From The Archives: 17 Reasons You’re Not Getting Faster

Experts weigh in on the small things you’re neglecting that could give you a boost on race day.


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This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Triathlete magazine.

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1. You don’t practice transitions.

Just a little time investment will go a long way, said Mike Ricci, the head coach of D3 Multisport in Boulder, Colo. “Transitions are free speed—the faster you can do them, the less time you are wasting,” he said. Practicing transitions ahead of time is also a chance to dust off your racing gear—there’s nothing like being unable to buckle your aero helmet strap after leaving it in the garage all winter. Ricci recommends practicing transitions once per week in the season, even for just 10 minutes to go over bike mounts and dismounts, over and over to make it second nature.

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2. You’re not drinking enough coffee.

Your Instagram feed is likely flooded with photos of triathletes paying homage to their beloved mid-ride espresso, and science explains why it’s not just about the pretty foam art. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, studies suggests that caffeine improves performance during both endurance exercise and high-intensity, short efforts in the lab. Pro Timothy O’Donnell uses caffeine “religiously” in his training and racing. He starts his training day with a jolt of java but warns against depending too heavily on caffeine for energy. “I used to rely on coffee in the afternoons before second (or third or fourth) sessions but found that to be a slippery slope,” said O’Donnell, who switches to decaf after 1 p.m. “If I needed coffee to get through those sessions then I was probably too tired to do them properly and was forcing myself into overtraining.” But on race day, caffeine is central to O’Donnell’s fueling plan. In an Ironman, he alternates gels between caffeine-free CLIF Shots and double espresso (100 milligrams of caffeine) CLIF Shots on the bike and uses Salt Stick caps with caffeine and will also drink Coke toward the end of the ride. On the run, it’s more Coke and caffeinated citrus CLIF Shots. Training—and racing—with caffeine is something you’ll want to fine-tune, though, to keep GI distress at bay.

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3. You’re going too hard on recovery days.

In Jesse Kropelnicki’s extensive experience as head coach of QT2 Systems, most triathletes aren’t taking their recovery efforts easy enough. The primary purpose of a recovery day is to keep the soft tissue pliable and flexible, he said. “Running very often, including recovery days that are very easy, helps keep the soft tissue very flexible which helps avoid injury and promotes good blood supply,” said Kropelnicki, who famously prescribed 10-minute-per-mile recovery runs for pro Linsey Corbin. “If these same recovery sessions are taken too hard, more stress is applied than intended, and these same sessions become injury creators and also undermine the athlete’s ability to push the hard days that actually do help make them faster.” So how slow should you go? Kropelnicki advises doing your recovery runs at least 2 minutes per mile slower than your aerobic running pace.

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4. You’re not committed enough.

After a full day at the office, your colleagues are winding down the day with happy hour and ask you to come along. Do you A.) Blow off that trainer workout until tomorrow—it’s been a long day, you deserve a cold one; B.) Resist the temptation by anticipating how good it will feel to check that trainer session off in Training Peaks; or C.) Proudly decline the invitation while outlining every nuance of every planned interval to your non-triathlete co-workers? The correct answer, of course, is “B.” While the multisport lifestyle doesn’t need to border on monastic, it does require some prioritizing that may have your beer buddies feeling neglected from time to time. Embrace the focus and commitment that training for your goal race requires. Instead of perceiving your swim, bike and run demands as another obligation crowding your schedule, try to think of that time as a reclamation of your personal time and what’s important to you—your health, athletic challenge or whatever it is that motivates you in the sport. And then crack that beer after your trainer session (or in the post-race beer tent) to reward your discipline.

5. You’re not fueling long rides properly.

It’s easy to do: You’re out for a long ride, you forget to eat, then you carb-binge at a gas station stop, chowing down 700 not-so-healthy calories in five minutes (those Pop-Tarts just sound so good). You’re craving carbs to refill your glycogen stores, which are usually depleted about 90 minutes into a ride, but eating high-sugar, low-nutrient foods might not even get you to the end of your ride, said Katie Barberi, a nutrition coach who works with the California Giant Cycling Team and owns the company Forever Living Deliciously. The sugary foods will go straight to the blood stream, fueling your body immediately, but you’re not giving your body a chance to replenish its glycogen stores, so your blood sugar will likely drop again before you finish the ride.

