A Matter Of Course

Preparation is vital for a triathlete. It's a sport that takes up a lot of time, demands skill in three disciplines, calls for a careful diet and contains specific technical factors that must be mastered. You might, after all this, be inclined to leave a few surprises for race day, but you shouldn't.

Knowing something about the course can be invaluable. Training on the course can help if you're nervous about the great unknown. Saffron Webber from Horsham, West Sussex, is training for the BananaMan Triathlon and her local Southwater Relay. "I ride the route beforehand if I can," she says. "I've driven courses before, just to get an idea of what I'm in for. It helps me to know what's around the next corner. I swim regularly in the lake I'll be racing in this season. Preparation like that helps my nerves when it comes to racing."

Other triathletes take a laid-back approach for shorter races but leave nothing to chance for their big races. Gareth Hodgson from Surrey tailors his level of research to the event. "For Ironman Germany in 2006 and Ironman Switzerland in 2009, I obsessively looked at online course profiles and listened to banter about the races on the Runner's World forums. My training cycle loop has four climbs that matched those in the Ironman Germany course. I rode a lap of the Ironman Switzerland course when I arrived."

Trouble can arise when you don't do the research, as Hodgson found out. "For the Bustinskin Half-Ironman, I did virtually no research, probably because I regarded it as an end-of-season jolly. Had I read the course profile, I might have started worrying."

Nigel Woods from Big Cow Events, which organises numerous triathlons, thinks it's sensible to prepare yourself. "It's handy to be aware of the route, and the race HQ layout," he says. "It's hard to come to terms with something going wrong because you didn't know the route. However, I would urge people not to work themselves up over 'what ifs'. Only the guy who's going to be in the lead needs to worry about where he's going. For the rest of us, there will be other competitors (not to mention marshals and route markers) to prevent any navigational mishaps."

Consider everything

Woods warns that race-day preparation should not be restricted to the route. "My best advice to competitors is to give yourself plenty of time to travel, arrive and get ready," he says. "Find out how far the car park is from registration, and where transition is. Consider how many competitors there will be. Don't leave yourself 10 minutes to rack your bike
and go to the toilet. A good thing to do is register as early as possible, or the day before if you're local to the race."

Your first port of call for information should be the race website. Most organisers put as much information as possible on their sites to help with communication. There are likely to be route maps, contour maps and perhaps aerial shots so you can get the imagination fired up. Pablo Kim Lee, who lives in Spain, is training for the Challenge Roth Triathlon on July 18. "I emailed the Challenge Roth organisers and they answered very quickly with a helpful reply. They told me about the signs, which are up on the course year-round, and encouraged me to go and try the course."

Online options

Once you have route and contour information, you can plot local runs and rides that simulate the conditions. Some race organisers produce DVDs of previous years' events. You could consider buying one or ask your tri club if they've already got it. YouTube can also be a very useful resource. Search the site for your race name and you are likely to find a wealth of information from previous competitors, ranging from footage of the event to their opinions and recollections. Try Google Earth and Google Street View for a bird's-eye view of the course. Look out for turns across road junctions, dodgy road surfaces, narrow paths and anything else that might otherwise spring a surprise.

Garmin Connect is also a handy web resource. Users can upload a variety of training sessions and races from all over the world, and share the data with others. Lastly, try one or all of the many triathlon forums and chat rooms online (including the triathletesworld.co.uk forum).  There's likely to be at least one person there who's done your race before or who lives nearby and who will be able to answer your questions about local facilities, travel or road surfaces.

Set the swim scene

All these resources are great, but sometimes you just want to deal with one very particular bugbear. For swimming, the most obvious race-specific preparation you can do is to train in the type of water the race will be held in (sea, lake, river, reservoir, pool). Familiarity will build confidence. Find out the shape and number of laps so you can simulate the swim beforehand. Try to work out where you will position yourself for the start, based on the size of your wave. Note the size and position of the buoys to judge how easy they will be to see and how tight the turns will be. You may be swimming into the sun, so consider that, too. And, crucially, pick objects you can sight off. Answer all of these questions and you'll feel better equipped to tackle the swim.

Sheila Rice, from Hillingdon, Middlesex, lives in Germany, where she's training for Challenge Roth. "I'll recce the swim area, and always walk T1 and T2 so I know the quickest route in and out," she says. "One other thing I always do is look for a landmark near my bike so I can quickly orientate myself on exiting the swim and not lose time trying to find my bike."

Practice ride

Once you've found out about the bike route, contours and road surfaces, try to visit the local area to practise riding on the course and get your gearing sorted out. Bear in mind that roads won't be closed or marshalled before the race, so take extra care. See if you can gather a group of friends or fellow competitors and make it into a group training session. Some race organisers hold pre-event training camps that include training on the course so book a place if you're particularly concerned about an aspect of the race route. If you can't travel to the area of the race, you can either try to recreate the route on local roads, or cycle the course on your turbo trainer with the help of a mapping tool like Google Earth.

Iain Hamilton is Director of One Step Beyond Promotions, the team behind The Outlaw Triathlon, an Ironman-distance event in August. "I'd advise everyone to ride the route of any longer distance event," he says. "I think it's key. You'll find out so much: terrain, wind, camber, junctions. If you can't ride the course, find out as much as you can. It's easier than ever to get information and contact race organisers. Don't go into an event blind."

On to the run

The run may hold the fewest surprises, but it's still worth finding out as much as you can about your race. You should know if it's hilly or flat, on roads or more challenging surfaces, and where the feed stations are. Find out as much as you can and then incorporate the information into your training runs.

Whether you spend five or 25 hours training each week for triathlon, it makes sense to prepare yourself physically and mentally for the task in hand. Sharp corners, poor road surfaces and lung-busting hills can all add minutes to your finish time. If you know they're coming, you can get one up on them (and, with luck, some of the competition) and feel confident that you've done all you can to prepare.
After that, you just have to perform.