It’s tempting isn’t it? You’re walking along the aisles of a race expo the day before competition. Surrounding you are pallets of new merchandise that could make any triathlon enthusiast drool. New running shoes, wetsuits, nutritional supplements, bike components, and elaborate, aerodynamic hydration systems for your bike. What could be the harm in trying just one new thing during your next race? As any experienced triathlete who has learned it the hard way will tell you, quite a lot.
Trying new supplements or hydration on race day is probably the biggest mistake you can make – and the most common. Nothing will slow you down more than the crippling effects of GI distress. Training with the energy gels, sports drinks, and salt tablets you’ll be using during your race is the key to success. Race day is not the time you want to find out you can’t handle an energy gel (or that specific brand of energy gel) at higher heart rates. The same is true for sports drinks; while I by no means completely agree with their formula, I encourage athletes to use Gatorade while they train. It is most likely that Gatorade will be provided at the aid stations on the course. Aside from Gatorade though, these aid stations also pose the most common mistake people make with their race day nutrition: their hydration schedule. Athletes generally tend to over-hydrate on race day, sometimes stopping at every aid station and drinking like they had just crossed the Sahara. Figuring out your race day hydration schedule is actually quite easy – all you’ll need is a bathroom scale and a calculator.
Weighing yourself before and after a workout is the best way to find your body’s natural sweat rate. Simply take the number of pounds lost during exercise and multiply it by 16 (ounces/pound). Don’t forget to then also account for any water you drank during your workout. So, if you lost 1.5 lbs during a two-hour workout and also drank two 16oz water bottles, then your total sweat rate is 56oz (24oz + 32oz) over the two hours or 28oz/hour. Using this information during a race will help to avoid risk of both dehydration or that sloshing feeling nobody wants to have during a long run. Keep in mind that this sweat rate is unique for each person, and will vary with exercise intensity, temperature, altitude, and how acclimatized an athlete is to race day conditions (people from warmer areas will sweat more in a hot environment).
For more on triathlon nutrition you can also check out a slide presentation I’ve given to a few groups. Without me speaking it is mostly just bullet points, but it still gets a lot of the main points across.
Sure, those new running shoes look like they’ll make you faster, but they may also give you the worst blisters and black toenails you’ve ever seen. You want to be as comfortable and calm as possible on race day, so avoiding the pain and agony of blistering, chaffing, and equipment failures is paramount. Wear your racing kit, race shoes, and wetsuit during intense workouts a few weeks before a big race – you’ll know if (and where) you’ll need to apply every triathlete’s best friend.
Equipment failure is another common nightmare, so avoiding bike and wheel rentals, new water bottle cages, or goggles is the best way to keep your race stress-free. Getting blown around on a disc wheel for the first time, clipping and unclipping from pedals, and dealing with leaky goggles is best reserved for practice time, not race time. And one last thing. Don’t know how to change a flat? Learn.
Do you usually hold about 21mph during your practice time trials? Then why are you trying to hold 23mph during a race? Know your limits and set realistic goals for your swim, bike, and run splits. ‘Realistic’ means that these goals need to be consistent with your performance in recent workouts and races and also need to account for the multi-sport aspect of triathlon. Train by doing regular bricks and know what to expect for your running pace off the bike. Your personal-best half marathon time cannot also be your goal running split in a half-Iron distance triathlon. Fatigue, soreness, and muscle tightness all play a role in your performance and need to be taken into account before you set foot on the start line.
Along a similar vein, you’ll also need to be prepared for the course and race environment. If you live in Miami and are training for a race in Boulder, CO, you better be doing some bridge repeats to prepare for long mountain climbs. Training in Chicago and racing in Las Vegas means you’ll have to find an indoor training facility and get as acclimatized to heat as possible. Knowing the course and knowing your abilities will prepare you for the worst, but help you to race your best.
Practice, practice, practice! You don’t want to end up screaming profanity like Chris McCormack (NSFW) at Kona 2007. Transitions are probably the most overlooked aspect of triathlon, but in a sport that is increasingly being decided by mere seconds, they couldn’t be more important to practice. The trick is to practice as often as possible so that it becomes second nature. After a swim workout, try ripping off your wetsuit as quickly as possible. Start each training ride with your bike set up just like it will be on race day: helmet on handlebars, sunglasses off. Planning to do a flying mount? Practice on grass so you don’t end up eating asphalt on race day. There are endless ways to practice the sport’s only true technical skill, but the important thing to do is just get out there and practice.
After months of training and hours of dedication, every triathlete’s nightmare is a race day disaster. Keeping with what you know best, what you prepared for, and what you practiced is the only sure-fire way to stay safe, keep your cool, and perform at your best. Whether it be nutrition supplements, hydration, equipment, pacing, or the technical skills involved with transitions, being race-ready can mean a variety of things. So do yourself a favor at your next race expo and walk right past those new running shoes, that fancy new bottle cage, or that new sports drink. The fastest way to your fastest triathlon is by keeping to one simple rule: nothing new on race day.