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.
Choosing your first race is one of the biggest decisions you can make as an aspiring triathlete, and it can actually be the difference between you making it to the finish or not. There are a surprising number of factors to take into account, and the race fees may well set your back three figures, so it’s important to get it right. We’ll start with the basics and slowly move our way into the more detailed, tricky stuff.
Before you even look at events, you need to decide which distance you’re going to be tackling. The standardised distances are:
400M Swim 12KM Bike 2.5KM Run
750M Swim (400M if pool based) 20KM Bike 5KM Run
1500M Swim 40KM Bike 10KM Run
1900M Swim 90KM Bike 21.1KM Run
3800M Swim 180KM Bike 42.2KM Run
Hopefully you’ll have decided on a distance before you even begin your training, but if you haven’t yet started then it’s crunch time and you need to make a decision before the races start selling out. I recommend a distance you feel is realistic, yet will provide you with a feeling of reward upon completion. If you are new to endurance sport then a super sprint will likely prove to be a challenge in itself, however if you’re an experienced ultra runner and long distance cyclist who has been competing for many years and just needs to master the swim, then an Ironman may, in extreme cases, provide you with the challenge you’re after.
This is probably the second biggest consideration, where will you be swimming? In an icy Scottish loch? In a shallow, warm lake? Or in your local leisure centre pool? If you are new to triathlon I’m 90% certain the swim will be causing you the most anxiety, and managing this fear is paramount. If you are going to have sleepless nights thinking about open water swimming, a pool based event will be the safest choice. Alternatively if you are lucky enough to be an accomplished swimmer, then a sea swim may give you the sense of achievement and adventure that you crave.
Writing this from my London flat, I’m very fortunate in that there are hundreds of races within driving distance so I can have my pick of any event of any distance, however if you live in a more isolated area, you may have much less of a choice. It may be tempting to travel somewhere more exotic to make a holiday out of it, but for your first race it’s worth considering the other stresses this introduces into what may already be a stressful experience. You have travel, transporting your bike, hiring a car, potential language barriers, unknown local cuisine, jet lag and more, all of which can work against you and getting to the start line calm and confident. If you are lucky enough to have a local event close enough that you can travel there and back in the same day, I highly recommend you do so, so that even if you do have a sleepless night, at least it’s from the comfort of your own bed. Completing a triathlon is an exhausting experience, so having someone to drive you there and back
The chances are you’ll be looking for an event which you feel confident getting around, and this will likely equate to a nice, flat course, especially if you’re making your debut at Olympic distance or above. I personally love hilly courses as these are where I perform well, but if you’re tentative about your first event, you probably want to remove as many potential tripping points as possible. Sticking to flatter courses is a great way to save energy, increasing your chances of finishing or hitting your target time.
Number of Competitors
Many newer athletes really benefit from having constant support on the course, feeding off of the energy and noise of the crowd as they make their way towards the finish line. If this is the case for you then it’s probably best you find a large scale event such as The London Triathlon, a World Series event or a local race renowned for its support. The flip side to this is that if an event has a lot of competitors, the course can be very busy, which can be intimidating for newer athletes, and frustrating for faster athletes as they try to weave their way around slower participants.
Not all race organisers are created equal, an understatement if there ever were one. I’ve organised a triathlon and been race director a couple of times so I know how much goes into running an event, but it’s incredible how badly some organisers get it wrong. At one event I competed at they ran out of transition racking so bikes were stacked three deep against a wall, and I once arrived at a junction during a small 70.3 to discover a sign flapping around in the wind and no marshals, resulting in a 700M diversion before a group ran towards me shouting “Don’t run that way!”. Race organisers really make a difference, not just due to huge errors such as those, but smaller details such as clearing the swim course of weed, having enough aid stations that are well stocked, a professional transition area and in some cases closed roads. Yes events by premium race organisers are expensive, but you normally get what you pay for.
Are you looking at a race in the Mediterranean during summer, or a race in Yorkshire in October? Are you a larger athlete who struggles in the heat, or a featherweight who struggles in the cold? This is an important distinction to make, and you should use this to help you choose your race. You have enough to worry about during your first race without having to take layering and heat management into account.
Time of Year
This is perhaps the most underrated consideration, when in the year will you be competing? Many will have been training through the winter and be raring to go come May when the first races kick off. If this is simply your warmup event or your chance to dip your toe in the sport that’s fine, but if you’re new to open water swimming and entering an early season even which you’ve invested a lot of energy into training for, this makes me very nervous as a coach. The reason being that someone can be really strong in the pool, but get into the open water and really struggle with the cold temperature (as low as 12 degrees), murky waters and swimming amongst thousands of others, causing a major panic attack and potential DNF. By choosing a race later in the season (July or August) you will not only be able to spend more time training in open water, the temperature will also be warmer on race day, vastly improving you chances of finishing.
Do you have friends who will be racing alongside you? Or family that will come along to support you? This is especially important after your first race when you’ll either be on cloud nine crossing the line, or in need of a pick me up should the racing gods conspire against you.
This is by no means an extensive list, there are plenty of other factors you will need to take into account yourself given your unique circumstances, but hopefully this will help you make an intelligent choice for your first race, to make sure it’s an enjoyable experience rather than a battle for survival.
If you are looking for help choosing a race, you may be interested in our coaching consultation where we can look at lots of factors and use our experience of events to help you choose the right one for you, or if you want a fully comprehensive coaching package, including coach attendance at major races, head to our application page.
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 an Ironman. Excuses will be made about nutrition, pacing, blaming their equipment, but most people who fail to make the cutoffs simply aren’t fit enough. This is often the result of two possibilities, either not starting training soon enough, or doing the wrong kind of training. If you are a complete novice then hiring a coach or reading up on endurance training yourself is the best bet to get you in shape for a big event. Training for a triathlon no matter the distance is a serious undertaking and isn’t something you can simply push through like a Tough Mudder.
Arriving at the start of an event 10% undercooked is much better than arriving at an event 1% overcooked, if you are slightly undertrained you can still pull it out of the bag with some grit and determination. If you’re overtrained however you’ll struggle to get your power up to where it should be, you’ll fatigue quicker and end up very frustrated that all of the hundreds of hours you’re putting in aren’t producing results. In a worst case scenario you may even find yourself struggling to focus and find yourself weaving around a lot as your body tries to shut itself down to protect itself. The way to avoid this is to back off your training before the event (tapering), to ensure you’re raring to go on the day. It can feel counter intuitive, and you may feel like you’re losing fitness, but keeping the sessions shorter and sharper in the weeks/days leading up to the race will really help. You also need to take into account the length of your event and the priority of the event. If the race is a low priority sprint then you probably only want to back your training off in the last few days, whereas if this is a high priority Ironman event you probably want to back off for up to a month before race day to ensure your legs are good on the day. If you have a busy life with a job and a family you’ll also want more taper time than a pro who may be able to get away with a taper of a fortnight for a big event.
Accepting outside help
The vast majority of races do not permit any kind of outside help, this is either you handing people items, or them handing you items, as well as accepting mechanical assistance from spectators. You can accept help from other athletes (an inner tube if you’re lucky), but from spectators on course is a big no-no as it could give some competitors an unfair advantage by having various friends/family out on course providing nutrition.
Wrong time of the month
You know how your body reacts to different stages of your cycle so I’m not going to tell you how to manage it, but where you are in your mensural cycle can have a big effect on your race. You can use a period tracking app such as Fitr, Clue or Garmin Connect to log how you have felt at that point in previous months to ensure you know what to expect on the day. If you suffer badly with cramps it may be worth taking some pain relief with you on the bike and run.
This is a condition where the body loses salt through sweat which isn’t replaced. This can cause relatively minor symptoms such as a headache and slower stomach emptying rates, but can also cause more extreme symptoms such as blackouts, projectile vomiting, loss of co-ordination and in extreme cases slipping into a coma. The reason for this is that as the water levels increase without sufficient sodium in the system to regulate it the brain eventually starts to swell causing the above symptoms. Avoiding this is really quite simple, you need to take on salt during your event, either in the form of electrolyte tabs in your water, sports drinks, salt tablets or salty snacks. If you find yourself starting to weave about, feeling a bit disconnected or with a persistent headache then it’s worth ensuring you take some salt on at the next aid station if you don’t have any on you.
No matter how well you prepare, there’s always the possibility you’ll end up suffering with some illness on the day. Whether it’s the local cuisine backfiring or a virus you picked up on the flight, it can put you in a very difficult position. These symptoms can be exarcabated on the swim which exacerbates nausea and congestion. You’re the only one who can make the call on whether you’re able to take the start, but if you’re feeling a bit rough round the edges a PB is probably off the cards, and you might have to adjust your expectations. If your only goal is a personal best, you may want to sit this one out rather than incur the fatigue from a long day of racing, and enter another event in the near future instead. If the affliction is anything more than a stomach bug or cold though, I’d seriously recommend you sit it out to avoid any complications. There’s no way you can bulletproof yourself against illnesses, but you can make sure you back off your training in the weeks before (so your body can dedicate more energy to your immune system) and ensure sure you’re getting enough fruit and veg.
Littering This is one of the few offences which will deny you an Ironman finish, intentionally dropping litter on the course. Traditionally this is energy bar/gel wrappers, but this also extends to bottles, visors, salt tablets or anything else you feel you have no more use for and need to relinquish as soon as possible. Harry Wiltshire discovered this at Ironman UK 2017 when he was disqualified for tossing his helmet visor which was steaming up, as even though it wasn’t litter as such (and he would have probably been back later to pick it up) it was still considered littering. If you run out of pockets/storage areas for your gel wrappers you can stuff them down your suit until you reach the next aid station. Even if you don’t get caught, the locals will take understandable umbrage to gel wrappers and C02 canisters lining their roads, making race permits harder to obtain for future years.
