to you? What are your plans after the race? Would the potential worst case scenario (tendon rupture e.t.c.) prevent you from working? Or potentially from ever running again? These are questions only you can answer, however I would always advocate putting health before fitness or any athletic achievements.
I’m using this very broad term to cover skin issues including sunburn, chafing, blisters or any other temporary issue which can cause you significant pain or discomfort. If you have a history of chafing in areas such as your underarms or nipples then it’s wise to pack some vaseline or similar to help relieve this, but don’t apply it to your wetsuit before the swim as it will damage the neoprene, body glide is recommended in these situations. Avoiding sunburn on the bike and run can be tough as most suncream applied before the swim will wash off in the water so reapplication in transition can be wise, especially if you know you burn easily.
This may raise a laugh from some competitors, but happened to me at a very small middle distance event where upon arriving at a junction I was greeted with a signpost blowing around in the wind and no marshal. I chose to go right and five minutes later was greeted by three runners coming towards me shouting “Don’t run this way!”. This was incredibly poor by the race organisers, but if I had taken the time to familiarise myself with the course beforehand by checking the course map I may have been able to avoid the situation.
Completing an Ironman is an enormous undertaking, and the road to the finish is littered with hazards and pitfalls that can catch out the fittest of competitors. I hope this hasn’t come across as overly negative and I’ve provided useful advice on how to manage these risks, but if I’ve missed anything or you have any further questions, pop them in the comments below or E-mail me at Simon@phazontriathlon.com and I’ll do my best to answer them.
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