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Training for a Tri: Tips to Tackle Common Missteps

Jul 10, 2013

The popularity of triathlons is on the rise, bringing bricks, shoe clips, freestyle strokes and transitions to the forefront of many athletes’ minds.  From mastering three different sports to exhausting your mental and physical capabilities, triathlons offer a unique mix of challenging endurance adventures.

Whether you’re prepping for your first or fifth triathlon this summer, avoid the following common training missteps to swim, bike and run your way to a successful race experience.

Focusing Too Much On the Swim
Practicing swim mechanics and streamlining your stroke are important to mastering an efficient swim.  But you don’t have to stress out about swimming every day to be properly trained for a triathlon. You’ll likely spend the least amount of time in the water during your event, so focus your mental and physical energy on the bike and run for the bulk of your training. Two-thirds of the race is done on your legs, making the swim just a speed bump in the overall triathlon journey.  

“Too many people focus on the swim because they’re scared of it,” said Alex Mueller, personal trainer and studio owner at Fitness Together Lake Forest and finisher of four triathlons, including one Ironman. “If there’s one event you should do the most training on, it is the bike. Cycling will lend itself to running, but swimming doesn’t lend itself to biking or running. Your legs are going to take the biggest pounding with the back-to-back bike and run, so it’s important to focus on training them the most.”

On race day, being strategic with your swim start will help calm nerves and conserve your energy for the rest of your race. Seasoned athletes will tell you there’s a simple solution to overcoming the fear of the swim – just stay back in your heat.

“At my Ironman race, it was a shotgun start with 2,000 swimmers all going at once,” said Mueller. “Instead of getting hit, kicked and swam over, I held back, waited a few minutes and then started my race. My Ironman took me 13 hours to finish.  So what’s three minutes of waiting on the swim? It’s wasn’t going to make or break the race for me because my goal was just to finish.”

Forgetting About Your Core
After you finish a long and hard brick workout with lactic-acid-tired legs and aching knees, the only thing on your mind will be strengthening your lower body. While stable knees and strong hips are essential to surviving the stress you put on your legs during a triathlon, it’s equally important to pay your core some attention during your training. A strong core will not only help maximize the efficiency of your swim, but it’s key to keeping you in proper position on the bike and maintaining effective posture for the last leg of the grueling run.

Foregoing Proper Fuel
With so many elements to focus on during a triathlon, it’s easy to overlook fueling appropriately. Mueller suggests that you rehydrate and supplement with electrolytes every 15 minutes if you’re racing or training for more than 60 minutes. It also is important to hydrate and fuel your body appropriately prior to the start of the race to ensure that your body is in peak physical condition as you take the first stroke of your race.

“The whole week leading up to your race you need to taper by bringing your mileage down and your fueling up to properly prepare,” Mueller said.

Failing to Prepare for a Positive Race Day Experience
Preparation is key to any endurance race. But being properly prepared for the logistics of each leg, as well as the chaotic transition zone, can make or break your race day performance. Spend time to organize your equipment, map out the distance from the swim to your bike, and bring a unique identification marker (balloon, flag, etc.) for your bike so you can easily find it after exiting the swim. Also, make sure your bike is up to speed by having it fitted appropriately for your race distance and experience.

Prior to race day, practice your transition routine by setting up a mock transition zone. Have your kids or spouse time you as you change from your wet suit quickly, clip into your bike smoothly and take off for the run without missing a stride. And, don’t forget to protect yourself from the elements. Sunscreen, bike helmet, sunglasses, running hat and chafing lube are all essentials for both novice and experienced triathletes.

Fumbling the Mental Game
Whether you’re entering your first sprint event this year or tackling a longer distance, triathlons can be mentally taxing and overwhelming. To get his head into the game of finishing his first Ironman event, Mueller bought a new bike and paid his registration fee so that he was financially committed from the beginning to do the race. He also told everyone he knew that he was training for an Ironman to establish accountability and support since he trained for the entire event completely on his own.

During the event, Mueller stayed mentally strong by not getting caught up in the hype of the event and reminding himself that he had trained for it for a year. Even though he would be exercising for twice as long as he normally sleeps in one night, he kept telling himself that the Ironman was only one day of his life.

“The mental component of a triathlon is huge,” Mueller said. “You need to clearly identify what your goal is for your race so you can structure your training and race plan around it. A triathlete is an endurance athlete so you have to be patient and calm.  Run your own race and don’t race the other athletes around you.”