Giving up prematurely
During my first Ironman I had completed the first lap of the bike course and already racked up 1500M in elevation gain. I was on an energy low, my left knee was in pain and as I started my second lap, it was so very tempting to call it a day and climb off. I had the misfortune of experiencing a low point as I passed transition where it would have been easy to duck out, but I knew this was a low point that would pass, I rallied and kept going. Partly this was because I was already a seasoned triathlete by this point, partly because I knew this moment was coming. Nobody feels good for the entirety of the 180KM, and you have to trust the feeling will pass. It’s very easy/tempting to climb off, but sticking it out, taking on some more food, having a drink and using some self talk can help prevent you from calling it a day. It may feel like a good idea at the time, but you don’t want to sit at the finish watching everyone cross the line with their arms in the air, knowing you’ll have to explain to everyone why you pulled out for months on end. The best way to help with this is to really push yourself to your limit during your fitness tests so you can differentiate between when you’re genuinely done and when you just need to suck it up.
It’s very easy to make a mistake in the days leading up to the event which can prevent you even lining up at the start. While most of these are common sense to experienced competitors, they can catch out first timers.
Forgetting your photo ID
Most triathlons require a valid form of photo ID for registration, so they can ensure you’re really who you say you are. This is for the security of others as much as it is for your own protection, so don’t forget to pack your ID! In the UK a driving license or passport are the two most commonly used forms, I wouldn’t risk anything unconventional such as student or military ID.
Not registering in time
Most long distance events require you to register the day before at the very latest, at Ironman events they close registration at midday the day before, if you turn up at 12:01 you can’t race. Don’t leave it to chance, I recommend registering the day before, giving you some peace of mind in case your car breaks down or train is cancelled on the morning you’re due to head up.
Not completing your medical certificate
Not an issue in the UK, but some countries require a doctor’s letter confirming you’re in good health to compete in the event. This can normally be acquired fairly easily for a small charge, but make sure this is done in advance and you take your copy with you, otherwise you will not be allowed to take the start.
Not racking in time
Once you’ve registered you need to ensure you rack your bike and have your transition area setup in time. For shorter events this is simply so everything is ready for you when you come out the water, for longer events that normally means you have to rack the day before. If your bike isn’t racked when transition closes you can’t start the race. If you only register at the 11th hour this may only give you a few hours to get everything in place, which is unlikely to be enough for an event split transition, where T1 and T2 are separate.
So, you’ve made it to the start line, next up is the discipline which has the highest DNF (did not finish) rate in shorter events, the swim. If you are a confident swimmer there’s not a huge amount that can go wrong here, but that’s not to say you can get complacent.
You can’t swim
Let’s be honest, some people who start a triathlon just can’t swim properly. They can make an arm/leg movement that propels them forward in a fashion, but it’s exhausting and very slow. You’ll probably be able to get through your first pool triathlon like this, but in open water and/or longer distances you will be found wanting. Breaststroke is absolutely fine, you don’t even have to put your face in the water, but you do need to be able to propel yourself through the water in a relaxed, efficient manner so you can make the time cutoff without exhaustion. If the thought of the swim is keeping you awake at night the best thing you can do is get your technique analysed by a coach and spend more time in the water to build confidence.
Wetsuit malfunction You’re doing your wetsuit up, and the zipper comes off in your hands. Or you bend over to start pulling the slack up from your legs and the suit rips open along the seam. There are several things that can go wrong with your wetsuit which leaves you with three options. Either you swim with the damaged suit, you swim without a wetsuit, or you don’t start the race. To prevent this conundrum make sure your wetsuit is looked after well (don’t leave it out to dry in the sun, rinse it after every use, fold carefully) and make you you always get someone to do your wetsuit up for you, as this puts less strain on the zipper.
Swimming in open water can be intimidating, it’s cold, murky and deep. Throw hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of athletes thrashing through the water into the mix and you have the perfect storm for a panic attack, especially in newer swimmers but even the most experienced of swimmers have a wobble every now and then. If you’re concerned about this start at the back, and most importantly get some open water practice in before your event. If you do have a panic attack in a race, hold onto a kayak (without capsizing the poor occupant) to catch your breath and calm yourself down. In a worst case scenario they can call the rescue craft to pull you out and take you back to shore. The best way to prevent a panic attack in the first place is to get more open water swimming done, which is one of the reasons I recommend novice athletes choose a mid/late season race to give them enough time in the lakes/sea to feel comfortable during their race,
The rotation of the swimming action can cause nausea even before you bring waves into the equation. I suffer from motion sickness, but am thankfully yet to have any problems in open water, however I know friends who it has caught out badly, and they’ve ended up emptying their stomach several times during the swim, which is a nightmare for longer events as you lose precious calories. If it’s especially bad it could lead to a retirement and a trip to shore via a safety craft, but this is extremely rare. If you know you suffer on boats, taking seasickness tablets before the swim is a sensible precaution.
The longer you’re in the water, the colder you’ll get and as most triathletes have very little body fat, we can get really quite cold. I remember getting into trouble following the two mile Swim Serpentine event, and I’d been open water swimming for five years up until this point so was hardly a newbie, but a lack of time in the open water that year had left me susceptible to the cold. Most wetsuit swimmers would have to be in the water for a couple of hours to be in real trouble with hypothermia, but that’s not to say it won’t happen. Safety crews are trained to check for the signs of hypothermia, and may pull you out against your will if they see you struggling and incoherent. To prevent this, simply spend more time in the open water to acclimatise your body for the cold temperatures. Think how cold 10 degrees feels in the early autumn and how tropical it can feel in the spring, the more time your body spends exposed to cold temperatures the better you become at dealing with them.
Yes there are jellyfish in the sea, and even in the UK they can be nasty. You’re most likely to encounter them on warm days where the water is still, so it can pay to look sightly ahead of you at times to avoid the larger specimens. Most jellyfish will steer clear of a writhing mass of bodies though, and swim safety crews will do their best to remove any particularly large jellyfish (lions mane e.t.c) they spot. If you are unlucky enough to get stung, it can smart, there’s no getting around that, but there’s not a lot you can do about it other than suck it up. If the pain stops you from swimming you may need to pull out. To reduce the likelihood of this occurring you can make sure you wear a wetsuit or swimskin when swimming in the sea, as well as wearing gloves and booties where they are permitted.
A slightly left-field one, but this is the only time one of my athletes have ever failed to make it out of the water. He was suffering with mild hayfever in London, but upon travelling to Staffordshire he reacted badly to the increased amounts of tree pollen. When he started the swim a lot of the pollen was resting on the surface of the water and his throat closed up to the point he couldn’t breathe. If you know you suffer with bad allergies at a specific time of year, it may be worth avoiding lakes surrounded by large amounts of your problem pollen where possible.
Losing your goggles
Yes, it can happen! You’re swimming along minding your own business when you take a foot to the face, knocking your goggles clear off your head. You turn around to see them engulfed in a writing mass of bodies, quite possibly heading down towards the murky depths, and the chances are this will cost you a LOT of time, perhaps even causing you to miss the cutoff in a worst case scenario. To prevent this I recommend wearing your goggles under your hat, or if that causes issues, you can try one cap over your head, then place your goggles over that, followed by the race cap on the top to ensure they don’t go anywhere! Practice this in your open water training to find a combination that works for you.
One of the old adages of triathletes is to always take a spare pair of goggles to a race, as you never know when they’ll give up on you. I invest in a brand new pair before every big race (doing a couple of practice swims first to ensure they make a good seal) to reduce the likelihood of the strap or nosepiece breaking during the race, but having a pair on standby before the swim start never hurt anyone. Another reason for a new pair on race day is to avoid having to mess around with anti-fog which can burn your eyes if applied in a panic before the swim start.
Luckily there aren’t many ways you can go spectacularly wrong here, but that’s not to say its impossible…
Not performing a walk through Once you have your transition setup do a walk through of the transition area. Start at the swim in, to your bike bag (if applicable), to your bike, and then to the bike out. I was once number 800 and placed by bike bag on the hook for 808 by accident. If I hadn’t have done a full walk through after racking and athlete 808 didn’t start for whatever reason I could have had several minutes of blind panic trying to find my bag. This also ensures you find the quickest possible route to your bike and instinctively know which direction to head in for the bike out.
Not having the right kit
It’s like one of those dreams you no doubt have (I know I do), when you get to your transition area and discover you’ve forgotten something like your bike shoes, helmet or race number. Without these you will not be able to continue your race. Ensure you avoid this by writing a checklist of the kit you need and ticking each item off as you pack them into your car. Most races have an expo for items like race belts and anti-chafe, but will have very limited stock of most big items.
Marking your bike Finding your bike can be a nightmare, there may be thousands of them in a small space and you wouldn’t be the first athlete to have the brightest idea of attaching a balloon to your bike to make it easier to find. This is banned to prevent transition from looking like a funfair, and will be removed by the commissaires, possibly resulting in a disqualification or you struggling to find your bike as you were relying on a balloon which has since been removed. If you are taking part in a race where your bike and run kit are laid underneath your bike you can mark it with a colourful towel on the floor next to your bike.
Not putting your helmet on before you leave transition
Depending on the race they may politely request you go back to your bike for your helmet, or they may disqualify you on the spot. The rules state you must put your helmet on before you even touch your bike, however I’ve yet to hear of anyone actually getting booked for this as long as they have their helmet securely fastened on their way out of T1.
