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Triathlon is a game of racing against the clock. Everyone is on the hunt for a new personal best and getting a (legal) edge over their competition. But ever since the first triathletes literally hacked together a swim, bike, and run over 45 years ago, doing that has always involved figuring out the hacks and tricks to get it done faster and better.
While following your training plan to a T, eating well, and getting enough sleep are the best ways to be a well-rounded, healthy triathlete, there are some clever hacks in the tri world that will save you those tantalizing few seconds that could be the key to unlocking a new PR at your next race (and will help you fully embrace the DIY spirit of tri).
Hack 1: Give your Wetsuit a Trim
Take scissors to your precious, expensive wetsuit?! Say what?!
By trimming the ankles and wrists of your wetsuit, you can make it easier to take off in transition, eliminating a few seconds of the awkward flailing and stomping that comes with the territory of removing your neoprene companion in swim-to-bike transition (T1).
University of Denver Triathlon Team Head Coach and two-time Kona qualifier Barbara Perkins employed this tactic to help her secure repeat sub-one-hour Iron-distance swims: “If you cut the ankles and wrists of your wetsuit slightly, it makes taking off the suit much smoother when you arrive in transition. You will save yourself both time and frustration by doing this hack.”
But in order to avoid butchering your suit, focus is required. Perkins suggests laying the wetsuit flat and starting with just one-to-two measured inches at the ankles; less is more at the outset.
With your wetsuit flat, mark a slightly curved line (a curved line will sit more comfortably on your legs and/or wrists) with a ruler across your wetsuit, a couple inches up from the leg or arm opening. Try on the suit and determine if this first trim feels like enough for you. If not, you can always gingerly snip a bit more.
Heed our warning, though: cutting too much off your wetsuit will reduce buoyancy and warmth, hindering your swim and eliminating the benefit of this hack.
RELATED: The Best Triathlon Wetsuits for Men
Hack 2: Zip-tie to Tri
The best way to stay on a bike is to zip-tie yourself to it.
For many athletes, saddles can be too wide for their narrow hips and sit bones (the bones toward the center of your buttocks that you sit on), making time on the saddle result in one squirm after another, trying to prevent rubbing and chafing in all the wrong places. Although the saddle industry has come a long way, and many brands now offer extra-narrow seats for just this reason, everyone is unique when it comes to achieving comfort on a very small piece of real estate.
In order to make your bike seat a bit narrower and a somewhat customizable width, call on your trusty friend, the lowly zip tie.
To execute this hack it’s best to either have your bike on a trainer, bike stand, or have a friend hold your bike steady.
Then, thread a sturdy zip tie through the rails beneath the padded part of your saddle near the front part of the seat. Secure the zip tie and gently tug the tie until the rails are at your desired width. Pinch the front of the seat as you pull to make it easier.
Like with most of these hacks, though, proceed with caution. If your bike seat has carbon rails (vs. aluminum or another metal), do not use this hack as too much pressure on carbon rails at a sideways angle will cause them to splinter, thus ruining your bike seat and creating a potential safety hazard.
RELATED: The Best Triathlon Saddles of 2021
Hack 3: Tape ‘em Up
While most people hope for balmy race day weather, the reality is that nearly all of us have climbed out of a swim and begun to shiver on a less-than-sunny start to the bike portion of a tri.
Mateo Mercur is a high-performance triathlon coach based in Boulder who spent a decade as the head coach of the University of California, Santa Barbara triathlon team and now works with all levels of triathletes. If there’s anyone who is familiar with affordable, common-sense training hacks, it’s him.
“When it gets cold, you can proactively put packing tape over the air vents on the bottoms of your cycling shoes and on the vents in your helmet to keep in warm air,” Mercur said. “You could also strategically put your helmet race sticker over a vent for the same purpose.”
You may not have noticed before—after all, how long do you really spend staring at the bottom of your cycling shoes?—but many tri-specific cycling shoes have a few mesh air vents in their soles to help feet dry after the swim. This is a great innovation, but can be a double-edged sword on chilly days.
