Triathlon Tips: Eleven Things I’ve Learned While Completing Eleven Ironman Triathlons.
Three weeks ago, I rang in my 49th birthday by crossing the finish line of my 11th Ironman triathlon. It was a truly spectacular IronBirthday and I was super stoked to celebrate it for a full 144.6 miles (Chattanooga is the only Ironman 144.6 thanks to four extra miles tacked on to the end of the bike course). It was very special to round out my last season of racing in the 45-49 Age Group with another exciting Ironman finish. While reflecting upon my training and racing leading up to this milestone, I’ve identified several useful tips which have helped me along the way. Hopefully they will be of help to you too. My top eleven 140.6 pointers follow below:
1. Hire a Good Coach: Finding the right coach is a lot like dating. It can take some screening, background research, and a few bad dates before you find the right person for you. Luckily for me I’m married to my coach (John at Breakthru Coaching, LLC) and he has been the best thing for my triathlon career so far! As soon as I switched out an old coach whose style, distant personality, and laissez-faire approach didn’t suit me at all to coaching with my husband, I cut over an hour off of my Ironman finish time. I have continued on to PR’s at every distance course since then. This is a testament to John’s coaching skills and his careful attention to detail in guiding me and tailoring my plan specifically for my abilities, strengths/weaknesses, and needs.
2. Use a Detailed Packing Checklist: After 6+ months of grueling training and prep, race day is finally almost here. And now the packing frenzy begins! I always say that organization is the fourth discipline of triathlon. There are a ton of gear and moving parts involved in a swim/bike/run 140.6 race. To avoid the last-minute panic and hassle when you arrive at your race destination only to find you’ve forgotten a key piece of gear or clothing, type up a customized transition checklist itemizing everything you need.
Once you’ve found one you like, you can always add in any unique-to-you items that you’ll need for race prep and during the long race day (i.e. medication, scissors for formatting race numbers, Allen keys etc). Methodically check off each item as you add it into your suitcase or bag.
3. Embrace the Adrenaline: No matter how many full Ironman races you’ve successfully completed, you will still be somewhat nervous on race morning. There’s nothing like 2,500 hyper focused triathletes lined up by a dark body of water in the chilly early morning hours waiting for a gun blast to go off to get the juices flowing. Everyone is tense and thinking about the long day ahead and what they have to do in order to get to the finish line. However, it is that very same nervous energy and adrenaline that will help give you a performance boost on the big day. So embrace your nerves, expect them, and don’t try to squash all those butterflies.
4. Pump Your Tires the Day Before: At Ironman 140.6 races, bike check-in occurs the day before the race. Most people wait in line for a communal bike pump or bring their own to the transition area on the morning of the race. This often ends up causing extra stress as you rush to find a pump before transition closes or locate someone to hand your pump off to before race start. Furthermore, it’s hard to pump your tires using an unfamiliar (or even your own) pump while crammed into a tiny area of the bike rack in the morning darkness with nerves jangling. I’ve seen a lot of people pop their tubes in this scenario (causing more anxiety!) or damage their tube stems. According to my husband, who could moonlight as a bike mechanic any day of the week, the ‘ideal gas law’ proves that, even with an extreme temperature swing of up to 30 degrees Fahrenheit during the 24 hours leading up to the race, tire pressure will not change by more than 5 pounds so there will be a negligible difference by race morning.
No need to wait until the stressful race morning to pump your tires unless the temperatures are expected to vary by MORE than 30 degrees F.
5. Apply Sunscreen And/Or Don Protective Race Apparel: During the frenzy of race day, it is easy to forget the importance of applying water-resistant sunscreen to exposed skin during each transition (after the swim and before setting out for the run). You are going to be outside in the elements for at least 9-10 hours straight (and probably a few more unless you’re Mirinda Carfrae) and the sun is sure to be shining for several of those hours. A bad sunburn is not only painful and dangerous, it is likely to negatively affect your performance due to increased dehydration and sunstroke. I always apply sunscreen in the hotel room before putting on my race kit because remembering to apply it during the mayhem of T1 on wet skin can be challenging. I’ve found that sunscreen can rub off and it’s easy to forget a spot as clothing shifts with movement. For this reason, I often wear a SPF protective shrug like this one: http://www.pearlizumi.com/US/en/Shop/Run/Women’s/Apparel/Tops/Jersey/Shrug/Women’s_Escape_Shrug/p/12221605021 or long-sleeve SPF top to cover my arms, shoulders and upper back.
Covered up with an SPF 50+ top during Ironman Chattanooga 2016 where temps soared to over 100 degrees!
