Triathlon Race Tactics

This article looks at various aspects relating to race day preparation, plus we provide some individual and competitive tactics you can master as well as important strategies to develop for a winning edge on each of the swim, bike and run legs.
Created: August 2011
Revised: November 2012
Latest Feedback: November 2012

The Week Before

Taper

Tapering off your training is an essential element to the peaking process. This is the time to cut down the intensity and duration of training, so your performance is at it's peak for race day. Triathletes have different approaches to tapering, but the general rule is to taper according to distance. The longer the distance you're going to race, the more important it is to ease off training intensity and duration. Generally, training should be reduced by 50% a week before the event. The objective of a taper is to reduce the stress placed on your body temporarily, so it has time to rejuvenate by race day. You can brush aside any guilt feelings of not engaging in too much physical activity with some yoga and meditation.

Gear Check

A week before, is the time to ensure that your bike is in top racing condition. Never make the mistake of carrying any gear into the race without a thorough test. Check/change tyres and give your bike a thorough physical. Clean the frame, brake pads, chain and stays to remove any built up sand, and grit. Test and tune all gears for smooth operation. Keep the tyres inflated this week not to race pressures, but certainly keep checking for any slow leaks.

Test the lights, replace/charge batteries if you are likely to do some night riding or else strip them off. Remove any unnecessary gadgets - keep the weight down to a minimum for racing. Keep your tool kit ready with every possible tool you may need for bike repairs. Make sure the hubs feel smooth and well-lubed. Check for worn out brake pads and change them if necessary. Make sure you have enough spares in case of a flat tyre.

Two days before

This is close to crunch time, so get your race gear together and run through your checklist to avoid a last minute scramble. This is not the time for excess physical training, so concentrate on keeping mentally fit. There is nothing extraordinary you can do right now in terms of training to help you go faster.

For long distance races, such as Half Ironman (70.3) or Ironman, you should be focussing on your nutrition. Hydration, sodium, carbohydrate, and fibre intakes should all be altered according to a plan based on your weight. Ideally, seek professional guidance from your coach or review advice from any of the books listed at the end of this article. Many triathletes will use this time to get out pen and paper and start writing a race-day nutrition-plan, ie. what will you consume when. Serious competitors will tape this bit of paper to their bike frame and follow it religiously during the race to ensure optimal fuel for the duration of the race.

TIP

Refer to our Triathlon Race Day Checklist.

The day before

A few good solid night's sleep leading into a race will make a world of difference. The day before your race you should also do a short 15 minute training session. Most people will choose a quick spin on the bike before leaving it at registration, but you should also do a short but solid 15 minute swim or run to really limber up.

This is also the time to focus on hydration. Staying hydrated is crucial during a race so the day before you can carry a bottle and sip every 5 minutes. The aim is to get your urine clear and keep it there right through to the race.

Continue to focus on your nutrition - at this point in your preparation you should be following a plan that balances the volume of macronutrients you consume per kg of body weight. If you don't have such a plan, refer to one of the many books available in our online shop or seek advice from your local tri club, or enlist a coach. Typically, you would not be consuming gels or energy bars until race day.

TIP

Refer to our Sports Nutrition article.

The night before

Your transition bag must be ready by now. Organize your bag well and pack it according to how you will use each item. (Use our Triathlon Race Day Checklist). Eat an early meal and eat well. This is an important meal but your body may have trouble with digestion if you are nervous so minimise anything that could upset a sensitive digestive tract. Opt for highly nutritious wholesome foods, and preferably prepare the meal yourself from fresh ingredients rather than eat out if possible.

Turn in for the night early and most importantly, believe in what you have achieved so far, in terms of training and preparation for the race. Again, stay well hydrated.

Visualisation

This is a good time to visualise the race and run through your check list once more. Visualisation is much like a mind game that will keep you focused on the race. For the most part, it is the foundation that could lead to the realisation of your dreams. You need to focus and imagine yourself swimming/cycling/running, strong and relaxed. This will help you feel calm and confident, which can have a great impact on your performance. Visualisation works like a dress rehearsal to help you get familiar with the task ahead and gives you a feeling of déjà vu once you are into the race. It also clears your mind of any negative images and produces a positive energy, to let your body push itself to its limit. You can practise visualisation daily for a few days up to the race. Sit in a quiet place with your eyes closed, take a deep breath and imagine going through every step of the race, the terrain and anything connected with the race. If you've been practising yoga, you may find this is already a part of your daily habits.

Race day morning

Early to rise is the mantra, just like you would on training days. The first thing to focus on is your breakfast. The rule of thumb is to eat what you normally do during training. Don’t opt for something you haven’t eaten during the days leading up to the race. If you are used to having cereal for breakfast, go ahead and have cereal. Depending on the distance of the race you can eat a large breakfast and go back to bed for a while. Although you may feel a bit nervous, this is not the time for negative thoughts, as that could lead to an upset stomach. Start the race well hydrated with about 500 ml of fluid every 2 hours leading up to the event. In hotter conditions, you could increase fluid consumption, if required. Have a carbohydrate rich meal about 2 - 4 hours before the race.

Get to your venue early. This will give you time to figure out your strategies once you are through with the race briefing. Allow yourselves time to get familiar with your transition area and study its layout so you’ll know where to enter and exit. Place all the starting gear on your bike before racking it.