As a result, you’re not getting the most out of your training. If you aren’t dosing out calories consistently throughout your ride, “your body is going to be focusing so much time on trying to refuel or find ways to fuel the body that it won’t be able to allow you to train at the level you need to,” she said. “You will start to see noticeable drops in power and in your ability to keep up the paces that you were.” It’s also a missed opportunity to practice your race nutrition.

So what’s a better plan? Barberi has her clients eat every hour for any rides more than 90 minutes. For early in a ride, eat a CLIF Bar, which has an ideal mix of carbs, protein and fats and about 240 calories. Toward the end of the ride, you can move on to energy gels, chews and Coke, as they are digested more quickly and won’t give you the same “rollercoaster effect” with your blood sugar as they would earlier in the ride. Also, aim to drink at least one bottle with a carbohydrate and electrolyte drink mix per hour.

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6. You’re not doing this swim session.

Los Angeles-based open-water swim coach Bryan Mineo sees it all the time: Triathletes of all levels show up to the pool, put on their waterproof MP3 players and “just go through the motions” of completing a swim workout. “Approaching swims with no particular focus or training goal not only limits chartable progress but can also dull the interest of swim training all together,” said Mineo. Instead, the goal, he said, should be to increase lactate threshold and consistently train at that pace with progressively shorter rest intervals. Enter the time trial. “Performing monthly time trials can give you a specific base pace to work from and a metric that easily highlights fitness progress,” Mineo said. Here are two tests that coach Mineo uses with his athletes to determine lactate threshold speed and help them gauge how race-ready they are.

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7. You’re approaching your run training wrong.

“The fact that athletes need some form of repetition training if they want to perform is pivotal,” said Bobby McGee, famed running coach and USA Triathlon Performance advisor. The benefits for long-course racing, McGee said, include greater functional strength and power to increase ease at race pace (i.e., allowing you to maintain your race pace), more stability and muscle endurance to maintain form for longer and increased economy at the molecular level (aka, you’ll use less oxygen at the same pace). For sub-threshold work (85 percent of lactate threshold), he recommends training on softer surfaces that mimic the topography of your race. For faster paces, VO2max workouts and lactate threshold workouts, McGee suggests running for time (running 5×5 minutes at LT instead of 5×3 laps around a track) because it’s physiologically and mentally easier on your body, and running hills. “Hills are a far better way to go as the mechanical stresses on the legs are so much greater on the track at flat speeds,” he said. “An elite triathlete, true story, can do 10 by 200 meters on the track in well under 30 seconds (sub-4-minute pace), but only achieve 5:30 pace in a hill workout. These hills provide greater benefit, quicker recovery and much more safety than the track workout. Triathletes must do hills!”

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8. You’re not doing yoga.

Who has time for a fourth activity, right? But if you consider the various ways a regular yoga practice can make you a better triathlete—enhanced flexibility, balance, full-body strength, recovery, range of motion, focus—it’s a worthy investment of your time. For triathletes in particular, the dynamic stretching of athlete-friendly yoga poses and properly designed yoga sessions can counteract the tightness and imbalances that come from daily workouts. Ready to hit the mat? Everyday Yoga ($22, Velopress.com) by Sage Rountree is a get-started guide to a home practice for athletes.

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9. You’re not maintaining your bike.

More specifically, your drivetrain. “When a chain is not properly cleaned and lubed with a high-efficiency lubricant, friction levels increase at the sliding surfaces of each chain link,” said Jason Smith, the founder of Friction Facts, an independent testing company. “Our testing has shown just under a 5-watt swing between top-performing and poor-performing chain lubricants.” What makes it worse is a dirty chain—simple road grit from multiple rides can add an additional 3 watts—so adding poor-performing lube to an already dirty chain can mean you’re giving up about 8 “free” watts, Smith said. To prevent that, he recommends lubing before every training ride and cleaning periodically; for racing, clean the chain with a common rotary brush chain or ultrasonic cleaner and then lube.