Mounting before the line
A mount line will be clearly visible on the ground, hopefully accompanied by some flag waving marshals informing you of the location of the line. Mounting before the line will likely only land you a penalty unless you really take the mickey, although it may place a bearing on future penalties if you continue to flout the rules.
Dodgy mount If you are happy doing the flying mount then you can give it a go, however I’m not a huge believer for most events as it is marginally faster, but time gained by the speed at which you get in the saddle is offset to an extent by time spent getting your feet into the shoes and tightening them, even the best athletes are only looking at a few seconds of benefit, and while this is incredibly important in draft legal races it does carry with it an element of risk if you get it wrong and end up on the deck. Far be it from me to recommend which mount is right for you, but make sure you’re happy performing the mount of your choice and practice it in training, whatever you do don’t attempt it for the first time on the day.
Unfortunately this is the stage of a race where you put your trust in your bike and the competitors around you to reach the dismount line, and this doesn’t always work out. Some things are truly in the lap of the gods (if your pedal snaps off or someone crashes in front of you it just wasn’t your day), but some mistakes are avoidable, and with a bit of know how your day can be salvaged.
As we mount our bikes we are putting our faith in the machine between our legs to carry us home, however things don’t always go to plan. Whether it’s a puncture, a dropped chain, a seized rear mech, a pedal that detaches itself, rubbing brakes or any other myriad of things that could go wrong, you want to put yourself in the best place possible to come back from it. This means carrying everything you need as well as possessing the know how on how to fix it if things break. There is neutral support in larger events that will provide you with mechanical assistance if required, but they will not fix a puncture for you as they’d never get to the people who really need help. I recommend everyone purchases a book on bike maintenance and/or attends a mechanics course at your local bike shop. Being able to fix your chain, repair that puncture, adjust your limit screws or re-tighten your saddle if it slips can be the difference between your glorious finish or standing at the side of the road waiting for the broom wagon. Some mechanicals are terminal (snapped mech hanger, broken crank arm, broken spokes e.t.c.) and it just wasn’t your day, but a surprising amount of roadside mechanicals can be fixed with a bit of know how and a multi-tool.
You’re on a bike, so crashing will always be a possibility, it has been for as long as people have been riding bikes, and I can’t see that changing any time soon. Sometimes you can get over excited and leave your braking too late, sometimes you hit a patch of oil, sometimes another competitor takes you out, the result is normally the same, ending up on the deck with you and the bike damaged. Depending on how high speed the crash was, and how you landed, you may want to jump straight back on your bike, but please take a moment to assess yourself and your bike before you mount up again. Some of us are able to put up with a lot more pain than others, and may be able to push through where others will want to retire as soon as they see a bit of blood, but before you make any decisions test your range of motion. If you get any burning pain it’s possible you’ve broken something and it’s simply not worth the risk of continuing. Equally you’ll want to check your bike over, if the frame is cracked it’s absolutely not safe to continue. If you crash badly another competitor will inform the next marshal they see who will alert the medical teams, if you are ok but your bike is out of action or you simply want to call it a day, you can ask one of your competitors to inform the next marshal they see of your predicament. While I wouldn’t advise pushing your bike along a live race course, if you are in a dangerous position it is probably worth getting somewhere with relative safety, warning other riders of the hazard if deemed necessary. To reduce the risk of ending up on the tarmac altogether make sure you invest in quality high grip tyres, you keep your eyes on the road, and give competitors plenty of room. Don’t assume they’ll take the racing line in corners or know you’re passing them.
You come out of the water, you’re buzzing from excitement and ready to ride. You jump on the bike and fly out of transition, before long you start to feel the chill on your chest as the wind cuts through your tri suit. It then starts raining, there’s a long downhill, and you’re starting to shake now. Before long you’re on the long downward spiral of hypothermia, which is difficult to come back from. The way to prepare for this is to look at the air temperature as well as the water temperature. If the water is warm, but the air is cold, you’re going to get really cold on the bike. You also need to look ahead to the rest of the day, it may be 12 degrees and overcast when you start, but it could be up to 25 and dazzling sunshine by 1PM, so taking your long sleeve windproof jersey may be a poor choice. The way to get around this is to use layers, such as a windproof gilet and arm warmers to start with, which you can remove and stash away after you finish with them (make sure you have somewhere to store them first!). If you’re not comfortable you can’t put out the power you need, so time saved in T1 by jumping straight onto your bike may be lost as you start shivering and struggle to ride hard.
Poor bike comfort
As I mentioned above, you need to be comfortable to ride well, and if you’re shifting around in the saddle, suffering from genital pressure or otherwise unhappy on your bike you’re going to have a bad time. This is especially true for time trial bikes which can be especially difficult to get setup. There are two things you can do to avoid this, firstly make sure you get a proper (2 hours plus) bike fit and do some riding in your trisuit on the bike you’re planning to use. I made the mistake of neglecting this ahead of my most recent 70.3 and had to pull over for some respite in the last 10K as a result before eventually limping into T2 and waddling onto the run course.
Most races are non-drafting which means that if you are caught within the draft zone you will probably be slapped with a penalty. This will probably be for a few minutes, but if you are caught again you may be be disqualified. Most large events have a real drafting problem, as there’s simply not enough space on the road for everyone to leave 8M between the rider in front. The commissaires normally show a small amount of leniency as athletes come out of the swim together, but once you’re a few kilometres in you can expect a drafting penalty if you intentionally sit in the draft zone without making an effort to pass another rider. Repeat offenders may be disqualified, so don’t be lulled into a false sense of security because everyone else is doing it and keep your distance.
Nobody really knows what causes cramps, but you sure as hell know when it hits. Your legs feel like they’ve been replaced by searing hot iron bars and you’re unable to continue with any grace until it subsides. To reduce the chances of cramps make sure you ride over the distance of your event in training, don’t push too hard on the hills, and make sure you get enough salt/water. If you have a history of suffering with cramps it may be worth making sure you look up stretches which will help alleviate the issues should they occur on course.
Knee pain, back pain or any other number of issues can flare up with no warning during your ride, and really make you suffer. If the pain is mild and it’s your A race then you might want to crack on, but if it’s more severe or you have a much bigger race in the near future and it’s not disappearing it may be better to cut your losses and call it a day. There isn’t always an obvious answer for this, it could be the sheer amount of time spent riding without stopping, the amount of climbing, your race setup, your seatpost slipping in transit, any number of possibilities. You know your body best and whether you are able to continue, but remember you still have the run to go…
This can be either a result of high humidity or direct, relentless sunlight. In these situations you may want to choose your helmet carefully and consider a more ventilated model, furthermore make extra sure you’re getting enough water and electrolytes, as well as moderating your effort, especially on the climbs. Failure to do so can involve in your core temperature peaking, heart rate red lining and you digging yourself a huge hole.
The simpler of the two transitions, but you’ll be tired and can’t let your attention drift.
Dodgy dismount There is a much greater risk of hurting yourself with a flying dismount than a flying mount, so ask yourself whether it’s really worth the risk. Make a careful assessment of the speed you’re travelling at and whether your legs can keep up with your current speed before you commit. If in doubt, dismount normally.
Dismounting after the dismount line This will land you a time penalty, which if combined with a drafting penalty may result in you being disqualified after you finish the event. The line should be marked with a line and marshals holding flags, just make sure you slow yourself quickly enough to get your feet on the ground before the line.
Racking your bike in the wrong space While you may not be able to receive an outright penalty for this (depending on the race), an angry competitor who finds your bike in their space may remove your bike and place it somewhere where it could be deemed to cause an obstruction resulting in a penalty. Take the time to find your racking space rather than panicking and placing it in the wrong spot.
Once you’re off the bike a huge number or variables have been removed, now it’s just you and your body against the clock, although over long distance racing this is where the majority of athletes tend to falter as the efforts of the swim and bike take their toll on their body.
Went too hard on the bike
So, you may have got a bit carried away on the bike, overtaking dozens of people, flying up the hills, soaking up the scenery, your legs felt good and it’s a race after all isn’t it? Now you’re on the run and struggling, you can’t pick your feet up, your quads are heavy, you’re trying to shake them out, but you can’t change out of plod mode. You’ve gassed it on the bike and are now paying the price as those who you made a point of overtaking earlier now fly past you. Eventually your run turns into a walk and perhaps even a shuffle as the time cutoff looms behind you. Pace the bike well and with the run in mind to avoid this, going as little as 3-4% over target on the bike can have devastating consequences on the run. Nobody cares about your bike split when you’re sat at the side of the road with your head in your hands.
Running when you should be walking
You will in most cases have at least six hours and thirty minutes to complete the marathon, even if you leave T2 just as the cutoff kicks in. The average walking speed for your standard member of the public is 5KM per hour, so you should be able to cover the distance even if you were to walk the entire thing. I obviously wouldn’t recommend this as you want to do yourself justice, but it goes to show that you could probably power walk the run course and still make it home within the cutoff. This means you can afford to take walking breaks during the run, walking the vast majority of it if you need to. If you’re determined to run the whole marathon this can result in you actually moving slower and increases the risk of you cramping or another injury rearing its ugly head and sending you back to the medical tent in an ambulance. I’m sure you want to be able to tell your friends that you ran the whole marathon, but you really don’t want to have to explain to them how you failed to finish because you wouldn’t walk out of pride.
As anyone who has spectated at an Ironman will be able to tell you, the marathon course is littered with people on the side of the road clutching their calves or desperately trying to stretch their quads out with a face that suggests they’re undergoing surgery without anaesthetic. The cramps have struck and their race is in tatters. It’s incredibly difficult to come back from this, it may well be the beginning of the end. Nobody really knows what causes cramps, but they have been linked to poor hydration and a lack of salt, so making sure you stay topped up will help reduce the chance of you encountering any problems. A strong running background will help as well, as your body will be used to the demands of running long distances and less likely to rebel.
