Here are some tips for executing your race at the upcoming Santa Cruz Triathlon. Some of these tips are specific to a course with an ocean swim and a rolling bike course, but most apply to any Olympic distance race. Note that some of these pacing guidelines might be too conservative for the very fastest athletes and they are too aggressive for some slower athletes.
- Warm up! Make sure that you don’t spend the last 30 minutes before the race in the porta potty line. Jog, maybe do some stretch cords exercises, then get into the icy Pacific waters and swim around for 10 minutes before you start the race.
- Don’t kill yourself at the start. With all your adrenaline it will be quite easy to sprint out at your maximum 500 yard pace (or even 200 pace!). Think of long reps you’ve done in the pool– your pace should be SLOWER than that! Think of it this way– this is going to be a 2+ hour race for you. Is it smart to start out by having your muscles burning just 5-10 minutes in?
- Race a notch down from whatever swim pace you think you can hold. Have you noticed in the pool how much easier it can be to ease off your pace by just 2 seconds per 100? Small increases in speed in the water require huge increases in energy (and of course small decreases in speed save huge energy), because of the nature of water resistance. So, go about 2 seconds per 100 slower and you’ll save tons of energy while losing only 30 seconds or so. You’ll easily make that time back on the bike and run.
- Draft & sight! Commit to doing your best to draft, even if you are not “good at it.” Drafting in the water saves so much energy that you should stay on a pair of feet unless it feels ridiculously easy. If you are swimming next to someone, ease off and get behind them or right next to their hip. Try to be a polite passenger- don’t slap their feet! Also, in a rough ocean swim it is tempting to grind your teeth, put your head down and to try to make progress instead of sighting. Don’t fall victim to this– even if your sighting skills are poor, you’re better off losing a little time by sighting often than finding yourself off course.
- Wetsuit off early. From what I recall from doing this race a few years ago, you exit the beach, then go up a short hill to transition. I’d recommend taking your wetsuit off as soon as you exit the beach– running in a wetsuit can be tiring and hot. Hold the wetsuit in your hand and proceed to transition.
- Walk the hill. I also recommend walking up the little hill to transition instead of running it. You’ll lose a few seconds, but you’ll save lots of energy. At the very least, walk part of the hill.
- Let your heart rate settle. When you get on the bike your heart rate might be sky high. Bike slightly below your target effort until your heart rate goes down to a “normal” level.
- Correct pacing with power. For those of you with power, obviously you are going to need to average less than your functional threshold power (FTP), since FTP is how much power you can hold for 60 minutes on the bike and then collapse in exhaustion. Aim for around 90% of your FTP on the flats, ride uphill at or just under your FTP, and if there are any extremely steep sections (I don’t remember any), you can briefly go over your FTP by about 20 watts or so. However, in order to get away with the higher intensity on the uphills, you NEED to recover going down other side. Follow these guidelines at least to the turnaround. After the turnaround you can push a little harder if you feel great and IF YOU ARE SURE that you’ll be able to push harder and still rip a strong 10k.
- Don’t waste energy at high speeds. It is important to know that as your speed goes higher it requires an exponential increase in power to make similar speed increases because wind resistance eats up so much of your power at high speeds. Don’t waste your power– ride hard when you are at low speeds (uphills), ride at your goal power when you are at normal speeds (flats), and ride easiest when you are at high speeds (downhills). See the next section “how to ride rollers” for more details.
- Ride the rollers intelligently. Imagine you are on PCH with the beautiful Pacific to your side. You approach a roller at 23 mph. You hit the bottom of the hill and you start going up, but your speed is still over 20 mph. You don’t start riding at your threshold yet, since that energy will be largely eaten up by the wind, but you do start pushing a just a little harder since your speed is dropping. As your speed continues to drop you gradually add more power. Finally you lose all your momentum from the flat and you start riding at your threshold. Then you start cresting the hill. Do you do what everyone else does & take a rest? No! Your speed is still low, so you keep the power up until you are back up to around 20 mph, then you ease off the power gradually until you are going fast down the hill. When you start to get into the high 27, 28 mph area, you pedal easier, and when you exceed 30 mph you start coasting. Since wind resistance is so high at high speeds, you try to get as small and aerodynamic as possible when you coast- head down with eyes and butt up. Then you hit the bottom. Do you start pedaling hard like everyone else? No! Your speed is still high so you continue to coast and save energy as long as you are above 30 mph. When you get into the high 20s you start pedaling somewhat easy, and when you get into the mid to low 20s you can start pedaling at your target flat effort. For the fastest and strongest athletes it’s worth it to spend incredible amounts of energy to get small increases of speed on the downhills. For the rest of us it’s smarter to get some recovery while still moving at high speeds.
- Don’t play cat and mouse. You pass someone. Then they pass you back. Then you pass them again. Every time they pass you, you drop back a legal distance but it seems like they are going too slow. Either: this person is extremely annoying and rides hard to pass you then eases off OR if feels like they are going too slow because you are getting somewhat of a drafting benefit even at a legal distance. Either way, you should do the same thing- stay a legal distance behind them for a little while and gather strength while they burn themselves out. Eventually make a final pass and you won’t see them again. Or, you might discover that they are actually riding at your proper pace. In that case, just stay a legal distance behind them as long as they keep it up. Then thing you do NOT want to do is to waste energy passing the same person over and over.
- Make your first mile your slowest and build into your run. Start the run a little bit below your target pace/ effort and build into the run during the first 5k.
- Rip the last 5k! When you hit the turnaround you should feel tired, but not in agony. Here is where you start to push. You’ve raced smart and here is where it will pay off as you pass droves of people in the last 5k. If you pace correctly you’ll be holding the same pace for each of your last 3 miles, but your pain level will continue to rise until the finish. With 2 miles left you’ll hurt pretty bad, but you’ll keep up the pace. The next mile you’ll dig deep and start negotiating with yourself (“if you don’t slow down we’ll go to Outback Steak House for Aussie Cheese Fries”). You’ll make it to one mile left and your body will be sending you all sorts of signals that you need to stop. Here is where you need to dig deep and find whatever motivation works for you. If you are like me you might think of some people who doubted you or that annoying guy that kept passing you on the bike then slowing down. You get angry and push forward. You tell your body that it does not have permission to slow down. You lie to your body and tell it that this is a life or death situation and that even if your feet shatter that you must keep this pace up on bloody stumps. And just when it seems truly impossible, you’ll see the finish. And after you cross the line you’ll have the unique satisfaction of knowing that you wrung every bit of speed out of your body.
- Ice bath. Wearing your finishers medal, stand waste deep in the icy Pacific. Shiver and smile and remember all the smart decisions you made throughout the race and how you gave it your all in the last 5k.
For tips on how to manage your nutrition for an olympic distance triathlon, read my article “Nailing Your Olympic Distance Race Day Nutrition”.