Triathlon race-day: 21 common mistakes

Andy Blow outlines some common scenarios that have a habit of tripping athletes up on race-day with the solutions so you can avoid making them and race better and better

Credit: ITU Media / Delly Carr

PRE-RACE MISTAKES

Competing is stressful at the best of times, so a good routine in the days before an event will help you get to the start line feeling as relaxed as is realistically possible, with only the usual pre-race nerves to deal with. Ask yourself honestly if you made any of these common errors this year. 

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1 Being late

Few things can ruin a race more than running late or missing the start. Even if you manage to arrive in time, the adrenaline rush caused by cutting it so fine can leave you exhausted when it wears off halfway round the swim. 

Solution Triple check when your start is and allow double the amount of time you think you need to get there. Remember that everything takes longer than it should on race day due to the sheer volume of nervous athletes faffing around in the start area. Much better to be set up and ready to go with 30mins to spare than panicking about whether you’re going to get to the start line on time. 

2 Lack of reconnaissance 

If you turn up at a really important race and don’t know the course, you’re putting yourself at a significant disadvantage. 

Solution Plan course recces into your training. If that’s impractical then, at the very least, read up on the route, look at maps and course profiles online, talk to people who’ve raced it before and drive the course in a car to get a feel for what you’re taking on. That way you should avoid turning up with the wrong gear ratios for the ride, or being psyched out by a hill on the run that you never knew was there.

3 Forgetting kit

Turning up at a race and finding out that a key piece of equipment is still sat in the garage is at best frustrating and at worst devastating to your performance. 

Solution Write a checklist of all crucial items. Break it down into pre-race, swim, bike and run sections. Physically check all items off the list as they go into your bag or the car, and take spares of things like goggles that have a habit of breaking. Do this for every race and forgetting kit should be a thing of the past.

 4 Disrupted nutrition

If you’re not racing near to home then getting hold of sensible pre-race food can be tricky, especially if the town in which you’re staying is suddenly overrun with hungry triathletes looking for a good feed. 

 Solution Book restaurant tables in advance or, even better, get self-catering accommodation and take your preferred foods with you. Prepare your race morning breakfast the night before or make special arrangements if you’re staying in a hotel; they may not be geared up to produce your favourite bowl of gluten-free, vegan granola at 4:30am on a Sunday. If you’re competing at a championship event and staying at the official team hotel, all meals should be provided accordingly. 

SWIM LEG

It’s often said that you can’t win a triathlon in the swim, but you can certainly lose it. A bad first leg can put a real downer on the rest of your day, both physically and psychologically, whereas coming out of the water in good shape does at least set the scene for a decent result. Were any of your 2012 swim legs adversely affected by the problems listed here? If so, implement the suggested solutions before next year.

5 Open-water nerves

In the UK we tend to go to the pool for most of our swim training. The open water is a very different place, and swimming in a restrictive wetsuit, in cold, turbulent water, with other swimmers and poor visibility can make the experience very intimidating.  

Solution Ensure you get plenty of open-water practice before the season. This is without doubt the number one way to gain confidence in that environment. The more hours you can accumulate in lakes, rivers and the sea, the more comfortable you will be during races. Learning to control your breathing is the key to success if you start to panic. When training, be sure to swim with others at all times, and in places where you know the water quality and conditions are safe. If open-water swimming is not an option, see if you can at least practise in your wetsuit at the pool to get used to how it feels. 

6 Going out too hard at the start

When you’re pumped up for a big race, the body is locked into fight or flight mode. Adrenaline is flowing to increase your heart rate and mask the pain of intense effort. This can easily lead to maxing out in the first few hundred metres and paying for it later on. 

Solution Practise swimming negative splits (a training method where successive sets are swum faster than the previous one) regularly during your winter training. This ingrains the ability to pace yourself properly and allows your mind to acclimatise to increasing the level of effort as time goes on. As a general rule in races, if you feel like you’re working hard in the first few minutes you’re probably absolutely cranking it and should back off. Think about regulating your stroke rate and only using a powerful leg kick in the first few metres when you want to accelerate hard. 

7 Poor navigation 

Taking the shortest line round the course is critical if you want to produce your best swim; the main reason for needlessly clocking up extra distance is not swimming a straight line between the marker buoys. 

Solution In both the pool and open water, practise looking up every 4-6 strokes to navigate above the water. When swimming outside, ensure you have well-fitting, anti-fog goggles, with clear or light-enhancing lenses for cloudy days and tinted lenses for when the sun’s out. Practise picking out landmarks on the shore that line up with the buoys, so you can sight them if the actual markers are too hard to see from water level. Also, when racing, don’t blindly follow the feet of the swimmer in front and assume they know where they’re going. Check for yourself from time to time
and stay on course even if they don’t.

8 Relying on fitness rather than technique

Many triathletes who aren’t from a swimming background punch below their weight in the swim, as they lack sufficient technique to make the most of their otherwise impressive fitness levels.