This hack is fairly self-explanatory, but be sure to cut the tape (duct tape, electrical tape, or clear packing tape would work here) deliberately to fit as precisely as possible over the vents. The last thing you want is any flying tape getting caught in your pedals, chain, or distracting you as you ride.
And as you heat up on the ride, it’s easy to pull off the tape and stash it with the rest of your nutrition trash!
Hack 4: From Trash to Tri Treasure
Sticking with the theme of cold and wet condition solves, we’ve seen plenty of times in the past year where the weather has changed on a dime. At the 2021 70.3 World Championship at St. George, athletes had to bike through a sudden rain and windstorm. At this year’s Ironman Cozumel, racers awoke to a downpour on just one side of the island.
Because of how volatile weather can be—downpouring one moment, toasty and sunny the next—it can be frustrating to pack an expensive windbreaker, pair of gloves, or baselayer in your transition area or special needs bags.
Instead, consider leveraging the mostly-waterproof powers of trash bags and plastic grocery bags.
While not a perfect replacement for high-tech endurance garb, large plastic bags can both shield you from the elements and offer a layer that will hold in your warmth.
This is a hack you can run with (pun entirely intended), molding your newfound equipment as you need. Some popular ways to put trash and plastic bags into play include:
- Cutting a hole for your head and arms, then wearing a trash bag as a poncho
- Using plastic grocery or doggy bags in place of gloves on the run
- Stuffing a trash or grocery bag between your cycling kit and torso (if you wear a sports bra, keep the bag over your sports bra) to serve as a makeshift baselayer—the impenetrable bag layer will block the wind or rain but leave your back free to perspire as you heat up
Hack 5: No Fuel Mix? No Problem.
Coach Mercur offered another hack: using lemon juice and salt mixed into a water bottle in the absence of standard electrolyte mix.
It may seem like something you’d never forget: nutrition. But in the chaos of prepping for a long session or big race, it’s easy to space on tossing a critical drink mix into your bag. Or sometimes, as most triathletes have faced, it can be tough to get through airport security with a uhh… bag of white powder and your final destination might not have what you need.
When you’re stuck without store-bought electrolyte mix, Mercur suggested filling a water bottle with potable water, then mixing in a pinch or two of sea salt and a good squeeze of lemon or other fruit juice (orange or grapefruit are options). Seal the bottle and shake for a DIY sports drink mix.
Lemon and other fruit juices are naturally high in nutrients needed to keep you rolling, such as potassium and magnesium. The salt in this mix will help prevent cramping and will replace some of the sodium you lose during exercise.
Hack 6: Take the Sockless Risk
For short-course triathlons, every second is truly precious. And when you’re trying to hustle out of transition as fast as possible, getting caught trying to shimmy a sock onto a wet foot isn’t ideal.
The primary benefits of socks in triathlon are that they help to prevent blisters and keep your feet warm. On the flipside, the downside of socks in triathlon is that they can be exasperating to attempt to put on in a hurry with wet or sweaty feet.
Triathletes have found two main solves for the blister issue: baby powder and shaving cream.
Many triathletes—even the pros!—will sprinkle a bit of baby powder in both their cycling and running shoes pre-race. The baby powder helps a wet foot slide into the shoe more easily and also assists with quickly drying out those nasty post-swim or -bike feet for a chafe-free experience.
Not everyone instinctively brings baby powder with them to races, but most folks will have shaving cream handy in their travel kits or at home.
In a pinch, put a bit of shaving cream in any typical hotspots in your shoes, such as the heel, top of the toes, and sides of the feet. The richness of the shaving cream may save your skin from chafing for enough miles to see you through the finish line.
You learn something new each race and training session; that’s the beauty of a hacked-together sport like triathlon. You may find—or create—new hacks that work for you. But of course, the saying still stands: nothing new on race day. Be sure to test out each of these hacks at least once in training if you think you’ll need to call upon them at some point in the future.