Tips for tackling a triathlon

Many sports enthusiasts have thought about doing a triathlon, and more so a half-iron or iron distance triathlon, but not many know where to start. There is a certain emotion of anxiety that likely creeps over you when contemplating doing 3 sporting disciplines, one after the other, in one event, on one day. Here we want to offer some practical tips for undertaking the challenge of triathlon.

Tip 1: Train for triathlon

Sounds simple, but a lot of people think that you can just arrive on the day and get the job done. Yes, relying on your power of will should be able to get you across the finish line, but will you enjoy it – highly unlikely. Training for triathlon is a science on its own. It is not a swim, nor bike, nor run. It is all three in one. So simply training to be a runner will not help you to be a triathlete. The biggest demand that is different for triathlon when compared to other sports, is the requirement to perform a new task on an already fatigued physiological system. Cycling after a swim is hard and running after a swim and bike is even harder. Triathlon incorporates brick sessions (layering one session on top of another) in order to get the systems involved in endurance performance to adapt. Essentially, you need to be able to run on fatigued legs and a fatigued cardiovascular system. The science of training these systems, in summary, aims to improve economy of movement during the swim and bike, in order to be less fatigued for the run. Also, becoming resilient to fatigued states (on a microphysiological level) enables the legs to be in better state of readiness for running.

Tip 2: Set a goal

Training for triathlon is hard. Generally, recreational triathletes train between 8-15 hours a week. Professionals can accumulate up to 30 hours per week. I have found that setting a deadline by entering into an event/race keeps you accountable to those early morning sessions. I will not sugar coat this – you will often have to train 2x/day for half iron/iron distance triathlons (if you are looking to completing it with a time in mind). Setting a goal defines your why and knowing your why is more than enough motivation to get the work done. Once you achieve the goal, you are bound to walk away with a valuable lesson.

Tip 3: Plan for race day

They say, failing to plan is planning to fail. This is very true for triathlon races. Plan your race pace efforts for the bike (power, speed, HR), and for the run (pace, HR) ensuing that you do not overstretch yourself during each leg. Transitions can be difficult to manage and can add up to 15min onto your race time if you don’t get it right. The best thing to do, in our opinion, is to keep it simple. Here are some well tested nuggets of wisdom to manage transitions:

  1. Don’t give yourself choices (food, socks, clothing etc.). In your transition bag you should have exactly what you will need and will use, e.g., do not put two pairs of socks in your bag “for in case”.
  2. Wear a full or 2-piece trisuit. This will allow you to not have to change clothing during transitions. For transition 1, you will only need to take the wetsuit off from the swim, put on cycling gear (helmet, socks, shoes, sunglasses) and go. For transition 2, you will only need to put on running shoes, a hat and go. A full trisuit is easier as it doesn’t slide up, although it does make using the bathroom difficult. Personal preferences I suppose.
  3. Take in nutrition in transition for your next leg of the race. Essentially, you are fuelling for the next hour of the event.
  4. Take a moment in transition to just take it all in (albeit 1 minute). If you have kept things simple, an extra minute isn’t going to make the world of difference to your time, unless you are really pushing for a world championship contest with the elites.
  5. Give the helpers a high five and a thank you!

Tip 4: Spare the legs

The last 5km of the run in an ultra-distance triathlon is usually where explosions happen. 5km can become very long if your energy reserves are finished. The best way to avoid this is to spare some work on the bike. The bike routes on some races are flatter than others, and it may seem in the moment that you are well on your way to a PB and an age group winning slot. Just remember there is still a lot of work to be done after the bike leg. Hold back a bit, and you will have some gas left to nail that last 5km of the run.

Tip 5: Nutrition

This is probably the aspect of triathlon that will make or break your race. If you are not refuelling, you will have to eventually slow down. There are a lot of specific details about nutrition strategies, but the number one rule should be to avoid tapping into too much of your glycogen energy storage systems. Replacing fuel consistently throughout a race will allow the body to use that as its primary energy source via blood glucose, leaving your glycogen stores fairly untouched until absolutely needed. Generally, carbohydrates in the form of energy drinks and easily digestible foods are a good source of fuel. Fluid and electrolyte replenishment is also necessary.

This is a very brief summary of taking up some of the challenges of triathlon. For the most part of a triathlon race, stress levels are high. Approach race day with a plan in mind but allow space for changes in the plan. Too often panic-stricken athletes forget to put on a helmet when leaving transition, and get disqualified (yes the officials are strict like that!). Take your time, have a specific idea for what you want to achieve, and enjoy it. For more info, contact us via email and we will gladly assist with more discussions.

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