10 Keys to Successful Training and Racing in Triathlons

author : JimVance
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Here are 10 simple ways you can get to a new level in triathlon. Some of them you may already do, and do well. Others you may not have even considered. But all will help.

By Jim Vance (www.JimVanceRacing.com)

As a coach and successful triathlete, I am often asked by others for advice, opinions and guidance on helping them reach new levels of performance and fitness. These are great things to ask, but unfortunately there are not simple, single sentence answers to these questions. The answer is not even the same for each person I come across, because some people do certain things well, while others don’t. People entering the sport also come from many different backgrounds, which must be taken into consideration.

In an attempt to bridge all backgrounds and still cover invaluable information for those at the many different levels of the sport, I have come up with some key components for anyone training and racing triathlons. Here are 10 simple ways you can get to a new level in triathlon. Some of them you may already do, and do well. Others you may not have even considered. But all will help.

Recognize and Utilize Resources
Look at your local community, and see what it offers. Are there local training groups? Is there a local tri club that offers workouts and/or races? Are there areas for open-water swimming or a well-coached masters group? Are there knowledgeable and successful people in the sport with whom you can consult? Speaking engagements of qualified, successful individuals? Knowledgeable doctors who can help with injuries?

These are all examples of questions you have to ask yourself when assessing resources which can help you reach your potential. If you find some of these things in your local community, I encourage you to be a part of them! Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re starting to recognize the use of resources. Now look for more, and take advantage of all of them to make yourself faster!!!

Set Goals
Sounds basic right? You would be amazed how many people I encounter and ask them what they have planned, and what their goals are, only to hear them respond with, “I don’t know.” These people are headed for an unfulfilling season, whether they realize it or not. If they don’t set any priorities and goals, they won’t know if they’ve even accomplished anything for all their hard work. Set a goal, go after it!

When you set a goal, make sure it’s measurable, not subjective. Saying, “I just want to do well,” or “I just want to give it my best,” are not measurable goals. Also, these two statements should be reflected in your goals! If you’re not out there to give it your best, I would ask, “Why are you out there?”

On the flip side, you should be realistic with your goal setting. Thinking you will go from a 12-hour Ironman to a sub-8 is probably not realistic. Normally, I don’t suggest using time as goal, unless you have raced the course before, have studied the times there, and the weather is cooperative. Try shooting for the podium perhaps? Or look to place within a certain percentage of your division (top half, for example).

We all do triathlon because it fulfills us in some way. Maybe it’s an outlet for stress, maybe it’s a social event, or maybe it’s another way to keep your type-A personality busy! Either way, if you really want to get the most fulfillment from this great sport, take some risks and set some goals! Some of us race at the front, some of us race at the back, but really, we all race against our own set of goals. Meet me in the beer garden afterwards, and let’s have a drink to celebrate the accomplishment of your goals!

The single easiest way to get better is simply to be consistent in your training. Training well for one week, only to have one or two weeks where you train only a couple of times, will not help you build on any established level of fitness. Taking a step back now and then is ok, as long as you use it for recovery, and then continue building and improving fitness.

Staying healthy is the best thing you can do to help with your consistency. The second best thing to do is simply get your butt out the door and train! Sounds simple, but how many times have you come home from a long day, or pushed the snooze button, and decided to bail out on training for the day? We all struggle with that sometimes, but if you can focus on just getting out the door, I think you’ll be surprised at how well your consistency will improve, and, consequently, your fitness!

Keep it simple! Laws and principles of training are not that complex. If you stress the body, and give it proper recovery, it will improve! So many people get all hung up on the specifics of the workouts, instead of just focusing on the simple principles. Don’t make it a psychological warfare with yourself, just follow this mantra and you will do well: Train hard, recover well, and repeat.

Every time you race, you learn. There is no better lesson—or workout—than a race. Make the most of each of these experiences, by assessing your performance after each race. What went right? What went wrong? How was your nutrition and hydration? What can be done to repeat or not repeat what happened? How was your taper (or lack thereof)? If you assess your race properly, you will improve. You will also learn how to maximize your performance abilities in the future.

Training Groups
One of the best and easiest ways to improve is to train with people who are more skilled than you. This applies to many things, but especially triathlon. If you swim with faster swimmers, they will make you faster. If you run with faster runners, you’ll run faster. You get the idea. Faster people can be intimidating to train with sometimes, but they will push you to new levels if you allow them to, and are willing to step up to the challenge. Also, if you get the chance to talk to these people, they can also help to enlighten you about how to be a better athlete in that sport or discipline. Another great resource!

Training Alone
Remember the simplicity section? Train hard, recover well, and repeat? Training in groups will no doubt improve you, by forcing you to train hard. Training in groups though, is not always the best way to recover. Some groups are great at going easy, but probably not many that you want to train with consistently. I would rather see people train alone on their recovery days and periods, in order to avoid peer pressure to go faster than you should.

If there is a group that always goes slow, and is not an ego-fest, you could consider riding with them, or going for an easy jog. But remember, save your energy for the harder sessions, not the recovery ones.

Race Planning and Strategies
I am amazed how many people are meticulous when it comes to their training plan, but come race day they have no plan! Planning your race includes MANY aspects! Nutrition, hydration, paces, transition placement, course knowledge, and competitive fields are all things for which you should plan and strategize! How many calories will this race require me to refuel? How hot is it outside? How will I replace the fluids I’ll lose? Where should I try to start in the swim? How does this course play to my strengths and weaknesses? How will I race accordingly? Do I have a chance to place well? What do I need to do to give myself a chance at placing well? If you don’t ask yourself these questions and strategize accordingly, you’re cheating yourself out of a great performance!

The Little Things
It’s rather cliché, but it really is amazing how the little things add up. Stretching, core strengthening, getting to bed at a decent hour, eating right, getting enough fluids, making sure you warm-up and cool-down properly, and perhaps most importantly, avoiding stress, will all help your performance. If you commit to these things, you will see results! They really aren’t tough to do; they just require your attention and commitment.

Get a Coach
So how do you manage all these things? Seems rather daunting to try and remember to follow it all, and what a stress that can be! Well, that’s why you should get a coach! A coach is great at recognizing all these things and having you do them.

I’m a professional triathlete, and a coach. I also have a coach. That confuses people sometimes, but what they don’t realize is that I actually practice what I preach, because I understand the value of it! Who better to be objective with me and my training than someone who is not me, but knows all about me?

Let’s face it—we all do better when someone is there holding us accountable, whether it’s a boss at your job, a family member at home, or someone swimming in your lane or next to you. A coach is someone who holds you accountable, but is also a person to consult when you are feeling sick, injured, or questioning your plans and fitness.

You have too much to worry about, so get a coach, and I’m sure you’ll begin to find that you’re doing all the things I’ve mentioned in this article. Good luck!


Jim Vance is a USATF and USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach, 2-time Amateur World Champion at XTERRA and ITU, and a professional triathlete. He resides in San Diego and publishes many articles on his website www.jimvanceracing.com.  Questions and comments can be sent to Jim at [email protected]


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date: April 2, 2006