Choosing a Triathlon Wetsuit

As we move into late spring the open water season is starting. Water temperatures are now in the double digits and the lakes/lidos are starting to open to the public. It is also the time of year when novice triathletes will look to purchase their first wetsuit, which can be a very daunting and confusing choice.

I spent two years working in triathlon retail where I fitted hundreds of customers into 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 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:

Buoyancy

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, flagging down a safety vessel if required.

Warmth

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. A well-fitting swimming wetsuit 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.

Hydrodynamics

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. The very best open water swimmers will swim faster in a wetsuit purely for this reason.

Price Point

Let’s be honest, the budget you have for your wetsuit is going to play a huge factor in your decision. 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 to ensure that weaker swimmers get a better body position. 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. When we talk about less buoyancy in these suits, you won’t find yourself in any danger of sinking, but your legs won’t float on the surface in the same way.

3. Lining

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.

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Cuffs too close to ankle
Good Ankles
Correct suit height

 

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

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Grab handfuls of material and move it towards your shoulders

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. Again, 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.

 

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, as 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.

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Here the wetsuit is so taught it is restricting the swimmer from lifting their arm above their head. It’s difficult to make out from the photo, but there is 4-5 inches between the suit and armpit
Good Armpit
Here the material has been worked from the wrist towards the shoulders, allowing for a snug fit with the neoprene flush to the armpit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 and, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Other brands
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.

Finally; the swim causes so much anxiety in athletes that you don’t need an ill fitting suit to add to the stress on the day. If you’re anxious about getting started in open water why not join one of our coached sessions at Shepperton Open Water? Secure your place here: Open Water Swimming

 

Understanding Your Annual Training Plan (ATP)

When you begin training with us here at Phazon Triathlon, one of the first things we do is create your Annual Training Plan, or ATP. This is a framework which we use to base your training off of, so you can understand decisions we make and can see how your training will progress over the year. However the acronyms and numbers can be confusing so I wanted to take some time to explain the meaning of all the figures you see to help you better understand and use your ATP.

For this example I will be using an ATP I have just written myself for the 2019 season, here is a screen grab for you.

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As you can see, there is a lot of information squeezed into a screen here, so let me talk you through what it all means.

The most attention grabbing part of the screen is the chart at the top with various colours of lines and bars. The most important of these is the big blue shaded area that fills the majority of the screen. this is my CTL, or critical training load, which simply put is how fit I will be at that time of year. I am currently sitting on a figure of 44 and am forecast to hit 99 before IRONMAN UK in July. Notice however that the line is not a straight line, it levels off and even drops at points, this is because I need easy weeks for my body to recover, continually building fitness throughout the year is a sure way to burnout.

The mustard coloured shaded area is my form, this is how race ready I will be, as you can see here it peaks in two periods during the year, for my A races. When we train we add fatigue which impacts on our form, we must lower the training load for our form to increase, a process known as tapering.

Our training load for each week is represented by the vertical bars, these are the TSS targets I have set myself for each week. As I complete each week these will become shaded to tell me whether I have missed, hit, or overshot my target for the week. The blue and yellow dotted lines will also start to move around, these represent my actual fitness and fatigue, I can use this to see whether they are closely corresponding to the shaded areas, and whether I’m on track. As you can see from this screen grab I was slightly below target for my first week of the preparation phase, but I didn’t miss it by much and it will make next to no difference to my performance on race day.

What may confuse those of us new to the sport are the period names at the bottom of the chart, these are preparation, Base 1, Base 2, Base 3, Build 1, Build 2, Peak, Race and Transition.

Preparation
This is a very relaxed phase of the training, these is much less in the way of structure here, the only really structured work taking place in the gym where we begin the anatomical adaptation phase (more on this later). Why would you have phase of unstructured training you may ask, especially if you’re feeling apprehensive about your event. Triathlon training is tough, it takes a lot of time and energy to train for these events, it takes a toll on the body and the mind in equal measure. With the preparation phase we give new athletes a chance to get their head around working with a coach, and give experienced athletes a chance to wind themselves back to up to full tilt.

Base 1

The purpose of this period changes depending on your level of experience, if you are a rookie triathlete you will spend this time moving to a more structured programme, focusing on improving aerobic endurance and your speed skills (technique). If however you are an experienced triathlete and are confident in the gym there is a big focus on weights at this stage to build our maximal strength, this allows us to swim, bike and run faster while also preventing injuries. We also use this time to work on our speed skills, primarily our swimming technique.

Base 2
We continue the theme of building on our endurance and speed skills here, stepping back from the heavy gym work to allow us to focus more on our aerobic endurance and speed skills. Lifting big weights is an effective way to improve your performance, but it has an effect on your ability to swim, bike and run in the following days so is generally consigned to the Base 1 period.

Base 3
This is the period you will spend most of your time in, for the rookie athlete who may just be looking to get round their event, the rest of the year may be spent in base 3. For those who are looking to build speed we will repeat this phase until we are 8-12 weeks out of our first A race, so depending on when you start your season dictates how many times you will repeat base 3. You will also return to base 3 after an A race if you have enough time, and will return to base 3 if you have more than a few days off of training at any point in the build phase.

Build 1
This is where we focus almost entirely on muscular endurance work, extending the periods for which you can maintain your threshold and race pace efforts, the exact contents of this phase depend on the distance you are training for, for Ironman athletes it will involve longer workouts set at or around race pace where for short course athletes it will involve much more in the way of speed work. Either way, as we get closer to our race our training must better reflect the demands of race day.

Build 2
This is simply a repeat of the Build 1, but normally with a slightly higher TSS target, the focus remains on muscular endurance with less time spend on long easy workouts.

Peak
This is also known as your taper, the time in the year where we back off of the hard training and allow our body to recover to become race fit. Remember how the orange shaded area (my form) shot up as we approached the races? That’s because I back off training then and my body reaches peak fitness. Training doesn’t make us stronger, anyone who tells you they feel stronger after a long run is telling your porkies, it’s the period after our training where our body repairs itself that we become stronger, a period of peaking (1-2 weeks) ensures our body is well rested and as strong as it can be for race day, you don’t want any lingering fatigue from your training as you line up at the start.

Race
Self explanatory, it’s race week! Very little training, with a focus on intensity one volume to ensure we’re raring to go when we wake up on race day.

Transition
This is a period of rest after an A race, where we take a well deserved rest. You can still train at this point, but it should only be for fun. This is a great time to try other sports and just generally enjoy being active.

Going through every phase is a very lengthy process and so can only be achieved two or three times a year. In an ideal world I would have longer between my A races but as Bolton is relatively easy in the season I couldn’t get a warm up 70.3 in any earlier without travelling to the Southern Hemisphere.

This leads us onto B and C priority races, currently I only have one other event on the cards, my club championship 5K race. I want to perform relatively well to take back my title from 2015, but I’ll be in the base period at the time and I can’t afford to take too much time out to prepare for it, so I’ll perhaps do a few 5K specific workouts in the days before, have a rest day on the Saturday, and see where it takes me. As I’m organising some training around it, this makes it a B race. The final category is a C race which is normally a race entered with friends, to gain experience, or just for fun. They are treated just like a hard workout with no preparation beforehand.

So now we’ve  prioritised our races, and have split our year up into periods, the next step is setting our training volume, which I set as a TSS value for you. This is where things start to become more personalised, TrainingPeaks has an algorithm which can split the year into periods for you and you can set a target CTL, it will do the maths and hand you an automated ATP.

You may have been doing some reading and heard that a CTL of 95 is recommended for an Ironman, so you put a target CTL of 95 in and get cracking with your training. The problem being that you may be a rookie athlete training for their first Ironman and there is no way you can hit those numbers, either you’ll burn out in the first few weeks or even worse you’ll succumb to complete over training later in the season, sidelining you for the rest of the year. You may also be an athlete who recovers more slowly and your recovery weeks need to be easier than TrainingPeaks’ algorithm allows for. By analysing your training history and asking questions we can start to put target TSS values together for you to ensure your TSS targets are realistic. We don’t work to a target CTL for your A race, we instead start by inputting numbers we believe you can maintain, increase them steadily through the year and see what our final CTL value is. If it’s too low we see how training goes and will consider increasing the volume in the weeks and months that follow.

