You've done the hard part. The weeks of training are behind you and now you're looking forward to the race. You're ready to pit yourself against each discipline as well as fellow competitors to find out if your training's paid off, but your physical preparation isn't the only key to success. How you prepare mentally can be the difference between a good race and a great race.
This step-by-step guide outlines the essential physical and mental preparation that will enable you to perform with confidence and enjoy a positive race experience.
Whether you're tackling your first triathlon or you fifteenth, there's always something to learn, so read on and take the next step to triathlon success.
Preparation for a perfect race begins well in advance of the race weekend itself. Make sure you've ticked off these points before you set off for the race venue.
What are your goals for the race? Based on your current level of fitness and performance in training or races, set specific goals. If you come from a running background, do not expect to record a personal best on the run leg because you will be tired after the swim and cycle. Your goal might be simply to finish the race, or to complete the course in a target time, such as three hours for a standard or Olympic distance triathlon. Write your goals somewhere visible, keep them in mind and use them to guide your race preparation.
Many coaches advise having three goals. The first should be a goal you are certain you can achieve. The second should be a goal that you're likely to achieve, and the third a best-case-scenario target if everything goes perfectly on race day. With several options, you won't feel crushed if you don't achieve your dream goal. Imagine how you will feel reaching each of these goals, and how even if everything doesn't go perfectly, you'll accept your performance and bounce-back.
Every triathlon is different, so to understand the challenge ahead, make sure you read the race instructions. If the swim is in a pool, find out if you stay in the same lane throughout. Are you allowed to tumble-turn? Will you receive a two-lengths-to-go warning from the marshals? If the swim is in open-water, find out if it's in the sea, a river or lake, the shape of the course, and if you're required to swim one or more laps. Will the bike and run sections be flat or hilly, traffic-free or not, and single- or multi-lap? Find out if there are drinks stations - and what they offer - on both the bike and run sections.
Once you know the answers to these questions, adapt your training to give you confidence to tackle the course. You might complete a swim in the sea in your race wetsuit, develop confidence on your bike by tackling some steep descents, and follow a bike ride with a run to condition yourself to running with tired legs.
Triathlon rules are there to help you perform safely on race day. For a comprehensive guide, visit www.britishtriathlon.org/events/rules/ but in particular be aware of the following rules:
- Your cycle helmet must be fastened before your bicycle is removed from its allotted place in the transition area and must remain fastened until the bicycle is returned to this position at the end of the cycle section of the race. Failure to comply may result in a time penalty.
- You are not allowed to draft, in other words take shelter behind or beside another competitor or motor vehicle, during the cycling section of the race. A two-minute penalty will be slapped on you for a first drafting offence.
A week before the race it's good to start to eat well, drink plenty of fluids, and prepare for the challenge ahead. Many triathlons start early in the morning, so it's always a good idea to travel to the race venue the day before to register, rack your bike and walk around the course to check it out.
The Day Before
Once you’ve registered and collected your race numbers (usually one or two for you, plus numbered stickers for your bike, front of your helmet and kit bag), ask the officials any questions and find out if there have been any changes to the course since you signed up.
Check out as much of the course as possible. Is it how you pictured it after reading the course notes? If not, what is different? Run through in your mind what you will do on race day as you check out the course. Make some notes if that will help you to remember.
Check out the swim area. If there’s an open-water swim, have a look to see if the marker buoys are on the course. Can you see the turns and the last marker indicating where you head for the exit? Is there a prevailing current, so you know to expect to feel as though you are swimming against the tide at times? Are there any visible landmarks near the swim exit that you can aim for during the race to guide you?
Once out of the water where do you go? How and where will you undo and take off your wetsuit? Are there any obstacles, such as stones, that you’ll need to avoid? On entering transition, where will you go to reach your bike (you might not know the location until race day)? See in your mind’s eye how your personal kit is laid out – you may even want to sketch this out on paper ahead of time.
Once you collect your bike, make sure you know what direction you’ll head in to reach the exit. Find out where the ‘mount line’ is so you know when to get on your bike. If you have cycle shoes, decide if they’ll be clipped-in to your pedals so you run out bare-foot (the fastest way when done well, but tricky to master), or whether you will put them on before unracking your bike (lower risk and easiest).
You may be able to check out the bike course on your bike or in the car. Look out for tight corners, fast (and potentially dangerous) descents, stones, glass and potholes. Work out where you might have a drink and eat a gel or energy bar. Towards the end of the bike section, take a note of a landmark so you’ll know you are approaching transition. Familiarise yourself with the dismount line and where you will get off the bike – or risk incurring a penalty.
Visualise where you will go to rack your bike, and the order that you’ll remove your kit.
Make a mental map of the run course. Work out where the drinks stations will be. Towards the end of the run section, take a note of a landmark so you know you are approaching the end of the run and can prepare for a big finish-line flourish.
Find some time for a short practice session. In a perfect world you'll do a brief swim, bike and run, but most people are satisfied with a 20-minute bike ride and 10 minute run. Spend most time at an easy intensity, with around three brief bursts of effort (no more than one minute) at race pace. Notice that your body feels rested, ready, fast and full of vigour. Check that your bike is running smoothly. If you removed the wheels in transit, make sure they have been put back correctly, that your brakes work and that the gears change smoothly.
