So You Want to Race a Triathlon

I am asked a lot about how I got started in triathlon, and more importantly, how would I recommend others getting started in the sport. I have written numerous times about what led me to triathlon, and my issues with each discipline as the last 7+ seasons have unfolded, but it occurred to me that I have never put it all together in one post. I’ll attempt to do so with this one.

In the original post, I made sure to state that I was not a coach or credentialed. That has since changed. I earned my Ironman Certification in May of 2016. That doesn’t mean I know anything more, but I have a pretty certificate now and I am a bit lighter in the wallet. I have a Masters in Public Administration and an MBA, along with a BA in Psychology and a certification in Six Sigma (green belt) and Lean Design. Everything I write about is taken from my personal first-hand knowledge and experience, with some additions from a few clients I have worked with the past few years. If your experience or knowledge differs from mine, more power to you. As you all know I come from a perspective of someone who had cancer, was over 300 pounds at one point, and deals with psoriatic arthritis every day. I am not in this to “win races” and I more than likely will never see a podium, and I am OK with that, but that doesn’t mean you have to be the same way. I don’t even consider triathlons “races” anymore. A friend stated recently that he only calls them his “events” because the only person he is competing against is himself. I am trying to adopt that mindset.

Everything I write about is taken from my personal first-hand knowledge and experience

The first thing I would tell you is to read … everything. Magazines, Nutrition Books, first-hand accounts like those of Macca and Wellington. Anything. Ingest everything about the sport. Then promptly forget everything you read. These are meant for elite levels and professionals. They will have little to no bearing on how you will train, how you will eat, or how you will race. Keep in mind that many of these athletes, especially the pro’s, are paid by companies to promote their products and gear. Have you ever actually seen a pro triathlete drink chocolate milk after a race? Didn’t think so. While the advice they write about is inspiring, they have the time and the paychecks to do the type of training they talk about. It has nothing to do with you. The biggest mistake I made/make and that I see others make is trying to gear their workouts to meet those they read in magazines, and this includes routines in magazines like Flex and Muscle & Fitness. They are at best personal workouts the pro’s use, and at worst cookie cutter routines. Don’t do them. Move on.

Have you ever actually seen a pro triathlete drink chocolate milk after a race? Didn’t think so

The Swim

Swimming, by FAR, is the discipline that causes the most anxiety, with veterans and especially newbies. Most triathletes do not come from the swimming discipline (though there are some) and you will find that the best swimmers are not those winning the events. Swimming also comprises only 2% of the total event (in most distances), so it often takes the back seat to cycling and running. Do not underestimate it because of this reason.

This is a mistake.

While being a good swimmer will rarely put you on the podium, what it will do is set the tone for the race. Learning to swim efficiently is key to a good race, and learning to deal with the inevitable panic attack is even more important. A good swim, not necessarily a fast swim, will let you enter T1 with a clear head and not have to spend 3:00 of your precious time trying to get your head clear.

My training advice on swimming is to forget about the drills. One armed drill, closed fist, etc. will help you become a better and more efficient swimmer but you, as a beginner, need to swim … just swim. Use a race snorkel of you need to get your breathing down (they are legal in some races, but not Ironman anymore, so check before you use one. I used one my first full season), but concentrate your efforts on being comfortable swimming, especially open water (though never go into the open water alone). Practice panic attacks. Learn how to get yourself through them. Have your partner grab you and pull you. It will serve you better than all the 100m kick drills combined. I will also say to become very comfortable in the pool before going to open water. Be able to swim 800m, 1600m, without stopping before going to the lake or beach.

All that being said, the race is always different from practice. Pre-race jitters will take their toll on you at some point, especially in the beginning, so breathe deep and try to stay calm and relaxed. When the race starts, count 30 seconds and then go into the water (if able to depending on the start methods), stay to the outside away from the fray. There will be bumping. People will grab you. Just move away and race YOUR race.

