28 September 2015 0 Comments

My Top Tips for Triathlon Newbies

So you want to do a triathlon? Fantastic, it’s the best sport in the world! But where do you start? All the sage advice and opinions in magazines and online can seem a little overwhelming, intimidating or just over-filled with impenetrable jargon even for relatively seasoned competitors. And cutting through the marketing hype from companies desperate to sell you their latest innovation that is guaranteed to make you race faster is something that all of us have succumbed to at some time or other: that gizmo or supplement never quite delivered the performance benefit that the pseudo science confidently predicted.

So here are my jargon and marketing free tips for triathlon newbies based on 12 seasons of racing at an unashamedly middle of the road pace:

  1. Get a bike fitting by a pro: Being comfortable on the bike is vital, whatever the distance of triathlon you are tackling. More than that, poor positioning can easily result in knee pain, back pain, neck pain, pretty much pain all over, and the longer the triathlon the more you are opening yourself up to injury. Lastly, correct bike positioning can lead to massive improvements in your ability to put power through the pedals efficiently. In other words, you’ll go faster while being more comfortable, it’s a no brainer.
  2. Learn to use your gears properly: When you watch a really good cyclist their pedaling action seems almost effortless no matter what sort of terrain they are riding through. Go out with experienced cyclists and watch how fast they are pedaling. Every time I go out on my bike I see people bobbing their shoulders and head up and down as they mash a gear that is too high, or wobble about as they frantically spin a gear that is too low. This is massively inefficient and tires you out in no time at all. Drop down the gears and keep it smooth all the time: speed will come with practice.
  3. Learn to ride with clipless pedals: I won’t take any argument on this. Clipless pedals are massively more efficient at transferring power to the pedal. Practice clipping in and clipping out with crash mats if need be, but make the change, it’s worth it.
  4. Embrace the open water: I’m willing to bet that open water swimming is one of the biggest reasons that stop people from doing triathlon. It shouldn’t be. Too often, the only time we get into open water is for a hardcore training session. Why not go down and splash about, swim a bit if it takes your fancy, but most of all, enjoy the aesthetics of the open water environment. It’s only by relaxing that you will learn to love the open water. So go to the beach and swim, not for training, but for fun (it really is fun). If a useless swimmer like me can enjoy the open water, then anyone can.
  5. Invest in fitness before kit: Even the most expensive bicycle doesn’t ride itself. I’m a fairly decent cyclist and most of the time my bike split will be in the top third for any given event,  however, in every race, I’ll be overtaken by some guy on a much cheaper bike than mine. He (or she) is just fitter and faster. So before you upgrade that bike, consider spending your budget in other ways: maybe get some coaching, invest in an extra spin class over the winter, join a gym. Unless your bike is a real clunker then buying a new one is usually a pretty marginal gain. And if you are going to buy that über bike then at least learn to ride it properly. I’m thinking of the guy on the £7000 time trial bike at Challenge Henley who never once got into an aero tuck. What a waste of money!
  6. Make friends with the brick: It is incredible the number of people who train each individual element of the triathlon as if it were a separate event. Because it is a multisport event it makes sense to train your body into getting used to this. The brick session, where you combine swim and bike or bike and run is often the most effective training you can do. It doesn’t have to be too scientific, cycling to and from the swimming baths is a good start, as is making sure you go out for a short run after a long bike ride. A decent coach will help you structure your training to be most effective, but you can be sure that you’ll be doing plenty of bricks!
  7. Don’t make your Big Day your first triathlon: You might have signed up for an Olympic Distance, half or even full Ironman in a year’s time, but it’s a really risky strategy to make this your first ever triathlon. On every single Ironman I have done, and a fair few halves besides I have seen people pulled out of the water by the canoe guys because they are hyper-ventilating. It’s not because they haven’t done the training, it’s just that raceday nerves have overcome them. I dread to think what they are thinking once they are back on terra firma watching everyone else race past. Why did they not do a shorter distance low key event or two beforehand? They could have worked through their open water blues, sorted out their pre-race routines and kit lists and generally relaxed into this wonderful sport. It might just make that Big Day a little less daunting and a whole lot more successful.
  8. It’s all about learning: Exploring the limits of your performance, setting personal bests and so forth will come with time and experience. Nobody is ever quite sure how they will react to that first race, especially in the longer events. So don’t be disappointed if you miss your target. Instead, after the race, think about what you have learned about yourself. What did you do well? What went badly? What would you change for next time? In a complex sport like triathlon there are so many variables at play that it’s rare for a race to go entirely to plan, so the more you can reflect on your training and racing the more experience you can bank and call upon when the chips are down.
  9. Don’t race until the finishing straight: I really mean, don’t race others until the finishing straight. Triathlon is a race against the clock: if you blitz the bike and fall apart on the run you’ll end up with a disappointing time. Work out your race plan in advance and stick to it (while bearing in mind 8 above). I’m mindful of the guy at Ironman Wales who for the first half of the race overtook me repeatedly. I stayed at my own pace throughout and every time I passed him he would accelerate rapidly then a few hundred metres later fall back again. I ended up over 45 minutes faster than him by the end of the bike and I imagine he was in bits. Successful racing is all about pacing and saving yourself for the run – something that sounds easy but is very hard to do!
  10. Smile! I’ve known triathletes get really stressed about training because they haven’t done enough. One guy who was training for an Ironman was getting so worked up by his inability to swim front crawl properly he was close to packing it in. His coach was stressing him out with his insistence on doing front crawl and he was hating it. I suggested he switch to breaststroke for his first race as the swim was only 10% of his total race time. He might have been 2o minutes slower on the swim, but he completed Ironman UK and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. And that is what it’s all about.
Keeping good form on the bike, 2nd lap (All rights reserved, Finisherpix)

Keeping good form on the bike, 2nd lap (All rights reserved, Finisherpix)

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