Recently I drove to Cleveland to watch my brother compete in the Age Group National Championships.

The temperature on Lake Erie was quite nice, but there was much hot air generated by me, a has-been mediocre triathlete, about how it all should be done. Since this is, strangely, the second time in a week I’ve been reviewing my little opinions about triathlon strategy with someone, I thought I’d go ahead and write too much of it down so that I can try to be useful while minimizing future prattle about my trivial racing career.

My first tip is some perspective. My brother finished roughly in the middle of the pack yesterday for his age group, but that’s not really the way to think about it. If you take all the men in the USA who are older than 29 and younger than 35 and line them up at the starting beach head to foot in order of how good they are at this sport, my brother would still be able to fit in the swim/bike transition lane. This line of guys, however would stretch from Cleveland to Perth, Australia. What’s important here is that even if you come in "last", cliche as it may seem, you are a winner — you deserve that medal they gave you!

With that in mind, if you decide to join the elite humans who even try this crazy stuff at all, here are some of the motes of wisdom I collected during my racing career which can make it go a little smoother.

Let’s go in order and start with the swim.

Swim

Unfortunately, the best way to approach the swim is to start being coached as a child and go to swim meets non-stop as a teenager. If, like me, you failed to do that, you will have an endless parade of very attractive college girls swim over top of your back during the swim. Could be worse. Actually it is worse, but I try to focus on the positive. It’s worse because a triathlon swim is like a hockey fight among water polo players. What can be done?

  • My most important triathlon swim insight is this: There are no lane lines in lakes. Just let that sink in for a moment. No lane lines. None. Unless you’re in the Caribbean, the chances are very, very good that water visibility is barely to the end of your arm. This was certainly true in all triathlons I competed in. If you’ve accepted this premise that the Midwestern reservoir you’re swimming in is so murky that you won’t see anything useful underwater, the next thing to contemplate is exactly why goggles would be needed. Turns out, goggles are not needed. How do you keep water out of your eyes? Keep them closed! Eyelids! Use them! Simple. There is a magic trick here and it must be rehearsed but it is simple. When you are in the pool training, pretend you do not have lane lines! Take off your goggles and learn to swim laps in a pool without them. This will feel very wrong to serious competitive swimmers, but believe me, it can and should be done. Ironically the less "swim team" background you have, the easier this is to get right.

    The technique I came up with involved a breathing pattern that could solve all the problems of limited vision. Remember, although you don’t have limited vision in the pool, you’re not training for the event properly if you don’t simulate that! My breathing cycle would go something like this: I would breathe right as my right arm is pulling; as my head rotates out of the water, I open the right eye that is now out of the water; I learn to get a quick fix on where the lane divider is; as I rotate my face back down I close my eye. Then I swim two complete right arm pulls with my face pointing down and my eyes closed. How off course are you really going to get in two strokes? Well, you need to find that out! Then on the next left arm pull I do the same head rotation on the other side, left eye opening and get a fix on the left lane divider.

    You may object that competition venues have as many lane dividers as lane lines painted on the lake bottoms. While that is true, the skill of sighting that lane divider is extremely valuable for sizing up who is around you and whether you’re converging on them. If you practice, that technique is actually enough to keep you going in a straight line in the pool. But there is more to it.

    If you swim like this in the pool you’re likely to hit your head when you reach the end of the pool. Fortunately the cure to this serious problem is the most important triathlon swim training tip. After pushing off the wall, after about two right side breathing cycles, the third one needs to be more elaborate. It can be simulated something like this: try sitting in a chair facing forward with eyes closed, then put your chin on your right shoulder and open your right eye, then look at the ceiling directly above your head opening both eyes, and then look forward again closing your eyes. Now imagine that exact same motion alternating sides while your body is horizontal. You need to be able to do that motion fluidly both from the left and the right. In the pool it will inform you where the end of the pool is so your flip turn isn’t an epic fail, but out on the lake the benefits are profound.