At this point it is worth remembering that the human body is not a mathematical equation, people have got round Ironman races with far less than 95CTL points, and if that’s all you’re looking to achieve then there’s no need to sacrifice your social life upon the altar of triathlon to hit an arbitrary number. These figures are great for helping us to track progress, but they are not the be all and end all.

CTL is probably the most important number, but what we also need to take into consideration is how we increase the number, and for that the form number is an underrated tool to help us ensure we are making improvements and not stagnating. Your form number can sit in the following brackets:

25+ should only be reached in times of transition, or a total rest from training, or perhaps if an athlete is injured and unable to train.

+5 to +25 is the range many will aim to hit for race day. A higher number isn’t always better as you also lose some frying from your legs, and run the risk of feeling empty on race day.

+5 to -10 is a bit of a great area, and where a lot of untouched athletes will sit, they’re certainly doing some training, but probably not enough to illicit enough of a training response for them to get enough to see significant fitness gains. Athletes will often find themselves in this zone on easy weeks.

-10 to -30 is the optimal zone to sit in for a good training effect, you can’t stay here forever as it’ll start to fatigue you, but this is where the best gains are made.

below -30 is the high risk zone where you run a very real risk of overtraining. If you find yourself on the wrong side of -30 which can happen to the best of us sometimes, you need to lift and coast, reducing volume, perhaps even taking an unplanned rest day if you feel you need it. Spending too much time at this level of fatigue can cause long term problems to both your performance and health.

My CTL is set to peak at 99, which is a good CTL for someone looking to perform well at an Ironman race, however the chances of me reaching that exact number are incredibly slim. I may start the build period and feel I’m having to hold back to hit my weekly targets, in which case I could try kicking everything up by 25 TSS points a week, which would give me a CTL closer to 110. By the same token, I may crash my bike on some ice in February and have a week with little to no training, which means I’ll have to readjust my targets.

This is an important point, your ATP is not set in stone, it’s incredibly rare (possibly unknown) for someone to make it through an entire year hitting every target as life happens. Business trips are sprung on you, your kids may become unwell, your bike may have to wait a long time for essential spares, a lot can get between you and your perfect season of training, but the good thing is that an ATP is pretty flexible. Phases can be reassigned, targets can be adjusted and even your target races changed, the important thing is it ensures that we are both on the same page.

Next up is weekly limiters, this is where the experience of a coach and their knowledge of you as an athlete really comes into play as we make each week specific to you.

Using myself as an example, I can break each sport down into strengths and weaknesses to show how an ATP can be curated to each individual athlete

Swimming
I know that as an athlete two primary areas are limiting me in the swim, my technique and my force, or more importantly the application of force which is intrinsic with technique. I can comfortably swim well over 4KM so endurance is not a huge concern for me, but enhancing the speed that I can hold for longer durations is important. This year my focus is going to be primarily on technique with an additional focus on force (improved by using paddles), with muscular endurance and endurance taking a backseat for now. As I live in London where the weather is not conclusive to year round open water swimming I swim exclusively in the pool until April/May at the very earliest as the lakes start to open. Therefore my plan is to focus on technique and force work in the pool, before taking to the open water in the spring and applying the gains I have made in the pool into the open water whilst building me endurance to ensure I can still comfortably swim 4K at my improved pace.

Cycling
I have come to acknowledge in recent months that my aerobic fitness is just not where it should be, and I struggle to replicate my success in short course racing over longer distances, with this in mind my focus throughout most of the year will be on endurance. You may notice that I include some muscular endurance work during the base period which is doesn’t fit in with traditional periodisation. This is because the weather in the UK can be very inconclusive to outdoor riding due to the freezing temperatures and torrential rainstorms we experience, and I don’t have the time to sit on the turbo for three hours every time I want to ride. By introducing muscular endurance work on the turbo this is a way for me to ensure I keep improving when I don’t have enough time to build my endurance. When the weather starts to improve in April/May the focus will shift away from muscular endurance and almost fully towards endurance when I can get regular long rides done on my TT bike out on the open roads. This is known as reverse periodisation, and is a method I have used to great success with my athletes in the past, as it still follows the golden rule of periodisation, the closer you get to race day the closer your training should resemble racing, and when your aim is to ride 180KM, leaving the really long rides to the end of the year makes sense.

Running
My main limiter in running is injury, so the focus is almost entirely on improving force (specifically exercises building my hamstrings/glutes) and endurance runs. I know I have top end speed in spades but struggle over longer distances so the priority is to become injury free to allow me to train for longer at higher speeds. This is achieved by increasing volume and intensity gently, with much less work on speed.

You can see here the adjustments that need to be made to an ATP even for an experienced athlete to make the most out of their training and make it specific to them. The limiters field also includes the ability to schedule tests in advance, ensuring that our threshold values stay consistent and are not outdated, resulting in inefficient training.

The final part of our ATP to decipher is our strength period, there are three options here, anatomical adaptation, maximal strength and strength maintenance. Anatomical adaptation is when we start working in the gym with light weights and a high number of reps, maximal strength is when we start to lower the reps and increase the weight for some high reward strength training. For the rest of the year we focus on strength maintenance which will involve weekly visits to the gym to ensure we do not lose the strength gains we made in the winter.

I hope this has given you the tools you need to understand the importance of having an ATP as well as helping you understand some of the jargon that is attached to your ATP. If you wish to improve your knowledge of periodisation and the way each phase of training contributes to your fitness, I recommend picking up the most recent edition of Joe Friel’s “Triathlete’s Training Bible) which this article was influenced heavily by. If you are interested in having a bespoke ATP made up for you, why not head to our apply page to begin your coaching journey.

The 2018 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships

After one of my athletes qualified for the 70.3 World Chamopinsip in Port Elizabeth at Edinburgh on the 1st July, in a haze of excitement I told him that I’d go out there with him, the race was his hometown and it was his dream come true to race there. As he was the first athlete I had trained to qualify for a world championship, it seemed like a good opportunity to see a part of the world I’d heard so much about.

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In the days preceding the event I made the most of the local area, going on Safari, checking out some of the local history and getting escorted out of a park because it was too dangerous to be there on my own, but before I knew it Thursday had come around and the event programme was kicking off, starting with the parade of nations.

This is a traditional event held in the days preceding world championships where countries line up under their country’s flags and engage in a parade with their compatriots, complete with commentary from the race announcers.

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The Parade of Nations arrived on Hobi beach, impossible to capture the scale of it in a single photo.

The biggest country by some margin was the USA, but Great Britain, South Africa, Germany and Australia also bought their fair share of athletes to the event dubbed “The fiercest race in the friendliest city”. The parade made its way through the Boardwalk area where the event was based, and towards Hobi beach where the race finished. Several thousand athletes converged on the seafront to hear speeches from the top brass on the World Triathlon Corporation (who own Ironman), as well as being treated to some traditional African music by a choir.

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The Welcome Banquet, well half of it! 

This was followed fairly soon after by the welcome banquet. My roommate who had his possessions stolen in London finally joined us in time for the food, which was surprisingly good quality and followed by a welcome ceremony and series of (mercifully)  short speeches by a series of dignitaries, including the shortest ever speech by a politician courtesy of the newly elected mayor of Nelson Mandella Bay, who has been in the job for two days after a vote of no confidence in his predecessor. The oldest competitor was bought onto the stage, and was asked what kept bringing her back. After an evening of people predictably towing the corporate line it was amusing to see the borderline chaos that broke out when she replied simply with “stupidity”.

The next day had an altogether different feel, the women’s race was taking part on the Saturday so everything was much more subdued as people started to get their race face on. The expo was busy with people buying last minute nutrition and spares (hopefully not temped into buying some bling piece of kit they planned to use on the day of the race) and the practice swim was looking very busy.  I had a go myself and was amazed at the clarity of the water, as well as the speed at which I was overtaken at a couple of points, I was certainly swimming with the sharks!

