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How to improve your triathlon cycling (spoiler: not by cycling)

I know that by now its October and triathlon season is definitely over. But with the competition season over, its time to start training for the next year, and I thought my learned advice might actually be of use for other triathletes or those who are considering participating in their first triathlon in the next season.

Last summer, I’ve participated in my 21th triathlon.  Its not like I won any of them, and I’ve only done the shorter versions (up to Olympic distance so far) but I had a great deal of fun participating and have gathered a bit of experience as an amateur triathlete. Over the years I have become better in using that experience rather than sheer muscle power to boost my performance. Triathlon is an endurance sport, but there are quite a few technical sides to it. Of the triathlon components, cycling is my poorest discipline, and I have therefore focused on trying to improve that. So for what they’re worth – these are my suggestions to improve your triathlon finishing time, at least, as far as the cycling part is concerned.

On of my first triathlons... more than 10 years ago

On of my first triathlons… more than 10 years ago

The biggest difference between “normal” cycling and triathlon cycling is the switch. Changing from swimming to cycling and from cycling to running requires a transition between rather different sports, with a different body position and a different set of muscles working. It takes your body (and mind) an effort and time to perform the switch.

Start switching while swimming

Let your body start the adjustment before you exit the water. In the last tens of meters of swimming, lower your legs to start adjusting to the more vertical cycling position. Slower your arm work and power up your legs. This will start redirecting the blood stream to your legs, that will have to do the work from now on.

After leaving the water

Don’t let the adrenaline rush to blind you. Run to your bike, but not too fast – you just stood up and all the blood is flowing to your legs. Besides, there are dozens of other (disoriented) athletes around you running to their bike around you, and accidents are best to avoid.

Some Parc fermé's get very crowded

Some Parc fermé’s get very crowded

Gearing up

Put the helmet on first! Practice the “gearing up” procedure at home as part of your training routine. This will make sure that on the day of the race you know what goes where and in what sequence, so that you can put your stuff on and cycle away “on auto pilot”. Come well in advance and rehearse the procedure a few times at the race location and make sure you know where the exit of the Parc fermé is (you’ll be surprised how many people lose time looking for the exit).

Its not about your gear, its about how you use it... a fixie can be a triathlon bike too

Its not about your gear, its about how you use it… a fixie can be a triathlon bike, too

Mounting your bike

Only AFTER leaving the Parc fermé! Here, there are basically two options – putting the shoes on first, or clicking them into the pedals and putting your feet in while cycling. Which you use depends on personal preference and the type of shoes you wear, but again, this you can test at home to get used to the technique.

On your bicycle

Start on an easy gear and give your body a few minutes to adjust to the position and pace. This is something you can train as well – go to a park and lay down flat next to your bicycle for a minute. Do a few push-ups to get your heart rate up, then start off. Time how long it takes you to cycle at your regular tempo.

Switching to run

Just like the switch to cycling – start preparing in the last minutes by standing up a few times to get used to the upright running position. To shave off a few more seconds, you can pull your feet out of the cycling shoes before dismounting. And, again, start off easily, as cramps are not uncommon at this stage.

And, of course, most important is to remember to enjoy the race! Hope my suggestions help you improve your next (or first) triathlon and I would appreciate any feedback and other suggestions.

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Filed under cycling, Tips and tricks

Triathlon success secrets unravelled

Triathlon must be the most European of all sports – its a combination of seemingly unconnected pieces of random size. I’m a triathlete, not a very succesfull one though. Even though I’m no high flyer, I enjoy my sport very much. Not going for the medals, just doing my best to finish, hopefully not in the last 10. But the last triathlon I’ve done (almost) everything went just right, and for the first time in my life I’ve actually finished among the upper 1/3rd of the participants! So I sat down to evaluate the extraordinary (for my standards) performance and wrote down some tips and tricks a triathlete might use to get a little extra edge. Some of these may seem trivial but it might surprise you how many triathletes don’t do these very basic things!

Elastic laces and wasteband. Costs – 10 Euro, time win – 2 minutes per race. Add talc powder for an extra minute.

Get proper gear

You really don’t have to splash on the latest wetsuit model, teardrop-shaped helmets or GPS-equipped heart rate monitors to gear up for a triathlon. Pick up the low-hanging fruit first!

  • Gear up for the switch. I don’t win any triathlons, nor any of the disciplines, but I do the fastest switches. Elastic shoelaces, waste band for your number and talc powder for your shoes (instead of socks) can save you up to 3 minutes! Costs – less than 10 Euro.
  • Fit your bicycle with time trial/triathlon handlebar. Its not the most comfortable position to cycle in, I know. Personally, I get a pain in the neck from it. But on the distances most triathletes race (20 or 40 km cycling) its just 40-80 minutes of a race max, and its not like you have to do all your training like this. Gives me a 2-3 kph speed bonus – aerodynamics rules!
  • Get yourself a pair of proper sunglasses. Ones that will shield your eyes not only from the sun but also from the wind. A decent pair of cycling sunglasses with changeable lenses for a shady day shouldn’t set you back more than 50 Euro’s (and probably less).

Proper sunglasses provide good coverage

Train smart

As the saying goes “if you wanna be dumb, you gotta be tough”. Training hard is useless, unless you train smart, too. There’s more to training than just killing time while sweating.

  • Train for the switch. You do swimming lying down, cycle sitting and run in an upward position. Your body adapts the blood flow to each of these positions and it takes time to switch the blood stream. Your heart rate and breath are, however, at full speed so its easy to jump off the bicycle and start running at full speed, right into a cramp. Build switches between disciplines into your training program to get familiar with the physiology of the process.
  • Do an altitude training. I know, not everyone can just drop everything and go to Tenerife for a week. But if you are going on a vacation in the mountains, you can schedule a triathlon for the weekend after you’re back.
  • Take proper rest. Something I was never able to do. However, this time I did nothing for a whole week before the race, except cycling to work a couple of times. The result? I showed up for the start relaxed and fresh, after a week of good sleep.

Prepare for the race day

  • Find your race day breakfast. Mine’s oatmeal and coffee, but these things are very personal. The point is to be well-fed, yet empty at the start.
  • Practice the switch. Literally, lay out your cycling and running shoes, helmet, wasteband, sunglasses and whatever else you need, put on your swimcap and goggles, and practice taking them off and putting the cycling gear on. And then the running switch. This way you don’t come out of the water and start grabbing things but know your routine and keep calm and focused.
  • Reckon the track. Something I don’t do because I’m lazy to go out there a week before the race and cycle the track. Something I should do because I’ve missed a corner a few times before. Having to pick up lost speed is bad enough, ending up under a truck might be worse – triathlons are usually not important enough to close the roads for all traffic.

As I’ve mentioned, there’s probably nothing new in these tips and tricks. But they do work. And put together, these things just might help you set a better performance. Sure helped me. Happy triathlons!

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Filed under cycling, Tips and tricks