29 September 2009 1 Comment

Learning Race Craft

Triathlon is unusual when compared with other sports in that you have three distinct disciplines to train for and execute in a race, as well as the extra strain of transferring from 1 discipline to another. When you add to the mix the necessary pre-race preparation and organisation, it can make your first triathlon quite a nerve-wracking experience. Even seasoned triathletes (I think I can call myself that after 7 seasons) make the occasional gaffe, and 2 stand out for me: one was completely forgetting where I was supposed to rack my bike in T2 and spending 5 minutes running up and down transition looking for my white running shoes amid 300 other pairs of white running shoes; the other was realising I had forgotten my cycling shoes shortly before the start and having to ride using trainers on clipless pedals – not terribly comfortable – luckily it was a sprint distance event.

For me, race-craft in triathlon is much more than learning how to pace yourself, it’s all about developing a routine right the way from registration through to eating properly in advance and setting up in transition. A lot of this comes down to personal preference and experience, but you can also learn a lot from other triathletes.

Pre-race recce

Preparation for a triathlon can start months prior to an event. For most people this means reconnoitering the bike course. Becoming familiar with the bike course can save you minutes off your bike time simply by knowing where the hills and technical corners are, where to push, and where to rest. In the worst case scenario you might drive the course the day before or early on race morning, and this is better than riding blind, but nothing beats actually riding the route. If running is your strong suit, you may well also want to run this route as well. It’s not something I’ve ever felt necessary for me, but then again it’s not the section of the race that is my strongest. It’s quite rare to be able to get the opportunity for a pre race swim – in big Ironman and Half-Ironman races the swim course is sometimes opened the day before the race, so grab the opportunity if you can. The more extensive your pre-race recce, the less the course will hold fears for you, and the better you will perform. Simple as.

Packing and registration

Make sure you read the race website’s registration information carefully to be clear on when you can register, when you can rack bikes etc. Usually you will need the following with you for registration itself:

  • Photo ID
  • British Triathlon membership card or £5 for race insurance
  • Bike helmet for safety check (sometimes this is done on entry to transition with your bike)
  • Sometimes you’ll need some extra cash for parking

I have a fairly comprehensive pre-race tick list that is designed to stop me from forgetting vital stuff and usually my wife double checks for me to make sure that everything is packed. All my stuff goes into a two compartment bag, but many people like to have a separate plastic crate for all the stuff they will need only in transition. Click on the link to download the tick list (Microsoft Word format).

Triathlon Kit List

Also, think carefully about your post race needs – if you have family or friends supporting they might be able to carry some food and spare clothing for you. If not you’ll need to have stuff in your car (if nearby) or in a bag in transition. Post race food at events is very variable with some having plenty of bananas, cakes and sometimes even sandwiches etc. Others offer very little beyond water.

Transition

Before you set up transition it is important to be clear beforehand what your strategy will be. Will you wear your race number belt under your wetsuit, for example? Will your cycle shoes be clipped into your pedals, or on your transition mat? It is an extremely good idea to practice transition a few times in training before race day, and many athletes use transition as a means of shaving significant chunks off their race time.

You will see many experienced triathletes with their cycle shoes already clipped into their pedals and held horizontal by a rubber band wrapped around the chainstays of their bike. I never do this myself and put my cycling shoes on the ground next to my bike. I think that unless you practice a lot with shoes pre clipped it’s actually slower, and I have found myself frequently passing athletes at the start of the bike leg weaving slowly all over the place trying to sort their shoes out. The longer the exit to the bike route from transition the more beneficial it is to have your shoes clipped into the pedals as you can’t run fast in cleated cycling shoes.

Here is how I do it:

  1. Race belt worn under my wetsuit;
  2. Bike shoes at the front of the towel with socks in each shoe ready (if wearing – I usually don’t for sprints and Olympic distance);
  3. Sunglasses in cycle shoes (most people put them on their helmets – I don’t because you have to put your helmet on first)
  4. Helmet on top of cycling shoes (many folk balance their helmet on their tri bars;
  5. At the back will be my running shoes with elastic laces, a spare pair of socks, spare gels and a run hat if it’s a very hot day.

Practice laying this out in training beforehand and everything will be just where you expected it.

One big DON’T: don’t race sockless unless you have tried it in training and you know that both your cycle shoes and trainers are suitable.

Another element of getting set up in transition is your bike. I’m presupposing you have it fully fettled and maintained beforehand because failing the mechanical check on entry to transition is not something to contemplate. One really common reason for failing the mechanical check is a missing handlebar end plug. Make sure you’ve got the basics of your bike maintenance kit with you.

Assuming the bike is fine mechanically, check the following:

  1. Tyre pressures are right. There are two easy mistakes to make: tyre pressure is too high for wet or damp conditions. If it’s wet you’ll need to lose at least 25psi from your tyres otherwise cornering will be a nightmare. Secondly, if it’s a really hot and sunny day don’t inflate your tyres to the max as they risk exploding as the hot sun on black rubber heats the air inside the tyre. I’ve heard it happen more than once and it will wreck your race.
  2. Your bike is in the correct gear for exiting transition – you don’t want too get bogged down in too high a gear, or left spinning frantically in too low a gear;
  3. Check bottles and nutrition are in place.
Transition at Bala - the perfect triathlon setting?