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On race morning itself we were treated to the most incredible sunrise over the beach as the Ironman machine was in full swing, dozens of safety craft in the water booming music and the very best athletes in the world warming up in the water, I’m pretty sure it gave everybody present goosebumps at one point or another. The pros received a traditional blessing before the start, then when the cannon went they sprinted into the ocean as I sprinted over to the swim exit for a good view of the leaders.

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The pro women line up to the sound of African drums

Lucy Charles was first out of the water in a time of 23 minutes followed by Fenella Landridge who I met in Johannesburg airport and spent a few hours chatting with. I thought she had an amazing swim, which she did, but it turns out she managed to gap the field so impressive by body surfing a wave into shore, giving her 5 seconds on the main pack, impressive!

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Lucy Charles is out of the water with one of the biggest leads I’ve ever seen at Ironman racing

Onto the bike course Lucy Charles and Daniella Ryf made it clear that it was a two horse race for the win, both averaging the best part of 40KPH for the 90KM, admittedly with a tailwind that appeared on the way back but most of us are happy to see 40KPH appear on our bike computer at any point, let alone as an average speed for a middle distance.

On the run Daniella immediately started to pull away from Lucy, although the gap did stabilise after the first few kilometres as Charles made it clear she was not letting go. It wasn’t to be for the Brit though and Ryf took the win in stunning style, before subsequently covering up as her tri suit had been stuck open for the entirety of the race leaving her sports bra on show and her tri suit flapping around, hopefully she’ll look back on the race for the tour de force it was rather than feel embarrassed because of a wardrobe malfunction.

The following day I was awoken by my roommate’s 4:30AM alarm call and I laid there in bed so caught up in the emotion of the event, questioning why I was lying in bed rather than getting ready to race myself. I’ve dedicated nearly all of my time and energy on growing my business in recent years so time for training has been limited and I’ve struggled with injury, but these were still excuses at the end of the day. A visit to the British Triathlon website later and I had signed myself up for a middle distance in seven days time with absolutely no specific training. “I think I’m going to live to regret this” I thought to myself, but I could at least use it as a marker of where my fitness is currently and how I can get to the start line of the world champs in Niece.

Sadly the weather wasn’t quite as glorious for the men, it was a grey day with drizzle which isn’t what springs to mind when you think of racing in Africa, but it was what it was and there was nothing anybody could do about it. Having scouted the swim start area out the day before I placed myself at what I believed to be the best spot to watch the start, which was also next to the entrance the pros took to the start, allowing me to wish every pro male good luck, by name if I recognised them!

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The lead men came out of the water in a stunning 21 minutes (Brownlee later lamented the lack of pace in the swim), and were quickly onto the bike. A much larger group formed at the front of affairs in the men’s race consisting of Brownlee, Gomez, Kanute and Frodeno. Coming off of the bike Brownlee was unable to hold the pace as Gomez and Frodeno lead the charge. Unfortunately Gomez suffered a stitch causing him to stop briefly, allowing Frodeno to take the win in emphatic style and Brownlee to pass the Spaniard for silver as Gomez hung on for third.

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The age groupers started in waves of 10

My athlete did incredibly well, finishing in the top 50% of his age group with a new PB by 5 minutes. We were concerned about his heel which he fractured during Edinburgh (how he managed to qualify with that I’ll never know), but he pulled a textbook race out of the bag to come home in 4:40. To PB in his hometown clearly meant the world to him and I’m proud to have been part of his journey.

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I hoovered up some merchandise and made my way home, it truly was the trip of a lifetime, and I don’t use that phrase lightly. Since starting my coaching in 2016 it was the first time I had away from London, acting as both a break and a real surge of inspiration for me, showing me what can be achieved and what we’re working towards. I’m determined to get at least one of my athletes to Niece in 2019 so I can attend myself an go some way to reliving that incredible week I spent in South Africa.

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You didn’t think you were getting away without at least one photo from my safari did you?

I can’t wait till my first athlete qualifies for Kona so I have an excuse to head out there!

Analysis of a Swim Start

For many new to triathlon the start of the race is the most intimidating part. Not only are you about to engage in the swim which is probably the most intimidating leg of the event anyway, but this is done surrounded by dozens of people and hundreds of limbs flailing around. So while at The London Triathlon I thought I’d take a video of one of the starts to show everybody the process and hand out some tips.

As I started filming the first athletes in the water were making their way to the right of the starting area (left of shot) where they all form a small group. Why do you think this might be? Well the race starts with a right hand turn, so by placing themselves to the right they are shortening the distance between themselves and the first buoy, avoiding having to add distance onto their swim by cutting across the width of the swim course for the first turn. Things are much sparser to the left which makes it a good place for newbies or less confident swimmers to start.

The other thing to notice is that the first athletes in the water are treading water for a significant amount of time while the back markers make their way into the water. This is something worth considering if you’re less confident in the water, that you’re probably best being one of the last in the water to reduce your time spent waiting for the start and ensuring you’ll start well clear of the washing machine effect.

However this is easier said that done, back in 2014 when I did the Olympic distance I arrived nice and early for the briefing, standing at what I thought was the back of the pen. However lots of latecomers formed the true back of the group, and when we got in the water I found myself slap bang in the middle of affairs, the last place I wanted to be at the time! To avoid this, arrive at the swim start in good time, but hang right at the back and wait for everyone to arrive before you find out where the back really is.

Back to the swim start in question, as the starting area starts to fill out a bit you can see the spaces between swimmers are much larger as they will not be getting as competitive as the swimmers at the front of the pack, resulting in less chance of a kick or a knock. Nobody will ever deliberately try to kick or punch you, imagine trying to kick/punch someone while swimming, it would detract so much energy from your stroke it would simply not be worth it. A few knocks and bumps are inevitable but to reduce the risk of being caught up in it then star further back from the main pack where the gaps between swimmers are larger.

Four minutes after the lead group take their positions at the front the last swimmers make it in, the air horn finally blasts and the swim is underway. Cue a flurry of arms and legs to the left of picture as the main protagonists try either to get some space between them and their rivals, or to desperately try to hang onto the feet of the swimmer in front of them. The first 150-200M will be very fast as the swim groups establish themselves before the pace knocks back a bit and swimmers settle into their race pace.

By the time the leaders are 100M in, some of the back markers are only just crossing the start line as they start what will be a long and leisurely swim. Take some time to watch the swim strokes of those at the back, a mixture of breaststroke, heads up front crawl and otherwise unidentified methods of aquatic propulsion. It doesn’t matter though as they’re getting the job done and for these mass participation events there is no swim cut off. However what you don’t want to do is start too far back as you’ll find yourself boxed in by breaststrokers and unable to make much headway, it’s very difficult to pick the right place in the swim pack for you, the best advice I can offer is to read the body language of your fellow competitors. If they’re looking impatient and sat in relative silence the chances are they’re planning to go off like a rocket. If they’re floating around and talking about how they’re just hoping to get round or they’re sat in silence with the thousand yard stare it may be better to move forward. If in any doubt start further back as being slow is frustrating, but beats being swum over and a potential panic attack.

As soon as our final white hat has crossed the start line, there is already a wave of pink hats bearing down on them and ready to go. Due to the fact they sound the horn before the last swimmer had even made their way to the start area I’m guessing they were running behind schedule at this point, but it gives you an insight into just how quickly things move at these large events. As I pan left to follow the leaders of the pink wave we can already see a white hat being pulled out of the water and onto a safety craft. It’s never nice to see someone pull out of a race so early in proceedings, but a reminder not only of the great job that the safety teams do, but also the importance of making sure you get plenty of practice in open water before race day.

I hope this has been helpful in your preparations for you race, if you are nervous about the swim leg of your race, why not get in touch with us to organise a coached session?

The Phazon Triathlon Guide to The London Triathlon

The London Triathlon is the world’s biggest multisport event, attracting thousands of athletes year on year. Its location in one of the world’s largest cities and beginner friendly nature makes it very popular for those looking to compete in their first event, while the flat, fast nature of the course also appeals to PB hunters.

