Friday, May 27, 2016

Advice for the New Triathlete: Face Time


I did my first open water swim about five years ago. A local venue had opened up early in the season. In fact, way early, like May 7. To say that the water was cold is to understate the facts. It was officially listed at 55* but it may have been even colder. 

If you swim in a place where the lakes freeze in the winter, then you probably have or will deal with very cold water early in the season. Despite the incredible benefits of a neoprene wetsuit, the cold still seeps in.

Based on my own hard lessons as well as confirmation from my coach here are the steps I suggest you take to get yourself used to swimming in open water.

1)    Step in easily at first. Your bare foot going into the water will be enough of a shock. Fortunately, feet are usually tough and the adjustment will be quick.

2)    Once you are in to about chest height, slowly put your face in the water. I think it helps to blow bubbles (kind of like you’re back in your first childhood swim lesson). You’re going to have to breath that way once you actually start swimming so why not. This will be the most shocking part of all. Your face is full of both blood flow and nerves and as it is exposed to water that is forty to forty-five degrees colder than your body, the reaction will be to gasp. That’s okay.

3)    Continue to repeat the process until you are able to do so without the gasping reaction. Be warned, this sounds easier than it is. Your natural instincts are going to scream at you to pull your face out and go back to the warm, dry land. Bear down and keep going. It might take a few or even several minutes but clearing this shock from your system will make swimming easier.

4)    Once the gasping is gone or at least reasonable well controlled, throw yourself all the way in. Bob, jump, slide, whatever but completely immerse yourself. This will allow a layer of water to seep between your skin and your suit. Initially that layer will be cold but your body will quickly heat it and your suit will hold that heat.

5)    Still with me? Good. Now do some strokes. Nothing like 4X100 or what you might consider a warm-up in the pool. Just enough to get the feeling of moving through the water, breathing and also warming up your body.

Ideally, you’ll be able to do this both in practice sessions at open water venues as well as in the time leading up to a race start. Unfortunately, life is often not ideal. Not every locality has much to offer in the way of safe and legal open water swimming and some races either can’t or won’t offer pre-race warmups. In the absolute worst case, you can use the beginning part of the swim as your warm-up. This will cost you some time but it’s better to be prepared. Should that happen, I recommend that you move as far to the outside of the pack as possible. You’ll save yourself the chaos of the swim start.

Needless to say, anyone who wants to partake in the sport of triathlon, let alone open water swimming should be absolutely certain they are healthy enough to do so. The deaths and near-death incidents reported from races are often the result of a previous cardiac condition. The cold and stress of the swim can and has brought on cardiac arrest and subsequent drowning. No matter how bad you want to do a race, it’s never worth risking life and health. If you’re not sure if you’re healthy enough, go so a physician and find out.

Best of luck to everyone training and racing this weekend and thanks for reading!


Monday, May 9, 2016

Advice for the New Triathlete: Transitions

With so much of an athlete’s training being focused on the three disciplines of triathlon, swimming, biking and running, the fourth discipline—transition—is often overlooked. That’s too bad because it’s one of the places where a lot of time can be saved. 

I’m no coach nor am I recognized expert, but I’ve done enough races of the last five years to have become quite familiar with the art of transition. I offer the following advice to newbies based on those experiences.


Before Race Day

I am working on the assumption that the athlete is in possession of and familiar with the following:

·         A race belt for holding your race number (a.k.a.: bib)

·         A triathlon wetsuit

·         A bike that utilizes a binding pedal system like KEO or Speed Play

·         Standard kit meaning a pair of triathlon shorts and a jersey, a single piece kit or bibs

·         A triathlon watch (this is optional but fairly common)

How you pack all of your stuff up is entirely up to you as far as I am concerned. An orange five gallon bucket from the home improvement store? Sure. A traditional triathlon back-pack style transition bag? Always good. A plastic laundry basket? It that works, fine. Whatever your choice, the idea is to make it as easy as possible to get it from your car to transition with a possible stop to pick up your race packet in case you have not already done that.

I use a checklist to pack my bag the night before a race. It’s slow and a bit tedious, but it helps me from forgetting something.