    I can say with no exaggeration that I always saved at least 10% of swimming distance by not going off course. I can also say that after about the top 5% of swimmers (whom I was never among!) almost no one swam the course straight. Literally everyone is seriously off course pretty much always. And that is because they’re wearing goggles and there are no lane lines. They are completely unprepared. I, on the other hand, while not being a freakishly fast swimmer per se, did always swim the course correctly. And I knew this because I had trained myself to be aware of what was above the water and to sight on marker buoys that were ahead of me. Pretty much every outing I would think to myself, "Where are you idiots going?" as a huge pack of people swam off at some crazy angle to the shortest direct path.

    Not only was I swimming much less distance, but because everyone else was swimming off course (seriously, it’s a crazy problem) I also enjoyed relatively empty water than the typical navigation technique of "follow everyone else". This is very important because when you’re in a big pack of people the fisticuffs can really throw you off your mission of energy smoothness. Remember, a lot of these self-selecting people have as much confidence and physical potency as you do and fighting with them in the water like wild animals can be suboptimal. Another thing with goggles is that you’ll usually spend at least a minute to reset them on your face after they get kicked off. Because conditions on the early morning lake are not at all like conditions at your indoor pool, the goggles will usually be foggy and full of water negating the only conceivable reason to wear them. When your head is in the water you’ll see lake murk; when your head is out of the water, you’ll see goggle fog. Without goggles, you have a crystal clear view of the only things you need to see. Also goggles are easily damaged by UV and sunlight and fail spectacularly right at the worst times. Having one less piece of equipment to worry about is a blessing.

  • I’m no special fancy swimmer, but I could excel where years of swim team training was not relevant and common sense dominated. This perfectly describes the exit from the swim. Most fancy swimmers just hop out of the pool — even I can almost swim out of a pool with a strong kick. But exiting a lake is a different scene altogether. How do you know when it is time to stop swimming and exit the water? The way most people figure it, after a long slog in the water, getting out as soon as possible is tempting. The compounding problem is everyone around them is doing the same thing. Here’s why that is not the right plan — I have passed hundreds of people who stopped swimming too early and tried to wade through deep water. It was easily the most reliable way I could instantly pass huge groups of people. If you can not feel the bottom of the lake while doing a crawl stroke, you are not finished swimming. It doesn’t matter how close that boat ramp looks. It doesn’t matter who around you is slogging through chest high water. Keep swimming! Once you can feel the bottom with your hand you can spring up instantly and high step out at pretty much a full running pace. While the goggle fogged people are wading and thinking, "Wow, that beach is sure a lot farther away than it looked", you can be focusing on calmness and recovery.

    In this photo I guarantee that I just swam easily past everyone else in the shot which was taken immediately after I jumped up one step back.

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  • I’ve also seen a lot of people not used to swim caps struggle to get them off at the end of the swim. They pull them straight up and get that "shark fin" look. The answer is to simply grab them at the back of your neck and pull them up and forward. Practice this because any dumb surprise like fumbling with getting your swim hat off is really fatiguing.

Transition1

  • I didn’t think it needed to be said, but from what I saw yesterday, apparently it does: leave your bike in a good gear to start riding it. An alternative is to not do that, but if you’re going with, say, a single harsh chainring plan, you must at the very least practice your starts. I saw people literally fall over trying to ride away. Remember that water flows downhill; this means the lake you just exited will usually be lower than the bike course; this means there easily could be a slight (or severe) climb right at the start. Practice wobbly starts up hills.

  • Tape/velcro/stick/strap stuff to your bike so you don’t have to worry about it in the transition. For example, don’t think about sunglasses or sunblock or snacks or gloves or whatever other minor details you might think you need on the bike until you’re a few hundred meters away and settled in. Ideally just don’t mess with any distractions. Certainly minimize.

  • Do your best to learn to ride without socks.

  • Some helmet clips are easier to operate than others. Make sure your helmet has the easiest. Hint, you can take a fastening clip you like and put it on a different helmet you like. Or pay a tailor/shoe repairer to do it.

  • Know how much water you need. Do that kind/length of course in that expected temperature enough to get it very close. Have a hydration plan and mostly stick to it. It’s easy to get distracted by it. Advance planning cures that.

  • Watching people struggle with their wetsuits made me wonder about their ultimate utility for such a short swim in very warm water. Certainly anything shorter than 1500m would seem very unlikely to benefit from a wetsuit. But if you are going with a wetsuit, make sure you can get out of it in a hurry.