In the Facebook group, found by clicking on the link, member Amy Loewenthal did a fantastic write up on how she got through her anxiety on the swim, and she has given me permission to reprint it here. I think it was very helpful and insightful:

The first thing was finding a local swim coach (Joel Feldman. If you like her services and in the New Hampshire area she can be contacted at the Keene Family YMCA) who was tremendously supportive. I trusted her enough to tell her my irrational fears. (It turns out that most fearful swimmers are afraid of the same things) She took me seriously and we dealt with those things in practical ways. For example, I was afraid of getting a cramp in my leg and not being able to push my foot against something to release the cramp. She taught me how to make a turtle position that would enable me to reach down and use my hand as the surface to push my foot against. Another example: A fear that if I stopped making forward motion, I would sink. She had me practice many versions: rolling on to my back, treading, etc – midway through swim sets. These became second nature.

I got two pieces of buoyancy gear – a wetsuit zipper vest, and drawstring buoyancy shorts. They give me confidence that I won’t sink! They keep me warm and comfortable.

The coach taught me how to acclimate to the water BEFORE starting the swim – get head under the water, bob up and down three times. There is a reflexive shortness of breath in reaction to the cold water. I learned to get that done before the swim start so that I wouldn’t be starting the swim feeling short of breath – which is a surefire way to get a panic going. Easily avoidable!!

Sort out which thoughts are helpful and non-helpful. Practicing banishing non-helpful thoughts. Crowd them out with helpful thoughts. Also, crowd them out with rhythmic cycles and accompanying sayings. For example, I might say with the different parts of every stroke “long, strong, roll” (meaning: put your arm out long; strong catch and pull; rotate your body). I count 4 or 5 arm cycles and then sight the buoy. So I’m counting arm cycles too.

Visualize having difficulty. Let it play out in gory detail. Now start over and visualize how you solve your problem. Realize that you can deal with it. And you will deal.
This may be my own quirk – but if I was comparing myself to other swimmers and decided I was embarrassingly so much slower than everybody else…I was tempted to create a little drama. That way I would have a story about what I had to overcome. For example, I might start to imagine a scenario where I would aspirate some water, cough, and cough, still manage heroically to finish the swim, albeit slowly. But it made me so anxious to imagine all these bad things happening. I decided it was better to have a boring and uneventful slow swim. I don’t need an excuse for swimming the speed that I am currently (no pun) able to swim. I’m just out there doing what I can do. It will take some time to cover the course. I will be workmanlike and get it done.
I realized that my main job is to BREATHE OUT and BREATHE IN. The important point is to keep these two things very distinct. That is another helpful saying to myself if I get nervous.

I try to regard myself as if I was a well-meaning and smart child. I try to foster an attitude of both being gently amused about my own foibles but also respecting my seriousness and effort.
Practice physically and practice mentally. Mix some “what if” simulations into your routine laps in the pool or open water.
Patience. It took me three seasons to get calm. I decided after my mental success last year, that I didn’t need to freak out in the water ever again. At this point, I have a lot of strategies in place. The only way I’m going to go back to freaking out is if I DECIDE to ignore everything I know to do.

The Bike

The bike is the largest portion of the triathlon. You will be on your bike for HOURS in long course races, so anything you do regarding training should be geared toward that. Forget about speed. Speed will come. Your focus should be on getting your ass used to being on that seat for the long hour(s). Period.

The other focus is to train like your race. If you are racing Chattanooga, for example, find hills and climb, climb, climb. If you’re racing Florida in Panama City, find long flats, get into aero position and stay there. If it is possible, try to ride the actual course (easy if you only race close to home). Those of us in Florida have trouble finding hills, but contrary to popular belief, Florida is not flat all over. I would challenge anyone to ride Clermont, for instance, and still try to claim Florida is flat.

Nutrition is also important during this phase, as you will be, like I said, on the bike a long time. I personally cannot handle solid food while training long and hard. My stomach cannot handle it. When you are in full training mode the blood in your body is being routed to your muscles, leaving very little, if any, available for such little things like digestion. Ever hear triathletes, and especially runners, complain about GI issues while training? Now you know why. But everyone is different. I cannot handle sugar so I don’t eat it. I would argue your body really doesn’t need sugar (especially those downing multiple packets of Gel during a sprint race or a 5K), but I recognize some think they need it so I will leave it at that. I have resorted to Coke during a grueling session where I bonked, and it does work, but once you start throwing sugar in your body you have to keep feeding it.

It’s like a fire.

