Tips For this Weekend’s Santa Cruz Triathlon

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.

Swim Tips:

  • 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.

T1 Tips:

  • 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.

Bike Tips:

  • 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.

Run Tips:

  • 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.

Recovery Tips:

  • 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”.

About Coady

Lucky to be coaching some really awesome & fun people!
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7 Responses to Tips For this Weekend’s Santa Cruz Triathlon

  1. Kate says:

    Thanks for the great tips! I’m competing in this tri for the first time on Sunday and am excited and just a little bit nervous. It’s my first olympic distance race, and I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I’m going to manage food. I’ve used a caffeinated gel in a sprint tri in the past, but don’t want to overdo the stimulants in this longer race. Any tips on nutrition during the race?

    • admin says:

      Hi Kate,

      Congrats on taking the plunge into the olympic distance!

      Generally, anything your body was able to handle well during the sprint distance, it should be able to handle during an olympic race since you should be racing at a lower intensity. If gels worked for you, I’d stick with gels for this race. Most people wouldn’t have a problem with using caffeinated gels for an olympic, but you know your body best and if you are concerned at all then go with gels that don’t have caffeine.

      Nutrition can be very individual, and it is very helpful to practice it during training to know what works for you. But I can give you some general advice that would work for most people. First of all, make sure that your muscles are plenty “topped off” with fuel. I try to eat 6 small meals the day before a race. Each meal would contain the equivalent amount of carbs as 2 pieces of bread (what I also call the “6 sandwich pre race diet”). I find this is a better way to fuel than to stuff your face with a giant pasta dinner the night before. Also be sure to get up early enough to eat a good breakfast and to digest it. A pre race favorite of mine is a peanut butter and banana sandwich (light on the PB) on healthy bread (I prefer Food For Life brand sprouted grain bread- toasted) plus a protein shake (plain soy milk + a scoop of whey protein isolate). It’s quick and easy and does the job. I also usually would eat half a cliff bar about a half hour before the race with water. If you are concerned about eating solid food, you can take a gel (or half a gel) with water about 15 minutes before the start.

      Since it’s much easier to fuel on the bike than on the run, you should try to take in most of race calories on the bike. For the bike I would target about 200 calories an hour, or about 2 gels per hour. If you plan to be out on the course for awhile or if you know you can handle more calories than this without a problem, you can go up to 300 calories / hour. I would set my watch to beep every 5 minutes and I’d take in 1/6 of a gel with water. This is much easier on the stomach than consuming an entire gel at once. Make sure you take in plenty of water with your gels or your stomach will not be happy. To make it easy, you might want to mix the appropriate amount of gel into your bike bottle and try to finish it before the turnaround. I like to use the Profile Designs aerodrink on my bike since it makes it so easy and convenient to drink and fuel without getting out of the aero position. At the turnaround, grab more water and then start using gels you have on your bike. You can use electrical tape to tape gels to your top tube. Tightly tape over the opening tab and it should conveniently rip right off when you grab the gel.

      Hopefully if you started the day “topped off” and if you consumed enough on the bike, you won’t need to consume much out on the run. But if you plan on being out on the run for awhile, then you’ll need to take in more fuel. If you think your stomach can handle whatever product they are giving out on the run course (heed or gatorade, etc), then you might want to grab a cup at each aid station and walk a few steps while you drink it. If you are concerned that those products might not work for you, then I’d carry a gel or two with me on the run and consume part of a gel with water at the aid stations. If at any point during the race (run or bike) your stomach becomes upset, stop taking in gels / calories and just drink water for awhile. This should help your stomach empty. If you feel like you are bonking out on the course (which hopefully you will not if you’ve followed the above advice!), then stop at an aid station and drink 2-3 cups of whatever they are serving.

      Feel free follow up with any questions or to post your detailed nutrition plan. I hope this was helpful.

  2. Kate says:

    Wow! Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed response! In general I have a sensitive stomach, so I tend to be conservative on the amount of food and when I eat during exercise and races. But the way you laid it out sounds manageable. I especially like the day-before advice–that’s something I definitely wouldn’t have thought to do on my own.

    This is a great blog, by the way. As someone who’s seen a lot of tri blogs, I gotta say, your posts are actually informative and accessible.

  3. admin says:


    Good luck Sunday– please feel free to post back here to tell me how your race went.

    Also, thanks so much for your kind words about my blog. That means alot coming from an accomplished writer such as yourself (I looked at your web site-it’s very impressive that you write for the Economist- one of my favorites back when I was trading stocks.) In the spirit of the Economist, I’ll part by reminding you to follow your nutrition programme and to drink enough litres of fluid.

    – K. Coady

    • Kate says:

      Thanks, Kevin! Nutrition programme followed and litres of fluid consumed! It helped, I think because I felt pretty good yesterday. I probably should have taken one extra gel right before or during the run because I felt pretty wiped toward the end, but now that’s something to consider for next season’s training and races.

      I completed in the middle of the pack, which I can accept because I didn’t train particularly hard (just tried to get a base, really); I trained on my own (with a free training plan found online); and I played a soccer game the day before (not the smartest thing, but when you’re part of a team…). I’m moving to Nashville in about a month, and I’m seriously considering joining the Vanderbilt tri club, but I’ll still keep checking your blog. Good stuff! And thanks again for the tips!

      • admin says:


        Sounds like a successful race– middle of the pack for your first time out (and the day after a soccer game) is a solid showing! You first time out at any distance can be a bit of a guessing game as far as nutrition and pacing. Sounds like you’ll have it perfectly dialed in next time.

        Sorry to hear that you are leaving the Bay Area. You should definitely consider joining the Vanderbilt Tri Club- sounds like a perfect way to keep up the triathlon momentum and to meet fun new people after you move.

        Keep in touch!

  4. Pingback: Nailing Your Olympic Distance Race Day Nutrition | Coach Coady – I Make Your Goals My Own.

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