6. Don’t Trust the Weather Forecast: A lot of Ironman races take place in mountainous regions where weather can turn on a dime. Most racers diligently study the extended weather outlook the week leading up to the race only to watch it change every five minutes. This was most definitely the case for Ironman Mont Tremblant 2014 when the weather forecast called for both rain and sun on race day. It ended up pouring with cold mountain rain during the last leg of the bike and during portions of the run. People around me were getting hypothermia and needing Mylar sheets to finish their race, but luckily I’d covered all bases by packing a light, collapsible rain jacket into my back pocket during T1. That rain jacket literally saved my race that day.
7. Velcro Straps and Speed Laces: Any gear you can use that will make your transition easier, faster, less complex and more streamlined is an important consideration. I have found that I am slightly dizzy and fatigued in Transition 1 after the 2.4 mile swim so a lightweight Triathlon-specific bike shoe with two Velcro closure straps is key for me. Velcro straps eliminate the need for any finger dexterity or fine motor skills as they are less finicky than a reel closure or lace tie. Similarly, I use speed laces on my run shoes in T2 as my hands are shaky and tired from the pressure of 112 miles of gripping handlebars, gear shifting and braking. Speed laces allow me to just insert my feet, pull up and go, eliminating the need for fumbling with laces and bow ties.
8) Get A Good Bike Fit: I recently got a brand new bike fit after riding my 2012 Argon 18 for five years with the same fit I received in the bike shop. I can tell you that it transformed my comfort while riding long, especially while getting down into the aero position which is required for long stretches of most Ironman races. It turned out that my aero bars were too far forward and my seat post was siting too low. The adjustments helped me generate more power more efficiently and my pedal stroke evened out. Getting a professional bike fit will ensure your comfort, especially during long rides, while also eliminating dead spots and boosting power output.
Ironman Mont Tremblant 2015
9. Choose A Comfortable, High Performing Tri Kit: As the saying goes, “Nothing new on race day!” This holds especially true for a 140.6 where every potential gear or kit malfunction is magnified 100x due to the length of the race and the performance asked of it. Some racers like to change into a new, sport-specific outfit during each transition (i.e. they wear a swimsuit underneath their wetsuit, change into a bike jersey and bike shorts for the bike and then change again into run shorts and singlet top for the run). However, for the reasons outlined above about making transition easy and less complex, I prefer to stay in the same outfit for the duration of the race. For 2017 Ironman Lake Placid, I wore my Pearl Izumi In-R-Cool Tri singlet and shorts for the entire race. I had tested the kit out during an early season 70.3 in Havana, Cuba (https://tastefultriathlete.wordpress.com/2017/04/09/havana-libre-my-cuba-70-3-race-report/) and it had performed excellently. I was delighted that it also held up perfectly for the full Ironman and I experienced zero discomfort at all. No chafing, no riding up, no pinching, no bunching!
My Pearl Izumi In-R-Cool Tri kit that keeps me cool, comfortable and never lets me down!
10) Nutrition is Highly Individual: The best laid plans do not always come to fruition in the course of a long and taxing day. At least that has been my own personal experience during all eleven Ironman triathlons. This has held especially true for my nutrition plan. I can always guarantee that by the time I reach mile 8 of the run, my taste buds and stomach can no longer tolerate the sugary, syrupy liquid nutrition that I have carefully concocted to fuel me all day long. I start craving something chewable, something salty and something less goopy. I tuck a small Ziploc of Gummy Bears, Jelly Beans and Twizzlers into both of my Special Needs Bags and if I don’t need them at the first stop I keep them with me in a back pocket until I do. At the aid stations, I end up ignoring my hydration flasks and instead reach for the fruit (orange slices and grapes), potato chips and pretzels. When it finally appears on course I’m all about the Dixie cups of warm chicken broth — this stuff is like manna from heaven! This may not be an ideal nutrition plan but it works for me, and when the alternative becomes so off-putting that you need to go to a Plan B, then reaching for a few pretzels may be just the way to get you past that magical and elusive finish line.
Running with potato chips in hand at Ironman Chattanooga 2017
11. Thank the Volunteers!: The hundreds of volunteers you pass out on the course and working behind the scenes make your racing possible to begin with. It’s a long day for them too and they are there out of goodwill. They are responsible for making sure you have an enjoyable, smooth and safe experience, so it’s only fair to make their experience the same. Take the time to thank them, high five them and smile back even if and when you’re feeling dreadful. It can actually help lift your spirits and get your mind off any racing lows you might be going through.
At the end of the day, after you’ve made it through 140 miles and are now closing in on the last .6 miles of your amazing race, be sure to smile and take in the unrivaled energy and glorious high of the finishers’ chute. You’ve endured and enjoyed and now is the moment to relish the rewards of the many hours of training, preparation and racing that you got you to this grand finale! As you make the journey towards the Ironman finish line, I hope these tips are useful to you in planning for and completing your race. I have many more I’d like to share but I don’t want to risk droning on and on, so I will save the others for future Ironman finishes.