Make Small Changes, See Big Gains In Your Triathlon Training

We asked some pros in the sport to share their best trial-and-error lessons so you can blaze a shortcut to the same performance benefits.

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If her eight years as a pro triathlete has taught Sarah Haskins anything, it’s that “elite performance is all about doing the little things right.” But you don’t have to be a pro-card-carrying racer to benefit from the same philosophy. Minor tweaks to your training, nutrition or gear can yield some major results. We asked some of the biggest names in the sport to share their best trial-and-error lessons so you can blaze a shortcut to the same performance benefits.

Andrew Starykowicz
Ironman Florida Champion

Vary your training partners. On hard or tempo days, train with people faster than you, which forces you to go faster; and on easy days, train with people slower than you, which encourages you to go slow. Also, prioritize the disciplines. Make one of them your “A” priority, which means you are rested, focused and nutritionally sound starting those sessions, and if you have to miss a workout for a day or a week, make it the “C” priority sport.

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Lesley Paterson
Xterra World Champion

The smallest change that’s yielded the largest benefit has been a psychological one. It has revolutionized how I deal with training on a day-to-day basis. My husband, Simon (who has a sports psychology background), helped me with this one. In the past, when I was having a bad day (body feeling tired, poor mental attitude), I would get very negative and see the session or race as a failure. Simon expressed to me that I should see those days or moments as gifts to truly learn about myself and develop techniques to help deal with them. That way, those “bad days” are actually good days because you’re learning how to cope with the challenges that will come along. One technique he came up with was creating a character for myself that I become when I train and race—like a superhero character. Mine is called Paddy McGuinty (Celtic badass). She is a fighter to the bitter end. Never give up no matter where you think you’re going to finish or how the session might pan out. … That’s where my Braveheart comes in!

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Timothy O’Donnell
Ironman Brazil Champion

Getting the right position on the bike can quickly improve power output and aerodynamic benefits. My other suggestion is proper setup of your training plan. Many athletes go into their key session tired and don’t realize the maximum benefit of those sessions as a result. Make sure your training schedule has you fresh going into key sessions. This allows you to really nail those sessions and make those important jumps in performance.

RELATED: Tim O’Donnell’s 70.3-Winning Run Tips

Dirk Bockel
Fourth-place Kona finisher

The thing that made the biggest difference for me in racing is realizing that I have to race my own race. Getting too caught up in what everyone else is doing (before and during the race) is just distracting and mentally exhausting. Focusing on what I do well and sticking to my plan has led me to more success, especially in long-distance triathlon.

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Sarah Haskins
Two-time Race to the Toyota Cup Champion

It is important to know when to keep pushing through the hard workouts for continued fitness gains and when just one more workout will send you into a deep training hole that will actually set you back in your fitness. Really paying attention to your personal body signals is key to getting the most out of your workouts day in and day out. It’s especially important to take a few days off when you feel a little tightness and pain in an area versus pushing through workouts and becoming injured for a longer period of time. Another “little” thing that creates big change is staying smart when traveling. Stay hydrated, bring healthy snacks, schedule flights at convenient times and fit in stretching and active recovery upon returning home. This can make a huge difference in getting back into your quality training cycle sooner.

Meredith Kessler
Ironman 70.3 U.S. Pro Champion

I used to swim like a hamster on a wheel for hours—back and forth, some fast, lots of slow. It allowed me to maintain my conditioning, but I did not have any significant improvements in my time. This led my coach, Matt Dixon, to suggest I join the group swim two times a week at 5 a.m. I was now in a situation of being pushed by other top age-groupers and pros. These were individuals who were faster than me, and it taught my body what it feels like to go faster than I did before—it taught muscle memory. I would suggest every triathlete have some workouts with faster individuals in the pool; it can absolutely test your body to adjust to a higher level!

My body requires more hydration than a lot of individuals, and I need to drink in excess on the bike. When you are out on the road during a triathlon, your mind may drift and you forget to drink. This will inevitably lead to problems on the run. I found out that I need a straw dangling right in front of my face in order to drink the proper liquids during the bike portion. If I do not have easy access to liquids, I will forget to drink and sabotage the back half of my race. This may seem simplistic, but it is all about efficiency in triathlon racing—and easy access to hydration is a must.

It is so crucial to practice running off the bike to improve your running in a triathlon. If you are not doing running sets off a bike workout, your body will not “remember” or nourish that vital muscle memory during the run portion of the event. These bricks do not have to be long and draining—even a quick 20-minute run off the bike can drastically help with this process.

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Rachel Joyce
Challenge Roth Champion

In my running I try to remain conscious of my run form in every session rather than plug in my iPod and switch my brain off. I don’t spend the entire run thinking, “form, form, form,” but I have prompts that I use to remind myself throughout my run to keep good form, even when I’m tired. Things like: keep hips forward, engage my glutes and think about my foot strike. It’s not a huge change, and it doesn’t take a huge effort, but it is helping. I’ve learned that spending a few minutes on a foam roller every day helps me keep on top of tight spots in between weekly massages, and that means more consistent training. Also, using a power meter showed me was I was riding too easy on the flats!

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Craig Alexander
Three-Time Ironman World Champion

One thing I do before each season is get a bike fit to reassess my position. I also examine all equipment choices carefully, and one thing I introduced several years ago was recording and archiving my training data on Training Peaks. This helps me track my progress throughout a preparation and enables me to compare to past seasons in order to evaluate what training practices worked and what didn’t.

