Whether you’re a completer or competer, doing your 1st IM 70.3 triathlon can be a scary and intimidating proposition. The aim of this blog is to help you get to the start line better prepared, not through a few generic top tips, but by giving you a bit of a reality check on the challenges ahead. The blog focusses on IM Edinburgh 70.3 but most of the principles apply to other races too.
Looking out over East Lothian and Gosford Bay
Starting the Journey
So you’ve done a few sprint and Olympic distance triathlons, right? A few pool swim races? If the answer is yes, then that’s great. If it’s no, I do wonder why you’re reading this blog.
That's because I’m a bit old-school, believing that it’s important to respect the traditions of the sport and treat triathlon as more than a bucket-list event. Despite the images portrayed in the media, triathlon isn’t always a battle against the odds or some Herculean challenge. Well over 1-million people have done IM so it's not an exclusive club. Rather, the sport requires that you follow a disciplined path without deviating from it in the hope of finding a shortcut. This journey is not about preparing for war. Rather, it’s about working towards getting your mind, body and soul in balance so that you can achieve your goals and do so with a smile on your face.
Being prepared also means dealing with unhelpful emotions which contribute to pre-race anxiety. Knowing race etiquette, how to keep yourself safe and showing respect to your fellow competitors helps too. If you believe you can follow a 12-week internet plan and turn up at the race start ready to perform in balance, then you are slightly deluded. Being under-prepared will not only decrease your enjoyment of the experience, you may also be a liability for your fellow competitors. Don’t despair though, this Blog gives you a few things to think about before you get to the start line.
Where to get advice from?
Triathlon is a sport driven by innovation and I love that. But it is also a world full of soothsayers and snake-oil salesmen. Many novice triathletes turn to triathlon websites and magazines for guidance. However, most are full of market driven drivel, promising quick fixes in a sport where there are few short-cuts to success.
There are few quick fixes in triathlon; improvement is incremental at best
The secret to navigating this world is to treat everything and everyone with a degree of scepticism. You need a finely tuned bullshit meter and must be very selective in who you ask for advice. If you’re inexperienced, it’s far better to ask a decent coach. Be prepared to pay them. You wouldn’t expect to go to the dentist and leave without a bill, would you? Finding a good coach is like finding a good builder. Personal recommendations are best. The downside is that the best coaches usually have a waiting list and can pick-and-choose their clients. The less scrupulous ones will take you on board without too many questions and you should avoid them like the plague.
If you can’t justify the cost of a coach and want to go it alone, ready-made training plans may work if your training lacks consistency. However, you’ve still got to develop self-discipline to know when to follow the plan, and when to adapt it. Doing so also takes a degree of knowledge. There are a few good books that may help you. My favourite is Matt Dixon’s The Well Built Triathlete a book that has simple advice which cuts the bullshit. For more advanced athletes, Joe Friel’s The Triathlete’s Training Bible is excellent.
Be careful about asking friends, club-mates or even some coaches for advice. They often pick up their knowledge from the same market-driven websites and magazines that I’ve already warned you about. If in doubt, asking the one-word question “why?” will give you clues to whether people know what they're talking about or not.
A race start with 1800 less people you will be swimming with
Getting to the Start Line
In the ideal world, I recommend that you complete at least a season’s worth of racing in non-branded local events. They’re smaller, less intimidating and people are more friendly/supportive towards novices. Skills developed in such races, including setting up transition, swimming in a mass of other bodies or holding your race line, become critically important in a field of 2000. If it’s too late to get that level of preparation in, please still read on.
Every triathlete gets anxious before a big event. I guarantee that you’ll worry about if your training has been appropriate and sufficiently voluminous or not. Having such doubts is normal. As a rule of thumb for an IM 70.3 race, experienced athletes can get away with 12-weeks of relatively consistent training. If you’re not so experienced, much longer is required. Regardless, every athlete requires at least 2-3 sessions in each discipline per week and total training volume should be no less than 8-10 hours. Yes, it’s possible with less volume but you would be better doing sprint or Olympic distance events if you’re time poor.
You should not feel intimidated by the thought of swimming 1.9km open-water well in advance of the race and should practice doing so at least a few times. Completing the whole race distance in single training sessions over the course of a weekend should not leave you ‘pulling a sickie’ on Monday either. Now let’s talk about single disciplines.
Getting ready for the swim
I love the start of the swim in a triathlon because I’ve trained myself physically and mentally for it. I watch others with disdain when they complain about how cold 13C water is. The Edinburgh swim will be around this temperature in July. Depending on wind direction the water may be quite choppy too. Kite surfers use the Gosford Bay area and this tells a story.
A 4 year old paddling in the Forth in March. It was 8C
If you’re adequately prepared, water temperature should present no fears for you in July. Now is the time to start your physical and mental preparation. This includes getting used to swimming with other people, learning how to sight, dealing with the odd kick in any part of your anatomy and dealing with goggles that get knocked out of position. Another biggie is not to be a big Jessie when water touches your private parts.
