You’ve trained and trained. Now don’t blow it on race day by making one of these dumb mistakes. – By AC Shilton
We’ve all see that guy starting the run leg of his first triathlon. As he exits transition, he strides purposely forward, wearing both his game face and his bike helmet.
Stupid mistakes happen. Particularly in a sport with three different disciplines (four if you count transitions; five if you count the pre-race vacuum-packing of flesh into wetsuit) and lots of rules. But many errors are avoidable, especially with a little pre-planning. We asked three coaches what “oopsie” moments they see most often, even among experienced athletes. From mistakes made in training and race planning, to errors after the finish line, here’s what they see triathletes doing over and over again.
1. Signing Up for the Same Race as Your Friends
Triathlon is a social sport, but you really should choose your races based on your own needs, says Jen Rulon, a Texas-based triathlon coach. “If you’re scared of an ocean swim, but all your friends are doing a race in the ocean, that’s not going to be your best choice.” Same with picking a mountainous course, or one known for hellish temps. Set yourself up for success with a race that plays to your strengths. Then, if you crave social interaction, ask a friend to tag along as your “race Sherpa” for the weekend.
2. Buying Every Gadget on the Market
“I tell people not to spend a lot before their first race. You need to see if you like the sport first,” says Amy Simonetta, a Pensacola, Florida-based triathlon coach and physical therapist. If you like the sport, then you can start exploring how you’d like to dispose of all of your disposable income. But to begin with, keep it simple. “Borrow a bike, or ride the bike you have,” she says. If you decide never to race again, you won’t be out a cent.
Some gadgetry can be confusing too. Heart rate and power meters only work if you know how to plan your training to maximise results. If all you’re seeing is numbers, you may assume pushing for higher numbers is always better. That’s a one-way ticket to Burnout City. And just because it exists doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for you. Those wheels with deep, aerodynamic rims may look cool, but they’re a nightmare in windy conditions. If you’re a beginner, you’ll regret the purchase.
3. Not Getting Up Early Enough on Race Day
Pre-dawn wakeup calls are kind to no one, but they’re worth it. Pre-race prep always takes longer than you think. Seriously. On race morning, plan extra time to find parking and navigate closed roads. Also build in enough time to change a flat tyre if (God forbid) you need to. Rulon also likes to have her athletes add in time for warming up and doing some basic calming exercises. If the transition area opens at 6, Rulon’s advice to her athletes is to be there at 6, or 6:15 at the latest.
4. Neglecting Your Transitions
“Every minute saved in transition is ‘free time’ that requires little to no effort; athletes need to be aware that the clock is always ticking,” says Andrew Peabody, a Superior, Colorado-based triathlon coach. He recommends practicing your transitions at home and even timing them to see if you can set a transition PR. Practicing can also help you avoid forgetting something critical, like your on-bike nutrition or helmet.
5. Not Knowing the Rules
This sport has a lot of rules, and for good reason: Things can go sideways fast when thousands of spandex-clad, bike-riding, adrenaline-spiked yahoos all converge on the same small strip of roadway. While most races have similar rules, it’s important not to assume anything, says Simonetta. Peabody adds, “Very often, new triathletes haven’t read the rules or gone to prerace meetings and find themselves receiving penalties, or even disqualifications, for violations on the bike segment. Not understanding drafting rules, what the ‘mount’ and ‘dismount’ lines mean, and helmet strap violations are the most common.”
Read your packet from front to back. Attend all briefings, and if you aren’t sure about a rule, ask.
6. Getting Naked
Seriously. You can’t do this. Not during transition, and not after the race when your sweaty clothes are chafing your butt cheeks raw. Sure, wardrobe malfunctions happen, but you’ll get penalised if your, ahem, nip slip is caught by officials. Hey, it’s a family sport. (The exception to this rule is during Ironman-distance races, if the race provides sex-specific changing rooms. If you’re not sure, ask before disrobing. This is good general life advice.)
7. Being Clueless About Fixing Flats
Simonetta says she’s always surprised by how many triathletes can’t change flat tyres. This is a vital skill, not only because you are supposed to change your own flats on course, but also because the skill saves you from getting stuck on a training ride. Plus, once you know what you’re doing, fixing a flat is a cinch. Ask a friend to teach you, or find a flat changing clinic at your local shop.
8. Skipping On-Bike Nutrition
For sprint distance races, fueling on the bike isn’t critical, but as the distances lengthen, eating on the go becomes less and less optional. “I’ll hear people say, ‘I wasn’t hungry, so I didn’t eat,” says Simonetta. But then you’re starting the run in a mega calorie deficit, she adds. Figure out a nutritional plan in training and stick to it on race day, no matter what. For Simonetta, that means consuming gels every hour and drinking on a schedule. For other athletes, that may mean eating some solid foods. No matter what, don’t wait until you feel hungry to start eating on race day. Those hunger pangs may never come.
9. Using Water for Dousing, not Drinking
Rulon says that recently, she heard an athlete musing about what could have gone wrong during the final stages of a hot race. “She said, I took water at every aid station and was dumping it over my head,” Rulon says. “I was like, ‘but did you drink any of it?’ She thought she didn’t need to.”
There’s nothing wrong with an on-the-go shower, but keeping your hydration levels up is crucial to achieving race day success. Research shows that once you’re significantly dehydrated, your “rate of perceived exertion” goes up. So, in essence, you may maintain the same pace, but it’s going to feel much harder to do so. In a sprint triathlon, you probably could make it to the finish line without any fluids, but in a longer race, you’re flirting with disaster.
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