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The rolling country roads, ever-changing conditions, and welcoming gravel community have draw riders from all athletic backgrounds and experience levels to the world of gravel cycling. Now, with the growth of USA Triathlon’s new gravel triathlon series, triathletes have a chance to experience the challenge and excitement of racing on mixed terrain surfaces.
What is gravel tri and how do you train for it?
The new USAT gravel triathlon series will include a national championship and will focus primarily on Olympic and sprint distance races. The primary difference from off-road triathlon (commonly known as XTERRA) is that the bike leg in gravel tri is far less technical: done on gravel roads, canal paths, or non-technical dirt trails. That means you can use any bike you want—except a time trial bike. The major rule differences from regular triathlon to gravel triathlon are that aerobars are banned and it is draft-legal.
To train for your first gravel triathlon, you’ll want to use a regular Olympic-distance or sprint-distance training plan—and then make some training adjustments to practice the basics of gravel cycling. Gravel riding combines on- and off-road cycling elements and typically includes non-technical, packed gravel or dirt surfaces. Here are some training tips, skills to practice, and nutrition and hydration details to consider to help you race gravel tri faster and finish strong.
Use an Olympic- or sprint-distance training plan to get ready for your Olympic- or sprint-distance gravel triathlon—with the key adjustments and additions below:
- An Advanced 8-Week Olympic Triathlon Training Plan for Your Fastest Race Yet
- Rock Your First Olympic-Distance Triathlon With This 16-Week Training Plan
- 12-Week Super Simple Sprint Triathlon Training Plan
What training to adjust specifically for gravel
Since the biggest difference in a gravel triathlon comes in the bike segment, your swim and run training do not need notable changes from your typical on-road triathlon training. However, the bike segment of a gravel triathlon offers new challenges thanks to the rougher road surface and varying terrain. This is where it’ll be important to dd some gravel-specific training days into your regular bike training to be ready for this new challenge.
First, get out and practice riding gravel. While this seems like a no-brainer, the more experience you have riding on gravel surfaces, the more comfortable you’ll be during a race. Start by doing some of your easy or base rides on gravel or dirt roads and gradually build into your harder or faster riding done on gravel. The more you can simulate riding at race-pace in training, the easier it will feel on race day.
Also, since these gravel triathlons are draft-legal (meaning athletes can be within each other’s draft or near each other when biking), it’s a good idea to practice riding around other people. Join a local shop ride or get your training friends together to practice riding together in a group on mixed terrain surfaces. The more you practice group riding skills, the less stressful it’ll feel on race day.
Finally, add some low cadence drills into your training to help prepare for the different physical demands of racing on gravel. Dirt and gravel surfaces increase rolling resistance, which means it will feel noticeably harder to pedal your bike at a given speed compared to riding on the road. Add some moderate intervals into your training plan where you ride at a low cadence (50-60 rpm) for 4-8 minutes to help simulate this extra resistance. You’ll boost your strength and stamina for the kind of high-resistance riding that gravel demands.
What gravel tri skills to practice
Honing your technical skills can also play a big role in your gravel success. Gravel roads can have bumpy, rocky, loose, sandy, or rutted sections, requiring extra caution and navigation. Spending a few minutes during each ride to work on specific gravel riding skills can make a huge difference in your ability to get through technical sections with confidence and with speed. Here are some skills to practice:
The more relaxed you can keep your body when encountering technical terrain, the more likely you’ll get through that section without crashing or having to walk. A relaxed body absorbs the bumps and jolts and helps keep your bike moving forward smoothly. Tightening up or trying to control the bike too aggressively will create a jerky and unpredictable ride that nobody enjoys. Take a deep breath, relax your shoulders and hands, and let the bike move around a little bit underneath you.
Scan the road ahead of you, so you can easily maneuver around any obstacles or avoid loose parts of the road. The farther out you look, the more time you’ll have to gradually steer your bike around these technical sections, and the faster you’ll get around the obstacle ahead.
One of the most intimidating aspects of riding and racing on gravel is turning through a loose or sandy corner. Sharp or erratic movements will likely catch your front wheel and make things unstable or possibly cause you to crash. Instead, approach the corner gently and take the straightest line you can safely take without impeding the riders around you.
Even a well-packed gravel road is looser and less predictable than a paved road. When braking on gravel, think about a smooth and controlled action to prevent your rear wheel from locking up on the loose surface. Look ahead so you can start your braking early and avoid last-minute emergency braking that often causes your rear wheel to skid.
Proper body position can make a huge difference in confidence and control when descending on gravel. Start by moving your hands into the drops of your handlebar for a more secure grasp on the bar while descending bumpy and rocky terrain. Next, lift yourself off the saddle just a little bit so the bike can move around under you. Then, be sure to bend your knees and elbows so you can absorb the bumps while keeping your body stable above the bike. This is what people often call the “attack position,” and it helps keep your center of gravity low and stable while also helping your body handle bumps at higher speeds while descending.
Gravel tri nutrition & hydration
Like any other race, your nutrition and hydration plan is key to your success in a gravel triathlon. A major bonk can derail anyone’s race, no matter how experienced you are. Unlike on-road triathlons, though, gravel races present a new challenge by making it harder to eat and drink on the bike as you navigate the uncertain roads.
Taking your hands off the handlebar to grab your water bottle or open an energy bar can be challenging on rough terrain. Pick snacks that are easy to open, or try opening your ride food before the race so you don’t have to mess with wrappers while concentrating on the road ahead, or stick with easier water bottles and less complicated packaging. (Maybe don’t open gels early, however, as they can leak out and get you very sticky.)
If you’re still not feeling confident taking your hands off the handlebar to drink, consider wearing a hydration pack on your back for the bike segment. Yes, this is less aerodynamic, and it adds weight to your setup, but keeping your body hydrated and fueled properly is much more important than the aero sacrifice you’re making.
Gravel triathlon is an exciting new way to test your swim, bike, and run strength, and offers a unique experience for triathletes looking for something a little different. While mixed road surfaces present new challenges and can feel intimidating, a few essential skills and some practice riding on gravel will help you feel comfortable and confident taking on your first gravel race.
Just like preparing for any triathlon, the key is to have fun, challenge yourself, and stay consistent with your plan. Put all those pieces together, and you’re sure to enjoy that finish line feeling of accomplishing something new.
Kristen Legan is a former pro triathlete, elite gravel racer and podium finisher, and coach & founder of Rambleur Coaching.