  • For short course events, consider wearing racing flats the whole way, bike and run. If that doesn’t sound fancy enough for you, be prepared to justify (with a substantial collection of personal relevant TT times) exactly how much time those stiff soles are saving you.

  • The transition may not look anything like it looks when you dropped off your bike, especially if you’re early because you are fastidious and punctual, or early in the race because you came out of the water quickly or simply were in an early starting wave. Finding your bike can be a serious challenge. My solution was to have a bright orange plastic milk crate (mine finally broke a couple of weeks ago which means they can last decades). The crate was very useful for carrying everything I needed for the race. I could then turn it upside down and use it as a place to sit without wobbling around for the 3 seconds I needed to put on running shoes. But being able to look for that distinctive shape and color was very helpful for finding my transition location. I also had a high visibility color matched towel that I would put down in front of it which could also help with beach sand and post race care. Remember, as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy says to know where your towel is means to be in control of one’s life.

Bike

Triathletes are not supposed to specialize but they do and my specialty is the bike. One of the nice things about triathlon is that it is a perfect venue for people who suck at your specialty to compete with you (you just have to submit to their specialty). I could write several books about cycling (and if you like that kind of thing, I endorse this book). But basically competitive cycling comes down to four components. Let’s look at these in reverse order.

  • Unless you’re an Olympic triathlete (where the drafting rules are idiotic and render the entire sport pointless), you shouldn’t have to worry much about your competitors. Ignore them as best you can. It’s tempting, but don’t draft. Not even a little. It’s pretty much that simple. You may also want to watch out for inexperienced and clumsy bike handlers because even if they are professional road racers many strong cyclists are not properly at home on a time trial bike. Be alert for them doing wacky stuff. It’s getting better as pros born after LeMond’s convincing demonstration of time trial technology enter the peloton, but even today, I regularly see TdF pros whom I would not trade time trial bike handling skills with.

  • Bike handling is a special topic with triathlons. Time trial bikes are weird and, frankly, much less comfortable than a regular Dutch person’s regular bicycle. A lot of triathlon excellence is developing the level of comfort on a harsh bike needed for long hours of training and racing. My strong advice is to make sure you are comfortable with whatever fancy racing technology you are trying to take advantage of before you race with it. For example, fancy stiff shoes may save you 3 seconds in the first quarter of the course, but if your feet fall asleep and you lose 15 minutes later as a result, that’s not a good deal. It’s ok to train to make uncomfortable things comfortable, but don’t try to accomplish that by racing.

    The number one bike handling tip which must be fastidiously practiced is stay down! When should you stay down in an aerodynamic position? Always! At least every moment you are riding a time trial bike where it is safe to do so. I see so many people with aero bars sitting up while they train (it’s more common than seeing them use the bars properly). You can’t tell yourself, "Oh, I’ll use the drops when I’m really racing." No you won’t! You’ll be sitting up all the time and/or very uncomfortable. You must do long harsh stretches of training in the drops until it no longer feels long and harsh. Imagine if at some point in the bike course you had to stop and get off your bike and then hop back on and ride away. When you sit up from the aero position, it is like having 10% of that experience. Sit up 10 times or for long enough duration, it is as wasteful and fatiguing.

    At this point for me when I ride into a headwind, it is more painful for me to not get into an aero position because I have trained myself to be uncomfortable when I’m pointlessly fighting air resistance. Yes, even on my normal bike which doesn’t even have "aero bars" — I just put my forearms on the regular bars. I’m not exactly recommending riding like that on normal bikes, but I’m finally starting to see pros do this too in road racing. It is enormously beneficial if you’re fighting air resistance. And in a triathlon, you are.

    If all my triathlon advice had to fit into two words, they would be: Stay down! This includes any climbing that is done faster than walking pace. Stay down! Sitting up should be thought of like the side of the road rest breaks you take on the bike course. What’s that? You don’t stop and take breaks during the bike? Exactly!

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  • The topic of wattage building is vast and everyone has their theories. My theory for bike wattage building is pretty straightforward but often overlooked: ride a bike! Really, get out there and put in a lot of time and a lot of miles. Don’t obsess with working out in a gym or cross training or other things that may distract from actually riding a bike. A lot. Is your bike riding uncomfortable? Fix that. Is your bike riding dangerous? Go somewhere else. No time for bike riding? Replace some car trips. Etc.