In addition, Friction Facts has found that chain wear (aka elongation) shows friction increases an average of 2.02 watts per 1 percent of elongation. “The efficiency sweet spot for a racing chain is about 500 miles of use,” he said. “As the chain becomes increasingly worn, the friction increases linearly.” Since not everyone can afford to replace their chain every 500 miles, designate a training chain and racing chain, and swap accordingly with a quick link. “A little attention to the drivetrain is an easy and inexpensive way to get several extra watts,” Smith said.

Friction Facts, an independent testing company, found these friction increases based on different conditions, all within the same ride.

Condition –> Increased friction levels
Light road grit –> 1–3 watts
Rainy –> 5–6 watts
Muddy –> 10–12 watts

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10. You’re cutting corners.

Not doing simple things like warming up, cooling down or strength work will keep you from maximizing your workouts and leave you more prone to injuries, said coach Ricci. He recommends a warm-up before every workout—especially for harder efforts, such as intervals—and for each sport. For the swim, start with some easy laps alternating perfect swim technique with drills; for the bike, start in an easier gear; and for running, do some easy running with a quick cadence and include drills. Being time-crunched is no excuse—if you’re jumping into a main swim set, you could use the first few intervals as a kind of “extended warm-up,” and then try to hit your paces at the middle and toward the end of the workout. For the bike, Ricci advises adding in some one-minute 100 RPM efforts to warm up quickly. And on the run, where it’s most crucial, cut down the time between intervals, cut the workout short on intervals or use an abbreviated cool-down (like half a mile instead of a full mile).

In addition, don’t neglect strength work: “When you’re working out in three sports, you need to be careful of all the moving parts, which isn’t easy,” Ricci said. “Working on your limiters, mobility and strength are all important.” He recommends out of season, lift three times per week with core work and mobility every day. During the race season, strength train twice a week, with mobility and core work every day.

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11. You can’t turn off the internal chatter.

Triathlon will challenge you physically and mentally like nothing else. You have to take yourself to the edge of your potential to have that breakthrough performance. When the legs and lungs are screaming, a lot of us conjure up motivational phrases or words to battle through the burn. But Ironman legend and coach Mark Allen has another way. The winner of the epic 1989 Iron War duel with Dave Scott said that when [stuff] gets real, sometimes the best thing to do is silence any internal dialogue. Allen believes that in the toughest moments it’s almost impossible to find a positive thought, and even if you do tell yourself something positive, you’re probably not going to believe it. “I find it much more powerful to practice getting into that quiet place where you really don’t have any thought,” he explained. “You’re aware and alert and responding to what’s going on, but you’re not assessing or judging it.” Allen said you’ve got to train your brain to embrace the quiet. “When you’re out training and that chatter is going on, take a breath and let it go,” he said. “It’s one very simple technique. And then five minutes later when it starts again you do it again. And you do it again, and again.”

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12. You’re too competitive.

A competitive streak can serve you well in any athletic pursuit, but if you insist on riding at the front of every group ride, not leaving the pool until your lane neighbor does, and hot-stepping your run partner in each workout, you’re only digging yourself into an overtraining hole. True confidence and fitness gains come from sticking to your training plan and prescribed pace regardless of what people around you are doing. A training team or tri club atmosphere can provide a valuable social network and support system, so leverage the motivational fuel those outlets provide instead of trying to prove your part in any perceived hierarchy. Channel that energy for a race-day throwdown, where your splits can do the posturing.

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13. You’re choosing the wrong races.