Individual Tactics

Be Prepared

Study the course before race day. Course maps are often provided online but there's nothing quite like seeing the area physically. Race morning is your first and only chance to study the general layout of the area so use this time wisely.

Race rules

Rules and regulations vary from one race to another and you are in danger of losing points, or even disqualification if you don’t play by the rules. The race directors will give you a briefing on the race rules and you can usually download a rule book online but there are no second chances. Drafting rules for example vary, and there are rules governing whether a wetsuit is permitted so be sure to read the race handbook before you arrive and listen to the briefing and all announcements made on race morning in case of last minute changes.

Know your pace

You need to take each leg of the race as it comes. However, set your pace and resist the temptation of hitting the course too quick, which could make you burn out even faster. Use a heart rate monitor to determine whether you can push harder. If you have reached your threshold you can make decisions on whether to hold back or continue at a steady pace.

Set your race plan

A race plan where you anticipate the way you will respond in different scenarios, will help you set goal times. You will need to decide when to breakaway or stick to your own pace.

Hydration and fluid intake

Have a planned approach to food and fluid intake during the race. The best time to rehydrate and refuel is at transitions, and on the bike. Follow a regular pattern of eating and drinking, and ideally have your plan worked out in advance so that you simply follow the plan by eating/drinking according to time on the course. Carbohydrate rich food is what you need, but during exertion the body will refocus energy to digestion so choose high GI carbohydrates or better still, choose those sports energy bars, carbohydrate sports drinks which are specifically designed to help fuel athletes on the go. Your fluid needs will vary according to the environmental conditions and whilst you must not let yourself feel thirsty (you are already dehydrated by then) you also need to balance your liquids as you can make yourself sick if you take on too much. Until you've had some experience at racing and finding what works best for you, it would be prudent to get some assistance from a nutritionist, your local tri club, or join the TriathlonOz Forum to get advice from others.

Competitive Tactics

Know your competition

If you are racing in a specific age group competition you would certainly not want to waste time racing someone from another age group. You will be able to identify them through their race bibs, colour of their swimming cap, or other identifiable features.

Analyse your competitors

When you have access to previous results it would be prudent to compare your timings against other competitors. This will help you determine their strengths and weaknesses and compare them against yours. Familiarize yourself with their faces and equipment, so you can recognise them on the course.

Stick to your strategy

Strategy can help you outsmart your competitors. Make sure you attack strongly when your opponent is weak. Be assertive and don’t hesitate to swim over the top of slower swimmers, if you have to! At the start line, position yourself according to your pace.

Swim Tactics

Swimming is one event where you can really set the pace, if you are a strong swimmer. Before the race, take time to acclimatise with a few dips before the start, if this is allowed. Wear clean goggles so that you can sight buoys. Most importantly, learn to relax so you can give it your best shot.

A strong pace in the first 100 m will get you to clear water. A good strategy is to get towards the front of the bunch if you can hold the pace from the start, however once the group is moving, try to tuck in behind another swimmer and swim on their feet to gain a drafting advantage until the moment that you are ready to surge ahead. If you are a slower then keep up a steady pace and look for clear water if you feel uncomfortable, alternatively, focus on finding bubbles to draft behind and save energy.

If your swim starts in shallow water from the beach then use the dolphin technique to get a head start. It is much more efficient than running when water is too shallow for effective swimming. During the race, don’t stop your pace in order to sight buoys. Finally, it is important to make a smooth transition once you exit the water and remove your wetsuit, cap and goggles, as you prepare for the next discipline.

Bike Tactics

Bike races are won on many different levels. Overall preparation is as important as perfect tactics on the last lap. To win the bike competition you need to plan overtaking strategies, using any wind to your advantage but avoid drafting penalties, and keeping an eye on the field at all times. Your bike computer will help you set pace. The key is to break the race distance into time splits and work towards increasing your pace at each split. In the final 500m, you should prepare for running by dropping down to the small chain ring and increasing your cadence to spin the lactic acid out of your legs. You can also shake your legs a little whilst coasting as you come to the dismount line. Don't forget to practice your mount and dismount technique, which can give you a few precious seconds extra in your favour.

Running Tactics

With sufficient training you should be able to adapt well in the transition from cycling to running. Jelly legs, caused by lactic acid build up during the cycle leg may set you back a bit. Therefore, it is important to relax and keep your pace slightly slower than tempo for the first 500 m. Even for experienced triathletes, the temptation to head out too fast at the start of the run is a real test of control and if unmanaged inevitably leads to buring out too early in the run. Start steady and build your pace. You should be running the second half of the run leg faster than your first half.

Focus on your running technique and posture. When you feel exhaustion take hold, it is time to reap the benefits of your fartlek training. Run at a faster pace for around 2 minutes and then slow down to a recovery period of 1 minute. Repeat the process until you are re-energised. Fartleks are good when you have reached a point where you want to give up. With the finish line in sight, sprint full steam ahead.

There’s no greater joy that seeing the finish line of a triathlon, especially if you’re in the lead. The combination of planned preparation and effective race tactics will see you sail past that ribbon as a winner!

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Article Tags

Triathlon Racing, Tapering, How To Taper For A Triathlon, Competition Tactics In Triathlon, Triathlon Race Plan, Triathlon Nutrition Plan

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