If you want a fire to burned fast and hot you throw pine needles on it, and you keep throwing pine needles on it to keep it going. If you want the fire to burn not as hot, but last a long time, you throw on a log. If you just MUST have carbs, try a product like UCAN in your water bottle. It’s a super starch (a lot like corn starch) that gives you the bump you need but doesn’t spike your insulin, so doesn’t affect you like the sugar does. Not the best-tasting stuff in the world (flavor it with sports drink) but I have found it works and works well. Plus Meb likes it so it HAS to be good right??

A quick note on Nutrition. Your body burns about 1g to 1.5g of carb per minute when in physical activity. That is 60-90 grams per hour. Your body is able to store about 2,000 calories of carbohydrate (400 grams in skeletal muscle, 90-110 grams in the liver, and roughly 25 grams circulating through the bloodstream for a total of 550-600 grams). Burning 60-90 grams per hour means about 10-12.5 hours. Replenishing carbs at a higher rate than your body can burn means it will SIT in your GUT and cause Gastral Distress. Get out of the “I need carbs” mindset.

And one last thing … learn how to change a flat

… the back tire too.

Seriously.

The Run

By reading my blog, I am going to assume that most of you are heavy, or at least used to be heavy, so you will all know this one simple truth: the run hurts more than any other discipline. Light people look at me like I have three heads when I say this to them. They LOVE the run. The run to them is the best part of the triathlon. But for the heavy triathlete, the run can be deflating, and painful. My most recent race was a good example. I killed the swim, did well on the bike, but because I hammered my hardest on the bike the run was done. My HR was pegged in Zone 5 and would not come down until mile 1.5. In a sprint, where the run is only 3.1 miles, the race that looked promising was one of my slowest.

The thing is this, the run is an evil that must be done, and must be practiced, but nothing ravages the body like running … even if you’re a little rubber person. It jams the feet, ankles, and knees, all of which is multiplied 10 fold if you’re overweight, and the kicker is this; nothing will make you lose weight faster than running. The trick is finding the method that works for you and sticking with it. I have found from trial and many errors that pushing through a run when feeling pain is not the right way to go. I have also been accused of not pushing hard enough on my runs, and there is some truth to that. I have a fear of injury, because I know an injury in running will affect everything else, so I plan ahead a run/walk pace and I stick to it, even if I feel I can push harder (until the very end, of course. Once I see the finish line I move as fast as I can).

My training advice goes along with George Sheehan’s advice, that training should be done on time and not miles. Sheehan never ran more than 15 miles to train for a marathon, and the Hanson method we use with Rob Bozovich is capped at 16 miles. There have been a few recent articles written stating that a 20 mile training run actually does more harm than good for the majority of runners, the basis is that the laws of diminishing returns hit at around 2.5 to 3 hours (meaning the risk of injury after that outweighs the increase in strength, which is minimal). This was, of course, met with a great discussion on boards and social media because, well, how DARE someone challenges conventional wisdom.

So that’s my view on getting started. Let me leave you, though, with a few of my extra thoughts:

Focusing on your weakness in training is fine, but where people (myself included) go wrong is that they don’t adjust the rest of their training to meet the new need. If you do 2 hours of swimming, 5 hours of running, and 7 hours of biking a week for a total of 14 hours and decide that your swimming needs work so you add another 2 hours, now your total training is 16. Your body can only handle so much stress and will become overworked. Focusing on one discipline is fine, but adjust accordingly.
Race … as much as you can afford to. Training is fine but nothing prepares you better than actually racing.

Find easier races to start. If you’re in Florida a great sprint triathlon to try is in Crystal River (400m/15miles/3miles). The course is flat and fast. For more of a challenge in the Sprint Category try Clermont Summer Series (400m/12miles/3.1miles). The hills will get ya!! As far as a 70.3 I would recommend Ironman Augusta (even though it’s a branded race) if you can get to it, just because the swim is aided by a strong current or the HITS series in Ocala or Naples.

I hope this post was helpful. As I stated in the beginning, it is only my point of view. I am certain there will be disagreements (especially about the sugar thing … people seem to really get upset about that for some reason) but I have found, as a Fat Slow Triathlete, these things seem to hold true. Please share your thoughts (as long as they are constructive), and join us for discussions on this and other Endurance Sports on the podcast Endurance for Everyone.

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