Thursday, August 26, 2010

Tri Coach: Know Your Course, Train For Your Course

How often have you been lounging around the food tables after a triathlon and heard the following:
"Wow, I couldn't believe the course was so hilly!"
"I didn't expect the swim to be so cold"
"Can you believe that one hill on the run? It was so steep!"
"The wind on the bike course was unbelievable."

Now, way back in the stone ages when I started doing triathlons, this was excusable. You see, there was no internet. Those of you who are younger can gasp now. I repeat: There Was No Internet. If we signed up for a triathlon, it was sight-unseen. There were no course profiles online, no Google Earth, no to give you an elevation profile. No Garmins, GPS, no blogs to read of other athletes who had done the course. If you didn't personally know someone who had done it, you went in blind. Sometimes, the race director would put a little blurb in the photocopied race brochure that described the course. Of course, these were always done in the most optimistic of ways (my favorite was a race brochure that described the bike course as a "mostly downhill circular course" - WTF? perhaps designed by MC Escher??.) Some courses, like the infamous Whisky Dick triathlon, became reknowned among triathletes for their challenging and difficult courses, but I went in to many races not knowing what to expect.

These days, there is no excuse for this. Which brings up to step one when you sign up for a triathlon and begin training for that specific race:

1) Read the Course Description

These are usually online on the race's website. Often they will give you a specific map, and even an elevation profile. Even if they only give you street directions, take that to, enter it in (or search on it first, chances are someone may have already done this work for you) and check the little box that allows you to see the elevation profile. Do a google search for "race reports" and the name of the triathlon and read what other people have said about the course. Is it typically windy? hot? cold? Sometimes the name of the race gives it away. In our neck of the woods, the early season "Duck Bill Chill" and "Beaver Freezer" triathlons are unlikely to be warm and balmy. There have been years when these races were run with snow falling. I once did a race in The Dalles, Oregon, a place that regularly holds world windsurfing championships. What do you think the odds are that the course would be windy (I watched a guy who unwisely used a disk wheel get picked up and blown halfway across the road).  Find out exactly what you're in for and your race day will go a whole lot smoother.

2) If Possible, Train on the Course

If it's a local enough race, go and train on the actual course a couple of times. Especially if it's hilly or technical, get an idea of where you can go fast, where you need to be cautious. Keep an eye out for 90-degree turns at the bottom of a steep hill, or areas that are exposed to the wind. For races that are too far away, this option may not be possible, although many of the IM courses are now available if you have a Computrainer at home (I only dream of this!)

3) Train in Similar Conditions

If the course is hilly, train on hills. If it's windy, train in wind. Hot? Train in the heat. If you can, train in harder or worse conditions. I did a half-Ironman once where the course description said there would be a hill with a 15% grade. So I looked online until I found a local hill steep enough to have a 15% grade, and I went on my bike and took a look at it. Holy Crap! Good thing the first time I saw a hill like that was not in the race! The bike course was a two-lap course, so I made it my business to set up a training course that hit my 15% hill three times in 45 miles. By the time I got to the race, I was, well... not exactly zooming up the hill. But it didn't kill me or intimidate me any more. I wasn't the one crying by the side of the road at least. Make sure you have met the course conditions before you get to the course and you will be more prepared than many triathletes.

4) Drive the Course

If you can get to the race venue at least the afternoon before the race, drive the course. Even if you've ridden the course, this is a good idea. Make sure you know where any turns are. Pick out landmarks that will warn  you of upcoming course turns ("I'll turn right after the big oak tree and the windmill"). You would be surprised how many athletes get lost on courses every season. Don't be one of them! Also look at the course for specific hazards - gravel or glass on the shoulder or on turns, bumpy pavement or holes in the pavement, signifigant roadkill, things like that. Make sure you know what you can expect to encounter on race day.

Now you're prepared to race the course, not just survive it. You won't be one of those athletes telling your friends how stunned you were by the challenges that the course presented, you'll be the one who met those challenges head on, aimed with your knowledge, planning, and training.


janasmama said...

I love the visual of the guy showing up with disc wheels on a windy course...that is hilarious.

Thanks for this post. So timely as I was just thinking about my race at the end of September and thinking about what the temperature would be like there. Would I want to wear shorts??

Can you even wear tights under a wetsuit??

It is amazing the technology we have now and how it brings us so much information. I was thinking something similar when I was out running the other day and saw an old couple and a young mother running with a burley trailer stroller conversion in the same view. I thought that the old woman must think that us young mothers have so many nifty gadgets to use.

Caratunk Girl said...

Ow. I hate running downhill. I like going up much better. Stop talking about it, you are making my quads cry you big bully. ha ha ha

Great points all around - the visual of the guy with disk wheels on a windy course is a good one.