Xterra: 16 tips for race day from Ben Allen & Jacqui Slack

An off-road triathlon will throw up many challenges unfamiliar to road triathletes. Pro triathletes Ben Allen and Jacqui Slack pass on some advice on how to cope...


The Xterra swim

1) In order to increase your ability to sight in the Xterra swim leg, practise sighting in the pool. Look up two to three times and try to keep a streamlined position by not dropping your hips and legs. For more tips on swim sighting click here 


2) Always bring two pairs of goggles with you; a clear set and a dark set. I use the clear set of goggles for rainy or cloudy days, and the dark set for bright and sunny days. Practise with both pairs of goggles during your pool sessions so you’re equally comfortable with both pairs.

3) Once the gun goes off, take your time getting into the water. There’s no reason to battle the chaos. It’s totally fine to swim 10-20m off to the side to avoid the washing machine mess. Don’t stress about losing a few seconds, because the more comfortable you feel in the water the better your swim will go anyway. If you can swim well you should position yourself front and centre. If swimming isn’t your strong suit, then it’s best to seed yourself towards the back of the pack.

4) I think your swim cadence in an off-road race is often much higher compared to a road triathlon. This is due to the fact that a lot of the races are held in the open ocean, creating additional difficultly dealing with Mother Nature like wind, chop, currents, tides, waves, etc. If you can keep cadence rates up you’ll be able to swim faster. It’s important to focus on this when fatigued because it takes a great deal of mental fortitude and additional stamina to keep things moving well.

5) If you have a chance to train in the open water or conditions similar to your Xterra race, take advantage of it. It’s not always the ‘fastest’ swimmers that exit the water first, but the ones who swim the smartest race and have used the ocean conditions to their advantage.

6) As Xterra swims often take place in the sea, wetsuits are a great investment! Not only do they keep you warm, but more importantly they provide buoyancy, helping to keep you on top of the water and making it easier to swim.

The Xterra Bike

7) Always follow the signs and route markers, and get to know the course well. Xterra markers are BLUE for Bike and RED for Run.

8) Stay in control. Watch your speed, slow down around tight corners, and don’t try any tricks beyond your skill level.

9) Yield the trail. When you get near another person, slow down. Let them know you’re approaching and signal that you want to pass. A common signal is yelling ‘Track!’ or ‘Passing on the left or right’.

10) Be prepared. Bring along a puncture repair kit and extra supplies, so you don’t get stuck out on the course and you can still manage to finish the race.

11) A high cadence is good for bike racing and higher powered/faster events and/or those requiring accelerations. Off-road triathlon is in this category. Multiple accelerations, coasting downhill sections and hitting huge watts spikes is what mountain biking is all about.

The Xterra Run

12) Road running is very different to off-road running. Most road runners are used to the same foot strike pattern and they don’t realise that, on the trail, you land differently each time due to the unstable terrain. Start slow and build into each off-road run.

13) Most Xterra run courses have hills in them; this means you have to learn how to run up them. For uphill running, you need to exaggerate your arm swing, drive from your elbows, lean into the hill, and push off the ground with the balls of your feet to drive yourself up the hill.

14) Add downhill off-road running to your training plan as well. What goes up must come down! Start with a short trail featuring a gradual slope – around a 2-3% grade – and move on to steeper, rockier and longer descents as you get more comfortable

15) To help running on gnarly trails, try to take short, quick steps so you can react quickly to the ever-changing terrain. Counting steps per minute can get confusing but fortunately there are now metronomes like the Finis Tempo Trainer on the market. This is a great tool to help you learn to maintain a 90rpm+ cadence. The device can be set to beep at any cadence desired to help you stay on track. For off-road racing, it can be a useful tool, helping you to run faster and more controlled under fatigue. And opt for trail shoes to offer you better protection from the trails.

16) When running off-road try to look three or four feet ahead, which will allow your brain to capture a mental snapshot of your foot placement and continue to process the images based on that mental snapshot. This’ll allow you to run fast!

Like these tips for race day? Check out Don’t let bike malfunctions ruin your race day


Read more about Jacqui Slack & Ben Allen