Race performance: small changes can lead to big gains

We all have large areas to work on in training. But Joe Friel demonstrates that often the best way to improve is by concentrating on the little things...


Most triathletes could significantly improve their race performance by making some small changes. Teeny tiny ones, even. 


These changes are always what I look for first when I start coaching an athlete. Sure, everyone has big things that need improvement, but these will take most of a season if not several seasons to develop. It’s while working on those biggies that you should be looking to make a few small changes, too, to bring more immediate results.

Here are what I consider to be essential areas for every athlete to address – at the very start of their training, as well as periodically throughout. Work your way through these points for a faster 2013.


Which sport is your weakest? Swimming, cycling or running? You’ll probably know the answer to this without giving it too much thought. But if you are unsure, go back to your race results from last season and see how you ranked for each split, in each leg of your races. The one with the lowest average ranking is your weakness. Now look to improve it over the next four to six weeks. This may simply involve putting in more training hours but, chances are, making some other small changes would be more effective.

The off-season is a great time to work on your weakest discipline, as with several race-free months ahead you’ll have the headspace to identify even the smallest areas that would benefit from work (the ones you just can’t see when you’re ploughing from one race to the next) and the timeand focus to work on them.


Improving general body strength, by adopting a core development and weight-lifting programme for the primary movers, can make you a far more efficient triathlete. Your core muscles are those from your armpits to your groin that maintain your spine and hip position. A stronger core greatly improves posture, power delivery to the arms and legs, and balance in all three sports.

The primary mover muscles are the big ones that drive your arms and legs. You’ll find some great off-season training workouts on the DVD that came free with this issue, some of which work on both core muscles and primary movers. Spend a few weeks this winter building your strength, followed by a maintenance programme in the spring for great rewards.


About 90% of the age-group triathletes I’ve coached have needed to change their swim or run technique. Most had very obvious flaws that were preventing them from being fast in either sport, no matter how fit they became. So just how can you determine your flaws and then correct them?

If you can, meet up with a swim or run coach over the next few weeks and get their feedback and advice. Alternatively, sign up for a swim or run clinic. You may also benefit from joining a swim or run group that has a session coach who sets workouts. Ask the coach to give you technique suggestions whenever possible. Almost all triathletes become better swimmers or runners after joining such a group.

If you’re on a budget but still want the benefit of expert advice tailored specifically to you, make a video of yourself swimming or running and have an online coach analyse it. After watching your video, they’ll come back with suggestions for changes and drills to better your technique. For athletes on even tighter budgets, read a book or watch a video on swim or run technique – you’ll still pick up some useful nuggets of information.


Is your bike the right fit and is everything on it positioned correctly? So many athletes have never had a proper bike fitting because they think their current bike fit is fine. Most of them are wrong. Having a bike fitting is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to instantly improve your performance, yet I see athletes at every race on bikes that are all wrong – it makes no sense at all.

 It’s surprising how a few millimetres in saddle height, saddle fore-aft, handlebar height, and reach and cleat position can make you considerably faster and way more comfortable. Ask at your preferred bike shop for a professional bike fitting.


If your primary aim is performing well on race day, the easiest way to perform better is to race to your strengths. The old saying ‘Horses for courses’ applies here, as each of us has a set of race conditions in which we excel and others in which we race poorly. Perhaps you don’t do so well on hilly courses, for example?

Aside from the course itself, you may also want to consider the typical weather conditions for your potential race locations. Another big consideration here is altitude. Living near sea level but racing several hundred metres above it, without adapting, is a surefire way to a disappointing performance. Similarly, if your goal is to place high in your age group or to qualify for a championship, you shouldgive some thought to the level of competition that’s generally found at the races on your list.


For more on Joe Friel’s training methods, go to joefrielsblog.com.