1. Sleep well
"In reality, trying to sleep well the night before a race never works," says triathlon coach Rick Kiddle (www.rickkiddle.com). "The best sleep will be the night before the night before. Many athletes can survive with little sleep the night before, owing to nerves, and they still race really well. The best sleep comes when you're more relaxed."
2. Fuel yourself
You need to eat well to have energy, so the night before the race eat pasta with red pepper and tomato sauce, followed by low-fat yoghurt with fruit compote.
"Pasta is popular with sportspeople for a good reason," says Dr Sarah Schenker of the British Nutrition Foundation. "One hundred grams of pasta delivers 55g of carbohydrate, which is absorbed into the bloodstream and carried to the muscles and liver to be stored as glycogen."
Peppers and tomatoes provide vitamin C and beta-carotene to boost the immune system and help protect the body from cell damage caused by racing. "The compote and yoghurt provide extra carbohydrates, antioxidants and minerals, in particular calcium, which keeps bones strong," adds Schenker.
For breakfast, have a bowl of muesli with semi-skimmed milk and a sliced banana. "Muesli will top up your glycogen and has a low glycaemic index, so the carbohydrates will be released slowly into the bloodstream - eat it at least three hours before the race," says Schenker. Bananas are the nutritional equivalent of football's magic sponge - that's why the likes of tennis world number one Rafael Nadal munch on them at every opportunity.
3. No need to rush
Check travel updates to make sure there are no hold-ups. It's not just that you don't want to miss the start - you want to minimise your stress levels so that you are relaxed before you dive into the water. "If it's a race you've been targeting, consider staying at the venue the night before," says coach Steve Lumley, from thetriathloncoach.com.
4. Organise your kit
Wheeling a bike and carrying lots of kit doesn't have to be like frenzied Christmas shopping. "Buy a crate with wheels from a home-improvement store," advises Kiddle.
5. It's all about the timing
Wake up early - "Three and a half hours before the start," says former World Triathlon Champion Tim Don. Start times are often staggered, so the right time to wake up will depend on that. So here's a formula:
- Wake up = start time minus 3 hours 30 minutes
- Breakfast = start time minus 3 hours
- Arrival time = start time minus 1 hour 30 minutes
- Visiting the bathroom because you're nervous = anytime you like. "Take your own paper," advises Don. "It's OK to have pre-race nerves. So long as you don't miss the race."
6. Have a plan
"Be organised and have a routine," says Lumley. "But bear in mind that being nervous is a good thing - it prepares you for action. To warm up, run or cycle for 15 to 20 minutes, around 15 minutes before the start of the race. That gives you time to put on your wetsuit and head for the swim."
Tim Don advises walking the transition before the race begins. "When you come off the bike there may be no one else there [we think he's implying you may be last. Or first] so take a mental picture before you start."
7. Dress smart
We're not talking tuxedos or ballgowns here, but what you wear from one stage of the race to the next. "Wear everything you plan to race in under your wetsuit, and make sure the pins are done up properly - the last thing you want is a pin sticking in you," says Lumley. "Use a lubricant such as baby oil around the neck of the wetsuit to avoid chafing."
It's also a good idea to apply lubricant on your feet, ankles and wrists, to allow a speedy exit from the suit. "Place your goggles underneath your swim hat so that you won't lose them if they are knocked off in the swim," says Kiddle. "The data tag that race organisers ask you to wear should be placed underneath the ankle of your wetsuit so you don't take it off by accident in transition."
8. Make sure you stretch properly
"You need to compensate for the muscle-stiffening swimming with upper-body stretches, which will also allow a more relaxed and efficient running style," says Don. "Target the shoulders, lats, triceps and chest. You should already be doing the usual lower-body stretches for your calves, quads and hamstrings but the most important are those for the lower back and glutes. These muscles need to be loose and 'free' to allow the transition from the bent-over cycling position to the upright running position. The tighter these muscles, the tougher this transition will be."
9. Smart swimming
Once in the water, stay wide, but keep your eye on the buoys so you don't end up in the next county. "Be prepared to go wide at the buoys if you're in a large group - there's less chance of getting roughed up," says Lumley.
