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Tips on how to prepare for your first Triathlon and thereafter

Getting Started

  1. Buy a Speedsuit (or wetsuit) that fits. Test it…even in a pool.  You’ll want a suit that’s got a lot of range of motion in the shoulders – it will cut minutes off your race time. I recommend the fastest one in the market – the Xterra Velocity!
  2. Buy new goggles (same model you normally use) & swim in them once or twice prior to the race
  3. The swim is often the most daunting aspect of a race.  The idea of all those arms and legs thrashing around at once can really frighten some people.  The best way you can prepare for it is to be confident in your ability to swim the distance.  Most people go to the pool and train a bit to make sure they can do the distance before they sign up to race.  Practice swimming by swimming longer than the distance in the race, so that you will be in better shape for the race distance. Remember, you have to bike and run once you get out of the water. You may also want to do some swim workouts where you do intervals of 50-100m or more, with a rest in between. That will allow you to do more than the the race distance in training which will help your confidence and fitness levels.
  4. It’s also a good idea to have a technique or two to fall back on if you get tired or spooked in a race.  You may start with front crawl, and then move to breast stoke if you need a rest, or even to floating on your back if you have to.  A backup plan like that in the water is comforting.
  5. One technique to avoid the ‘panic attack’ that a lot of people talk about is to swim the last bit of the warm-up hard, maybe even holding your breath longer than normal, to force a bit of hyperventilation when you stop.  I’ve read that this technique helps to open up the lungs, and you’ll be less likely to feel constricted during the race.
  6. As far as the bike portion is concerned – most people are pretty comfortable here.  Once again, it’s a good idea to do some bike rides that are longer than the race distance so that you’ll be confident on race day.  Even better is to do what we call a “brick” workout where you do a bike ride and then get off and put on your running shoes and go right into a run.  This helps your legs get used to the feeling of moving from biking to running which can be quite strange to beginners.  It doesn’t have to be a long run, just enough to start feeling comfortable while running will be useful.
  7. Don’t over-drink!  Most people are too worried about getting dehydrated but that’s not a big concern in short races.   The body can only absorb 750-1000ml of water per hour, maximum, so if you plan on doing the bike in less than an hour, don’t take 3 huge water bottles.  I’ve seen people completely loaded up like they’re going to ride through the desert, for a short race in cool weather.  It’s just added weight on the bike and even if you do drink it all you’ll just have it sloshing around in your gut as you run.  But be sure to carry enough for your personal needs.
  8. While most people don\’t fear the run portion of a race (you can always walk, right?) one thing is for sure – you will be more tired starting the run than you would normally be if you just went on a training run (duh!) so it’s a good idea to be able to run a bit farther than the race distance.  It would be good to be comfortable running 10km or more in training.   Even better would be to have run a 5k or 10k road race so that on race day you will have lots of confidence that you can finish the distance
  9. First, put your timing chip and strap under your wetsuit.  Then, you won’t lose on the swim to waves or someone’s hands.  Second, if your watch band sometimes comes loose – you’ll know this from swimming laps – then tape it closed.  That way, it won’t have it come loose while you swim, causing annoying drag with each stroke.
  10. Find your place, find your rhythm – you will eventually find your place and get “clear water” – at some point in the race.  If you don’t find it right away, move parallel but away from the buoys, but always breathing on the side that you can see other swimmers so that you know you are going in the right direction.  Then, find your rhythm like you have in the pool on a good workout.
  11. Study the swim course – know the swim course forward and backward.  Study the buoy positions, and how many buoys it is to the turn.  And, is there one buoy or two between the two outside turn buoys?  Knowing the swim course will make you comfortable on race day.
  12. Practice the race start – practice the first 50 meters of a race start.  Find out whether you start from the beach, partly in the water, or all the way in the water.  Then, practice that exact scenario from lining up on the beach to the start.  Set your alarm to go off in a few minutes and just stand around getting ready.  You’ll be anxious for your watch to go off, but don’t look at it.  When it goes off hit your stop watch like you’d do on race-day and then take off into the water.  If it is a water start, anticipate the start and get your body flat in the water.  Now, swim 50 meters all-out so that the adrenalin is rushing and your arms are getting a bit of that lactic acid which you’ll flush out once you relax and just swim.
  13. Pre race- Arrive at the race start earlier than you think. This way you can make sure you are organized and not stressed out. It also leaves you plenty of time to head down to the water to get in the great swim warm-up.
  14. Warm up- I highly recommend a big swim warm up. As an age grouper, I never warmed up. I now spend nearly 20-30 minutes warming up and activating my muscles so they are ready to roll when the cannon fires.
  15. Before the gun goes- For a treading water start, bring your feet up to the surface of the water so your body is horizontal. That way when the cannon fires you are ready to go.
  16. Spit is the best, most perfect anti-fog product EVER, it’s also readily available on race morning
  17. Break it down- Break your Ironman (or no matter the length) swim down into segments. The first part of the swim is all about putting your head down and finding feet to follow. Only sprint at the start if you have trained to sprint at the start.  Otherwise you’ll earn yourself a pretty awesome pain cave two minutes into a long day. There is no need to sight the first part of the race. Next up – once you have found feet, find a good rhythm.
  18. Find a new best friend… preferably someone that swims ~2-3 minutes faster than you would over the distance by yourself.
  19. The “hip pocket” is the best place to draft.  Don’t want to a be a huge pest to your benevolent draftee?… stick to their feet…
  20. If you are a strong swimmer… take the inside line on a buoy… if it looks like rush hour in Toronto, stick to the outside.