Your stomach can only digest so much at once, after which it struggles to empty your stomach at the rate you may be adding sports drinks, gels, nuts e.t.c. and you can end up feeling very bloated as a result, especially as it’s tougher to digest food while running. You may have been on a diet of non solids for ten hours by this point and your digestive system may well be starting to play up by this point, however there really is no way to know what your stomach will be doing at this stage. Some people have intensive IBS, some people have to make themselves sick to empty their stomach, I don’t want to put you off but a lot can go wrong so it’s a good idea to fill your special needs bag with a variety of things you think you might want/need, just like you were packing for a weekend away and didn’t know how much food there would be at the other end. This is also why it’s important to test your nutrition during your training, to see what works well and what doesn’t. It’s worth pointing out that low sodium levels have been linked to low stomach emptying rates as the body struggles to absorb the contents of the stomach into the bloodstream, so those salt tablets become all the more important.
There are two ways an injury can scupper your dream at the last hurdle, firstly you can line up knowing that you have an injury that will hamper you on the run, and simply hope that everything somehow comes together on the day. There’s not a huge amount that can be done to mitigate this, but going out with a run/walk strategy in mind when you start is probably the best way to manage this, and it’s worth practicing in training. The second possibility is that an injury springs up on you during the race. This could be an injury you picked up in training and thought had gone away, or it could be something totally new. When you start the run you will already be fatigued, and the longer you spend on the bike the more your muscles will be fatigued. This is true of not only the primary muscles used in cycling such as the quadriceps and hamstrings, but also muscle groups such as the hip flexors and glutes which provide us with stability when running. If you come off of a six hour ride and then run for another four hours, the muscles that are supposed to stop our knees from tracking or our hips from dropping are already exhausted and our legs move in ways they’re not supposed to. There’s not a huge amount you can do to mitigate this when you’re on the run and hurting other than start walking and hope you can make it to the finish before the cutoff. The general rule is that running on an injury when it hurts makes it worse, so you have to make some decisions here. Is this your A race? How much does the finish mean to you? What are your plans after the race? Would the potential worst case scenario (tendon rupture e.t.c.) prevent you from working? Or potentially from ever running again? These are questions only you can answer, however I would always advocate putting health before fitness or any athletic achievements.
I’m using this very broad term to cover skin issues including sunburn, chafing, blisters or any other temporary issue which can cause you significant pain or discomfort. If you have a history of chafing in areas such as your underarms or nipples then it’s wise to pack some vaseline or similar to help relieve this, but don’t apply it to your wetsuit before the swim as it will damage the neoprene, body glide is recommended in these situations. Avoiding sunburn on the bike and run can be tough as most suncream applied before the swim will wash off in the water so reapplication in transition can be wise, especially if you know you burn easily.
This may raise a laugh from some competitors, but happened to me at a very small middle distance event where upon arriving at a junction I was greeted with a signpost blowing around in the wind and no marshal. I chose to go right and five minutes later was greeted by three runners coming towards me shouting “Don’t run this way!”. This was incredibly poor by the race organisers, but if I had taken the time to familiarise myself with the course beforehand by checking the course map I may have been able to avoid the situation.
Finishing an Ironman is an enormous undertaking, and the road to the line is littered with hazards and pitfalls that can catch out the fittest of competitors. I hope this hasn’t come across as overly negative and I’ve provided useful advice on how to manage these risks, but if I’ve missed anything or you have any further questions, pop them in the comments below or E-mail me at Simon@phazontriathlon.com and I’ll do my best to answer them.
If you have read this and are starting to think you might be in over your head, then make your way to our apply page where you can enlist the help of our experienced sports professionals to help you achieve your goals.
When I first started working with Naval in the early summer he had two middle distance events booked, the Owler which he wanted to use as a sighter, and Challenge Almere which he wanted to use for a big performance. Luckily I had already known him for a couple of years by this point through the club, so knew a lot about him and his training from day one.
We changed his training quite significantly, not so much the number of sessions but the length of them and the content. He is an incredibly strong cyclist and is one of the few people who can hold my heels during a hill session, but this doesn’t translate into a strong half marathon after you’ve already been racing for around three and a half hours by the time you put your running shoes on. He was told to either sit in the wheels on group rides or keep his heart rate below zone 4 when on the front. By spending less energy showboating on the hills and sprinting allowed him to both maximise the aerobic benefit of these sessions, run well off the bike when he got home and keep training well in the first half of the week rather than spend the time recovering from a very hard ride. We also changed the majority of his run training from intervals to longer runs, as with a month to go he hadn’t run much over 12K before.
We only had a few weeks to prepare for the Owler, so when he lined up we hadn’t got close enough to 21KM in training as I would have liked, but he pulled it off and managed an impressive 1:50 run split off the back of a 2:51 ride. With some speed work and tempo runs we could get that run split down to 1:40, and hit the bike harder, taking 15-20 minutes off in the two months we had wasn’t out of the question.
Then a couple of weeks later I got a call from Naval. Instead of beating his PB in Almere, he wanted to step up to the full distance.
He explained that he was unsure if he’d have as much time to train next year due to other commitments, and worried that this may be his best chance of completing the distance, a long term ambition of his. While I always do my best to help people achieve the goals they come to me with rather than tell them what they can and can’t do, this was a big ask.
I decided to look at the facts, for a start the swim would be manageable. He’d completed Ride London in well under 6 hours, and had ridden the hilly 200KM Ditchling Devil audax, so 180KM of riding on flat roads were unlikely to cause him a problem. Using the conservative estimate of 90 minutes for the swim and 7 hours for the bike, this gave us around 7 hours to run/walk 40KM. I’ve learned to never take completing the run course for granted as cramps, digestive issues or sheer exhaustion can leave someone weaving across the road, but I thought he could do it.
Naval really wanted to step up the running distances which is understandable, but as he has a history of running injury, increasing the distance dramatically would most likely result in injury and crush his dreams, although we did need to increase the run volume to give him his best chance of success. I decided the best way to do this was to include two middle distance runs during the week to increase his weekly volume rather than jump straight up to 30KM long runs. The marathon was going to be brutal, we both acknowledged that, but there wasn’t a huge amount we could do otherwise. It seemed a risk worth taking
He pulled it out of the bag, finishing in a highly impressive 12 hours and 53 minutes. Coaching isn’t a silver bullet, but this is a perfect example of how good communication and thinking outside of the box can create results.
You won’t have been training with other triathletes for very long before someone tells you about a coach they’re working with. It may come up in conversation naturally, or they may turn down the offer of a run together as it conflicts with their training plan. The word coach brings with it a lot of connotations, most commonly associated with tennis players at Wimbledon, someone ringside providing words of support to a boxer, or a drill sergeant barking out splits at swimmers in the pool, something very much for professionals.
This is something that held very true for a long time, but in recent years this has changed, as amateur athletes seek out the help of coaches who. This is particularly true for endurance athletes, with marathon runners and cyclists working remotely with coaches on a 1 to 1 basis, setting them training plans to help come out on top in an incredibly competitive world. However in no sport is this more prevalent than triathlon, where even first time athletes will seek out the help of a coach to help them cut through all the noise and misinformation.
The reason for this is that triathlon is so incredibly complicated. Your average wannabe triathlete will have experience in one of the three sports, but be way behind with the other two disciplines. You then have the complications of balancing training for three different spots and pacing an event that can last as long as a family day out, there’s an awful lot to go wrong.
Triathlon is an incredibly popular sport though, and there is a wealth of information out there, from magazines to blogs, manufacturers websites, athlete interviews, books, scientific papers, marketing, what you’ve been told by club coaches, it’s overwhelming and often the information conflicts with what you’ve read before or heard from a friend.
By hiring a triathlon coach, you are enrolling the help of someone who has read the literature, has tried different approaches with different clients training for different goals, and can use their experience to recommend the best way to train for your event. Can you only train for 7 hours a week? 80/20 isn’t going to work for you. Do you only have six weeks before your first event? There’s no point trying to schedule preparation, base and build training, Do you have an injury? We can help you design a programme to get you back on your feet again. Do you always find yourself worn out? We can help you balance your intensity and volume for maximum performance.
As you will have probably noticed by now, the majority of triathlon coaching is conducted remotely, a stark contrast to most sports where a coach will be there for the vast majority, if not all of the athlete’s training sessions, some triathletes will never meet their athletes. I’m currently working with someone in Damascus who I am unlikely ever to meet face to face, however through a mixture of video of his form, data analysis and good communication we are working to help him beat his personal best at the Olympic distance.
A training plans is of course the most important part of triathlon coaching, knowing what to do and when, but to really develop an athlete I feel communication is paramount. I may have created a textbook training plan that ticks all the boxes, but this may not be challenging enough as the athlete develops at a rate faster than I anticipated, or they may find themselves exhausted and not making any inroads into their fitness and at risk of over training. Constant communication with an athlete helps us avoid these pitfalls and ensures optimal training. Not only to optimise athletic performance, but to ensure the athlete is maintaining a positive relationship with training. Triathlon is a hobby for the vast majority of us, and while we can’t enjoy every workout, what’s the point if we’re resenting time spent training?
To ask the right questions however we need to understand the data. After every athlete uploads a workout I take the time to look over the numbers to analyse what happened. Did they hit the power targets? Did they exceed them? How did the heart rate compare to the power? Did the temperature affect their heart rate? How did the elevation affect their speed? Could it be that they’re going down with a bug? All of these are questions that need answering, and the analysis applied to the next week of training.