    I have some additional counter-intuitive tips for wattage building. Should you ride a fancy racing bike? No. You do that to ride fast in a race. To become strong, you need a different approach. You should ride a very cheap bike, a heavy bike, maybe a bike loaded with cargo. That will make you very strong. Ride your light bike just enough to be perfectly at home on it. Other than that, ride a tank. It will be cheaper, you’ll be able to carry more of the gear you need to be 100% comfortable (jacket, rain gear, tools, kickstand, fenders, lock, etc), and it will give you less maintenance hassle over rough training roads. Plus such a bike is much less attractive to thieves than exotic racing hardware.

    If you have hills, they are good for building cycling wattage. If not, headwinds are actually your friend. You should start cultivating that attitude anyway! Hills, wind, rain — all can be allies.

  • You’re properly ignoring your competitor’s pace, you’re in the drops riding beautifully like Fabian Cancellara, you’ve been riding up your local mountain every day with 30kg of bike and gear — what else? It turns out that once you have the strength and bike handling worked out, the sport of time trial cycling actually begins. What are you actually thinking about and consciously doing during the race? The critical thing you’re doing is managing energy output. In pretty much all athletic endeavors, managing effort is very important, but in time trial cycling, it is really the essence of the sport.

    One way basketball coaches train their players for fitness is "intervals". The reason this works is because having an erratic flow of energy is very tiring. However, I’m not a fan of intervals because I also feel that it trains you to accept that mode of athleticism. Whether swimming, biking, running, or playing basketball if you let some "interval" thinking sneak in to actual competition, you’re thwarting your potential.

    What then is the opposite of doing intervals? It is precisely a cycling time trial. It is critically important that you not vary your power output. Ever. For any reason. This is the entire game. If you turn into a headwind, should you pedal harder to fight it? No. Never pedal harder. Or softer. Always pour the exact same wattage from your body. Note carefully that I’m not saying maintain the exact same speed. If your course is completely flat and there is absolutely no wind, then yes, never change your speed. But if there are rises or breezes or even different pavement textures, you must feel the power you are unloading and modulate it with perfect smoothness. (The same is actually true when getting the best mileage from cars.)

    I don’t have strong opinions about heart rate monitors, but if they help you have a smooth power delivery, use one. At this point I can feel my wattage pretty well and gadgets can be a distraction but they can also be helpful to develop that skill. The pro riders now use wattage meters on their bikes which directly measure exactly what power output they are producing allowing them (or their director in the trailing car) to know exactly how to manage road speed. If you have a lot of money, such a power meter is probably a better investment (for high performance) than a fancy bike.

    The way I trained myself to master this essential time trial skill is by doing time trials. Every week for years I did the same course at a club time trial like some weird religion. I got to know every tiny detail of the course and how I would ride it. The minute adjustments I would make from week to week would be exposed in the only metric that matters — the final time.

    The main thing I learned about what that skill required was that you must always stay calm. This is not easy to do in competitive environments. After the first dozen or so club time trials, events like that finally started to become so routine for me that I could stop wasting energy on pre-race nerves. When I am out riding on the street I can be somewhat combatif and silly with respect to power output. But when I get into some kind of mountain climbing duel with a well-matched adversary, my mind folds into a state of pure calmness and perfectly even energy flow. At that point, win or lose, I will be riding my best ride. It is literally the best you can do. The other good thing this mentality does is it shifts focus from your adversary to yourself. Your adversary may be fine now but struggle later with the pace, but if you’ve set your correct pace, you will be fine. In a time trial, that kind of thinking is 100% of the event.

To summarize my triathlon cycling advice.

  • competitor handling - Ignore them!

  • bike handling - Stay down!

  • wattage building - Ride a bike a lot! A heavy bike too.

  • wattage management - Perfectly smooth power output. Stay calm!

Transition 2

  • Don’t ever waste your time tying shoes and do not ever risk having an untied shoelace out on the course. I used these ordinary cord locks to completely solve that problem.

