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Beginner’s Luck: Race Cramming 101

Starting your training later than you had planned for an upcoming triathlon? It is possible to cram—in certain situations.

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Starting your training later than you had planned for an upcoming triathlon? It is possible to cram—in certain situations.

Nearly all triathletes—whether new or “old”—have signed up for a race waaaaaay far out in the distance. Then time passes, the holidays hit, school is back or whatever—and suddenly, race day is 10 weeks away—and we haven’t done more than half of the race distance in the swim or bike or run.  We’ve enjoyed all the luxury that comes with doing nothing—and sometimes, that’s exactly what we need.  Sometimes we haven’t trained—at all. But now, the race is upon us. Yikes!

It’s time to cram, baby!

Only the problem is: we truly cannot cram for an endurance event. Endurance by its sheer meaning requires a long build of work, in varying times, distance, paces, and intensities—in order to have a successful race day. That’s why triathlon is a sport that really bops many of us on the head come race day.

The best piece of advice I have for being able to race when the spirit moves you is to retain some semblance of endurance fitness—by training a little all the time, year round, no matter what. This seems like a no brainer, but some of us can experience massive burnout and we just stop working out for a period of time. There’s not condemnation either way, but taking huge breaks with no training at all results in a massive loss of fitness. We can fairly easily maintain some triathlon fitness just by staying active, cross-training, and sometimes visiting our bikes on the weekends.

Other personalities cannot faaaathom getting out of shape. I get it. This article is not written for you.

So you’ve found yourself incredibly close to your race, you’ve essentially managed little to no training, and you don’t know what to do. There are ways to hack your training in the event that you find yourself a lot closer to race day than you would like.


First, if we are talking about Ironman, there is one word for you: deferment. Unless we are Mirinda Carfrae or someone who is mostly like her, we have no business cramming for an Ironman. The long-time-in-the-saddle endurance training is required. The same goes if we have barely hacked a 70.3 and plan to pull off a full 140.6 miles in a handful of weeks. Again, unless we have the chops to back it up (e.g., you’re a pistol with natural agility, speed, and talent)—the odds are likely not in our favor for the average non-Mirinda triathlete. However, some athlete always inevitably asks to cram. I hear the arguments, and then I put them to the test.

I have several benchmarks for all of my attempting-to-cram Ironman athletes and if they can’t hit them, then I tell them I do not feel comfortable putting them on that distance race course. Of course the big concern is safety and injury—that is the biggest caveat and warning to all. I first warn that I don’t like it, but if they insist, this is the test I give for the blessing to go forth: a 4000 meter swim at 2:10/100m pace or faster, two back-to-back weekend century rides at 16 MPH or better followed by a 1 hour run at 13:00 minute mile pace or better, and three long runs (distance and pace depends on the other two numbers—but generally a 15 mile run/walk and lots of time on the feet to boot).

Summary: Cramming is not an Ironman game. Defer. Get the long build in, do it correctly so you can ensure a successful (and enjoyable) day.


For a 70.3, cramming can happen in as little as 12 weeks if a few in-your-favors factors are in play. First, you have completed a 70.3 before. In other words, I would never recommend a first-timer cram for this distance unless they are an experienced swimmer, cyclist, and runner who is otherwise quite skilled. There are just too many reasons. This distance requires focus, time, and dedication for a first timer. Assuming that you are not a novice triathlete, next you will want to have some sort of endurance build that has continued to happen over the last, say, five or six months. Maybe not all three sports, but you have managed to cycle continuously, or do some marathon training. Or you’ve hit the cross-training really hard and done intense yoga three days a week. If you have some endurance built up in your engine, even if it’s not all swim, bike and run—there is hope to have a good race day.

I crammed for a 70.3 last year—Augusta—while I was marathon training and doing a lot of strength work. I hadn’t been on my bike in eons, nor did I swim much. I didn’t sit on the bike until about six weeks out from the race either. Was that race my fastest? Nope. Was it my slowest? Ironically, not even close. But I did a quick and hard build in the swim, bike, and run—focused on what I could do, not necessarily the speed that I could do it—and I went out with the mindset to enjoy the day. Mental toughness is a key component of cramming. By this, I mean that expectations of the outcome of the race must be readjusted to reality. Don’t go out and expect to have your fastest 70.3 in the history of you under these circumstances. Maybe it happens, but it’s not likely if you’re someone who usually trains really hard. But it doesn’t mean you can’t have an amazing day.

Olympics and Sprints

For Olympics and Sprints, you don’t need as much endurance as the longer races, so going out and enjoying the day is an option on relatively low training. For the Olympic, however, you still have a long swim, so make sure that you are very comfortable with your swim distance no matter what. Ensure that you can swim that distance. Otherwise, you can catch a few weeks with some long rides and some 4-6 mile runs, and go have a great race day. Be thankful for the body you have, the time you did train, and just remind yourself how much easier that race day could be with a little more training.

The key here for this “cramming” is to differentiate between experience and endurance. An experienced athlete can “cram” and pull off some amazing feats of triathlon strength with adjusted expectations and the experience of knowing the rules of the road. A new triathlete might want to gain a little more well-trained experience before tackling the cram at any distance. I will say that a sprint race is always a distance that we can cram for. As long as we adjust our expectations, we can often downgrade the distance in the event we are faced with the fear of the cram. Having a good day at a shorter distance is far more enjoyable than suffering because of lack of training.

Like I always say, there is always another race. So be smart, do what’s best for you and most of all—enjoy it.

Meredith Atwood (@SwimBikeMom) is a recovering attorney, motivational speaker and author of “Triathlon for the Every Woman.” She is the host of the podcast, The Same 24 Hours, a show which interviews interesting people who make the best of the 24 hours in each day. You can download a free triathlon race day checklist here. Meredith lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children and writes about all things at She has two books coming out in 2019.

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