There are multiple distances available:

Super Sprint: 400M swim, 10 KM bike, 2.5KM run

This distance is ideal for those just looking to dip their toe into the world of triathlon, there are limited spaces available for this distance compared to the others so it’s worth ensuring you get your entry in soon to avoid disappointment.

Sprint: 750M swim, 20KM bike, 5KM run

Very popular with first timers, this is a challenge in endurance in its own right. Most people will be looking at somewhere between 1:20 and 2:00 for a finishing time in this distance, so it’s far from a sprint in reality!

Olympic: 1500M swim, 40KM bike, 10KM run

This distance gets its name from its inclusion in the Olympic Games, a true test of endurance but without getting silly as with the Ironman 70.3 and full Iron distance events. The winners may go just under the two hour mark, with most people coming in somewhere between 2:20 and 3:10. There is a separate wave for those who can go under 2:30 to allow them a clearer, less congested course.

Olympic Plus: 1500M swim, 80KM bike, 10KM run

For the strong cyclists out there, this event isn’t too far removed from a half Ironman distance, and is a good stepping stone for those nervous about the step up to 70.3.

Logistics
Getting to the start of the event can be a bit of a challenge due to the road closures for the event, especially on the Sunday where the road closures are more extensive, as a result I highly recommend you take public transport to the start if based in London, or find yourself a hotel close by if you are travelling from afar. The DLR technically has a limit on the number of bikes that are permitted on each train, but I’ve never heard of anyone enforcing this during the triathlon weekend.

Make sure you arrive at least two hours before your wave starts where possible, this allows you time to set up your transition area, collect your number, mark up your bike, get changed into your wetsuit, make multiple trips to the toilet and still be there 20 minutes before your swim start.

Ensure you take time to watch the briefing video and familiarise yourself with the layout of transition area to save you valuable seconds during your race as the clock doesn’t stop between sports!

Swim

 

London Triathlon Swim
Image Credit London Triathlon

The swim is held in the London Royal Docks, which isn’t as dirty as it looks or sounds! The docks have long been abandoned and the water quality improved dramatically in the last 15 years with the installation of a filter at the intake point. NOWCA run swim sessions most days at the west of the docks and I have spent several hours in the water coaching sessions without ever falling ill, so the likelihood of you picking something up during a race are incredibly low, just try to avoid swallowing any water.

Wetsuits are compulsory for this event, while they don’t give an explicit reason for this I believe it is due to the large mixture of abilities in the water, so make sure you have a suit ready to go as there are none available to hire on the day. As of the 2018 edition, if the water temperature is over 25 degrees wetsuits will be banned and athletes will instead be forced to swim with no wetsuit and use a tow float instead. To my knowledge this has never occurred in the history of the race, but given the summer we’re experiencing at the time of writing it’s not out of the realms of possibility.

When you arrive in your swim pen you will be given a briefing on the course and any updates on the weather/conditions, as well as a few chants to get you fired up. Once you walk outside and down the steps you will find yourself on a floating pontoon, and you can enter the water however you like, whether you prefer to dive, jump or tentatively lowering yourself in. You can be waiting for quite some time if you’re one of the first in the water, so if you’re nervous hang towards the back to avoid time spent treading water.

The swim course is as simple as can be, a one lap clockwise loop dependent on the distance that you are swimming. Make sure you start on the right to shorten the distance to the first buoy, and start towards the back if you are feeling nervous or are a slower swimmer to avoid getting swum over, which is an unpleasant as it sounds.

Once you climb yourself out of the water you have to remove your wetsuit, which there are wetsuit strippers on hand to assist you with. Your suit will then be placed inside a plastic bag and you will be pointed in the direction of the stairs that lead you back up to transition, bagged wetsuit in hand.

The reason for removing your wetsuit is to avoid getting water all over the stairs which will create a slipping hazard, in years gone by I know they placed some hessian sacking on the steps/floor on the way into transition, but this didn’t stop people stacking it spectacularly as they ran to their bike so be careful, especially if you are experiencing some dizziness after the swim.

Bike

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Image credit London Triathlon

After mounting your bike and pushing it to the mount line you will be saddle up before being sent down a ramp to ground level where you will commence the longest of the three disciplines.

The course varies depending on the time and the day you are racing, on the Saturday you will be on a much shorter course while on Sunday the course will be longer, going all the way out to Westminster if you are lucky enough to be heading out first thing.

The course is fast and flat but technical in parts due to the amount of roundabouts and 180 degree turns. I believe this has improved since I last did the event, but it’s worth keeping your wits about you on course.

The biggest factor to remember is that even though it’s closed roads doesn’t mean you can switch off, if anything it means you have to keep your wits about you even more as you will be sharing the course with a large amount of cyclists, some who may be riding in a very unpredictable fashion. Ensure you always ride on the left and check over your shoulder before any change of direction. If you hear a call of “right!” that means a rider is about to pass you on your right and this is a polite reminder to hold position or move over to let them past. Also be wary when taking corners of riders going around the inside or outside of you, hold your line and avoid erratic movements to enjoy your ride.

After you complete the bike your legs will already be tired, but it’s time for the most physically demanding discipline, the run!

Run

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The run course is 2.5KM long and absolutely pancake flat, however it is also incredibly busy as hundreds of athletes are crammed into a 2.5KM stretch of tarmac and concrete. Things have improved in recent years with a simple out and back course rather than the twisty narrow course previously used, but you may still find yourself having to weave around and sharpen your elbows to fight your way through the crowds. This is the only run course where I’ve never been overtaken by anyone, primarily as many are competing in their first triathlon and are starting to run out of gas and walk portions by this point. If you are a stronger runner be prepared to do a bit of dodging and weaving to hold your pace, if you are starting to struggle then stay to the left of the course to allow faster athletes past.

The run starts and finishes in the Excel centre with previous years including a 200M section inside the exhibition hall itself so GPS struggles, but the course comes up considerably shorter than advertised, especially at the 10K distance, I believe the distance is much closer to 9KM in total, although as I haven’t competed since 2015 this may have been addressed.

Once you cross the line you will find yourself in the finisher’s area where you will receive your medal, you can have your photo taken, pick up some alcohol free beer and relax for a bit before you make your way back to transition to collect your belongings.

If this is your first triathlon you may need to brush up on some basic British Triathlon Federation (BTF) rules to avoid any penalties/disqualifications. I’ll run you through some of the most essential rules to avoid embarrassment:

No drafting
Drafting is the act of riding behind another cyclist and gaining an advantage in doing so due to . Different races have different drafting zones but at London they have a 10M drafting zone behind each competitor you are not allowed to enter unless you are overtaking. If you are caught gaining an advantage in this way you can expect a time penalty or disqualification.

Helmet on before touching bike
Not only are helmets mandatory, you must have your helmet on your head and fastened securely before you even touch your bike, not doing so can result in a time penalty, and riding with an unfastened helmet is a good way to get yourself disqualified.

No nudity
Ok, so this goes without saying I hope, but most importantly this extends to keeping your torso covered, so if you have a full length zip on your trisuit you can’t run with it open if it gets hot.

Bike in good working order
This should go without saying, but if you pull a rusty bike out of the shed and wheel it down to the Excel, they won’t allow it on course. While it doesn’t have to have the top components and a thorough safety check, they will check that the brakes are in good working order and the handlebars have plugs on them to avoid injury. If they see anything else that concerns them they may run it past a BTF referee before letting it out on course.

Hopefully this has given you a good idea of what to expect and will ease the pre race nerves. Whether this is your first triathlon or you are taking part in an elite wave, I wish you the very best of luck with your race!

Where is the Best Place to Invest in Triathlon?

Image copyright AMC

The products that promise to make you faster in triathlon are literally endless, every trade show or press release that comes my way promises free speed for a price. Whether this is in the form of miracle nutrition supplements, super aero bike components, advanced cycle clothing or running specific underwear, they all claim to be great value for money, and promise to solve all of your problems. Having worked in triathlon retail for two years I have helped hundreds of triathletes put together the right package for them and their budget, so I wanted to share with you the advice I have picked up and shared with customers over the years. Obviously I can’t cover every single piece of equipment, but I’ll do my best to cover the most common purchases.