  • This is speculative, but I feel like if I raced today I might not wear shoes on the run at all. As it is I now wear very thin sole shoes for any running I do and I think it improves form and, ironically, reduces injury problems (because of improved form and attention). But hey, mush around on your waffle iron soles if you feel differently.

  • One tip that I feel like nobody but me figured out is to fold your number. When I raced, I was one of the very few people who used a number belt. I just created a simple loop of elastic. Today number belts are quite ordinary at triathlons and can get quite fancy. But when you attach your running number to the belt (or your shirt or whatever you’re doing), the important thing is that it shows the number. You are (probably) not required to show off the sponsor or a bunch of blank space. If you are #6 on a number sheet designed for #66666, it turns out that you can fold that down quite a lot. I found this kept it out of my way and, more importantly since it’s probably made of windproof Tyvek, provided critical ventilation. Let me put it a different way: if you’re doing a race on a very cold day and you want to keep your groin as warm as possible, do not fold your number to reduce its frontal area. But here’s the catch with number folding! Modern races have fancy trackers, but in my day, there was often a tab you’d tear off your number at the end of the race — you must make sure you can unfold the number easily and get at that if needed. Trust me, it can be done.

trirun.jpg

Run

I’m an ok runner. I was blessed with a good physiological running style which is naturally smooth and fast. Still there are things you can and should do to improve. I put a lot of thought into my stride and kinematics. For example, I may have a naturally good fast style but if the race is a marathon, that may not work in my favor. You must analyze your style for wasted energy and motion. Are you slamming the pavement? Are your shoes wearing in a funny way? Are you waving your arms pointlessly? There are many things that can lead to a wasteful stride. All I can say is that I spent many of the long hours training thinking about the details of my running mechanics. It’s worth doing.

Let’s assume you have given your stride sufficient thought or professional coaching — what else can be done? I’ve got a few other less subtle tips for triathlon running.

  • Draft! It’s not legal on the bike (except in the stupid Olympics), but it is perfectly legal on the run. Just because you’re doing 8 miles per hour instead of 24 mph doesn’t mean there are no benefits to drafting. Because running is so not aerodynamic, the effects can be pretty noticeable. If I’m running a race down a long straight city street into a full flag waving headwind, the chances of me not being behind some tall guy are 0%. I will even run slower or faster than my correct pace to get out of the wind and draft someone. And yes, look for that tall guy or a group or, ideally, a group of tall guys. To learn how to deal with crosswinds study echelon riding in pro cycling. The same physics applies to running. Here is an excellent video on the topic. Just remember, in a running race, you should never have to take a turn at the front! Leave that for people who are clueless about drafting effects.

  • Use shrewd navigation. Do not run a longer course than is necessary. Always sight the next turn you need to make and go directly to it. As a mental check think about where on that straight line to the next turn you should be when you are half way to it (maybe the middle of the road if you’re switching from left turn to right turn). Double check that’s where you really are when you get there. Always be checking this kind of thing. I am always amazed at the people who will run some serious extra distance because they don’t economize this. Think about why track starts over 100m are staggered!

  • The only sensible deviation from a perfectly direct course is if you can go out of your way for some shade (assuming it’s hot). By thinking about that in advance, you can optimize. This also applies to getting shelter from wind against a building or behind parked cars etc. Running up against a building will often be less windy than in the open road.

  • If your running is mediocre and you want it to be as good as it can be, the best thing to do is run with a group. That will motivate and push you to run at levels you never thought about achieving. My best recorded athletic performance was a half-marathon (80 minutes, which I’m very proud of, thanks for asking) and that was a direct result of doing a weekly 11 mile run with a club of freakishly fast old guys who taught me a lot. Old guys can do that.

I’m sure I have a lot more to say on the topic of triathlons but that’s most of the important stuff. One last piece of advice is the most important of all. Smile. There are a lot of good reasons for this. First of all, if you’re a normal grimacing competitor, that just tightens up muscles that really should be relaxed. But from an attitude management standpoint, by forcing yourself to smile and training enough so that it’s not even that hard to, you’re preparing your mind to be unstressed by how things are going to go. You’ll handle adversity much better. You’ll manage your energy better. You’ll be happier. Smiling helps you to have a good race no matter what happens.