I deliver training plans on a week by week basis, so that I can take into account the findings and feedback from the week. If they’re on the brink of burnout we need to back off, if they’ve had a very difficult week with work we may need to ease into the next week gently, loading up the second half of the week once they’ve de-stressed a bit.
Triathlon coaching also allows you access to world class software, and more importantly someone who can operate the software to interpret the results and apply it to your training and racing. Whether it’s using WKO4 to view the quadrant analysis of your last ride or using Best Bike Split to create a race plan that reflects your ability and allows you to pace your bike split to perfection, you don’t have to spend hundreds on accessing this software and endless hours learning how to use it, the results are there for you on tap as the coach sinks hours into analysing your data and picks out what you need to know.
The biggest benefit for some is accountability, knowing that if they don’t get out there and run, their coach will be asking them questions. Knowing that if they run too fast or cut the workout short that questions will be asked. While a good coach will of course take into account any issues you may have on a day to day basis, we all miss workouts sometimes, they will also hold you to account if the excuses don’t wash.
Training for three sports means learning how to excel in three sports and, as we touched on earlier, it’s unlikely that as a newcomer you are knowledgable in more than one sport, when I started training for a triathlon I was pretty clueless about all three! Even if armed with a fantastic training plan, the chances are you will struggle with the execution of the workouts in one way or another. Whether it’s your swim technique, not knowing which bike to purchase or looking for help with your nutrition, a coach can help provide you with pragmatic, impartial advice on the best way forward. This is one of the reasons why at Phazon Triathlon we do not hold any strong affiliations with sponsors, to ensure we are able to advise athletes honestly and objectively, helping them select the right products for them. Coaches are fountains of knowledge for you to dip into whenever you have a query or are conflicted over something, dedicated to help you perform to be the best of your ability at your event.
Most triathlon coaches will also provide 1 to 1 coaching sessions, most popular of which tend to be swimming as this is the discipline where coaching. has the biggest impact. So if you’re looking for someone to help you dip your toe into open water, teach you how to corner properly on your bike or hold a correct running posture, booking time with a coach can help you take huge leaps forwards and improve your times much quicker than years spent plugging away with poor technique/form.
And at the end of the day, once all the training plans have been written, charts scrutinised and equipment purchased, there is still the human condition. The fear that you’re not doing enough, the bad workout that leaves you feeling destitute, the drop in motivation, the self doubt after a poor race result, these are all part of triathlon as much as swimming, cycling and running. A coach helps you put things in perspective, helps lift you up, shows you the silver linings and even act as a shoulder to cry on when things go wrong.
Triathlon coaching is all of the above, but it can also be whatever you want it to be. I work with some athletes who obsess over every data point, and some who simply want me to handle the numbers and tell them how fast to run. Some athletes need more reassurance and always have a lot of questions, others only check in much less frequently. I also have some athletes book regular 1 to 1 training sessions, some athletes I have never met in person! We offer a huge variety of support through our services, but it’s up to the individual how you utilise them.
I hope this has given you some insight into the value of working with a triathlon coach, the next step is choosing the right coach for you! Every coach has a different personality and every athlete has different needs so there’s no hard and fast answer, however we believe that here at Phazon Triathlon we provide some of the best quality and best value triathlon coaching available, including:
-Training plans delivered on a weekly basis to take into account your ever changing availability and feedback
-Unlimited coach contact, no charge for phone calls, text messages or E-mails
-Access to Best Bike Split and help creating your perfect plan for race day
-Detailed analysis and post activity comments after every workout, a chance to talk through what went well, what didn’t, and how this affects training going forward.
-In depth data analysis and dynamic FTP calculations using WKO4, the world’s most powerful analytics software.
-Advice with equipment, from basic troubleshooting to recommendations on the best products to purchase
One of the most intimidating choices facing a new triathlete is choosing a triathlon wetsuit. They’re expensive, confusing, and by the time you get it in the water to see whether it’s comfortable it’s too late to return it. The right wetsuit is paramount to your triathlon swim (assuming the race is wetsuit legal), so I want to make sure you make the right choice, giving you one less thing to worry about when you lineup on the start line.
I spent two years working in triathlon retail where I fitted hundreds of customers choose triathlon wetsuits, trying on different brands, different sizes, it can be a real trial to find the right wetsuit so I recommend doing this at a triathlon retailer if possible, to avoid sending wetsuits back and forth to online retailers. That being said, don’t treat the retailer as a fitting service then go and buy online, every retailer I know will price match the online competitors.
I generally recommend against borrowing a friend’s wetsuit for a race, you wouldn’t borrow a friend’s pair of running shoes for a marathon, so why would you borrow a wetsuit? You’ve even got the knowledge that your friend has probably urinated in their wetsuit multiple times to seal the deal. If you’re unsure whether you’ll do a triathlon again (I’m 99% sure you will) then I recommend looking at hiring a wetsuit. The four times Ironman World Champsion Chrissie Wellington borrowed a friend’s wetsuit for one of her early races. When she started swimming the suit was too big and began to flood with water, requiring her to be rescued by a safety vessel. If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone…
Some of you may be questioning why you need a wetsuit, there are a number of reasons you’ll find a wetsuit beneficial to your open water swimming:
This is the big one for myself and many other athletes, it’s simply impossible to drown in a wetsuit. Try swimming under water and you’ll see what I mean! If you get yourself into trouble, simply roll into your back to catch your breath and relax. From here you can flag down a safety vessel by waving your arm in the air.
Generally speaking triathletes are not cold water swimmers, this is compounded by the fact that we can be in the water for up to two hours which makes hypothermia a concern. By choosing the right wetsuit, the water actually helps keeps you warm by trapping a layer of cold water against the skin which then warms itself up to body temperature. The thickness of the wetsuit isn’t as important as it is for surfing wetsuits, sailing wetsuits or dry suits because of this, but a thicker wetsuit will keep you ever so slightly warmer, at the expense of flexibility (more on that later). If you really suffer in the cold like I do then consider investing in a wetsuit with heat reflective properties.
Neoprene creates less drag in the water than skin, so putting on a wetsuit improves the distance you travel with each stroke, as the water encounters less resistance. Wetsuit swimming is more hydrodynamic, but this can be offset by the increased resistance in shoulders.
Let’s be honest, the budget you have is a big factor when choosing a triathlon wetsuit. Confusion can stem from the price points though, why are some suits £120 and some suits closer to £700? Here’s what you get for your money:
1. Quality of materials
We’re not simply talking about neoprene here, some suits like the Orca OpenWater suit are a mixture of neoprene and fabric, which does not stretch as well as neoprene and will provide less flexibility. Once you move up to top end suits, most will use different grades of Yamamoto neoprene which range from 39 cell to 41 with cell counts providing more flexibility. The freedom you experience in a top end suit can’t be understated.
2. Thickness of Neoprene
This is somewhat counterintuitive, but the thinner wetsuits are more expensive. The thicker the neoprene the more buoyancy it provides, but the less flexible it is. As a result many top of the range suits will have thin neoprene (sometimes 0.75mm) in the shoulders and 5mm on the legs. This ensures that weaker swimmers get a better body position as it lifts the legs higher. Some suits are thin all over and designed for the total swimmer who does not want the extra buoyancy, such as the Orca Predator or the HUUB 4:4 suits.
It seems trivial, but the quality of lining in a wetsuit can make for a more comfortable swim with less chance of chafing, as well as being easier to remove.
4. Buoyancy Foam
No, I’m not joking, many wetsuit manufacturers have started incorporating foam into the legs of their wetsuits to lift an athlete’s legs up even higher in the water. This can be especially appealing for newer swimmers, or those who struggle to build an efficient leg kick in the water due to stiffness in their ankles or heavy, muscular legs.
5. Heat Retention
Some long distance specific suits such as the Zone 3 Victory D have coatings or panels designed to reflect lost body heat back to the wearer. This can be a real game changer for lightweight athletes such as myself who struggle in low temperatures, either due to body composition or lack of cold water acclimatisation.
6. Marginal Gains
From the breakaway zipper to catch panels and fabric areas on the forearm to help you feel the water better, top end suits will have all sorts of little technological developments in them that will make very little, if any difference to your swim. Triathlon wetsuits have turned into something of an arms race with each manufacturer pouring tens, if not hundreds of thousands into R&D to get the edge on competitors. My advice is not to get caught up in these details and focus instead on the suit that offers the best range of movement.
If you’re new to open water swimming I would actually advise against dropping too much on your first wetsuit, as you’ll no doubt end up putting your fingernail through it a few times, and you don’t know how well you’ll take to the sport. Most people will develop a lifelong love for it, but I’d hate for you to go over budget on a suit that you end up using less than a dozen times. By starting with something at a more sensible price point, when you upgrade further down the line it gives you one suit for training and one for racing.
Finding the Correct Fit
This is the most important bit to get right, the world’s most advanced wetsuit will not help you if it doesn’t fit, and you’ll be left either gasping for breath in a wetsuit that’s too small or slowly sinking in a wetsuit that is too large.
I cannot recommend going to a bricks and mortar triathlon retailer for a wetsuit strongly enough. Not only does it allow you to try numerous suits and brands on, it also allows for you to try different suits on back to back. You don’t want to have to be forced to buy a wetsuit that doesn’t fit because you don’t have time to return it before race day. I’m going to take you through how to put a wetsuit on properly as well as what to look for in a good fit.
To start with remove everything except your swimwear/trisuit and put on a pair of light gloves to avoid damaging the wetsuit. Some use the gloves before every swim, which I find slightly excessive, but it’s definitely worth doing when putting a suit on for the first time.
