Tri with confidence

With your multisport debut potentially fast approaching, we provide some essential tips to help navigate you to your first start line with confidence

Fired up by a New Year fitness pledge, you signed up to your first triathlon. That was the easy bit. But with training now ratcheted up, and race day like a mirage on the horizon, both the motivation and knees are starting to creak.

Fear not. We’ve turned to TrainSharp’s head triathlon coach Phil Jarvis for some practical encouragement and some confidence-building sessions to navigate you through the final weeks and that final countdown to your first-ever crack at a triathlon.

Keep fit and healthy

Injury is the dread of all endurance athletes and as our bodies adapt to working out, occasionally things tweak, pull or break. Muscles and joints are particularly susceptible if they’ve been seldom used in the past, the pounding a swimmer-turned-triathlete endures on the run probably the best example. Training consistently, week in week out, and not ramping up the volume or intensity too much mitigates the risks, but listen to your body and get little niggles checked. As race day approaches, non-impact disciplines of swimming and biking are less risky than running, and don’t be shy of the cross-trainer to keep up your aerobic quota. A healthy, balanced diet can bolster immune systems run down through training, but sometimes bugs even get the better of the best. It’s not a disaster if the lurgy strikes. Chrissie Wellington was forced to pull out of defending her Ironman world title in Hawaii in 2010, but came back stronger than ever the following year.

Manage your expectations

As race day nears and fitness improves, there’s a risk of ‘goal creep’. Where initially just completing 400m in the pool, staying upright on the bike, then not walking on the run might have been the target, with a couple of months of training (and fitness gains can be huge when starting out) there’s a danger of becoming over-ambitious for race day. Instead, err on the side of caution. Triathlon has witnessed many ‘one-and-doners’ because they had a horrible first experience – particularly when that race was over a longer distance. You only get one debut, so enjoy this guaranteed personal best and consider booking in another race later in the season so you build on the momentum and can aim to go faster.

Losing the mojo

Sometimes life just gets in the way, but if your motivation is waning, take stock and don’t despair. If you’re clinging grimly to a set plan and feeling fatigued, look back at your training log and take time to celebrate how far you’ve come. Consider scheduling in some easier sessions, discuss your feelings with other triathletes and look for company on rides, runs or swims. On the flipside, if you’ve barely moved a muscle since signing up, remember the old mantra: ‘It’s never too late to start.’ Most races can still be completed – and even enjoyed – with a minimum amount of training. You might need to pause at the end of every length, resort to breaststroke, or opt for a run/walk strategy, but you’ll find race-day atmospheres are accommodating and non-judgemental. Stick with it.

Knowing when to taper

This is a tricky one to get right. If you have a coach or are following the plan provided in one of our previous issues or online, you will have a good indication of when to ease back. The ideal taper is one that carries you to race day full of energy, but without having lost too much fitness from resting up. Don’t worry if you feel sluggish. The temptation can be to keep going flat-out, but you need to trust that by stepping off the gas you’re doing the right thing. However, don’t stop completely; keep the frequency of sessions so the arms and legs tick over, but drop the duration and/or intensity.

Enjoy the process

It’s not supposed to be a purgatory endeavour. Enjoying (most of) the early-morning swims, chilly-fingered bike rides and runs that leave your shins sore is important, so never lose sight of the fun aspect. As highlighted above, race day can be jeopardised through injury or illness, so it’s more healthy to view triathlon as a lifestyle, with racing the icing on the cake.

Test equipment

Swim: Open-water races aren’t just about dealing with the swell, weeds, jostling and navigation; there are also the practicalities of extracting yourself quickly in transition, especially when you’re a little light-headed having leapt up from a horizontal position. If you’ve been limited to pool sessions for most of your swimming you may not have had much chance to smell the neoprene of a new wetsuit, but, when you can, get out and practise this as much as possible.

Bike: Learn to fix a puncture. Nobody is expecting a Tour de France-calibre mechanic, but make sure you can change an inner tube, rescue a dropped chain and adjust the brakes if required. Even if you think you’re a dab hand, it’s worth practising – and timing yourself – because it’s more difficult under pressure in a race, and those new tyres you bought might just be a little tighter to remove than your worn old set. It’s also worth making sure your bike fits you well. An experienced bike fitter offers the best solution, but if you don’t want to fork out, experimenting with your position by raising the saddle a few inches could revolutionise your performance.

Run: By now you should be incorporating ‘brick’ sessions where you run straight after biking. This will help you get used to the strange jelly-legged feeling, but also let you test how fast you can slip on your run shoes. A pair of well-adjusted elastic laces are the top tip here.

Nutrition: Whether you use sports nutrition or not, it’s worth practising before the big day in some of your faster or longer sessions. Avoiding the science of whether you can ‘train the gut’ to tolerate large quantities of processed maltodextrin, you’ll still want to know whether you can stomach the taste of gels, bars or liquids, and you need to be sure that, as a novice on the bike, you’re comfortable removing the bottle from the cage and sipping on the go. Even the run has challenges. Marketing companies know many runners like to hold water bottles and have even invented ones that fit snugly into the grip. While it’s good to be optimally hydrated at the start, if you’re racing over a short distance, it’s unlikely you’ll need excessive fluid. It’s also additional weight and might even affect your running style. If you have an inkling that you might be using it as a crutch, now’s the time to try and wean yourself off.

Research the event

Having signed up because it was a) local, b) your mate was doing it, c) the website looked pretty, or d) all of the above, you may or may not get  a chance to reccie the course in a meaningful way, but it’s still worth asking friends if anyone has experience of the event. Established races often have online reviews or even videos of the bike course, which can be handy to avoid taking a wrong turn or knowing if there’s a challenging climb or sharp corner of which you need to be wary. If it’s a new race, the bike course should still be mapped out somewhere, so incorporate it in a training ride if possible.  And if not, don’t worry, none of the competition will be any the wiser either!

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