Training and Racing Triathlons in Challenging Conditions
I typically avoid making my articles personal, but racing in challenging conditions for me was an advantage, to the point of selecting races which historically included them. As a professional triathlete traveling the world, showing up at an event in Japan and giving up or compromising my performance because it was cold and raining was not an option. There was prize money, and possibly ranking or Olympic qualifying points at stake. When athletes showed up to transition and the start line with grimaces and chattering teeth, I showed up with a smirk, hat, and gloves. I made difficult conditions an advantage through training, planning, and mental preparation.
If you are investing in equipment, travel, and entry fees, the last thing you want is a race where the conditions are not just less than ideal, but nasty. During my career I encountered tropical storms, sleet, and extreme heat, and I felt prepared for each one.
Preparation Through Training
One method to prepare for these conditions is training in them. Coaches and athletes have trended towards extremely controlled conditions utilizing technology like Alter G treadmills, Wahoo Kickrs and wave less gutter systems. Although coaches can methodically train their athletes physiologically with these tools in controlled conditions, they don’t prepare an athlete for the challenges they may encounter during competition. In some challenging conditions athletes cannot maintain their stroke in rough water, corner on wet roads, or properly hydrate during a midday race run. You will not encounter these conditions at every event, but it is an advantage for those who are prepared.
To train for these conditions athletes must get their bike dirty and ride in the rain, swim through the waves or safely run in heat. Cycling tactics that should be tested during training are riding with lower tire pressure or testing different tire models in wet conditions. Perhaps using toe warmers with your racing shoes or riding without gloves to insure that handlebar tape provides the proper grip when wet during a race.
I competed in Olympic format races so transitions were the difference between the lead pack and the chase pack, I had to make sure that any added equipment did not add time or the time added made a significant difference. For example, longer style toe warmers are great in training, but in a cold or wet race with typical triathlon style cycling shoes you need to cut a half to a full inch off to access the strap. These are fine details developed and executed in training and not the morning of the race when you realize you cannot secure or slip your foot out of the shoes.
For swimming you can skip the open lanes and get in the lane with the most people, right in the churning wave filled middle of the pool. This will simulate choppy conditions you often find in open water swimming. The run is probably the easiest to accommodate challenging conditions, but as easy as it to jump on the treadmill to avoid rain, cold or wind. Purposely mix in days outside to test hats and gloves, or determine which shoes hold the most water and become too loose or heavy.
My own training example was a winter in Colorado when I was determined to ride outside every day no matter what the conditions or the workout. Some days it meant a mountain bike and skiing style warming packs in my booties to ride in a blizzard, but I did it. For some reason that early spring race with rain and cold on the other side of the globe became my top finish to start a World Cup season.
Bring the Right Equipment
The most common error I see competitors and my athletes make is not packing equipment for all race conditions. Thinking positively will not keep your hands warm like the proper gloves will in a cold or rain soaked race. There are essentials that I propose for every travel race pack:
visor/hat for the run
plastic shopping bags
knee or leg warmers
I have seen many athletes not pack a wetsuit for a race that never has water cold enough for a wetsuit swim, then the lake turns over the night before the race. This phenomenon is caused by windy conditions when surface water is replaced by colder water from the beneath dropping the swim temperature sometimes 10 to 15 degrees. Athletes without wetsuits are left behind in the swim and too cold to be competitive on the bike. There may be limited access to last minute product vendors at the expo and many athletes will end up creating alternatives, renting or borrowing an unfamiliar wetsuit, or going without.
Today’s options in race suit materials and designs, permits athletes to take a warm weather and cold weather option. Normally, in cold weather you can plan your suit for the bike and run conditions because it will be covered by a wetsuit in the swim, versus a non-wetsuit racing kit that provides the best swimming advantage. Arm warmers can provide a post transition option to add warmth on a cold bike by attaching them the bars or top tube and pulling them on safely, after securing your feet in the shoes and riding in a non-technical section of the course. Any equipment and use of that equipment should of course be tested and practiced in training prior to race day.
Proper equipment extends to post-race as well where it is essential to have dry clothing to start the recovery process. They are easy to pack, use a simple plastic bag from the grocery store, and will keep post-race essentials dry inside a transition bag or backpack. I would pack these items for every race in my travel bag, eventually I had a pre-packed set of them, to guarantee I didn’t forget something in the pre-travel frenzy. During those races with challenging conditions, I was glad I dedicated the travel bag space to bad weather equipment then a second outfit option for the post-race party.
Be Mentally Prepared
Mental preparation is essential to success at every level of competition. Just as you must prepare mentally to address competitive environments, you must also prepare to apply mental strategies in challenging race conditions. Visualizing a turn on the bike course is a common example, but what happens on race day when there is a puddle in that corner? Some athletes fail to adjust their mental approach to these conditions. Training in challenging conditions will give you an alternative visual reference to approaching the corner with regards to braking, weight distribution as well as corner entry and exit locations.
Preparation in challenging conditions creates a huge mental advantage for those who have trained in them and has packed the proper equipment because they can focus on race tactics, course profiles and pre-race visualizations. Otherwise you can become distracted and distressed by the conditions, spending time and energy to obtain needed items or alter items to overcome the conditions. This is especially important in triathlon where the impact on three different sports must be addressed. The bike and transitions are three areas that require the most focus during a triathlon and that attention to details must be maintained despite shivering hands and cold feet. Confidence is an important mental component of racing and in these situations where I smiled in the transition amid the pouring rain, and my opponents showed distress, I already had an edge.
When I consider some of my best finishes, they were frequently race under challenging conditions. My first FootLocker Cross Country National Championships qualification was in 4 to 6 inch puddles and my Tinley racing kit was caked in mud so heavily it had to be retired. I won the first Olympic format Pro Nationals in heat that raised the water temperature to over 90°F. The Olympic Trials saw many top contenders fail to finish in the midday Texas heat while I punched my ticket to Sydney. There was the World Cup Triathlon in Gamagori Japan, normally considered a hot race historically, but one early spring it was toe warmers and sticky handlebar tape that allowed me to navigate the wet and cold bike section, leading the rush to transition and a best ever start to an international season.
As an athlete who was not gifted with the physical gifts or speed commonly attributed to top triathletes, I was able to create an advantage when challenging conditions made others rethink their race participation. By including challenging conditions in your training plan, preparing the proper equipment and strengthening your mental skills a challenging race will become a successful performance.