Set off quick if you're a strong and confident swimmer. "Try a deep-water start technique with your body in a horizontal position so no one swims over you," says Kiddle. "Before the race, practise swimming with others around you - and become used to being able to change the side you breathe on, in case anyone is too close."
Remember to keep an even pace. "Try to seed yourself at the start so you are among swimmers of a similar speed," says Lumley.
Use the draft from the swimmer in front. It's the same principle that helps Lewis Hamilton overtake rivals at 200mph - follow in the slipstream of the person in front and the reduced drag will pull you along with reduced effort. "Aim to swim close to the feet or hips of the swimmer in front," says Lumley.
Aim for negative splits (where you complete the second half of a leg quicker than the first half). It works for the pros and it should work for you. "Most world records in endurance sports have come from a negative split," says Lumley.
10. Make the change
Practise makes perfect when it comes to transitions. "Practise taking on and off the shoes you're going to bike and run in so you are comfortable with the action," says Kiddle. "On the bike, wear a triathlon shoe with Velcro fastening and a loop at the back of the heel. The cleat should be fixed in the right position but the best pedals will allow float - lateral movement that takes pressure off the knees."
Freewheel into the transition area, fully prepared to jump off your bike and straight into your running shoes. "Place your feet on top of the bike shoes ready to dismount," says Kiddle. "Practise this as much as you can before race day so you can fly through transition without slowing down too much."
It pays to know how to deploy your water bottles. "Depending on how warm it is, I would take two water bottles, one with 600ml of water and the other with 600ml of isotonic energy drink," says Will Clarke, former Triathlon World Under-23 Champion. "Leave a water bottle in a baseball hat by your bike, which you can leave in transition just so you know you've got water to take on straight away," adds Don.
Use elastic laces. "They allow your shoes to slip on quickly and stay comfortable," says Lumley. You can also apply Vaseline on any areas of the shoe that may rub.
11. On your bike
Monitor your speed so you don't overdo it too early and hit the wall. "You need more control over your speed than is the case with a single discipline," says Don. "By going too hard in one sport you can adversely affect another. Use your heart rate monitor and distance/speed meter to achieve the pace you've been training for. "
Be flexible, and adapt to your position in the field. "You can either accelerate at the end of the bike leg or drop back to save energy, then pick up the draft as you accelerate away towards the transition area," says Kiddle. "This saves energy and keeps you from going too hard too soon in the run."
12. Run riot
Wear your best running shoes. "Make sure that you have a pair that won't cause you any knee problems during the final stage," says Clarke.
Start the run as fresh as possible and slowly build up speed. "I try to go with the break on the bike but still conserve enough energy to try to have the quickest run," says Don. Building the speed slowly during the first part of the run will give you confidence to pass other racers who haven't paced themselves so well.
With good preparation you'll have saved yourself for one last effort as you approach the finish line. Enjoy it. This is where most friends, relatives and supportive onlookers will gather. "They will cheer you on, so make sure you have saved enough energy for one last sprint, whether you plan on winning or finishing second-last," says Alistair Brownlee, 2008 Triathlon World Under-23 Champion.
Don't forget to have a massage after the race. These are available at every decent triathlon and will help flush the cruel lactic acid out of your legs. "A massage will prevent blood pooling and, mixed with active recovery, is the ideal way to speed up recovery time," says Kiddle. "For active recovery you should walk, jog, swim, spin legs and stretch."
13. Bring a friend
Alistair Brownlee, 2008 Triathlon World Under-23 Champion, says it's a good idea to have someone with you. "Not just to cheer you on, but to drive you home," he says. "You deserve it."
14. Remember to mingle
Triathlons are social as well as sporting events, and it's worth swapping notes with rivals, onlookers and organisers. The attendance tends to be quite fluid, because various events take place at different times and everyone has a different pace, but there are always plenty of people hanging around, either recovering or about to start, and all are prepared to offer advice and encouragement. "One new insight into a faster transition, or that little extra encouragement from a rival, can help improve your time in the next race," says Kiddle.
15. Teach yourself
Learn your lessons, and come back stronger. "And come back with a smile on your face. This is the best lifestyle sport in the world and makes you feel alive," says Kiddle.