Training Points

  1. Make sure you add mileage slowly when training.  Doing too much too soon is a sure fire way to injure yourself.  This is especially true with running.  Doubling the distance of your runs in a short period of time is a recipe for injury.
  2. Enlist the help of others.  Ask people at the pool for pointers, ask the staff in a running store for training ideas, ask friends who have done a triathlon what to expect.
  3. If you have the opportunity to do an open water swim in a lake, take it.  That’s the best practice because navigating in open water is a challenge. Open water practice… close your eyes and don’t sight for quite awhile… do you stay straight?  If not… sight more and try bilateral breathing to see if this evens you out. If you don\’t have access to a lake, you can practice open water technique by occasionally lifting your head out of the water and looking forward in the pool to sight.  Try to get used to doing this while still swimming so that you don\’t lose time.  Another useful drill is to close your eyes in the pool whenever your face is under water.  You can open them when your face is out of the water to breath or sight forward.  That will give you a good idea what it’s like to navigate open water.
  4. Swim in the pool sometimes with a race cap.  Some people never do this, and as a result they are annoyed by the swim cap on race day.  Find where it sits comfortable on your head and stays there.  For example, does it feel better completely covering your ears or only half-way.
  5. Cold water preparation – If you think that the water will be cold – as in under 16 degrees – consider practicing with ear plugs and/or a thermal cap beforehand.  Or, practice with two swim caps.  Remember that your head is a release point for heat, so that after a mile of swimming your head may wish it didn’t have that cap.  But, if you’ve practiced in the pool beforehand, you’ll know on race-day.
  6. Bilateral breathing – you don’t have to be a bilateral swimmer, as in breathing on both sides during a race.  But, you should know how to breathe on one side so that if the waves are hitting you from your left side you can breathe to your right, or vice versa.  It’s a matter of knowing that you can do it on race day if you must.  Therefore, cool down once a week with 25 meters on your left, 25 on your right, 25 on your left, 25 on your right.  Do this once a week.
  7. Practice chaotic swimming – the start of a triathlon swim, and maybe the first 500 meters, is chaotic and crazy.  You will likely feel totally defeated and wish you were not racing.  The only way to get over this feeling, amongst other horrible feelings, is to practice chaotic swimming and get used to it.  Here are three ways to practice a swim start’s chaos:
    1. Enter a sprint triathlon (or even a race with a shorter swim or just an open water swim of 750 meters or less) and put yourself right in the middle of the start no matter how good a swimmer you are.  Then, think about why you are doing this – practicing chaos – while you work your way to find your place/clear-water.  Then, find your rhythm.  Now that you are in a race, and hopefully a triathlon, practice your swift transition in T1, enjoy your bike ride, swift T2, and a fun run.
    2. Do a workout breathing every fourth breath.  In other words, make your lungs suffer a bit more than usual.  Get used to that feeling and how to overcome it – in other words, how to eventually work through the feeling of shortness of breath that you\’ll experience from the race start.
    3. Swim meters yards with your left eye closed, then another 25 with your right eye closed.  Next, swim 25 meters fast (both eyes open), turn to go back the length of the pool and let water in one goggle, now swim the remaining 25 with that one eye closed but the goggle still on.  Then, fix the goggle at the end of the lap, and swim another 25, turn and knock the other goggle to let water in.
  8. Practice your transition – Alternatively,
    1. Be in the wrong gear to exit the transition area,
    2. fumble to put on socks,
    3. the straps on your shoes are closed (they should be open),
    4. the strap on your helmet is tangled and clasped (it should be open, and laying on your aero bars if they’ll let you),
    5. you have trouble putting on a dry shirt on your wet body (you should wear it under your wetsuit),
    6. you put sun screen on your neck – TRI-SWIM, lube, body glide, whatever… use it… use it a lot… use it all over.  Chafing really is not fun.
  9. Research the topic.  Use the Internet to find tips on training, racing, nutrition, etc.  And read as much as you can about the race venue before you get there so there won’t be any big surprises – like a big hill you might not have been expecting :)
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