Unzip the wetsuit and step into it with the zip at the back. It will take a bit of wriggling to get your feet through, this is fine, if your leg goes in too easily it can be a sign that the suit is too big. If you’re having trouble here, try putting your foot in a plastic bag to reduce friction and avoid the possibility of your toenail going through the lovely box-fresh wetsuit.
Now your feet are sticking out of the bottom you need to lift the cuffs so they’re at the bottom of your calf muscle, rather than sitting on your ankle. The reason for this is we want as much flexibility in the shoulders as possible, we do this by moving all the material as far up the body as we reasonably can.
From here we pull the material from our lower body up towards our chest until everything is nice and tight downstairs, we don’t want any gaps between the suit and our skin or any rolls of neoprene
Next up place your arms through each of the sleeves- which will again be a bit of a struggle. Once your hands have made it through the sleeves it’s time to bring more material up from the chest towards the shoulders, without doing this it may be difficult to do the zip up. This follows the theme of moving any slack material up towards the shoulders. Below you can see a before and after of moving the slack from their legs, body and arms towards their shoulders.
Before moving material to shoulders, this swimmer will be heavily restricted in the water
After moving material towards shoulders, this swimmer’s arms hand freely by their side
By now you’ll be looking like an open water swimmer, whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate! Next up is the zip itself. I highly recommend getting someone else to zip you up. There’s less chance of the zip coming off in your hand this way, nobody wants to be stood at the swim start with their zipper on the floor and a cord in their hand.
Next up are a two more tests to ensure that the wetsuit fits, the first is to lift your arm straight above your head. Were you able to move it with very little resistance? Is the neoprene flush with your armpit in this position? If the answer is no, then you need to move more material towards the shoulders, this can be from the arms, chest or legs; grab some and move it towards your chest. You may be worried at this point about the cuffs moving further and further away from your hands/feet, this is not a problem at all and common in taller athletes. What’s far more important is that your arms have freedom of movement and your chest is not compressed.
Those with a stockier build may end up with excess material bunched around the legs and arms. This can be solved with a pair of scissors, cutting the cuff back by an inch or two. Many of you will gasp at horror at the thought of this, how could you take a pair of scissors to your brand new investment? Well, manufacturers have actually accommodated for this. Along the seam on the inside of the arm/leg cuffs of all wetsuits I’ve seen, you’ll find a piece of black tape running over the seam. You can cut the suit short up to this piece of tape without invalidating the warranty of the suit in most cases. It may be worth checking with the manufacturer before you do this just in case they have a different policy.
Assuming the arms are correct the next thing you want to check for is the small of the back, get somebody to see if they can grab a handful of neoprene, if they can the suit may be too large for you. Finally bend over at 90 degrees and get someone to check if an opening appears at the nape of your neck. If you have a large opening at the nape of your neck and a large space in the small of your back the chances are water will gush down from here and start filling your suit with large amounts of water, not ideal as it prevents the water inside the suit from warming up to body temperature.
As you will have noticed, this list is quite extensive, with lots of caveats and to make things even more difficult, you only truly know if a wetsuit fits you when you take it for its first swim. The chances are there will be a compromise in some aspect of the fit. I have a space in the small of my back due to the curvature of my spine despite wearing the smallest size available. Some people’s suits will have a neckline slightly higher than they’d like, others will find the ankles so tight it’s a fight to get it off every time. Do not feel that you have to tick every single box, as a wetsuit may not exist that works perfectly for you. As long as you have freedom of movement in your upper body, this is the single most important thing.
You can help yourself out here by picking the right brand for you as they all have a slightly different fit. Please note that the following is incredibly general, based purely on my opinion/experiences and about as unscientific as it gets, but it may help you save yourself going back and forth with different wetsuits. I’ll break it down brand by brand with the kind of swimmers the suits tend to suit. Listed in alphabetical order to avoid giving any brand preference.
BlueSeventy- These suit taller, slimmer swimmers as they have a higher neckline which tends to press into the Adam’s apple on shorter swimmers. The Helix is an incredibly popular suit.
Huub- A more generous fit than other suits, a popular choice with swimmers who come from a less athletic background. Large amounts of buoyancy in the legs of most of their models help those with sink legs. Many women find the fit of their suits better suited to the female figure than other manufacturers.
Orca- Popular with pool swimmers who tend to be blessed with broad shoulders, they also have the lowest neckline of any suit I’ve worn, I sold a lot of these suits to those who just couldn’t get on with other manufacturers.
Zone3- These suits are the closest I have ever found to an all round fit, if someone walked through the door with a general athletic figure I would normally steer them in the direction of the Zone 3 suits. The Aspire is probably the most popular triathlon wetsuit out there.
2XU- I don’t have a huge amount of experience with this brand, but you can’t do a shakedown of wetsuit manufacturers without including 2XU. These suits tend to fit taller, more athletic figures than other brands.
Zoot- I have not found their wetsuits to fit many people especially well, with the majority of people who tried the suits on encountering chafing under the arms. This was a couple of years ago now, so these issues may have since been addressed.
This is a list of the big players in the swimming wetsuit market, but that’s not to say they’re the only manufacturers. There are brands such as Sailfish, Roka and DHB, who whilst not quite as prevalent as the others in the UK, does not mean they are necessarily inferior suits. I personally have very little knowledge or experience of these suits so have decided not to cover them here as I don’t know enough about them, but they’re certainly worth checking out if you have the ability to try them on. Brands such as Gul, RipCurl and O’neil should be avoided however as they are surfing wetsuits and this means that not only will they come with a huge amount of restriction in the shoulders, they may well have panels of over 5mm which is against the regulations of every race series/governing body I have come across.
To conclude, here are some final bullet points:
It’s all about the fit, it’s better to have a cheaper, well fitting suit than a top end suit that chokes you or chafes.
Try to visit a triathlon retailer if you can. If you have to buy online it’s best to order a small selection of suits and return the ones that don’t fit.
Always take great care when trying on suits, if you put a hole through it while trying it on, the decision on which suit you’re buying will be made for you.
Go for the the snuggest fit you can that doesn’t restrict movement or breathing. Remember it will relax slightly in the water.
Always get someone else to zip you up, as I said earlier you don’t want the zipper to break off in your hand on race morning! Don’t be put off suits that require someone to help you zip up, as you should never be swimming in open water alone anyway.
Try on different brands, don’t just settle for the first one the salesperson brings out. I always used to allow 30 minutes for a wetsuit sale.
Don’t be temped by an ill fitting bargain, even if you’re only planning to use it once, you can always sell it onto someone else.
Choosing a triathlon wetsuit is a minefield but I hope this puts you in a well informed position to find the best wetsuit for you. If you are based in the home counties and anxious about your first open water swim, check out our coached sessions.
I’m bucking the trend here for a change, rather than a technical post on the details of triathlon, I’m writing this out of a sense of frustration of the messages that are peddled by major fitness brands, gyms, and some personal trainers; often preying on the fears and insecurities of people to sell their products. This post is the equivalent of a ski resort manager shouting at an avalanche to stop in its tracks, but I hope it has enough of an impact on those who read it to feel better about themselves, make informed decisions, and save themselves a lot of money. As a disclaimer, I’m going to be focusing on areas we can control with exercise, not wading into the world of anti ageing or plastic surgery as while I certainly have opinions on it, it’s well beyond my scope of understanding.
As a triathlon coach, I’ve never had anyone come to me with body related goals. Clients have said they’re carrying a bit of extra timber they’re looking to shift, but nobody has ever come to me saying they want to drop a dress size, hit a target weight or build muscle. Why might this be? While I can’t say for certain, I believe it’s because by the time athletes come to me they already run, cycle or swim, and have gained body confidence through this.
If you look at fitness models there is a very strong theme setting expectations for us, lots of people will look at the front cover of mainstream fitness magazines and believe that is what they should be aspiring to. However I want you to take a moment to think about watching the Olympics, think about a 100M runner compared to a marathon runner, a high jump athlete compared to a shot putter, a road cyclist compared to a track sprinter, a boxer compared to a marathon swimmer. Do you think the shot putter wants to look like the marathon runner? Does the cyclist lie awake at night wishing they looked like a boxer?
We all have things we aren’t 100% happy with about our bodies, but we need to remember that our body serves a purpose, and there is no perfect body. Do you think the cover star of a running magazine would last a round in the ring? Can a bodybuilder leg press as much as a track cyclist? No, these models are aspirational figures who have sculpted their bodies to match what will get them the gigs and Instagram followers they need, and they’ve shown remarkable dedication in doing so, but do you think they see themselves plastered across a centre spread and believe they look the a Greek god? No, the chances are they’re cringing at their small shoulder muscles, wishing they had more definition in their abs, it becomes a game of whack a mole where they’re constantly shifting their training to give them the body they want, and who am I to judge them if it makes them happy and earns them a living?
However, not all of us have the time or the body type to meet these stereotypes. I’ve been careful not to point fingers at anyone or use any images so far as I don’t want it to seem like I’m shaming or bullying anyone, but there is someone I feel I’m in a position to judge and rip it out of mercilessly.
So here I am taking part in my last middle distance triathlon, is this an image you’ll ever find in a magazine? No it’s not for various reasons, but I’m sure you can all see I’m in possession of a fine pair of noodle arms. However, those who know about triathlon will notice that I’m the only person in this shot which is unusual, that’s because I was in third place at this point.