It’s worth mentioning that for each item listed there are cheaper options as well as more expensive options available. Just because something isn’t listed as good value doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy it, I’m the proud owner of many of the items that I list here as being poor value, however for the new athlete there are a other purchases which should come first and will offer your more bang for your buck.

Good Value

Power meter

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Stages Cycling 105 5800 Left Crank Arm (RRP 449.99)

Probably the single best investment you can make in your fitness, especially if you are working with a coach who can use the data to monitor your fitness closely. The power meter not only records data, but displays it as you ride to help you pace your rides effectively. Heart rate also helps with this but as it’s so easily affected by other factors such as fatigue, illness and stress,  power is useful as an absolute measurement of what’s coming out of your legs. The savvy athlete/coach closely monitors the relationship between heart rate and power to track fitness and fatigue.

Heart Rate Monitor

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Wahoo Tickr, RRP £39.99

If you can’t afford a power meter then a heart rate monitor is the next best way to monitor your effort levels. A chest strap gives you much more accurate readings than the optical heart rate monitors found on newer triathlon watches, so are recommended for serious training.

High Quality Clothing

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Castelli Evoluzione Bibshort (RRP £80)

Invest in high quality clothing which will keep you warm and comfortable when riding and racing. Cheap clothing is a false economy as it will be uncomfortable resulting in unenjoyable training, chafing and it will likely fall apart quickly.

Tools 

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X Tools 18 piece set (RRP £39.99)

This covers all bike maintenance tools, chain lubes, grease e.t.c. If you learn to fix your bike yourself this will give you confidence and save you lots of money on workshop labour fees. High quality tools are important if you plan to do a lot of work on your bike, but there is no need to spend money on workshop quality tools if you are occasionally tinkering with your own machine.

Elastic Laces 

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Xtenex Elastic Laces (RRP £9)

There’s no excuse for this one, these will save you lots of time in transition and allow you to get running sooner. Tying laces with cold hands after a chilly ride is near impossible, a problem solved with a £5 pair of elastic laces.

Good Quality Goggles 

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Aqua Sphere Kayenne Goggles With Polarise Lenses (RRP £30.00)

Swimming isn’t much fun if you can’t see where you’re going, you’re blinded by the sun or your goggles keep taking on water. A good pair of open water goggles can be picked up for cheap and will provide you with a far more enjoyable experience in the water. All goggles have a shelf life, so treat yourself to a new pair ahead of race day.

 

Dumb Turbo Trainer

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Tacx Blue Matic Turbo Trainer (RRP £139.00)

Is the weather too cold to conclusive riding? Too windy? Not enough time? Throw your leg over a turbo trainer and get a good quality workout in from the comfort of your garage. The fitness you will gain from getting rides in when you’d otherwise be forced off of the bike results in enormous gains in fitness.

Coaching 

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Coaching can be in the form of monthly training plans, or coached sessions such as an introduction to open water swimming (above)

 

Some people struggle with the concept of paying for coaching as they want to walk away from a transaction with something carbon fibre in their hands. But when you consider a year of coaching with Phazon Triathlon costs less than a rear wheel, the expert guidance and support you will receive from a coach will help shave hours, not minutes off of your finish time.

Premium Tyres

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Continental GP400S II Tyre (RRP £60)

As covered in a recent article, a good set of tyres will help prevent punctures, provide extra grip and reduce rolling resistance. Because nobody likes to end up in a ditch or standing by the side of the road trying to wrestle a tyre off the rim as other stream past.

Appropriate Running Shoes 

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On Running Cloudflow Running Shoes (RRP £120)

A pair of running shoes that fit you well, are comfortable and not too worn are essential to your performance ,by running in ill fitting and/or worn running shoes you vastly increase your risk of injury. You also need to ensure the shoes you wear are suitable for he distances you’re running and the terrain you’ll be running on.

Swim Toys 

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Speedo Power Paddles (RRP £13)

 

Investing in a modest collection of swim toys (pull buoy, fins, paddles, tempo trainer e.t.c.) will vastly improve your swim if used correctly, shop around and you’ll find some good deals going.

Clip On Aero Bars

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Token TK9741-2 Aero Clip On Bars (RRP 39.00)

Using a set of clip on bars can save you time hand over fist by lowering and narrowing your position on the bike. It’s very difficult to get a comfortable position on a road bike with clip on bars, but the good news is you’ll be able to revert to the hoods if they prove to be too uncomfortable.

Sports Massage/Physiotherapy 

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If you feel niggles or tightness appear from training, be sure to get them seen to by a professional. Sports masseurs can help you treat the symptoms of the pain and advise on the potential cause, but sometimes it takes a full screening with a physiotherapist is essential to address the cause of the injury.

Bike Fit 

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Sigma Sports Bike Fitter James Thomas (image copyright Sigma Sports)

Ride your bike in more comfort and produce more power. It doesn’t take an awful lot, just a high quality bike fit. The free fittings that shops provide aren’t worth much at all, make sure you visit a bike fitting specialist who uses their experience and knowledge of biomechanics rather than relying on technology

Triathlon Watch 

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Garmin Forerunner 935 GPS Watch (RRP £470)

With smartphone apps that record your rides and runs for you, the real benefit of a triathlon watch is for recording swims, talking to ANT+ sensors and keeping an eye on your pace as you run or your metrics as you cycle. If you are following a training plan, a triathlon watch becomes an essential for following workouts.

Mid value

Hydration Systems

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Profile Design FC25 Hydration System (RRP £75.00)

The ability to lean forwards and take a drink saves you a lot of time and effort, reaching behind your saddle or to your downtube every time you need a drink is feels cumbersome after using one of these. Most come with a mount for a GPS computer as well which solves the tricky issue of attaching computers to aero bars.

Premium Tri Suit (£150)

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Huub Dave Scott Long Course Trisuit (RRP £190)

A more expensive tri suit will provide aerodynamic gains and dry quicker, but these are both luxuries, and for longer events many people will drop the tri suit in favour of sports specific kit anyway. The most important factor is one you feel comfortable in. If the difference between a well fitting or ill fitting suit is £50, then splash the cash. You won’t regret it on race day.

Clip In Pedals 

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Shimano 105 5800 Carbon SPD Pedals (RRP 99.00)

The words that strike fear into the hearts of many, this system allows you to put power down quickly and also increases the power you gain on the upstroke, especially on the hills. They also keep your feet locked into a (hopefully) efficient position reducing the risk of injuries.

High End Bike Shoes 

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Specialized S-Works Trivent Tri Shoes (RRP £275)

This assumes your existing shoes provide relative comfort. Upgrading into a more lightweight shoe with a stiffer sole will increase performance, especially over longer distances. If your current shoes are ill fitting then a new pair of shoes are very important.

Aero Helmet

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Lazer Wasp Air Triathlon Helmet (RRP £349.00)

A good aero helmet will save you a lot of energy, sometimes as much as a set of aero race wheels. Spend your time trying on different brands until you find one which fits like a glove and is appropriately ventilated for the conditions you’re racing in. Taking a helmet with no vents to Lanzarote is just asking for trouble.

Poor value

Triathlon Bike

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Cervelo P3 Ultegra Di2 (RRP £4,299.00)

I’m a big believer in triathlon bikes, the additional comfort they provide and access to gear shifters from the aero bars save you a lot of time, but you could buy a decent car for the same cash. I recommend people get a couple of seasons under their belt on a road bike before they take the leap and upgrade to a TT machine.

Smart Trainers 

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Wahoo Kickr (RRP £999.00)

I love my smart trainer, but if you already own a basic turbo trainer, you will be paying a lot of money for luxuries such as ERG mode and variable resistance. If you’re buying your first turbo trainer and have the money to spend, absolutely go for a smart trainer, but if you’re already running a dumb trainer, look at items further up the list before you upgrade to a smart trainer.