Everyone has a responsibility to themselves, fellow competitors and the organisers to be competent and confident in dealing with the demands of the race. Triathlon swimming is very safe but it comes with risks. For example, mixing cold water, adrenaline and inexperience can be extremely dangerous. This is because cold water triggers a shock response when your face is immersed in the stuff. This shock is usually accompanied by a swift intake of breath and you’ll be choking like a cat with a fur-ball if this results in you swallowing salt water. If you do so just as the hooter sounds, at best you’re be in for a few unpleasant minutes in which hundreds of bodies will swim over you. At worst you’ll be fish food.
It's quite fun once you put your head under the water
Whilst uncommon, it is not unknown for novice athletes to have a cardiac arrest at the race start. This is thought to be triggered by a conflict in the electrical signals being sent to the heart. Cold water tells your central nervous system to slow the heart down and this is accompanied by vasoconstriction. However, adrenaline tells the heart to beat faster and such confusion in the signals ‘trips a switch’. Whilst the risk of this happening is minimal, it is absolutely negligible with a little bit of cold-water experience. That means getting used to open-water swimming. You have been warned.
The Bike Leg
The Edinburgh 70.3 bike route is a really good one, rolling hills, mainly good (not smooth) surfaces and few technical sections. Obviously, as the leg starts at the coast, you’ll be steadily ascending until around half distance. The descent into Edinburgh is fast.
As soon as you exit T1, you should be considering the run. It’s a really tough lapped one, with a steady climb and a very short, sharp one. The descents are the climbs in reverse and offer little respite. The gradient is such that it will be unforgiving on weary legs. Therefore, if you go out too hard on the bike, you’ll pay the price on the run. Much better to back off a little and focus on doing a great run.
Although I’m not the world’s best bike handler, I spent my cycling formative years in traditional bike clubs. The old guys taught us etiquette and how to look after ourselves. The more experienced riders policed the group and did not go lightly on those who broke the rules. Such a group dynamic kept everyone safe. We learnt to ride predictably, be hyper-aware of the other riders in the group and call out potholes and hazards. Sadly, this dynamic has been lost slightly, as people come to the sport later in life. A friendly piece of advice is often seen as a challenge to manhood now.
“You’ll be taught riding etiquette, but if you ride like a dick, you’ll be treated like one”
Unfortunately, particularly in IM branded events, competitors have a reputation for demonstrating dickish behaviour. It is not uncommon for riders to veer off line when feeding; fail to point out potholes; overtake on the inside; draft blatantly or drop gel wrappers. Some of these behaviours are apparent due to the fact that the sport attracts a high proportion of alpha-types. As soon as the red-mist descends, they become ego-centric maniacs with the self-belief that they could beat Jan Frodeno despite having just been passed by a granny in the Super Vintage Decrepit age-group. However, most dangers come down to lack of experience and poor bike riding skills. Therefore, as a sheer minimum, you should be able to do the following before entering a major triathlon:
- Maintain your line of travel whilst looking over your shoulder. You should always do so before pulling out to pass a rider in front
- Be able to safely drink and eat on the move
- Choose the correct line through corners
- Avoid potholes when travelling at speed
- Always be aware of and ride confidently when surrounded by other riders
- Be confident enough to communicate your intensions to others. This means shouting “passing” when overtaking another rider…they may not have learnt to look over their shoulder after-all
- Understand how not to draft or prevent drafting. This means knowing how to maintain a steady pace after passing another rider, rather than slowing down.
Whilst these things sound simple enough, you still need to learn to do them. If you’ve come to the sport late in life, you've not been coached or been a member of a decent club, then my guess is that you’ll be lacking these skills. Riding a bike alone or with a few mates does not count.
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve not got much to worry about in terms of safety. It’s now about getting to the finishing line as quickly as you can. If you’ve not done brick sessions (bike-to-run session), the first few km’s will be horrible. If you’ve got your pacing on the swim and bike right, then your run pace will be circa 5% slower than your normal half-marathon pace. If you can’t maintain that pace, something has gone a little wrong. Your first 15km or so should be about even-paced, disciplined running. Those with less experience should err on the side of caution. With 6km to go, and if you’re feeling good, It’s time to open up the turbo and give it your all. Otherwise, it may well be about survival.
I’m an endurance sport expert, who works as a Lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Stirling, Scotland’s University of Sporting Excellence. I am a BASES accredited sport and exercise scientist with Chartered Scientist status. I worked at British Cycling for 6 years as a coach developer and am a qualified triathlon and cycling coach. I have over 20 years’ experience in triathlon and an extensive personal network in the sport.
My coaching fees are commensurate with my level of experience, unless you can make me laugh and have the ability to win at the highest level. Then I’m cheap as chips.