Triathlon 2013: Get a Smarter Training Start

Bike position, carb science, strategy and more: Five new tips from top tri coaches.

What is your 2013 triathlon training plan missing? Could be these secrets that your tri coach learned at the latest Art and Science of Triathlon conference in San Diego in October. Don’t go into race season without them.

1. Before you spend big bucks on your bike, spend time on your position. Gear gets faster every year. But do you? “If your head and your body are up, it doesn’t matter how aerodynamic your wheels are,” says Robbie Ventura, former pro cyclist and founder and owner of Vision Quest Coaching, with branches in Illinois and Florida. Get the biggest bang out of good equipment by getting a good bike fit and learning to ride efficiently. And don’t make the simple mistake of junking up your bike with too many gels taped to the top tube and too much extra water. “Keep the bike as aerodynamic as the manufacturer intended,” says Ventura.

2. Change your position on the bike. Repeatedly. “You can’t have one position that you stay in for the whole race,” says Ventura. “You need to change your position as your speed changes.”  

If you’re reluctant to get really low on the bike on a flat road because you see your power go down a bit with the position change, consider what you’re saving in drag. If you’re giving up 10 watts of power to save 30 watts of drag, “the juice is worth the squeeze,” Ventura says. Don’t just get married to a certain wattage; consider its benefits and costs over various types of terrain.

3. The cost of a hard bike might be worth it. Ventura advocates testing whether pushing hard on the bike really will deteriorate your run on shorter courses. You might be 30 seconds slower on the run if you put out more on the bike, but that push on two wheels might get you a lot farther ahead on the clock.          

 “Try riding a familiar course at 100% of your threshold and then running a 10K. On another day, ride the same course at 85% of your threshold and run the 10K. You might lose a little time on the run, but I think the net gain is worth it,” he says. “Don't just trust me on this. Try it yourself.”

4. Combine carbs. When you’re just taking in glucose, you can only digest about 60 grams per hour, says sports nutritionist Monique Ryan, MS, RD, author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. But a combination of glucose and fructose or glucose and sucrose can increase absorption and you can get in more than 75 grams per hour. “Glucose and fructose use different transporters to get across the small intestine. Combining them is like sharing a cab to the airport—you get more across at the same time.” The bonus: One study found an 8% improvement in time trial performance with a combination product than with a glucose-only formula. Of course, that’s the research—you need to test what works for your individual G.I. system.

5. Stay open. “If you are doing what everyone did last year, you’re going to be two years behind,” says Melissa Mantak, owner of The Empowered Athlete and coach to Team USA in select ITU World Cup and ITU World Triathlon Series races. She doesn’t advocate trying crazy, unproven techniques but does warn against rut-creating routines or blindly copying what certain pros do. Swim expert Genadijus Sokolovas, USA Swimming’s former Director of Physiology & Director of Sport Science, agrees: “Michael Phelps’ advantage is in the beginning of his stroke. Lots of people watch videos and mimic him, but they mimic the worst part of his stroke.” 

Of course, not everything about your training has to be new. Stay smart and speedy with these three time-tested tips: 

Swim with your body, not your arms. Speed in the water isn’t about your arms, it’s about how efficiently you swim without them, says Sokolovas. “Fish don’t have arms. Either things in the ocean that had arms moved to land or they got eaten by things without arms,” he says. The point is that the body has more muscles than your arms do, and you should use it to generate your power. Then, let your arms move that power forward. One way to practice powering with your body: Place your arms at your sides and power yourself down the lane just by rotating your hips and kicking.

Pay attention to the dashboard lights. “Running through pain is like driving with the ‘check engine’ on,” says Brad Carlson, the Muscle Activation Specialist for U.S. Olympic Triathlon team member Hunter Kemper and other elite triathletes. Eventually, things are going to grind to a halt. Just don’t go there.

Remember that whatever you’re dealing with will pass. “If you feel bad during a race or your training, it will pass…and if you feel great? That will pass, too” says Dara Wittenberg, M.S., owner of TriCoachDara, a multisport training company for athletes of all levels. Pace accordingly.