Setting Up Your Area

While some races use multiple transition areas (one for swim to bike and a different one for bike to run) most that I’ve participated in have just a single space. This seems to be especially true for sprint and Olympic distance events. Whether you are setting up in one place or two, the principles discussed here are the same.

One common mistake both rookies and veterans make is to turn their transition area into their base camp. That’s not the purpose and quite often you end up taking up way more than your fair share of space. You should set up your transition area with the idea of getting through it as quickly and effortlessly as possible. Items not needed for the race should be stored back in your vehicle or as much out of the way as possible.

I use one of the towels that I got from a race. If you don’t have one, use a bathroom hand towel (the one that’s between a washcloth and a bath towel in size). Anything bigger than that is too big.

A good rule of thumb is to place items on the towel in reverse order of which you will need them. For example, shoes tend to go on last so I put those on the towel first. If you are using nutrition, that can go in your bike shoes (I tuck a couple of gels in my shoes such that I can grab them easily). I don’t wear socks on the bike and I recommend you don’t either but if you really feel you need them, you can put socks, rolled about halfway down in each shoe as well.

Next to my bike shoes I place my running shoes. I do run in socks so I put those in my running shoes. On top of them I place my running belt which already has the bid on it. If you have to pick up your bib on race day, then put it on the belt now. Atop that goes my visor (or running hat if I’m wearing that instead). My helmet, beanie (which I need to keep sweat out of my eyes) and sunglasses are placed my aerobars. If you are riding a road bike with just the traditional drop bars, you can hang your helmet by its strap. In either case, just make sure it is secure and cannot be knocked off easily.

Believe it or not, you’ve just set up your transition area. It really does not need to be more involved than that. If you are parked nearby, it’s never a bad idea to pack up anything else and put it back in your car. That’s not always possible however so another option would be to just pack it all in a bag and keep that tucked under or right next to your bike. The point is to use up as little space as possible. This is both to make it easier for you to get in and out of the area as well as to show some courtesy to your fellow athletes.

If you are using a triathlon watch, be sure to set it to the proper multi-sport mode and ensure that it has the order of sports (swim bike run) and includes transitions. If you are diligent about tracking, no timing data will ever bet your own.

Guys may choose not to wear their jersey under their wetsuit but I recommend that you do. It’s hard to pull a jersey on over wet skin and you can lose time try to get it untwisted and put on. The exception to this would be if you are in an event where wetsuits are not allowed. In that case, you could put it on in T1. On or off, however, if you are wearing a chest strap heart rate monitor, put it on before donning your wetsuit.

Marking Your Area

I’ve heard some interesting suggestions on how to find your spot as you run into transition. Balloons have long been a popular choice but that fails if too many people use them. You also can’t guarantee it won’t pop during the commotion of athletes coming and going through the area. I do the following:

1.      Look for landmarks. I may see that I am lined up with a distinct looking tree or light pole. I might see a dumpster or some other non-mobile landmark nearby.

2.      Count the racks. If the area is asset up with rows of bike racks, I’ll start from the entrance coming from the swim and count the number until I reach mine. If the entrance into transition coming off the bike is in a different location (and it usually is) I’ll count from that direction too.

3.      Walk the route. Finally, I’ll walk the route and make a mental film of what it looks like to make the trek from the transition entrance to my spot.

Doing these things has always helped me find my bike. On a couple of occasions when I didn’t I had to go looking and that sucks.


T1 – Exiting the Swim

As you leave the water for a swim, it’s likely you’ll cross a timing mat under a blow-up arch. This is the place I usually hit the lap button on my watch indicating that I’m out of the water and have begun my first transition. Even if that mat is not there or further away, this is when I note the end of the swim. From my perspective, if I’m not in the water, I’m not swimming and that time should not be counted toward. Official race times may not reflect this.

The majority of races I’ve done do not have wetsuit strippers. When they do, I’ve usually taken advantage of them but I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. If they are there, and you want to use them, you’ll need to get out of the top half yourself. If you have a watch strapped to your wrist, take it off and put the band between your teeth. This is only temporary but you’ll need both hands for the moment. Once you’ve unzipped the back, pull your swim cap and goggles off and hold them both in one hand. As you pull your hand into your sleeve, the goggles and cap will end up being captured there and you no longer need to worry about them. Get the other sleeve off and pull the top half of the suit down so that it hangs at your waist.