Deep Section Wheels 

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Lightweight Fernweg Clincher Wheelset (RRP £5,549.00)

Not quite as essential as some people would have you believe, a nice set of wheels will save you a lot of time, but you need to be going quite fast to get the most out of them. If you’re new to triathlon you’ll barely be able to get up to speed to make the most out of them, and the weight penalty may offset the aero benefit. Save these for when your times start to plateau.

High End Wetsuit

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Orca Predator Fullsleeve Wetsuit (RRP 649.00)

Upgrading to a top end wetsuit is a lot of money for not a lot of benefit. It will be more flexible, and *slightly* more hydrodynamic, but simply putting on a more expensive wetsuit won’t help your technique. If you struggle in the swim, that money is better spent on swimming tuition. When you start knocking on the door of the top 20% in the swim, that is the time to start looking at performance wetsuits.

Components 

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The Brand New Shimano 105 R7000 Groupset (RRP varies)

High end components sure look good, and yes they’re marginally lighter but on TT bikes components are the last thing we should be worrying about as once you get to Shimano 105 level, the only tangible benefit beyond this point is weight saving, and bike weight is the last of our concerns for most triathlons. The best time to upgrade your groupset is when your current one wears out, as they’re very expensive to purchase as a standalone item.

Sports Specific Nutrition

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PowerBar Energize Bars (RRP 1.50)

Buying specially branded energy gels and energy bars only really provide you with a convenience. An energy bar is nothing you can’t make in the kitchen yourself and many people choose jelly babies over energy gels anyway. If you find that these products really hit the spot for you and you can’t imagine yourself racing without them then by all means stock up, but the costs can add up very quickly.

GPS Bike Computer 

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Garmin Edge 820 (RRP £370)

GPS head units such as Garmin Edge or Wahoo ELEMNT units are great for cyclists as they provide routes you can follow, display your data clearly as you ride, and can even be used in conjunction with your smart trainer. However this provides very few functions that a high end triathlon watch can’t, so this falls down the list.

 

You may have noticed a pattern here, items which improve your fitness and comfort are high on the list, where equipment based purely on race day speed lower on the list. Investing in yourself is far more important than investing in your bike. Yes top end bikes are sexy, but at the end of the day it’s what’s in your legs that matter, and the ability to put out big watts far outweighs aero/weight.

Blagger’s Guide to Race Nutrition

Image credit Nils Nilsen

Nutrition is the single most complex issue in long course triathlon, and the most subjective from individual to individual. While less of a concern for the sprint and Olympic distances, by the time you look at half Iron and Iron distance events it can be the difference between finishing strong and not making it off of the bike. Many marathon runners talk about “Hitting the wall”, a point in the race where you are suddenly blindsided and unable to walk. In triathlon we normally refer to this as bonking (pipe down at the back), but by the time you reach this stage you’ve already made a mistake by letting your energy reserves become depleted. The bad news is that you can’t simply “push through” the wall, your body is literally empty and will start breaking down muscle fibre in search of energy. The good news is that it’s completely avoidable with the right fuelling strategy.

During any event over 90 minutes you need to take on extra calories to maintain performance, let’s take an Ironman as an example. We normally start around 6:30AM, and most people are on the bike by 8:30AM when your body is already expecting the calories from Breakfast. We need to keep topping up our energy stores throughout the day, and the only way we can do this is by taking on calories in a way that won’t upset our stomach. If we pull over to enjoy a Sunday roast halfway through the bike and then jump back on our trusty steed to put out 200W our stomach will be less than cooperative. We need to find a way to take on calories in a consistent and measured manner that is easy for our digestive system to process.

Fuelling slows us down, that much we can’t deny, and when you’re feeling strong tearing up the bike course, you don’t want to slow down by reaching into your back pocket/bento box to extract and unwrap our fuel source of choice. Our heart says to keep pressing on, but our head tells us to be smart and take on food, guess which one we should listen to?

There are various different ways to take on calories, each with their pros and cons which we’ll look at here:

Gels

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A sweet semi solid substance that you slurp up, these provide a (nearly) instant injection of energy, breathing life back into tired muscles. If you’re wobbling all over the road and shaking, nothing will get you back in the game quite like an energy gel, it achieves this by containing very simple sugars that are easily absorbed. However as soon as you start to get back in your rhythm you will start to crash again as they quite simply put you on a sugar high, followed by a predictable crash. I wouldn’t want to fuel any event longer than an Olympic triathlon solely on energy gels, something that releases energy in a slower, more sustainable manner is essential for success at middle and long distance.

Pros: Easy to digest, give you an instant boost

Cons: Can be sickly, some require water to wash down, only give a short term pick up

Energy Bars

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All nutrition manufacturers will have their patented energy bars, these vary from brand to brand but are generally oat based, very dense and energy rich. These are a much more sustainable way of replacing depleted energy stores than energy gels, and are a much more natural way of taking on energy which will appeal to many simply out of principal. The oats will release energy slowly, and the bonding agent is normally sugary, as a result these can still be fairly sweet and are normally very chewy. This is all well and good if you’re rolling along at 70% of FTP chatting to friends, but I’ll never forget the time I came across a 20% gradient in Yorkshire with a mouth full of an apple and blackberry energy bar.

Pros: Sustainable energy release, individually wrapped for easy transportation

Cons: Can be very expensive, difficult to chew, still quite sweet

Real Food

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Image Copyright Tesco

As time goes by and I see past the marketing that brands push, I have found myself moving towards real food over branded energy products. This is a personal choice as I have very low fat reserves so my nutritional demands are quite unique, but I find myself craving something substantial to line my stomach, items such as pistachio cookies, crisps and ginger cake to keep my stomach from turning itself over and protect against stitches and cramps. This is also the cheapest way to fuel yourself, a batch of homemade flapjacks will cost far less than half a dozen branded energy bars and allows you to control the texture, sweetness and portion size to taste.

Pros: cheap, more satisfying, enormous variety

Cons: Can be difficult to transport, preparation time for homemade food

Sports Drinks

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I use this as an umbrella term to cover various branded products that contain carbohydrate in the form of sugars and electrolytes to replace lost salt. This is a fuel source favoured by many long distance athletes due to its easy consumption and transportation, some (very successful) athletes even manage a diet of nothing but sports drink and energy gels. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse but we’re all individuals and need to find what works for us.

Pros: Very easy to digest, take on fluids and calories at once, less likely to neglect hydration

Cons: Has to be mixed (difficult mid race), slow absorption into bloodstream, easy to take on too many calories.

It’s worth mentioning here the role that course nutrition plays, for most middle and long distance races fuel stations will be provided for athletes to get a drink and something to eat. I encourage my athletes not to rely too heavily on these stations and to be as self sufficient as possible, it’s not unheard of for feed stations to run dry, and the products there may not be to your liking. Aim to be self sufficient, but do your research on the nutrition that will be available at the feed stations, the brand and the products they will be stocking, if this information isn’t available on the race website, E-mail the organiser and ask. If they are only carrying peanut and vanilla Powerbars, then buy some and try them while training, if you find one of them really upsets you, then you know to avoid it on race day. Many races will also provide you with a special needs bag at the halfway point, make use of this and ensure you have enough nutrition in there to comfortably get you to the end of the race, just in case you previously hit a pothole and jettisoned all of your nutrition in the process.

Electrolytes

Electrolytes is simply a fancy sounding word for salt, but if they tried to sell salt tablets they’d probably sell an awful lot less. As I alluded to earlier, replacing salt is critical for endurance athletes, especially if you’re a heavy sweater, we work with all of our athletes to create a bespoke hydration plan to improve performance and avoid a potentially fatal condition known as hyponatremia where the blood becomes so diluted that it starts to affect brain function. Luckily getting your electrolyte balance right is a lot simpler than food, and there are four ways to keep yourself topped up.

Sports Drinks

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Yes, sports drinks again. The vast majority of sports drinks will include electrolytes required for peak performance without having to worry about taking on extra supplements. If unsure, check the ingredients and look for potassium, sodium and/or chloride.

