As a triathlete, you must always expect the unexpected. Part of the appeal of an endurance sport like triathlon is that you have the opportunity to face off against the elements – swimming through ocean waves, biking up scenic climbs, and running along picturesque trails.
But just like racing, weather is unpredictable and can result in last-minute changes to an event.
Rough surf can quickly turn a triathlon into a duathlon, or an impending thunderstorm might cause a bike leg to be cut short. All of a sudden, your carefully crafted race plan with pacing goals and nutrition strategy must change mere moments before you toe the start line.
At the 2021 Xterra World Championship in Hawaii, a massive swell forced the cancellation of the swim turning the race into a duathlon.
At the 2021 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Utah, a microburst storm hit while athletes were on the swim and bike with high wind, lightning, and even hail.
How to deal with a cancelled swim
Most recently, at 70.3 Gulf Coast in Florida, a storm resulted in the cancellation of the swim. Ironman certified coach, Gineth Mendez-Yibirin, and age-grouper, Dr. Ronda VanderWall, were among the athletes who had to pivot at the last minute and start the race with a time-trial style bike.
“As an athlete and a coach, I know there are certain situations that we can’t control,” Mendez-Yibirin says. “I try to remind my athletes of this during training so they can deal with unknowns on race day. When the swim is canceled, there’s really no time to dwell about it. It’s go time, and you need to get focused in the moment.”
With no swim to serve as a warm-up, it was important for athletes to do dynamic drills or a short run to prepare for a “cold start” on the bike. Pacing considerations also had to be made.
With the cancellation of the swim cutting 30-50 minutes off their race, this meant athletes might have a bit more in the tank and could be more aggressive towards the end of the run.
“The plan on the bike remained,” Mendez-Yibirin says. “Start conservative and build up to a strong finish. Normally, T1 gets your heart rate really high, and this wasn’t the case, so I think it was a smooth start on the bike.”
This wasn’t the first time Mendez-Yibirin has had to contend with a last-minute race change due to weather. In 2019, at 70.3 Eagleman, the swim was cancelled as well. But by staying calm and doing a short, pre-race warm-up run, she had one of her best races and qualified for the World Championships.
Control the controllables
When the unexpected happens, she advises her athletes to control the controllables. While you can’t control the weather, you can control your attitude, nail your nutrition, and perfect your pacing. By being resourceful and adaptable, you can strive for the best finish you can, regardless of circumstances.
Dr. Ronda VanderWall was in Panama City for the shortened Gulf Coast race as well, and she also competed in terrifying weather at the 70.3 World Championship in St. George last year.
“At the end of the day, you need to prepare for it all. We willingly sign up for an outdoor race weeks, months, or years in advance. There’s no way to predict the weather.
“First and foremost, you prepare for a triathlon and if weather affects the race, you pivot. Make changes and adjustments, but get your butt out there and race!”
How to race in a storm
When VanderWall awoke to a brutal storm on race morning, her biggest fear of signing up for a race with an ocean swim became a reality.
“I typically choose a lake swim, because it’s a more controlled body of water. I had a choice to make. I could just give up and not race, or I could change my perspective and do what I came to do.”
Because the biggest logistical changes were with timing and equipment, she stayed on track with her normal morning routine and nutrition. The next step was calling on her mental strength to refocus, make a new plan, and execute – a skill that comes with experience.
“The more races you do, the more you have the ability to pivot when weather or other things change your race,” she says.
That’s a skill she learned first-hand after riding through a thunderstorm in St. George, while being pelleted by stinging rail and hail, only to begin the half marathon hours later to clear skies, but 90°F temperatures. This type of dramatic change in weather might mean making adjustments to your nutrition strategy.
How to adjust your nutrition strategy in a race
Oftentimes, a triathlete’s hydration and nutrition source are tied into one sports drink. That can become a problem if you need to increase fluid intake during a hot race, but don’t want to ingest too many carbohydrates, which can lead to an upset stomach.
In these situations, it’s always good to plan ahead by packing extra gels and salt tablets to supplement as nutritional needs change. It might also mean making on-course adjustments by taking in straight water if you need to increase fluid but limit excess carbohydrates.
How to deal with cold weather in a race
In the face of unexpected cold, it’s crucial to remember to keep drinking. When you don’t sweat as much, the thirst response dissipates, but you still need carbohydrates to fuel your body.
Another concern that comes along with cold weather is hypothermia. Simple tricks like wearing earplugs and doubling up on swim caps in the water, drying off completely before starting the bike, and wearing oversized gloves, arm warmers, and a vest all help to conserve core body temperature.
What to do if your race is cancelled
When the worst happens, and a race is cancelled due to weather, event companies typically provide a few options for athletes. A deferral to next year’s event, a discount for a future race, or switching to a virtual option are among the most popular.
However, it’s a good idea to pay attention to the fine print you sign when you enter a race, because most companies have a no-refund policy when it comes to adverse weather conditions.
“Race officials ultimately want their race to happen in its entirety,” VanderWall says. “Weather cannot be predicted, and they have to make decisions that will protect the athletes as well as themselves.”
Part of being a triathlete is having the ability to face challenges head on, stay calm, and keep moving forward. Whether it’s a flat tire or bad weather, any roadblock can be overcome with preparation and a positive attitude.
Tips for dealing with race-day weather
- Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
- Control the controllables.
- Be adaptable and change your race plan as needed.
- Add in a dynamic warm-up or make pacing adjustments on the fly.
- Stay positive and remember everyone is facing the same circumstances.
“If you’re well trained, you will be ready for anything that race day brings,” Mendez-Yibirin says. “It’s not always the weather that can present a challenge, but if you plan and are prepared, you can rise up to any challenges that come along.”
Top image: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images for Ironman