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Some of the most ill-advised counsel Jesse Thomas has ever heard to swim, bike and run faster.
It was a Sunday in April 2011, and I had just finished fifth in my first pro Olympic-distance race. I was happy with the overall result but disappointed in my bike ride. My power numbers were good, but somehow I lost more than three minutes to my competition, essentially taking me out of podium contention.
While I gathered my stuff in transition, I said to one of my competitors, “I just don’t get it. I feel like I rode strong and I still got buried. Are those guys just that much faster?”
“You know what,” he said, “when you went by, your head looked really high.” A brief, contemplative pause as he quickly glanced at my helmet, my bike and then me. “I think you aren’t aero enough. If I were you, I’d lower your stem.”
I was young, impressionable, and not all that confident in my riding abilities and bike knowledge. So that statement stuck with me as I rested and prepped for my first pro half-Ironman, just a week later. You aren’t aero enough. You should lower your stem.
And of course, the nervousness and lack of confidence grew as I neared my race. I, like all of us, had worked my butt off for this race, and wanted every advantage I could get. Was I really not low enough? Should I lower my stem? It’s a flat course, so it’ll probably make a big difference. Maybe it’s worth a try. Hmm.
So the morning before the race, at the peak of my frantic race prep, I took out my tools and loosened my stem. I didn’t have any spacers, so all I could do was flip it, which would drop it about 4 centimeters. I told myself that I’d just try it that day, and if it felt OK, I was probably good to go. And you know what, it felt just fine for the easy 30-minute spin. I’m going to cut through that wind like a knife!
The next day I had a decent swim and before I knew it, I was out on my bike hammering my way through the pro field. I was excited, hungry and feeling great—for the first 45 minutes. Then around halfway, my butt and lower back started to complain a bit. I pushed through it for another 45 minutes with a few short stretches sitting up out of the aero position. But by the time I hit five miles to go, my back cracked and my booty locked. My muscles were so tight, I couldn’t get in the aero position. In fact, I couldn’t sit and reach my handlebars. So during the last four pancake-flat miles, I stood, out of the saddle, thrusted my hips as far forward as possible and pedaled. And I stayed that way for the 15 minutes it took me to get to T2. I remember riding by people pointing at me with funny looks on their faces, wondering about this pro who clearly had a broken seat or the worst saddle sore in the history of triathlon.
Needless to say, my bike split sucked. And even worse, I DNFed the run because my glutes cramped so bad at mile 2 that I couldn’t even walk. It was not a happy day.
Yes, there’s a lot of good advice out there—I hope some of my articles fit into this category—but I’ve also heard a lot of bad advice during my years in the sport. Most of it revolves around looking for a quick fix to gain some time, and plays into our insecurities. There’s so much to know in triathlon that many of us think we don’t know that much, which sometimes leads us to listen to someone who knows even less.
So to help you all not make the same mistakes I did, I collected some of the worst advice I’ve heard. I also included some of my favorite worst advice my Twitter and Facebook followers have heard as well.
Terrible triathlon advice:
Change something, anything, the night before your race. This is the oldest one in the book. Whether it’s what you eat or wear, your bike position, equipment or a new hairdo, all of them have come back to haunt me. It always sounds like free speed, but it’s impossible to know how it will cost you. You’re always better to go with what you know.
“You don’t need to train swimming.” This one, supplied by my swim adviser, Gerry Rodrigues of Tower 26, resonated with a lot of my readers. Yes, the swim is the shortest part of the triathlon, but ditching swim training will cost you your race. Many people, even with swimming backgrounds, underestimate how important it is to prepare for that first leg.
Any of the following wetsuit advice:
“A wetsuit is a wetsuit, and scuba suits are a lot cheaper.” —Leigh Dodd
“‘Use vegetable oil under your wetsuit to prevent chafing.’ My suit still smells like a diner and I got a fantastic sunburn.” —Lars Tandrup
“The zipper goes in the front.” —Jameson Bull
“Run without socks.” Another one borne out of trying to save a small amount of time, but ultimately costing you big time. Unless you’ve done all your runs without socks, just use the 20 seconds it takes to put them on and enjoy being able to walk after the race is over.
“Aid stations slow you down.” This might sound ridiculous, but I’ve heard this one even at the professional level. Unless you’ve got full bottles on your bike, it’s always worth it to slow down and grab more hydration and nutrition. I walk through run aid stations to make sure I get something in. Dehydration and/or bonking will cost you minutes, not seconds.
“There will be plenty of Porta-Potties.” No there won’t. Give yourself ample time for that last stop.
“To get more aero: Trim your eyelashes, shave your eyebrows, beard, head and/or cover yourself in Vaseline.” You might be ever so slightly more aero, but your kids will scream bloody murder when you ask them for a post-race hug.
“Hold your breath longer when swimming; it makes you more buoyant.” —@MMTriathlete. Yes, I actually believed this at one point in my career.
“Freeze your water bottles the night before.” It’s hard for me not to laugh when I think about this one—it’s gotten me a couple of times. I’m always worried about the heat, and it sounds amazing to have icy cold hydration on the bike. Instead, I get a cracked ice-block bottle that I can’t put in my cage.
“To get to race weight, eat raw chicken.” —fellow pro and funnyman Callum Millward
“Go out hard on the swim to get in a good position.” OK, this can be true for a small number of pros, but for most of us, a more cautious approach is best. You keep from spiking your heart rate, and are less likely to get trampled when you slow down.
“Don’t carry flat supplies because it adds weight.” The amount of added weight costs you absolutely nothing, but one poorly placed thorn on the road and your race is over.
Maybe my favorite one, from Chris Douglas: “At Escape From Alcatraz, I heard some fool say to jump into the water as close to another swimmer as possible to reduce the friction of entering the water! Wha?”
So there you have it—some of the worst advice my readers and I have received over the years. Remember that triathlon progress comes from lots of small steps over weeks, months and years of preparation. Don’t get caught up in making crazy changes looking for a quick fix, or you could end up riding your bike out of the saddle all the way into T2.