Whether you're a first-time triathlete, or an experienced veteran, nothing says "Not Having Fun" more than letting some little overlooked detail ruin a race for you. As reigning Queen of Obsessive Race Preppers, I therefore bequeath you this Guide to Becoming Race Ready, and ensuring that a lost shoe or broken goggle strap does not derail your day.
Step 1: What Will You Wear? (Determine 1 - 4 weeks pre-race)
Each race has its own characteristics that may influence what you'll be likely to wear on race day. These include: length, temperature on race day, pool swim or lake swim, and your own personal preferences. For myself, I alternate between a one-piece triathlon suit (all pool-swim triathlons, and most sprint and Olympic distance races) and a pair of tri shorts plus a women's tri top. If the race is very long (half Iron, Iron) I may throw on a t-shirt for the run to fend off sunburn and chafing. For some races, especially in the spring and fall, I may add arm warmers or even a windproof vest.
Regardless, you will want to practice swimming, biking, and running with what you'll be wearing on race day.
The longer the race, the more time you need to take to determine the optimum apparel. A little chafing from a bad pair of shorts won't kill you in a Sprint, but it may make you want to kill yourself by mile 112 of the Ironman bike. For longer races, experiment with your clothing choices until you have the optimal outfit. You don't have to be as obsessive as I am (anyone else have an Excel spreadsheet where they rank their clothing choices?), but some thought and consideration can go a long way toward making race day comfortable.
Avoid these mistakes:
- Wearing the race shirt that comes in your packet: It might be washed in detergent that will give you hives, it might chafe, it might ride up in an unflattering or uncomfortable manner, it might be all-cotton which is a big no-no. Save it to put on afterwards and impress your friends.
- Over-dressing: Sure, it may be a bit chilly on race morning, but a lot of new triathletes drastically over-dress, which leaves them out on the bike course with big coats tied around their waist, flapping in the wind. Figure you'll warm up a fair bit once you get going, and dress appropriately.
- Underdressing: Yes, let's face it peeps. That too-skimpy singlet might look fine on the pros, but it's not made for all of us. Let's keep the egregious wardrobe malfunctions for the MTV music awards shows.
- Wearing bicycle shorts with thick pads: Unless you're in a race like the Ironman, which has changing tents, you'll be wearing those shorts to swim, bike, and run in. Which means that your thick biking pad will first feel like a giant soggy diaper after the swim, and later like a giant pillow between your legs that you have to run with. Invest in some triathlon shorts and make yourself happy. It will take awhile to get used to riding with them, but in the long run most people find them far more comfortable.
Step 2: What Will You Eat? (Determine 2 - 6 weeks pre-race). Except for a sprint triathlon, most races will require you to eat and drink something on the course besides water. Everyone's stomach differs in what they can tolerate, and discovering what works for you will take some trial and error. Make sure that comes on practice days and not on race day. Trying different bars, gels, gel blocks, sport beans, and drink mixes in various combinations while going approximately the same effort level as you will on race day will tell you what your particular stomach can handle. Find out what will be served on the course, and practice using that. If you find it doesn't agree with you, you'll need to figure out how to carry whatever you need to supplement it with.
Rule of Thumb:
Again, the longer the race, the more time you need to figure this out. In races lasting longer than 5 hours, you can expect some degree of stomach shut-down. This means you have to be careful not just about ingesting too little, but of ingesting too much over time. It's a delicate balance and may take weeks or months to work out. In shorter races, you may be going at a more aggressive pace, which may mean that you can't take in any solid food. For myself, I like to use Infinit drink mix, because I can change the protein ratio in my custom mix for different race lengths. With enough protein, I don't need to eat any solid food for quite a few hours, which makes it easier to go without bringing bars along on the course.
Avoid these mistakes:
- Drinking only water: This is not only a bad idea, it can be fatal due to a condition known as hyponatremia. Also, the lack of sugar can cause the dreaded "bonk" where you flat out run out of energy. Make sure you're taking in some calories in the form of simple sugars, and electrolytes.