Yes I have some of the skinniest arms you’ll ever see, but I still managed to swim faster than the vast majority of other swimmers, and can get round a 1900M swim course quicker than 99.9% of the population. So do I really need to worry about getting bigger biceps? By sitting in the gym and doing bicep curls I would gain some extra muscle definition, the ladies might like it, but it would slow me down on the bike as I’d be carrying extra weight, for an extremely small benefit in the swim. So should I be ashamed of my skinny arms? They propelled me to 3rd place out of the water, they were some of the finest arms in Lincolnshire that day!
The point I want to push home is to focus on functionality, worry less about what your body looks like, and worry more about what it can do. If you want to feel better about your body, start training it to do something exceptional that you can be proud of, rather than worrying about what it looks like in the mirror.
However when I was 21 and I did no exercise do you think I looked in the mirror and was proud of my body? Absolutely not, it was the result of a process, here are a few guides to making the most of this process:
‘You are what you eat’, is the phrase parroted by nutritionists, personal trainers and mums across the world, however there are few things people over complicate more than nutrition. The golden rule here is everything in moderation, don’t think of good foods and bad foods, think of good diets and bad diets. Don’t get drawn into the hype surrounding different diets and the pseudo science surrounding them, you don’t need to worry about micro analysing your diet unless you are looking to perform at a VERY high (world class) level.
The key to a healthy diet is quite simple, eat 5 portions of fresh fruit and veg a day, don’t go overboard on the saturated/trans fats, cut out the fast food and ensure you are getting some protein in every meal. If you tie yourself into a strict diet you’ll find yourself lacking energy and willpower to train, which will have a far greater impact on speed on race day. If you consider yourself to be overweight this should solve itself with training, which brings me to my next point.
Developing a healthy relationship with exercise
Do you despise getting out of bed at 5AM for a 6AM gym class? Do you hate every moment of your weekly run? Is there anywhere you’d rather be than sat in an air conditioned gym pumping iron? Then do yourself a favour and find something you enjoy. If you dread something you’ll find any excuse not to do it, and you’ll never find a way to improve. When I first started swimming in 2012 I had a terrible time of things, I panicked in my first events, coming out of the water in the bottom 10%, but I enjoyed it and wanted to improve, I kept chipping away until in 2018 I won my first swimming event.
So don’t expect instant success in what you do, but if you enjoy the process the results will follow. Take time off when your body tells you to, make an effort to be social in your chosen sport, and you’ll turn into what you used to refer to as a “fitness freak”, which in hindsight was simply someone with a passion and drive for something beyond Netflix and beer. Enjoy the process and the results will follow.
Don’t get sucked in by marketing
Selling products that promise a shortcut to your dream body is like shooting fish in a barrel. people will spend huge amounts of money on supplements, equipment and recovery products endorsed by social media influencers that do very little beyond lighten your wallet, they prey on those with little time and a high disposable income. I’m not saying these products are useless, but they’re no substitute for hard work. You can’t spend 30 minutes spinning away on the gym bikes, take a wonder supplement and expect to see results. Brands like to over complicate simple things to trick you into buying their products, there is nothing their products do that real food can’t, you’re paying for the convenience and marketing.
Don’t track weight
Weight fluctuates a lot on a day to day as well as hour to hour basis. Weighing yourself first thing in the morning after using the toilet compared to straight after dinner can yield very different results, I once weighed in at 49KG the day after a very hot triathlon!
Weight doesn’t take muscle mass into account either, you can be making great improvements in your fitness yet actually gaining weight due to an increase in muscle mass. It’s much more inspiring to dip under 30 minutes for 5K or to cycle 20 miles for the first time than to become a slave to the bathroom scales.
If you really want to track your weight, use a system such as Boditrax, which I use intermittently out of curiosity. The below reading tells you all you need to know about using weight as a way to track fitness.
If I was just looking at the bathroom scales I would see that I’d gained half a kilo, this would be incredibly disappointing considering the amount of training I’d been doing, but look a little closer, my fat percentage has dropped and my muscle mass has increased, I weigh more because I have more muscle mass.
To conclude, the way to improve your body confidence is to make the most of it, to do things you never thought possible, and see your body for what it is, a powerful tool rather than a mannequin.
Aerobic and anaerobic are two words that many in the endurance coaching world including myself bound around on a daily basis, yet for the aspiring triathlete these can cause confusion at first.
The terms refer to how the body generates energy, imagine a six year old at sports day, belting across the school field towards the finishing line. When they finish their run they will likely be breathing heavily, exhausted from the 25M sprint they have just completed. When they move into secondary school and start running the 1500 on the track and cross country they soon realise something, if they want to run longer distances they have to slow down.
Once they run longer distances at a lower intensities they are not nearly as out of breath at the end of the effort. They may be exhausted and collapse in a heap with sore legs and no energy left, but their lungs will not burn in the same way as before, they will not be recovering from what is known as an oxygen debt.
The reason you experience an oxygen debt after short efforts is due to the body relying primarily on its anaerobic system heavily for short, hard efforts, this is where your body creates energy without oxygen. I won’t go into the science of how it works here, but what you need to know is that the anaerobic system can only function for around 2 minutes before the athlete accumulates a large oxygen debt and has to slow dramatically, this is our fight or flight reaction that allows us to escape from danger. Many predators in the animal kingdom rely on their anaerobic system heavily as they sprint after prey, if the gazelle manages to slip from the cheetahs grasp or zig zag enough to tire the cheetah, it can avoid becoming lunch as the cheetah has created an enormous oxygen debt it must recover from, akin to the six year old who has sprinted full pelt over a short distance and has nothing left at the end.
On the other side of the equation we have aerobic fitness, this is energy created using oxygen. This is much more efficient and is one of the leading reasons for our dominance as a species, where our prey relied predominantly on their anaerobic system to escape danger, we were able to keep them in sight and slowly run them into exhaustion as they were unable to hold the pace that we were over longer distances.
As triathletes we are focused almost entirely upon the aerobic system, as it is very rare that we will be putting the hammer down and become predominantly anaerobic when racing even a sprint distance triathlon as we will need time to recover from this effort. The exception to this is in draft legal triathlon where you may launch an attack off the front of the pack to try to bridge to the next group, which upon joining you will be able to sit in the wheels of for a minute or so while your body recovers from the oxygen debt.
This is the reason that so much triathlon training is done at an “all day” pace, to ensure we are building and strengthening our aerobic system and not our anaerobic system. The mistake that many athletes make is doing all of their training way too fast and making very little headway on the aerobic development side of things. You may be able to run a very quick 5K, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a great marathon experience, I can vouch for that one personally!
This is where things get confusing, I am a fairly gifted anaerobic athlete, I can push myself harder and go deeper than many others over shorter periods, but tend to suffer over especially long efforts. Normally when I mention that I have a strong anaerobic system and that 5K is my best distance to an athlete a metaphorical finger is waved in my face. “Aha! But a 5K is over 2 minutes, so it’s not an anaerobic effort”. This is of course true, but what people don’t always realise is that your body is never generating energy on a 100% aerobic or anaerobic basis. If that were the case a 100M sprinter could run with his mouth gaffer taped shut and still hit the same time as his rivals.
Anaerobic energy is created in addition to the energy that is being generated aerobically, you are using anaerobically generated energy while reading this. It is only an incredibly tiny fraction of the energy being created (think several decimal places), but is it ticking over like a pilot light, ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice.
To illustrate this more clearly here is a graph created using WKO4 (more information here) that visualises the energy systems used by an athlete at different timeframes. The data is collated using the athlete’s best performances at the time periods listed on the X axis, with the maximum power than can sustain for that period on the Y axis. I use these graphs to help athletes gain a better understanding of their individual physiologies to help us understand where we need to focus our training effort.
Today we want to focus on the green and the blue lines, the green line represents aerobic contribution, the blue line anaerobic. If we start to the left of the chart we can see that at 1 second there is very little contribution from the aerobic system as the body has not started increasing the rate at which it pumps oxygen to the muscles yet, but using glycosides the body can create energy within the muscles and get us moving immediately. As we look closer towards the 10 second mark the aerobic system is really starting to get up to speed now, additional oxygen has been absorbed from the lungs and is being pumped to the muscles to get them fired up.
For this athlete, it is at one minute 6 seconds that the crossover occurs, and the aerobic system takes over as the primary fuel source. The aerobic system has fuel, it can continue indefinitely for as long as it has fuel, the anaerobic system making a tiny contribution that can increase on hills or when accelerating hard.
Looking at the 20 minute data point, the anaerobic system is still contributing 10W of power, which is still a respectable amount, I’m sure if this athlete saw their FTP drop by 10W they would be mortified. Remember, this is looking at the athlete’s best 20 minute effort, not all 20 minute efforts use such a proportion of the anaerobic system.
Going back to the graph, it would look very different for a track sprinter compared to a time trialist (which this athlete is classified as). In a sprinter the anaerobic system would make a much greater contribution, it would continue for much longer before the intersection with the aerobic system as sprinters need to hold maximum power for as long as possible. Their aerobic system will be very weak comparatively and they would struggle to keep up on a gentle Sunday club run as a result.
So now we’ve gone through the science, let’s have a look at the takeaway points, and how a better understanding of the two energy systems can aid your training:
-There is no benefit to developing your anaerobic system for most triathletes. I know an extremely successful athlete who has raced at Kona, yet claims he can’t sprint for toffee (never seen him sprint so can’t confirm this). He doesn’t need to train or develop his anaerobic system, he’s happy to let it fall by the wayside almost entirely to focus entirely on his aerobic system. That’s not to say that he won’t start leaning on anaerobic pathways during some sessions (such as hill reps), but the goal of these sessions is to develop muscular force, not to increase anaerobic ability although this may come as a byproduct.