Electrolyte Tablets

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There is such a thing as too many calories (more on that later), so electrolyte tablets in water allows us to keep our levels topped up without excess calories. These will often be mildly flavoured, and are more palatable than sports drinks although personally I find myself craving good old plain water when I hit the 4/5 hour mark in an event.

Salt Tablets

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If you don’t take to the taste of dissolvable electrolytes you can use a small oral tablet at regular intervals instead. These are easy to swallow and tasteless, although easier to forget to take, and can be fiddly to transport, if you lose your stash of tablets you can find yourself in big trouble.

Salty Snacks

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Some athletes simply prefer to take some pretzels with them, providing calories and electrolytes in one tasty combination. The only issue is how you plan to transport them, although salty snacks will be available at most aid stations.

Now we have an idea of how we are going to replace our calories and electrolytes, we need to understand how much to eat and when, there are two main problems people can run into, eating too little, or eating too much.

Under Fuelling

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Julie Moss collapses within 100M of the finish line at Kona 1982. Image credit Carol Hogan

When you bonk, it’s not something you can push through, it is your body quite simply breaking down like a car spluttering its way to a halt with an empty fuel tank. This can come almost without warning, and is often preceded by a feeling of strength as you throw yourself out of the saddle and hurl yourself up a hill, before your body starts to shake and you start to weave around the road. Once this has happened to you a few times you don’t take any chances out there and always make sure you have a spare gel or bar to fall back on, picking a cornershop flapjack up on your way through the next village when you use your last bar up. You can also find yourself in big trouble if you get lost and have to ride/run longer than you were expecting, nobody ever regretted taking extra food on a ride.

Over fuelling

While the effects are less dramatic than under fuelling, taking on too many calories poses a risk in itself. Once you’ve bonked a couple of times you find yourself taking all precautions to try and prevent it happening again, which can present other issues. The primary issue is stomach emptying rates, your digestive system can only work so fast, especially when exercising hard as it’s diverting the vast majority of its energy to the muscles. Think of how long it takes to digest a big Sunday Roast, now imagine trying to digest that while running an Ironman marathon rather than in front of the Antiques Roadshow. If you keep pushing food down your throat when your body is already full it will protest violently, and this is often the cause behind the gastronomical distress that athletes experience during a race. This can result in stitches, stomach cramps, violent bowel movements and/or vomiting, which you want to avoid at all costs.

The easiest way to avoid over fuelling is to ensure your carry some water without any carbohydrate content. A lot of athletes know they have to keep hydrated throughout a race, but if all they have is sports drinks they will start taking on 500ml+ an hour of sugary liquids along with energy gels, bars and real food, a recipe for disaster as the stomach simply can’t keep up with the calories you’re filling it with.

One point I’ve tried to hammer home is that what nutrition is incredibly individual, and you shouldn’t try to copy the nutrition plans of your training partners or favourite pro athletes. There are more factors that affect nutritional needs than I could possibly list without boring you all to death, but it’s important you experiment in your training. Standing at the side of the road draped over your handlebars struggling the find the energy to clip back in is a rite of passage in triathlon, and you have to get it wrong a few times to find out what works for you. It’s important you make these mistakes in training rather than on race day, so play around and find what works for you. Unfortunately the chances are you will experience GI distress to a greater or lesser extent during a long distance triathlon, which leads me onto arguably the most important piece of advice in this entire article.

Never trust a fart during an Ironman.

Introduction to TrainingPeaks

If you’re reading this the chances are you have just started using TrainingPeaks or are thinking of opening an account, so I will start this with a brief introduction and rundown of the benefits of using TrainingPeaks.

First and foremost it is a completely different ballgame to Strava, and a huge step forwards from Garmin Connect. Strava is a social platform where people give each other a slap on the back and compete against each other over segments, where TrainingPeaks is a piece of industry data analysis software. Thankfully it is only as complex as you want to make it, and has the potential to be very user friendly. It helps you monitor your fitness, form and fatigue levels to make educated decisions about your training, or if you’re working with a coach such as myself, it allows them to analyse the data, make educated decisions about your training, and set workouts for you to follow.

There are two types of athlete account, basic and premium, the benefits of a premium account are:

-Advanced workout data, access to a seemingly endless list of customisable charts, and insights into your fitness.

-Notifications from your coach, and ability for your coach to receive notifications from you when activities are uploaded/comments added

-Ability to plan future workouts

-Sync your calendar with Outlook, iCal and Google

-Tracks peak performances to allow you to see your best efforts

-Data editing allowing you to edit your fitness files by removing/editing erroneous data and using elevation correction

As you start with a 7 day premium trial when you open an account, for the purposes of this article I will write this article with premium users in mind

To get yourself started you need to create an account, which is very straightforward. Once you log in you will be taken to your calendar screen where you will see an empty calendar just begging to be filled with workouts, there are three ways of filling this calendar.

Firstly there is manual data entry, click on a date on the calendar view, select a workout type, and you will have the option to simply input basic data such as time, speed, pace, average HR and many more as shown below.

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As you start entering data it will calculate values for you as long as the box in the bottom left is selected. The more data you can provide, the more data it provides you in return, such as Training Stress Score (TSS) and Intensity Factor (IF). However if you are entering data manually the odds are you don’t have elevation or heart rate data, which is normally associated with GPS devices which brings us onto the next option.

Most athletes sync data directly from their GPS device to TrainingPeaks, often through a service such as Garmin Connect or Map My Fitss. This takes the GPS and associated HR, power, cadence e.t.c. data and uploads it as a GPX file, seamlessly giving you data within moments of finishing your workout for full analysis by you and your coach.

The final option is for those who use devices that don’t sync automatically or are temporarily refusing to for whatever reason. You can upload most fitness files to TrainingPeaks and it will do the rest for you.

Now your data is on TrainingPeaks, what’s next? First of all the initial workout screen looks quite different, if we uploaded a fitness file most of our data fields will be filled, like so:

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Also there are boxes on the right for description as well as pre/post activity comments. The description will normally include information from your coach, where the pre and post activity boxes are for you to fill out and engage with your coach through. Even if you’re not working with a coach they can prove useful for reference in future.

As an example I’m going to pull up a ride I did recently to Windsor and back with the club. It was a headwind on the way out with a lengthy cafe stop and a more spirited ride home.

To get into the nitty gritty of our workout we click on the “Analyze” tab at the top right of the page, which takes us to a screen where we can view a map (if GPS data is present), and a selection of graphs, let’s take a look at the most popular charts.

HR only

This chart is simply referred to as “graph” by TrainingPeaks, and hopefully your GCSE maths will kick in to help you decipher the information. When you first open the chart there will only be limited data, sometimes just the elevation profile (greyed out area running along the bottom) and heart rate(red line). To start number crunching , we need to click on the data values in the top right of the graph. By selecting a data field we’d like to see, such as RPM (cadence), we simply click on the tab and select “show”

HR and cadence

Now we have our cadence data, we can review it and look for relationships in our RPM and HR. However looking at such a large amount of data it’s difficult to make out exactly what happened, there were lots of points where I was freewheeling which causes the data to jump up and down erratically. To help us get some quality data we can use the smoothing bar (top left of the graph) to remove some of the erroneous data and give us a clearer picture.

Smoothed

There we go, much better, and I can now see that as expected, my heart rate increased when my cadence increased, no surprises there. However what if we wanted to look at an area that interests us? We can select an area by clicking and dragging the mouse to draw a shaded section over an selection of data, and click zoom at the top of the page to punch in for a better look.

Zoomed

From here we can take a closer look at any data which interests us. It may be that you want to look at your data on a climb or if you see a particularly high/low reading and want to know what caused it. Here we can see a few gaps in the data which are likely the result of traffic lights, or perhaps data dropout.

However interesting cadence and heart rate are, we probably want to see the bigger picture and all the data available to us. To achieve this we click on another value we’re not seeing, such as speed (shown here as KPH), and click “show all”. This gives us a much more comprehensive graph as shown below. I also selected “show zones” on BPM to give us some extra data. This is represented by the red horizontal bars, the lightest shade representing zone 1, and the darkest red zone 6.