Now, just lied down in front of the strippers (they usually work in teams of 2) and they will pull the suit off your legs. When you stand up, they’ll hand it back and you are good to go. One word of caution, however; there are lots of people running by you so look around and make sure you don’t have a collision. 

In the absence of strippers, everything you do leading up to that point is the same. You should do it as you are jogging toward the transition area. You’ll leave the lower half on until you arrive at your spot in the transition area.

Upon arriving place your watch on the bike mount if you are using one. Assuming you still have the lower half of your suit on, pull it down to your ankles and then step on it as you pull the other leg out. Repeat the process and you should be good to go. If you have to force it or pull especially hard, stop and use your hand to help you. No saved amount of time is worth the cost of replacing a ripped suit.

Wad up your suit as best you can and set it in an out of the way spot in your own transition space. The idea is that you are being mindful of others around you.

The next step is to don your helmet. This should be done before anything else. Get it on and strapped, and then put on your sunglasses. Having your helmet on and strapped before doing anything else is the best way to avoid being penalized for not having it on. Officials absolutely will penalize you if you so much as mount your bike without the helmet on and strapped.

If there is nutrition on or in your bike shoes, place it in one of the back-pockets on your jersey. If you are wearing socks on the bike, pull the unrolled portion to cover your foot up to about the ball and then roll the rest back up past your heel to below your ankle. You may see at this point why it’s hard to put socks on wet feet.


T1 – Starting the Bike

Get your bike shoes on and buckled down. Some more experienced athletes like to leave their shoes on their bike already clipped in and then get their feet in after they’ve started to ride away. You might be able to do this with lots of practice, but it’s not easy and mistakes can lead to wrecks. I suggest running, with bike shoes on, out to the mount line. Just run carefully because bike shoes make for easy slipping.

I prefer to clip in one foot before I start riding. No matter how much trouble I have with the second, at least I can keep moving forward if one foot is clipped in. Be careful around the mount line. It can get busy and sometimes, someone will set up directly in front of you making it impossible to move forward without going around them. Without much momentum, you’ll likely stop or tip (I know because I have).

Once you are underway, press the button that advances your watch from T1 to Bike, get your other foot clipped in and you are good to go. This is likely to be a congested area so move cautiously and pass with great care. Things to tend to open up not long after you are down the road.

T2 – Exiting the Bike

As you roll back toward transition, your mind will likely be on the upcoming run which is understandable. However, the next step is not the run but the transition to it. Again, the more experienced athletes may get their feet out of their shoes and rest them on top. That’s not impossible but it still carries some risk so unless you are well-practiced, leave your shoes on.

One step you can take it is to unclip one foot. I prefer my left but which one does not matter. As you slow toward the dismount line and then stop, place your unclipped foot on the ground and swing your opposite leg off the bike. Now you can run back to your spot.

With no wetsuit this time, the process is easier. Just as the helmet was the first thing you put on, once your bike is racked, it’s easiest to take it off first and ensure you won’t forget to do so. Place it back on the handle bars. If you have your watch on a bike mount, remove it and put it back on your wrist. Now it’s time to remove your bike shoes and put them back to their original position on the towel/mat.

T2 – Starting the Run

If you have not put on socks, this is the time. You’ll see that they go on dry feet quickly and easily. If you don’t currently use some form of speed laces like Yankz or Lock Laces, I would recommend doing so. I can put both shoes on in just a few seconds this way. Once those shoes are on, it’s time to grab everything else and get moving.

As you run out, put on your race belt. Usually this means putting it on backward so the buckle is in front and then moving it around so the number shows in front. Next up, don whatever head cover you have. As you cross the line, arch or other item marking the transition exit space, press the button to advance your watch from T2 to Run.


If you are reading this ahead of your very first race, I wouldn’t worry too much about flawless execution. Successfully transitioning takes time and practice so the best thing you can do is learn what worked, what didn’t and what you’ll do differently next time. As you watch your results and look for ways to improve your time, you may find that a couple of minutes shaves of the transition could be the difference that gets you a PR!

Thanks for reading.