If you need to rack your bike in the transition area today, do this once you have completed your pre-race session.
Now is the time to get away from the race site, and the nervous energy of the other triathletes, and do something completely different: read, watch a film or TV, or go for a coffee.
Ensure you have all the gear you need, pin your race numbers to your kit or attach them to your number belt, then finalise your kit bag, ticking items off your list as you pack them, then close the bag and leave it alone. Place the kit that you will be wearing to travel to the race tomorrow to one side.
FINALISE YOUR RACE PLAN
Work out what you will eat and drink on the day based on your energy needs and the weather. For a one-hour race all you will need is water. For a two- to three-hour race it's a good idea to take in some carbohydrate such as a sports drink or half an energy bar on the bike section, then a gel with some water on the run. Work out what time you will need to get up to eat breakfast three hours before the race starts, then set your alarm. Plan what time you'll need to leave to arrive at the start roughly an hour before your start time.
It's always important to remind yourself of your goal(s) for the race and lay out your strategy in your mind to maximise your chance of reaching your target.
VISUALISE THE RACE
Now that you have seen the race course, you can get a better image of the race. Try to see the event unfold in as much detail as possible. Imagine what you are wearing; what you see, hear and think; how your body feels; and how much you are enjoying the race. Know how you will talk to yourself during the race and how you will respond to any setbacks. How will you keep your spirits high, show grit and push yourself on in tough parts of the race? A visual cue can remind you of these mental goals: you could either place a sticker on your handlebars, put a pen mark on your hand or how about setting an alarm to repeat on your watch.
RELAX AND GO TO BED
Take it easy and try to have a reasonably early night - although don't go to bed much earlier than usual if you know that you'll have trouble sleeping. Many athletes experience lighter and more disturbed sleep the night before an event because the mind and body have already started to prepare for the challenge ahead. Rest easy knowing that research suggests the quality and quantity of sleep the night before a race does not affect performance.
For breakfast, have a simple, low-fibre meal three hours before your start time and sip water if you feel thirsty but don't overdo it. With about 10-minutes to go, take an energy gel with some water. Base your race-day nutritional strategy on what you've done in training but bear in mind that your energy needs will be a little higher when racing as your effort level will be higher than during regular training.
Wear enough clothes to stay warm before the start. Warm-up with a 10-minute jog followed by a short swim if allowed. Attend any pre-race briefing. Allow 10 minutes to put on your wetsuit then aim to be at the start line 10 minutes before the off (or earlier if you plan a swim warm-up). Remind yourself of your goal(s), race plan, swim course and where you want to start the swim, such as at the back or side if you are slower and less confident in an open-water mass-start. Recall your training, visualisation and other race experiences to help you feel prepared. Interpret your racing heart rate and surge in adrenaline as signs that you are excited, ready and about to have fun.
If the swim is in open water, expect to be jostled by other competitors and thrown around by waves but remind yourself that you feel snug and buoyant in your wetsuit. Settle into a moderate rhythm, allowing your body to become calm after the excitement of the start, and resist the temptation to set off too fast. Navigate a straight course, give yourself space to turn at any buoys, then be on the look-out for the best path to the swim exit.
If you're wearing a wetsuit, focus on freeing yourself from it by taking it off completely or peeling it down to your waist, this will allow for a much looser run to transition. Don't forget to remind yourself of the route to your bike then follow your transition plan before heading for the exit.
Resist the temptation to blast-off on the bike fuelled by adrenaline and enthusiasm. Instead, settle into a level of effort that you will be able to sustain for the duration of the bike section and still have something left for the run. Now is a good time to eat and drink. Recall the markers that indicate that you are nearing the end of the cycle course, where the dismount line is and where you will get out of your pedals and shoes.
Remind yourself of the best route to your bike rack area. Keep your helmet on until you've placed your bike on the rack. Pick up any kit you need for the run, such as drinks, gels and a hat.
Expect to feel a little sluggish as you start the run but remind yourself this feeling will fade thanks to your training. To help your body adapt, focus for 10 to 20 seconds on running upright, bringing your hips forward again after being hunched over on the bike, running with faster feet and taking longer strides. Many triathletes slow down at the end of the run - manage your pace to finish strongly.
CELEBRATE AND REHYDRATE
Congratulate yourself no matter how you did - because you did your best on the day. Make sure that you take time to catch-up with other athletes or your supporters. Rehydrate, start restocking energy reserves and consider a post-race massage in order to speed up recovery.
Continue to have something to eat and drink every two to three hours. Consider going for a short walk to ward against any post-race stiffness that might develop.
Were you adequately prepared? If not, why? Did you achieve your goal(s)? If so, congratulate yourself. If not, what obstacles were in the way? Were the goals too ambitious? Did you face unexpected challenges such as mechanical problems? What went well during the race that you could do again in the future? What would you do differently to improve a future performance?
Finally with the weekend over and the race completed, you can congratulate yourself on all the positives in your performance and take a short break while you decide how you'll take the next step to triathlon triumph.