HR zones

If this is a bit busy for you, you can start to remove irrelevant information. While I appreciate the fact that my device recorded temperature, it’s not really providing me with any useful data aside from the fact it was warmer in my house than in the Berkshire countryside. To remove the data I can click on the C (celcius) button at the top and select “hide”. If I wanted to focus on a singular data field such as speed, I could even select it at the top of the page and click on “hide others”, which would isolate my speed reading. There’s hours of fun to be had here, hours I tell you.

The final area worth highlighting is the relationship between the graphs and the map. If I look at the huge peak in speed, cadence and heart rate, I can hover my mouse over it on the graph and it will also highlight the point on the map where I went guns for glory through the Waterworks. Standard.

Waterworks

Next up is a selection of graphs which you can choose from the graphs button at the top of page (bar chart icon to the right), giving us a visual representation of peak HR and speed, along with time spent in each zone.

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There is a huge library available for you to look through, some far more useful than others (second by second breakdown of your ride anyone?). You can organise your data page to include the graphs and charts that matter to you and this will be saved for future workouts of the same type. Swimming and running charts work in a similar fashion, but using different data.

So that’s the basic features of workout analysis, now we move onto the “dashboard” view where we find the most powerful tools in TrainingPeaks, those that summarise our total fitness and fatigue. Before we start, let’s have a look at the PMC (performance management chart)

PMC

Here our TSS is displayed as red dots, our IF as blue dots, CTL as a blue line, ATL as a pink line and TSB as a yellow line. But what does this mean? I’ll explain each of these metrics in detail. I recommend you get comfy.

Training Stress Score (TSS)

This is the most important metric used by Training Peaks, it gives you an insight into how much stress was placed upon the body during the session.There are various versions of TSS which I will go into shortly. True TSS only requires power and duration to calculate, as these are two very objective ways of measuring your effort. This is perhaps a subject for another day, but all other methods of measuring exertion; pace, elevation and speed by weather/bad GPS data, and HR by other physiological factors such as illness or stress. By calculating the amount of exertion in a workout, TrainingPeaks calculates how much it will have improved your fitness, and how long it will take you to recover from the effort. 

At this point it is worth giving you some context for your TSS figures, 100 represents an hour flat out, or it could represent two hours at 50% effort, maybe even 4 hours at 25% effort. It could also represent half an hour at 200% of threshold,  but if you manage that your thresholds probably need updating.

rTSS

Although running power meters are starting to become available, most people still use a trusty GPS watch to track their runs, and rTSS will help you calculate an estimation of fatigue in absence of accurate power data. To calculate rTSS more data is required, namely speed (pace), duration, elevation gain and elevation loss. Using this data TrainingPeaks is able to estimate the level of exertion during the workout. This is not as accurate as using a power meter, but is understood to be the second most accurate way of measuring TSS.

sTSS

This is used to calculate TSS for swim workouts, and is less accurate than rTSS and pure TSS. This simply looks at the distance you covered over time to give you a number. TrainingPeaks still consider sTSS to be in beta so may be subject to change in the near future.

hrTSS

This simply uses your HR data over time to calculate a TSS value, however this is considered to be one of the less accurate ways of measuring your exertion. This is because heart rate takes much longer to respond to increases or reduction in exertion than other methods, and as a result is more suited to longer, steadier workouts than interval based workouts.

tTSS

This catchy little number is an experimental version or hrTSS which takes into account your resting heart rate to calculate TSS, however is considered to be the least accurate way of measuring TSS as it is still in an experimental stage, and will only be used where insufficient data is available to give you any other TSS score.

All of these values require threshold data to give you a value.What is an all out effort for you may be a leisurely Sunday morning jog for Mo Farah, and TrainingPeaks needs to know what your threshold values for each sport are. This is functional threshold power for TSS, threshold pace for rTSS, threshold swim pace (normally calculated over 1500M) for sTSS, threshold HR for hrTSS, along with resting and threshold HR for tTSS. Anybody who has trained with me will be aware of the initial onslaught of fitness testing early in the programme to give us the numbers we need to train to, and calculate fitness.

Phew! That was tough work I know, hope you’re still with me. Thankfully it’s all downhill from here. The next metrics we need to look at are CTL, ATL, TSB and IF, apologies for all the acronyms, it shall all become clear soon.

Critical Training Load (CTL)

This is represented as a thick blue line in the PMC and represents your long term training load. TSS can vary wildly throughout a week, shooting up on tough days and then dropping to 0 on rest days,  CTL averages this value and measures your training load over time. In an ideal world this would be gently increasing for the majority of the season, with ebbs and flows along the way as we recover from tough weeks of training and/or races. However we don’t live in an ideal world and this line will raise and fall as work, illness and family get in the way of structured training. On weeks like this the line will drop slowly though, and is there to ease your anxiety at the prospect of seeing a week of zeros in there TSS column following a period of illness or work commitments.

Fatigue (ATL)

This number averages your TSS over the last seven days to give you a figure to represent fatigue as. If this number is high your are promoting a change in your fitness, if this number is low you will likely perform better during workouts and at events. This line needs to ebb and flow more than others to ensure you are getting enough rest.

Form (TSB)

This stands for Training Stress Balance and is a mirror image of fatigue, representing how well you will perform at an event. You want your fatigue to be low and your form high when you take the start line at an event, and this can be achieved by using the dotted lines at the end of the PMC to calculate what form you will be in come race day. You can use this line to maximise your form on race day by adding and editing workouts in the days running up to your race to try to perfect your taper. This is trial and error for the most part, but you’ll get a feel for what works for you over the years.

Intensity Factor

Represented by blue dots on the PMS chart, this shows us how intense a workout was, short and sharp sessions will give a high value, with longer/easier workouts giving a much lower number. These blue dots at a glance can give you an impression of how intensive your workouts have been, and whether you need to increase or decrease the intensity of workouts given your goals and point in the season.

Along with the PMC are a number of other, more self explanatory charts available on the dashboard, such as pie charts denoting time spent training in each discipline, bar charts listing elevation per week, time spent in HR zones, pretty much all the data you could wish for.

That’s the very basics of TrainingPeaks, how to analyse a workout and how to analyse your overall fitness. Well done for making it this far through all the acronyms, I’ll reward you with a few top tips for getting the most out of the software.

-You can add target events by clicking on the day the event is held on in calendar view, and selecting events from the list of activities that appear. Here you can not only add the race type and targets, but it also gives you a countdown to your event on the home screen view, including predicted race form to keep you honest.

-If you upload an activity from a generic fitness file, or from devices that don’t recognise certain sports, click on the small logo (normally defaults to a stopwatch if unsure), and it will allow you to change activity type, ensuring it goes towards your totals.

-The data range on all charts can be changed, allowing you to evaluate your progress outside of the default 90 days. Settings for charts can be found by clicking the three horizontal lines found when you hover your cursor over the chart in question.

-All charts can be made full screen by clicking on the two arrows in the top right hand of each chart when your cursor hovers over it.

-Ensure all your data is up to date, threshold pace/power values should be updated every two months, along with your weight, threshold heart rate, and any other data TrainingPeaks asks you for, this will all help with accuracy of the data.

-TrainingPeaks can be used to track your equipment, allowing you to keep up to date with how many miles have gone on your shoes, wheels or tyres. These can add up rapidly without you realising and it’s important to replace them before it’s too late, in line with the manufacturer’s guidelines.

-TrainingPeaks can also be used to track calories, weight, sleep quality, hydration, steps, and many more values. Click on the appropriate day, select metrics, and input as much or as little data as you like. This can all be tracked via graphs on the dashboard.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, listen to your body over the numbers. TrainingPeaks is a fantastic tool and when used correctly will go a long way to improving your performance on race day, but at the end of the day you are the only one who really knows how you’re feeling. If TrainingPeaks is telling you to push but you feel exhausted, listen to your body.