Solution Over the winter, seek out front-crawl swim coaching to help make your stroke more efficient. Of the three sports, swimming is by far the most technical and the rewards for increased efficiency are huge. Teaching yourself technique is extremely difficult as you can’t really see what it is you’re doing wrong, which is why external feedback from a coach or camera is so useful. Bear in mind that dedicating time to technique work might mean taking one step backwards in terms of fitness in the short term, as you aim to take two steps forwards in the long term. 

    

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9 Swim gear not up to scratch

Don’t be let down by poor swim gear

Solution: When the season is over MOT of all your swim gear. The biggest item to check over is your wetsuit: does it still fit well, are there any nicks or tears that need repairing, or is it time for a new one? There are off-season bargains to be had in the shops but be brutally honest about fit – are you likely to change weight before starting racing again next year? If so, it might be wise to hold off on a purchase until you’ve established your racing weight. 

It’s also worth checking that your goggles aren’t too scratched up from being thrown around in transition – new ones are a relatively modest investment. Swim training is much more productive if you can see where you’re going and read the pace clock!

If you swim on your own a lot without a coach on poolside to offer feedback, consider a stroke and lap-counting watch like a Garmin Forerunner 735XT or PoolMate 2. While they won’t be able to correct your technique, they will help you count lengths during long efforts and make sure your stroke rate isn’t dropping or increasing too much as you get tired at the end of a set. 

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BIKE LEG MISTAKES

The bike leg is where you’ll usually spend the lion’s share of your time during a triathlon, so there’s potential to lose or gain a lot during the ride. There will be possible issues around equipment with all the finely tuned, lightweight, mechanical gear involved, as well as your fitness and preparation. Consider how you approached both your bike equipment prep and training in 2012 in relation to the problems and solutions below, and whether any changes in routine could help next season. 

10 Not 100% comfortable in the aero position 

If you’re not entirely at home on the aerobars, not only will you fail to put out maximum power output, you’ll also struggle to run well when you exit T2. 

Solution Ride your race bike (or a training bike with identical set-up) more often. Many athletes save their race bike for best, logging most of their training mileage on a bike that bears little resemblance to the one they’ll be using on race day. This can lead to all sorts of postural issues (especially in long-distance races) and can ruin a good run, too. Get a set of training wheels and use your race bike at least once per week for a good hard ride. You’ll soon see the benefit in events. 

    

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11 Poor technique getting onto the bike

Quite often you see athletes making a hash of mounting the bike out of T1 and struggling to set out on the ride. 

Solution Coming out of a swim you often feel disorientated, uncoordinated and in a hurry. This is not a good combination when seeking smooth passage onto the bike. The two main things you can do to improve your
T1 abilities are firstly to practise mounting your ride, with shoes attached to the pedals, time and time again over the winter, until it’s second nature. Secondly, keep the cliché ‘more haste, less speed’ at the forefront of your mind when in T1, as nowhere is this saying more appropriate.

    

How to mount and dismount your bike smoothly in transition

    

12 Struggling on hills, climbing or descending

Few athletes have major issues with riding a flat course but when the ground tilts up or down by a significant margin things can start to go awry.

Solution: To improve your climbing, the overwhelming priority is power-to-weight ratio. This is obviously improved by either increasing power output, decreasing weight or both. Firstly, have a look at yourself and your bike to see if either could benefit from a diet. If you’re trimming mass from the bike then shedding rotating weight (in the wheels and tyres) has marginally more influence than the frame, forks and other static components. However, be sure to look at the rider as the number one priority – most have way more spare tyres to lose than their bikes! If you struggle when descending due to nerves or lack of skill, get out and ride with more experienced roadies and pick up some tips on bike handling. Although age-group triathlon is run in a time-trial format, the courses are not normally out-and-back dual carriageway affairs, so a little bike handling skill goes a long way. 

    

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13 Unable to deal with mechanical issues

Simple breakdowns like a puncture and even a snapped chain should not be complete showstoppers, especially in long-distance races. But if you can’t carry out roadside repairs then they will be.

Solution Learn to change an inner tube (or tubular tyre) in double-quick time. Time yourself at every opportunity to see how fast you can do it. Also figure out how to use a chain breaker or a snap link to mend a broken chain and how to thread the chain the correct way through a rear mech (not as easy as you’d think the first time you try!). Make sure your bike is specced up with decent tyre levers, a high pressure hand pump, a set of Allen keys and chain tool; all of which have been tried and tested to ensure they’re up to the job.

    

Don’t let bike malfunctions ruin your race day

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RUN LEG

If you can finish with a strong run leg it’s possible to do a lot of damage to your competitors in any triathlon, even after a relatively mediocre swim or bike. It is, after all, the last discipline, so everyone’s hurting and battling their own demons just to reach the line. Whether you consider the run to be one of your strengths or not, it’s worth thinking about how you can squeeze some more time from the final leg in 2013, using the suggestions here as a starting point.