When it’s snowing outside, a warm, tropical triathlon might sound like the ideal race-cation, but is that the right course for you? “It’s fun and challenging to try something totally different and get new experiences,” said multiple Ironman champion Heather Wurtele. “But be realistic in what types of races the constraints of your daily training environment will best prepare you for.” For example, she takes her tall frame, bike strength and preferred cooler, dryer training conditions into consideration when choosing races—the Ironmans she’s won (St. George, Lake Placid and Coeur d’Alene) have all been races that play to her strengths. “Let’s face it—triathlon is a lot more fun when you enjoy the day and feel like you can put your best performance forward,” she said. Wurtele recommends looking at all the factors of a race (terrain, climate, time of year, etc.) and doing an honest assessment of your strengths before signing up. “Picking races that cater to those is definitely going to help you have the best race, perhaps even if the destination of the event isn’t as exotic as you’d like,” she said.

Photo: Matt Collins
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14. You’re too hairy.

True story: Pro triathlete Jesse Thomas was testing various aerodynamic setups in the Specialized wind tunnel and was curious about any potential watt savings from shaving his legs. He did a test pre-shave and then again post-shave. The savings? A very surprising 15 watts. While few people rate as highly as Thomas on his self-conceived “Chewbacca Scale” and will likely not see that kind of aero differential, there could be some drag savings, guys. In a sport where many of us won’t hesitate to pony up hard-earned dough for the lightest, most aero iteration of most any piece of gear, a razor could be the cheapest possible investment. Another caveat to leg shaving relates to the placebo effect: You’ve gotta think you’re fast to go fast.

Photo: Matt Collins
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15. You’re racing too much.

A lot of triathletes pinball around the racing circuit, spending the season bouncing from one race to another without a dedicated training build into a goal race. Even the pros fall victim to this practice. While this casual/haphazard approach to racing may work for some (i.e., the casual competitor), most of us will see the most benefit from targeting an “A” race and working backward from that event date to build out a training and racing schedule that will set you up for your best performance on the day. An experienced coach can help guide your season planning and advise you on which races you can realistically “train through”—meaning you are not altering your big-picture training schedule too much to accommodate race day—and which races would be a detriment to the end goal. Ask yourself: Is your race calendar overburdened, or do you have a clear and focused path to your next PR?

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16. You don’t know your “why.”

There’s nothing wrong with racing triathlon without thinking too hard about the reason behind it, but “to stay in shape” or “to meet like-minded people” won’t get you out of bed at 5:30 a.m. three days a week all year long. However, “the more connected you are to the real reason, the more powerful it becomes as a source of motivation and emotional control,” said Simon Marshall, a sports psychologist who runs Braveheart Coaching with his wife, three-time XTERRA world champ Lesley Paterson. “The strongest motives are intrinsic and fully integrated into who the athlete is as a person—whether this is an extension of their value system, their self-identity, pure enjoyment or what they see as important in life,” he said.

Paterson, for example, is almost exclusively motivated by a sense of freedom that comes with hurtling through nature during off-road triathlons. Some are motivated by a desire for self-improvement (to see how far they can push themselves); for others, it’s about refusing to give in to life’s circumstances, such as illness, trauma or grief. To find a deeper purpose for your racing, Marshall suggests this thought experiment: “You are 100 years old, you have one minute to live and your great-grandchild asks you, ‘What should I do with my life?’ What would you tell them? That’s what’s important to you—connect your triathlon to that.”

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17. You’re not using technology to your advantage.

When it’s snowing outside, a warm, tropical triathlon might sound like the ideal race-cation, but is that the right course for you? “It’s fun and challenging to try something totally different and get new experiences,” said multiple Ironman champion Heather Wurtele. “But be realistic in what types of races the constraints of your daily training environment will best prepare you for.” For example, she takes her tall frame, bike strength and preferred cooler, dryer training conditions into consideration when choosing races—the Ironmans she’s won (St. George, Lake Placid and Coeur d’Alene) have all been races that play to her strengths. “Let’s face it—triathlon is a lot more fun when you enjoy the day and feel like you can put your best performance forward,” she said. Wurtele recommends looking at all the factors of a race (terrain, climate, time of year, etc.) and doing an honest assessment of your strengths before signing up. “Picking races that cater to those is definitely going to help you have the best race, perhaps even if the destination of the event isn’t as exotic as you’d like,” she said.