You've run countless miles, spent hours in the pool and pedalled until your bike feels like it's a part of your body, but unless you put yourself through some training sessions designed to help you hit your peak in time for race day, your efforts may go to waste.
But reaching that high is not easy. "Every athlete wants to have a phase that builds up to a peak, but quite often this doesn't happen," says Martin Yelling, former national duathlon champion, Ironman competitor and coach to marathon runner Liz Yelling. "It involves a combination of factors coming together at the right time." If you time it right, you can shave minutes off your time and gain an advantage over other competitors.
A fine balance
An essential part of reaching this race-readiness is allowing your body to recover and at the same time making sure your fitness level does not suffer as a result.
"Coming to a peak is about achieving a balance between intensity and rest," says coach Rob Griffiths (www.trainingbible.co.uk). "Athletes will rack up miles during their training schedule and will be much fitter - but also more fatigued - as a result. Successful peaking involves shedding this fatigue without losing any fitness."
The key to this is reducing the volume of training but maintaining intensity. "In order to run, cycle or swim faster during a race you need to train over smaller distances at a higher tempo," says coach Dawn Hunter of www.swimfortri.com.
These short, sharp sessions will get your muscles firing, but training for shorter periods than you are used to requires discipline. "Remember that it is not just about the training you do, it's about the training you don't do," says Yelling. "These sessions should shape you up, not grind you down."
Part of the shaping-up process means being familiar with the pace and conditions of race day. "When the race comes around you will need to be able to handle the speed and endurance, which means incorporating that into your training," says Hunter.
You've built up your fitness and honed your technique; now you must turn that into the strength and power needed in competition. "You need to bring in a speed element with more rest so you can hit race day at your peak and get off to a great start," says coach Dan Bullock (www.swimfortri.com).
"This session involves holding race pace over an extended period and will help to simulate race-day conditions," says Bullock. "Do this 10 days before the triathlon."
- Warm up, doing 6-8 x 50m, with a 10-second rest between each. Do front crawl on odd lengths and backstroke or breaststroke on the even lengths.
- Then do a subset of 400m - 75m building pace and one 25m faster than the first 75m, resting 10 seconds between each 100m.
- The main set is 300m front crawl at 70 per cent effort, then 45 seconds' rest, followed by 6 x 50m at race pace, with 10 seconds' rest between each 50m. Rest for 60 seconds, then repeat the main set two or three times.
- Warm down with 200m of breaststroke.
"This is a great session to do two to three weeks before a race as it will familiarise you with the open-water scenario," says Griffiths. As you near race day you can trim the distances." Warm up with 10-15 minutes' steady swimming - practise sighting every six to eight strokes and swim in a straight line. The main set is five race-pace efforts of 90 seconds, with 60-seconds' recovery. Finish with a five-minute warm-down, focusing on your exit and removing your wetsuit as quickly as you will need to on race day.
The one time when competitors switch off - even during a race - is the long period on the bike, but the right training sessions in the weeks leading up to a race will make this old habit die easy.
"It is important not to lose focus on your cycling," says Hunter. "Working at 95 per cent effort during a race is really hard, so you need to practise it. People do a lot of interval training, but usually only in short bursts of 30-60 seconds. To reach your peak you should try doing some longer intervals. If you are not up to it then you're not at your peak."
"This session will increase your ability to race at a faster pace as you will have to adapt to the increased demands of the intervals, which will also toughen you up mentally," says Hunter. "I recommend doing this two to three weeks before a race." On a stationary bike - so you know you won't be disrupted - do six minutes as hard as you possibly can, then give yourself a one-minute recovery period. Repeat five times.
"This session will help you to build strength and become used to race conditions, and it is useful even if the race you are training for is flat," says Hunter. Find a hill that takes you two or three minutes to climb. Cycle up it, then down and repeat four to five times at race pace, in and out of the saddle, and practise changing gears.
"The peaking process for triathlon is complicated by the fact that there are three different sports involved. Running takes longer to recover from than cycling and cycling takes longer to recover from than swimming," says Griffiths. To make sure you go into a race armed with a strong finish, your running sessions should involve short bursts of speed.
"Varying the pace during your running sessions makes such a difference," says triathlete Jenny O'Brien, who has represented Great Britain in the 25-29 age group. "It is easy to go for a plod but you won't run fast until you teach yourself to run fast."
It is also a good idea to work on all three disciplines together to develop a feel for the quick changes of environment you'll experience on race day, and you'll be able to practise your transitions at the same time.
"If you are looking for peak performance then you should build in some test events, even if you put them together yourself," says Yelling. "Do some shorter events to put your body through the motions. Coupled with training, good transitions, and rest and recovery, they will help you to arrive at your peak."
"This session will help you to manage your fatigue without losing any of your fitness and therefore you will arrive at a race in good form," says Griffiths. Do a 10-minute warm-up run, followed by 5 x 90-second race-pace efforts. Finish with a 10-minute jog to cool down, then stretch.
"Peak performance is about building up speed without losing strength," says Yelling. After a short warm-up, do 9 x 60 seconds up and down a hill. For the first set of three run hard up and down; for the middle three run hard up and jog down; and for the final three run hard up and hard down again. Do a short cool-down to finish the session.
Your diligent last-minute training will mean nothing if you spend three minutes looking for the zip on your wetsuit on race day. "Huge amounts of time are wasted in transitions, so they must be practised," according to Griffiths. Practising when tired or under pressure will have a bigger impact on your performance, so pencil some brick sessions into your schedule. This way, you won't suffer when you jump off the bike and launch into the run.
Practising pool-to-bike transitions is not as easy, but should not be overlooked. "Although you come out of the water and onto a bike on race day, you should just practise swimming and then being upright," says Bullock. "Try a 'vertical shunt' by leaving the water and running just to feel the blood flow back into your legs."
Transition session 1
"When going into a race you don't want to lose your feel for anything," says former Olympic coach Steve Trew. "Try this simple bike-to-run session - 100m hard cycling followed by an immediate transition into a 100m run and repeat until it feels natural."
Transition session 2
"Do 20 minutes on the bike, then a 10-minute run," says Yelling. "The second 10 minutes on the bike should be really hard so you are replicating the sense of having jelly legs."
Triathlon is a very tough sport in terms of getting good results and being the best you can be," says sports psychologist Keith Power (www.adifferentmindset.com). "Athletes need to master the physical, technical and tactical - but none of that matters if you don't get a fourth element to peak - your mental strength."
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to prepare for race day. "Write out a checklist of things you want to achieve before the race," says Power. "Ticking off the boxes as you go, from completing a hard training session to eating the right pre-race meal, will make you feel as if you are doing everything right and give you extra confidence when race day comes around."
Dr Victor Thompson (www.sportspsychologist.com) says people need to develop techniques that stop their thoughts running amok and derailing the final stages of their training.
"Peaking is the time to catch the 'wild horse' thoughts. When nervous we often think in catastrophic ways - we imagine something bad must happen at some point, a dunking or a crash. Recognise the possibility that your thoughts may become increasingly extreme and negative, and reframe them so that they appear as simply a feature of being up for the race. Then just go out there and try to enjoy the event."