14 Jelly legs off the bike

Anyone who’s done a tri before will know the weird and off-putting ‘out of body’ experience you can feel when setting off on the run portion of the race. 

Solution There are two dimensions to getting rid of jelly legs at the start of the run. The first: do more brick sessions in training to accustom to the changeover. It’s well worth running even for 10-15mins after one or two bike rides each week over the winter, to convince the legs that this is normal behaviour. The second, perhaps less obvious, is to work on your bike fitness and pace judgment, as the easier you find the ride, the better you’ll run. Running performance is probably hampered more by having to work too hard on the bike than it is by pure run fitness alone.

    

Improve your transitions – reduce T2 discomfort and go from bike to run more easily

    

15 Blisters and rubs

In short-course races in particular, many athletes choose to run without socks to speed up transition times. However, this can cause blisters and sores that can then equate to lost training time post event, if they don’t heal quickly.

Solution For long-course races it’s almost always worth spending an extra 20secs in T2 putting socks on to bring the risk of rubbing down to a minimum. For short-course events where sometimes seconds do count, it’s sensible to prepare both feet and shoes first to minimise any issues. Firstly, train once a week in your racing shoes, without socks, to ensure there are no hotspots, and to toughen your feet up in the right places. Secondly, apply Vaseline
to any areas of the shoe (typically the heel and under the ball of the foot) that are prone to friction. And finally, make sure you stick the innersole of your shoes down with glue to stop them rucking up as you stuff wet feet into
them straight out of the swim.

   

6 common foot problems triathletes face and how to treat them

   

16 Going off too hard out of T2

Many athletes receive a second adrenalin rush when leaving transition, especially when spectators are around, which can lead to a painful slow-down as the race progresses. 

Solution Perform acceleration runs in training. These are runs where you start steady and speed up each kilometre so that the last is the fastest. The accelerations don’t have to be dramatic (in fact it’s better if they’re not); just 5-10secs per km over a session of 6-10km is enough, but the overall effect is to run a negative split. In a triathlon, negative splits can be devastatingly effective as 95% of the field are crawling in the last few minutes while you’re moving at full pace. Three to four acceleration runs per month over the winter are plenty to get you into the groove for 2013.

17 Running injuries

Of the three sports, running tends to be hampered by injury the most, due to the repetitive nature of the movements
involved and the extreme levels of force the limbs are subjected to. 

 Solution Through the winter, training off-road is a great way to reduce the risk of overuse injuries that road running can cause. Uneven surfaces and softer ground reduce the repetitive strain that comes with logging miles and miles on the tarmac. As fitness builds with consistency of training, minimising time off running should lead to better conditioning when the season does arrive. Off-road running is also often more enjoyable, so helps keep life interesting over the autumn and winter. 

    

Run technique & training: 9 common mistakes triathletes make

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Post race mistakes

Good recovery from an event is essential if you want to build on one result and perform even better at your next race. Nutrition is perhaps one of the biggest factors influencing recovery from a hard race, but there can be a conflict, as food also plays a big part in the post-race reward process for many athletes. Rest and active recovery have a part to play, too, and need to be factored in. Have a think about your typical post-race routine and see if there are any suggestions here that you could adopt to make it more effective.

18 Poor post-race nutrition

Enjoying fish and chips, a pack of chocolate brownies or whatever is your favoured reward after a race is no bad
thing. However, too much junk will lead to compromised recovery and weight gain, neither of which are particularly compatible with future success.

19 Lack of cool-down, stretching or massage

Sometimes it can be tempting to come to a complete stop at the end of a race and hang around chatting to fellow competitors before completing any sort of active recovery. 

Solution Have your support crew ready near the finish with some dry kit and change straight away, especially if the weather’s cold. Take a short walk and stretch. Grab a massage if you can. If you’re faced with a long drive home post race, share time behind the wheel with someone else. And when not driving, stretch out as much as you can. Stop frequently to stretch your legs as this will help to stop muscles seizing up.

20 Neglecting injuries or niggles

It’s tempting to fully switch off and simply relax post race, ignoring any sore and tight spots in muscles and joints that could lead to further, and possibly serious, injury if
left unattended. Don’t!

Solution Take a mental inventory of how you feel post race. Work up from the feet, cleaning any blisters and sores and treating with antiseptic to stop infection creeping in. Apply ice to inflamed joints and stretch all major muscle groups to feel for tight spots or small tears. If there are any niggles, see a physiotherapist or masseuse as soon
as possible.

21 A post-race drop in motivation 

This is typical after a really big or strenuous race, such as a championship or Ironman event. 

Solution As a drop-off in motivation is almost an inevitable result of training hard and peaking for a big event, the first thing you need to do is to see it coming and embrace it. Don’t worry about finding it hard to get out and train; realise it’s normal and work around it by taking it easy and enjoying some light sessions or cross training. Start to think about your next long-term goal and set a date in the future when you’re going to begin preparing for it. Until then, forget about any sort of goal-orientated training and get out there to simply enjoy swimming, biking and running for what they are.

     

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