-You’re never completely aerobic or anaerobic, the body is always using both, even if in very small amounts. Your anaerobic threshold is where you start to produce energy primarily from the anaerobic pathway and should be avoided for the majority of your sessions
-Avoid using large amounts of anaerobic energy in your training. It feels good as it leaves you feeling more fatigued, and changes in your anaerobic system are faster to gain and easier to track than gains in your aerobic system (“I’m 5 seconds faster up that hill!”), but are of little use to the vast majority of triathletes when it comes to race day. I know I’ve certainly fallen foul of this one in the past.
-Many fitness tests require you to use large proportions of anaerobic energy, as triathletes we are not testing you for improvements in these areas, rather trying to assess your current weighting between aerobic/anaerobic energy sources. If an athlete puts out the same amount of watts over a set period as his previous best but the anaerobic contribution is lower then the previous test, this will result in an increase in FTP when uploaded to WKO4.
I hope this has given you a better understanding of the role that aerobic and anaerobic pathways play in endurance sport, leave any questions in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.
WKO4 is a complex piece of software that allows me as a coach to analyse my athlete’s data in unprecedented detail. It uses a powerful mathematical model to calculate metrics that allow for much more accurate training, by giving an accurate estimation of your FTP as it changes over time as well as providing us with individualised training zones along with new ways to review data and track progress.
It’s easy for me to get caught up in the science and mathematics, so I’ll try to keep it simple to give you an idea of the benefits of training with us and how it can help develop you as an athlete.
Power Duration Curve
This is the heart of WKO4, it takes data from millions of points over the last 90 days to give an estimation of how much power an athlete is capable of producing at different timeframes. Taking this example of my own sorry excuse for training in the previous 90 days, you can see two lines, the yellow line and the red curve.
The yellow line is my Mean Maximal Power, the maximum power I can hold for any duration, you can see some definite drops at points where you can see I haven’t given it any good data beyond that point until it meets the next drop, this is very common towards the end of the power duration curve.
The red line is the model that WKO4 has created, estimating what it believes I can achieve by filling in some of the blanks and looking at my physiology. You can see it doesn’t have much raw data (yellow) for between 15 minutes and 1 hour, but it looks at all the data I have given it and gives me the benefit of the doubt, if I were to do some hard riding in this time period it would give me a more accurate number, whether this lowers or raises my FTP is not important to me, the most important thing is ensuring my zones are correct so I’m training in the right zones and stimulating the right energy systems.
You can also see several white lines moving from left to right, these help give me a good idea of my strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t even consider me to have a ‘recreational’ level sprint and I haven’t done any big power work in the last 90 days, however it classifies my 10-30 minute power as “excellent”. This does not compare my wattage to other riders, but rather looks at my W/KG, how many watts I can output for each kilogram of bodyweight. The curve clearly shows that my sprint power is a weakness, but I’m training for an Ironman, it’s not a limiter to my performance and my focus is elsewhere as a result.
This stands for modelled FTP, and gives you one of, if not the most accurate idea of what your FTP is. Many people believe FTP is the highest power you can hold for an hour, which has resulted in several slightly masochistic riders going out and riding as hard as they can for an hour to get their FTP number. The alternative to this is the vastly more popular 20 minute test which I have previously used, but moved away from in favour of using WKO4’s mFTP, there are two reasons for this.
Firstly the highest power you can hold for an hour is an over simplification which has taken root in road cycling at every level, however this is not an absolute value, and has only ever been described as an estimate, the definition of mFTP that exercise physiologists use is *deep breath*
“The maximum power you can hold in a quasi steady state without fatiguing”
This can range from approximately 30 minutes to 70 minutes and is expressed in WKO4 as TTE, or time to exhaustion. The eagle eyed among you may notice that my TTE is currently very low, which informs me this is a weakness and something I need to address.
The 20 minute test is also flawed in that it takes 95% of your 20 minute power and calls this your new FTP, however for many this isn’t the case. For 70% of athletes this may be accurate, however for 15% they may need to take 97% of that figure, and the other 15% may need 93%. mFTP removes the guesswork from FTP calculations as rather than looking at a singe data point (your highest 20 minute power value) it looks at millions of data points from all of your riding to calculate your mFTP.
The lack of formal testing will come as a welcome relief to many, including myself. I can’t think of any athlete who has ever come to me and relished in these 20 minute efforts, they tend to dread these tests and they result in long recovery periods as the athlete is totally cooked. Last year I worked with a very strong athlete who I helped qualify for the World Championships that I remember building himself up for a 20 minute FTP test. He had the goal of hitting a certain number, worked out what power he’d need to hold for the 20 minutes to achieve this figure and guess what? He hit that number. The figure was a good result, but could he have gone harder? Or was it only the target he had set himself that got him through the test to hit that number? There’s also the issue with pacing, it takes a number of tests to give you a true understanding of how hard you can push yourself in those 20 minutes.
That’s not to say that we don’t do any testing, like any mathematical model, the more data you feed it the better the data it outputs, for this reason we ask athletes to perform a series of tests to give us a baseline at the start of the year to give us accurate numbers. I am writing this in early January in the middle of testing myself, once the initial tests have been completed (5 minute, 20 minute, 1 minute and 15 seconds) we then look to maintain these values over the year, using charts such as this one to identify where we need to give the curve more information:
The software is asking the athlete for more information at the 2 second, 52 second and 1:29 point to give it more information. Timing a 2 second test seems almost impossible, and a 1:30 test seems unnecessarily stressful to me, so in this situation I would give the athlete a 52 second test and leave it there, as the 1:30 and 2 second data points will populate themselves over time.
This is short for individualised levels, and represents the training zones recommended by the WKO4 model for different intensities, taking into account each athlete’s individual characteristics.
If we take two athletes with an identical FTP, but one of them is focusing on sprint triathlons and the other on Ironman, they will have very different power duration curves. WKO4 takes this into account and ensures that each athlete is working at the correct intensity to provoke the desired training effect, as opposed to the one size fits all approach that is used by most others, including the primary TrainingPeaks website. To combat this I spend time every week updating athlete’s iLevels on TrainingPeaks to ensure they match those on WKO4.
Many of you will be familiar with terms such as “tempo” “sweetspot” and “threshold” but the exact meaning of these may be unfamiliar to you, for many they are simply terms used to express how hard they feel they are pushing. The traditional 5 power zones are active recovery, endurance, tempo, threshold and sprint, but with WKO4 these are expanded to include:
Zone 1: Active Recovery
0-56% of FTP
This is the zone you will find yourself in when resting between intervals or if things have gone wrong in a race (happens to the best of us!). In this zone you’re riding, but you’re not really generating much of a training effect, so we aim for at least zone 2 in our longer workouts.
Zone 2: Endurance
56-76% of FTP
As a triathlete this is where you will spend the vast majority of your time. It’s not exciting, it’s not sexy and it can be dull, but it’s necessary for a strong aerobic foundation that allows us to race harder for longer on the big day itself. This should feel manageable and you should be able to sustain it for at least 2.5 hours. You can never have enough base fitness, but once you are able to ride for several hours with minimal changes in your heart rate it’s time to develop our training. As you can see this is quite a large range of your FTP, meaning it is easier to sit in this zone than other, which is a good thing as you’ll be spending a lot of time here!
Zone 3: Tempo
76-88% of FTP
This zone is where things start to get serious, some athletes will be able to stay here for an hour or two, others for up to eight hours, it depends on how well trained you are and more importantly the type of training you have been doing. This is the zone in which very well trained athletes will spend the majority of their Ironman 70.3 bike leg. However just because you can ride 90KM at tempo doesn’t mean it should be your goal for the race, as you still need to be able to run off the bike.
Zone 4: Sweetspot
88-95% of FTP
This is a great zone to sit in if you’re looking to boost your FTP, as for many road cyclists a high FTP is a badge of honour, something for them to brag about at the cafe stop. However as triathletes we use our FTP to base our race efforts off of, and it is as important for us to extend the time we can spend at FTP as increasing the number itself. As a result we spend less time training at sweet spot than road cyclists, but it still makes a frequent occurrence in the build period.
Zone 5: FTP
95-105% of FTP
This is your threshold value, or thereabouts. Sitting in this zone hurts, and you won’t spend much time here, nor will we train here for extended periods very often as the fatigue accumulated is significant, sweet spot is a much more economical way of boosting our FTP and resistance to fatigue.
Zone 6: FTP/FRC
This is the crossover point between our threshold and FRC, more details below
Zone 7: FRC
Your Functional Reserve Capacity looks at the amount of energy you can create while working above threshold, which is traditionally anaerobically. This is of little interest to us as non drafting triathletes as we don’t need to sprint or attack on the bike, so we rarely train in this zone.
Zone 8: FRC/PMAX
This is the crossover point between our FRC and PMAX, more details below
Zone 9: PMAX
This is the absolute maximum, or neuromuscular power we can generate in one complete revolution of the crack arms. Generally speaking efforts in this zone last for less than 10 seconds, the only time we should be in this zone is during fitness testing or potentially for a couple of seconds if we launch a blistering attack in a draft legal race.
This is only scratching the surface of the capabilities of WKO4, I have been using the software myself for a year, experimenting with it and playing around with the charts myself before I gained the confidence to start applying it confidently to my athletes. While its primary function is allowing us to monitor, and develop bike power, it also looks at pedalling effectiveness, aerobic development, fatigue resistance, provides you with a season review, power balance, the list goes on and that only covers the cycling side of things, there are a huge number of graphs for running and swimming.
If you wish to learn more about how we implement WKO4 in our training programmes, E-mail Simon@phazontriathlon.com for more information.