Sunday, January 31, 2016

Triathlon is Boring

Don’t get me wrong, I love training. I love racing. I even love watching other athletes competing. The closer the athlete is to me, be it a close friend, an athlete I coach, or even my wife, the more I enjoy cheering. To me triathlon is very exciting, but maybe I should explain a little more.

In my third season competing and after completing my first Age-Group National Championship at Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 2009, I was talking with a friend and more experienced triathlete. I was still relatively new to the sport and asked him how his race went and if he was happy with the result. His reply was to the effect of, “Sure, triathlon is boring. I did what I thought I would.” At first, I was a little turned off by the answer, but as time has gone on, what he said makes perfect sense.

When we train over a period of time, we get a pretty good idea of where our fitness is coming into a given race block. This could be based from a functional threshold power test on the bike, a benchmarking session in the pool or an open running race. We then train according to the fitness we show and look to increase those numbers over time. However, as we approach actual race day, the numbers don’t magically increase “huge” amounts. During training at race pace intervals and doing some race simulation workouts, we should be able to dial in appropriate efforts for the race at hand.

For example, if an athlete I am coaching comes into a sprint race showing open 5k fitness of around 22:00, then we would look to target close to her open 10k pace of 7:23 or slightly slower during her 5k run off the bike, or 22:57-23:32 (7:23-7:34 pace). If the swim and bike are paced appropriately and she has a good day, she should fall in that range. If she has an absolute blinder of a race and ran a 22:45 or 7:19 pace, she had an incredible race! As athletes, we know how great that is, but go brag to your non-athlete friends that you ran 4 seconds/mile faster and see if they are very impressed. However, the ranges of possibility are not overly huge and we would never expect her to amaze herself and run a 21:30 run leg out of nowhere!

As athletes (or with our coach’s help), we should come up with targets and goals based on what our fitness has shown us we can sustain for the approximate distances, terrain and weather. Far too often, individual athletes come up with arbitrary race time goals that “sound good” to them based on what friends are doing or even just because they like some whole round number and don’t truly take into account where they are coming into a race. Perhaps you came up with a goal at the beginning of season -- 6 or 8 months out -- that you would like to break 5 hours a in half-iron distance triathlon, a 30-minute PR. As you start to get in the final prep block, you take a look at the numbers and say:

  • If I swim 35 minutes,
  • if I bike 2:30,
  • and if I run 1:45,
  • add 10 mins for transitions...
  • I should come in right a 5 hours!

Breaking those down: you have better shown you can swim sub-1:40/100yds or sub-1:49/100m for at least that distance and at appropriate half-iron effort, not all-out. Since most of our training and testing is in the pool, I have found most age-group athletes have a 2-5% drop-off in open water, so now you're looking more like holding 1:37 for yards or 1:46 for meters to attain that 35 minute swim split on race day. Depending on your open water skills of sighting and swimming a straight line, your drop off could be even more. If you’re a 170 pound male on a time-trial bike and fit pretty aero, you will need to maintain about 190-195 watts to hit your target speed of 22.4mph. That means your FTP should have tested somewhere in the 230-240W range so you can appropriately ride 80-84% as a target. And for that half-marathon at a 8:00/mile pace, you’d better be sure your fitness supports you running somewhere around a 1:40 or quicker open half-marathon (or equivalent for shorter distances) as a 4-7% drop off from open running pace can be expected.

Toss in uncontrollables such as heat and humidity, wind, rain, terrain, course measurement errors, etc. Plus you still have to execute properly with appropriate pacing and fueling. Finally, we tend to base our race goals on our “bests” throughout training. What about that day you just couldn’t hit the targets in training even though they were appropriate for your fitness? Maybe your body was just off that day due to life stress, training fatigue, or one of about 100 other things! As an everyday working age-grouper, it can be challenging to recover and taper perfectly into a race, so consider backing off your targets a little bit starting a race and if everything feels good you can always start pushing a little more throughout the race up to those “best” targets.

Personally as a competitor, the true excitement of triathlon comes with trying to raise the bar of what I am capable of swimming, biking and running, and then putting it all together and trying to execute to the best of my ability on race-day. Don’t limit yourself by using the numbers, but do set appropriate targets for your goals.

Train hard, race smart and make this sport as exciting as it can be for you!


Jeff got involved with the sport of triathlon after moving to the Memphis area in 2006. He works full time as an airline pilot, and is a dedicated husband and father who understands the realities of mixing training with everyday family life. He is a two-time Age-Group Sprint National Champion, 70.3 Worlds and Kona qualifier and has consistently improved year over year. He has been coaching others to achieve their goals since 2010. You can follow his training and racing blog here.
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