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Sarah Piampiano
Ironman 70.3 New Orleans Champion

Increase recovery around big training sessions or training blocks, and around races. I am still relatively new to the sport, and my body is not as resilient as some other athletes. I get very worn down from races and hard training blocks, and I need adequate recovery time with almost no intensity in order for my body, mind and emotional strength to return back in full. My recovery blocks are now longer than they were in the past and much less structured to minimize any additional stress. For me this means as much as 1.5 weeks after a 70.3, and a full month after an Ironman. Rather than forcing my body back into training, I play things much more day by day and read my body and how I am feeling mentally to know when I am recovered and ready to return to full training. The result has been significant. Rather than digging myself into a deeper hole, I bounce back fresh and ready to fire on all cylinders.

Also, although my background is in running, we discovered last year that a high run volume and intensity has a significant negative impact on my ability to put up quality training sessions both on the bike and in the pool. I’ve scaled back my run volume this year, focusing on quality sessions over quantity. This has left me less tired and helped my other training be more effective.

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Angela Naeth
Multiple 70.3 Champion

Don’t waste your precious time looking for that one mythical workout that will turn you into a super-triathlete. Instead, build an environment that is constant, reliable and motivating, and then put your head down and do the work. Trying to emulate someone else’s workouts can make you feel like you’re not measuring up, as well as adding an increased chance for injury. Consistency in your training will trump a “special” workout any day of the week. Also, having motivated workout partners will keep you accountable on the days you just want to stay in bed, as well as create an environment in which the hard seems easy … or at least more bearable. You can learn a lot from those who have been there already, and learning from others’ mistakes is a great way to shorten your learning curve! Finally, work from the inside out: Create a mind-set that focuses on the process rather than living for results.

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Cameron Dye
Race to the Toyota Cup Champion

I am only 28, but as I got further out of college and started training more seriously, getting more sleep every night has been a big help. I’ve gotten over the invincible young man’s complex and started turning off the TV earlier, and it’s been huge. Training goes so much better when you aren’t exhausted. Also, as I’ve progressed, massage, foam rolling and rest days have become more important. I think most people train super hard and that’s relatively easy to do, but what is harder to do is rest hard—being confident enough in your training to take full days off when you need them, and taking care of your body. For me, massage was crazy expensive when I first started, so I only went when I got hurt. Problem is, treating an injury is way more expensive than preventing one, so, as a pro, just chalking up that stuff as training expenses has gone a long way. Over the years I have also become better at changing my mind-set on individual workouts. Instead of looking at each one as super important, simply treating them all equally has helped. If you have a great tempo run, that’s awesome. If it doesn’t go well, then so what? Not dwelling on any one workout, good or bad, has helped me be consistent and keep a focus on the big picture of training and not get caught up in a couple of good or bad workouts.

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Linsey Corbin
Multiple Ironman Champion

I have really worked on being comfortable in my own skin, confident in my training and having self-belief. I find the less I worry about everyone else and focus on myself and the things I can control—everything from diet, discipline in training, my cadence on the bike, attitude—these are all things that keep you focused on the moment. For example, when swimming, let’s say 10×400, if you think about 400’s number 8, 9 and 10 and you are only on number 2, that’s a daunting task. So instead, I only worry about the 400 that’s at hand. I focus on control for the first 100, turnover for the second 100—everything is in the moment. I gear up for the third 100 to be the toughest and empty the tank on the last 100. Just really breaking things down. The same can be applied for racing—there is no use thinking about the marathon when treading water to swim 2.4. Another small change: I spent years “racing” workouts, training consistently at an 80 percent effort level. The moment I had the confidence to take it easy on the easy days (this means not trying to keep up with the boys), I was able to find my 95–100 percent range. With enough practice, that upper range is able to grow, which results in performance and training gains.

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Leon Griffin
Wildflower Runner-up

“Train hard, then train longer and harder” was my simple formula that would see me riding a frustrating rollercoaster of performance highs and lows, particularly now that I’ve stepped up to iron-distance events. The biggest breakthrough I had came from a chat with Darryl Griffiths of Shotz Nutrition. My previous nutrition plan was based around fueling my body with sugar and candy! Very unprofessional I can see now in hindsight. Their products contain very little or no sugar at all, cutting out fructose and emphasizing the sodium component in all the gels, electrolyte tablets and bars. I overhauled my diet (my nickname was “mudguts”) and actually take the time to read food labels on the back of packets now and scout for anything with sugar in the ingredients. The first six weeks were hell—like a drug addict trying to kick a habit. The killer was no more sugar in my 3–4 daily lattes, my 500-gram-per-day candy habit and 2 liters of soda per day. Taking the sugar out helped me drop those final hard-to-lose 5 pounds pretty quickly, and, combined with the long training I dropped another 3–4 pounds, and felt a hundred times better than my usual bloated self. I’m no longer having total blowouts, bonking, or dizzy spells in any of my training and racing. At Ironman Melbourne, with this new approach and the Shotz products I ran a 15-minute PR, and for the first time in six marathons off the bike I didn’t once slow to a walk, not even through an aid station. I had not been able to get past 13.1 miles in any of my previous attempts without stopping. I’ve also seen the benefits in the couple of 70.3 events I’ve competed in since cutting out the sugar. I’m back to running 1:12 half-marathons, whereas last year I was [clocking] between 1:16 and 1:20.

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