- Using something new on race day: I once had a friend convince me to use her organic drink mix, telling me that the artificially flavored and sugared version popular with athletes were just downright bad for you. Let's just say that fructose-based drink mixes do not sit well with me (nor most people, I have realized). This was the only time I experienced that level of gastric distress in a short race, a mistake I won't repeat. If you haven't used it in practice, don't use it on race day. For Ironman athletes, this includes other things on the course like chicken broth, de-fizzed coke, and pretzels. For my Ironman race prep, I filled thermoses with these liquids and set them on a 1-mile loop. At each mile of my long run, I came by my "aid station" and practiced drinking defizzed cola and warm chicken broth. No surprises on race day.
- Packing too much along. I see competitors in sprint and Olympic races with 60 ounce camelbacks full of water. Or competitors with more packaged food hanging off of their bike than a 7-11. Unless your sweat rate is simply enormous, you probably won't need more than a couple of water bottles in a short race, and if you are going to need to eat that much, you should probably get used to the foods served at an aid station. Many athletes overeat by a large amount. You cannot digest much more than 200 - 300 calories an hour. That includes the calories coming from your drink mix. As you can see, you can't eat a ton of solid foods and keep within that limit.
- Undereating/Overeating: Again, avoid the dreaded bonk or the roadside barf session and figure out how many calories you need to personally take in per hour - take in that, no more and no less.
Step 3: What Gear Will You Use? (1 - 4 weeks)
Same as above goes for gear: helmet, sunglasses, wheels, tires, goggles, sunscreen, glide, bottles on your bike, running shoes, laces, hat, etc. Make sure you test it out ahead of time. Yes, even if it makes you look like a dork biking down the bike path with your race wheels on and your Pointy Helmet of Speed. It's especially impressive if you do this during your taper week when you're biking pretty mellow and all of the roadies can pass you laughing at the silly triathlete who thinks she's fast by wearing all the fancy stuff. Oh well, stuff your ego and just make sure all your gear works.
Rule of Thumb:
Nothing New on Race Day. Practice your race rehearsal a few days out. For instance, my first race of the season this year, I put my race wheels on a few days early, only to discover that when the bike shop tuned up my bike, they tightened the brakes to the point where I couldn't get my wheels on. Lucky I didn't find that out on race morning. I had plenty of time to troubleshoot the problem and get it sorted out.
Avoid these mistakes:
Doing Anything New on Race Day! 'Nuff said
Step 4: Practice Transitions (3 - 5 days before the race)
If you've been doing Brick workouts, you may have gotten some transition practice in already. But during race week, take an hour or so and use the specific gear you'll be using in this specific race and practice your transitions. I like to do a workout where I go three repititions of a 10 - 15 minute bike ride and 5 - 10 minute run. Just going over smooth transitions and working out any gear issues.
Step 5: Packing It All Up (1 - 7 days before the race)
I like to use a checklist (Here's my basic one) to make sure I have everything I need for race day. I pull it out a few days before, just to make sure there's nothing I need to buy. Have all my gear assembled, cleaned, dried, and ready to roll. Make sure I have food, drink mix, glide, goggle straps, all the little details in place.
For longer distance races, especially Ironman, or races you travel to, you may need to pack and ship your gear, or place it in transition bags a day or more ahead of time. Planning everything out in advance can save you those moments in the hotel room where you panic about what you will need and when.
Rule of Thumb:
Don't wait until the last minute. Get your gear together, make sure everything's working right.
Avoid these mistakes:
- Not being organized: I was at a triathlon once where a man was running up and down the transition area yelling "Does anyone have a Left Size 9 Running Shoe?". Apparently he had multiple pairs of shoes, and packed two right shoes. Laying out your gear ahead of time, inspecting it, and packing it carefully will help you avoid race day nightmares like this one.
- Not checking over your gear while packing. Look for pieces of glass in your tires, rips in your wetsuit, goggle straps on the verge of breaking. Bring extras if possible, especially of small stuff.
This might seem like a lot to think about. For your first triathlon, perhaps a bit overwhelming. The big take-away I think is that a bit of time spent in planning and prep can make your race day go smoothly and allow you to have fun, the best reward of all. Taking the stress and putting it up front reduces the amount you have to feel on race day, so you can just go out and do your best.