Transition at Bala - the perfect triathlon setting?

The final element in transition is sorting out the pathways through. In other words, where do you come in from the swim? Where is the bike exit? and the same for finishing the bike and starting the run. It is very important to physically walk through this element so you know exactly where your bike is stationed relative to the swim entry, and same on returning with your bike. Transition is incredibly disorientating if you haven’t spent time pacing out your route through. Look out for landmarks such as a tree or a portaloo or whatever. Count the rows of bikes and figure out which number is yours. Visualise the whole transition process.

Pre-Race Nutrition

Whole doctorate studies have been done on this sort of thing, so I’ll just relate what works for me and bust a few myths. Firstly, don’t stuff yourself the night before a race. Eat a normal amount of food including a high carbohydrate component such as rice, potatoes or pasta. Even if you’re doing a Half-Ironman or Ironman, you are asking for tummy troubles if you overeat the night before. I tend to have something simple like some spaghetti bolognese. Ditto for breakfast. You’ll only be keeping your blood sugar level topped up, so don’t overdo it. I like a couple of croissants with jam washed down with some fresh juice and good espresso coffee and maybe a banana. Even before long distance events I won’t have much more than this. Breakfast should be at least three hours before the start if possible (the closer to the start, the less you should eat). Between breakfast and the start I concentrate on hydration – I drink plenty of water and once I get to within half an hour of the start I’ll switch to energy drink and have another espresso or caffeine gel.

You”ll note that I enjoy a good caffeine hit before a race, and it works for me. For some people, caffeine can induce anxiety and you should be careful, especially before your first open-water swim. As before, it’s a very good idea to practice your pre-race nutrition strategy in training.

Race Nutrition

Again this is an area of much academic debate and research, and again, what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. Race nutrition in longer distance races, especially Ironman needs very careful thought and preparation and here is not the place for discussing it, except to say that getting your nutrition right for Ironman is just as important as getting the other aspects of training right. Get it wrong, and you won’t finish. Here is a post on my nutrition strategy for Ironman UK.

For shorter distance races nutrition is still very important and getting it wrong can still have dire consequences. I am constantly amazed at triathlons to watch athletes setting out on the bike seemingly with a small sports store’s worth of gels and drinks taped to their bike frames and handlebars, even on sprint distance events.

Here’s what my experience tells me that you’ll need:

Sprint distances: a small drink (half litre) on the bike (water or energy drink). I won’t eat anything at all. For any race under 2 hours, you should really need nothing more than water.

Olympic distances: 3/4 litre of energy drink and a couple of gels or gel sweets. If your race plan suggests you’ll go over 3 hours, you’ll probably want a second bottle of drink and maybe an energy bar of some kind.

Half Ironman: The consequences start to stack up if you get it wrong here. I normally carry 2 x 3/4 litre bottles, 1 with water, and 1 with energy drink. I will eat two or three energy bars steadily through the bike leg and maybe add a caffeine gel near the start of the run if my constitution feels good. I will often take an extra drink from one of the feedstations on the course so aim to have  2-3 bottles of drink finished by the start of the run.

On the run, for shorter events up to Olympic distance I might grab a mouthful of water racing through the drinks stations. On longer races I will be much slower through feedstations (walking on Ironman) and take proper drinks of water and flat coke if they have it; I’ll also have half a banana every so often depending on how I feel.

The main factor that will change this is the weather. If it is expected to be very hot, make sure you increase your fluid intake significantly.

Heading for the finish at the Vitruvian

Heading for the finish at the Vitruvian

The biggest mistake that people seem to make is excessive consumption of food, and gels in particular, with the consequent stomach cramps and nausea that goes with it. The number one lesson here is try it in training. I hate gels, they react very badly with my stomach, so I rarely touch them – I find the new gel sweets on the market are much more palatable. I also find salt tabs are much better for me compared to electrolyte drinks. Some of the more artificial energy bars also don’t sit well with me. In fact, next year I am going to try making my own totally natural energy bars for racing. You will only find these things out in hard training sessions practicing your nutrition strategy.

Learning all the time

There is no race I have done after which I have thought, “I could not have improved that.” Whether it’s organising your kit, racing through transition, not drinking enough on a hot day, you are always learning and making mistakes. It’s when you get complacent that you start forgetting things. Most of my big mistakes came in my 3rd season when, looking back, I thought I had this triathlon lark taped, and complacency set in.

Thinking about my previous post about choosing races it seems all the more important to practice what you hope to achieve in your main target race in lesser races in the build up. No matter what you do in training, it’s impossible to replicate the stresses and intensity of a race day. Yes, you can and you should practice all the things I’ve mentioned above in training, but it’s only when you put them together for a race that you can find out if you are truly prepared or not. It seems to me that it’s a high-risk strategy to gamble on it all coming together for your big time event first go.

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