There really is no better way to fully prepare for your first race of the season than by running through it in training
Two summers ago, I marshalled at the inaugural Bourton-on-the-Water Triathlon, an entry-level event attracting a lot of smiling first-timers. There are worse ways to spend a Sunday morning and, standing 50 yards from transition, my job entailed pointing runners to a hard right on their first 2.5km run lap and making sure they kept trundling ahead for the second.
After a couple of hours, when all human life had passed, I’d accumulated, in no particular order, a hand-pump, a cycle gilet and a bike helmet – all non-essential items for the run leg, but only discarded after their owners had scuttled out of T2. It was an amusing reminder (especially the bike helmet!) of where a little race simulation might have helped.
“That first race will always be a step into the unknown,” says Russ Hall, a senior coach at Birmingham Running, Athletics & Triathlon (BRAT) Club and Tri-1st. “Simulation gives confidence, reduces the need for luck and introduces actions that become second nature, dramatically reducing the chance of making mistakes under pressure.”
‘Under pressure’ is the key here, because how many of the above examples would have occurred had the individuals been out for a leisurely morning jog after cycling? The alien environment of a first triathlon, even if you are used to competing in a single-sport environment, involves step-by-step logistics that are best committed to memory through repetition.
The best way is to slot in a local club race first. It may not have the size or charisma of your goal event but will be as close a comparison as you can get and there are fewer prying eyes if you make a Horlicks of it.
But of course cost can be an issue and although there are a lot of initiatives looking to provide more low-cost events for novices, it’s not something most beginner triathletes can schedule week in, week out. So if we agree practice makes proficient (if not perfect), how should we tackle it?
“Full race simulation is impossible for most people,” Russ continues. “Few of us are able to swim, bike, run continuously in one session. The only one place I’ve managed full race simulation was at Club La Santa, where they have transitions set up next to the pool. But training camps in Lanzarote aren’t an everyday solution.
“So the easiest way is to break it into chunks. Brick sessions will help an athlete become used to running off the bike after a fast changeover (simulating T2) and open-water sessions can be used to expedite wetsuit stripping and give a feel for mass swim starts.”
The important thing is to understand the nub of the session and where it slots into the overall race dynamic. For example, peeling off your wetsuit in one smooth movement might seem straightforward in isolation, but considerably more testing after dashing towards your bike following a hard swim in a chilly lake.
Simulation isn’t only important for technical skills, but also for gauging intensities. Relying solely on a GPS device or heart rate monitor doesn’t leave you in a good spot if the battery dies, and having a feel for how hard to push and therefore correct pacing proves invaluable the further you’re preparing to go.
“Simulating a full iron-distance race is physically too demanding,” Russ warns. “The impact on general training would be catastrophic. Break the event down and use long sessions to try out nutrition strategies, pace judgement and development of the mental strength needed for long-distance racing. Training in race gear shouldn’t be underestimated either – a bad pair of race shorts can lead to an awful day out in Ironman.”
Finally, the most common errors Russ sees come from neglecting the detail. “Races can be won with fast transitions, but poor transitions cause panic and upset even the fittest athlete’s rhythm,” he says. “Second to that is pacing. Inexperienced athletes need to build into races and try to finish strongly for optimal performance and enjoyment.”