How to Deal with a Penalty (Like a Pro)

Getting a penalty doesn't necessarily mean your race is over.

Photo: Danny Weiss/Triathlete

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If you’ve ever been unlucky enough to receive a penalty during a triathlon, you probably went through the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But, getting a penalty doesn’t necessarily mean your race is over.

Just ask Tamara Jewett, who received a 30-second penalty at Oceanside 70.3 and came back to win the race. Jimmy Riccitello, Global Director of Rules and Officiating for Ironman, says the best athletes in the world have the ability to accept the decision made by a referee, adjust their mindset, and move forward in a positive way.

There are some specific strategies you can use to deal with a penalty like a pro – and no, that doesn’t mean throwing your gear in the dirt and telling the referee he needs a new pair of glasses (tempting as that might be).

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Most common penalties

Riccitello explains that drafting is by far the most common penalty given at Ironman events, but it’s not the type of drafting you might think. “We’re not talking about an athlete sitting on someone’s wheel trying to get free speed,” he says. “What’s more common is an athlete riding four lengths behind another, instead of six, and honestly feeling like they’re OK because people around them are riding at the same distance.”

The rules state that once an athlete has entered the draft zone, measured at 12 meters (6 bike lengths) from the leading edge of the front wheel to the back of the bike, you must maintain forward progress and complete the pass within 25 seconds. Another common mistake is riding into the draft zone of the cyclist in front of you, and instead of passing, backing out of the zone.

The third most common penalty occurs when an athlete is passed, but doesn’t back out of the draft zone to reestablish six bike lengths of space. “The bottom line is that when someone passes, you need to let that person go forward six bike lengths before you attempt to re-pass,” Riccitello says.

Drafting penalties result in a blue card, or 5-minute violation that must be served at the next penalty tent. Failure to stop will result in a disqualification.

A less-common penalty is blocking, which happens when an athlete rides to the left and interferes with the forward progress of other riders. Blocking results in a yellow card, or a 30-second penalty in a 70.3 and a 60-second penalty in an Ironman. “For every 15 drafting penalties, you might see 1 blocking penalty,” Riccitello says.

Another penalty involves passing on the right or crossing the centerline. Passing on the right results in a yellow card, but crossing the centerline can result in a red card, or disqualification, depending on the situation.

Littering, or disposing of an item outside of the trash drop zone, will result in a 5-minute penalty. In addition, accepting unauthorized assistance in the form of nutrition, gear, or pacing help from an outside source will result in a disqualification.

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Control your emotions. Save the analysis for post-race.

When Tamara Jewett received a 30-second blocking penalty at Oceanside 70.3, she had a choice to make. Was she going to be angry and dwell on the mistake or redirect her thoughts and focus on the rest of her race?

“Happily, it was only a 30-second penalty, but even if it had been 5 minutes, it wouldn’t have helped if I let myself be phased by it, as opposed to analyzing it thoughtfully post-race,” she says. “Your best chance at overcoming a setback is to focus on controlling the things you can control.”

The best course of action is to compartmentalize your feelings and redirect your thoughts to the next part of the race. “I put any disappointment into a mental/emotional box that I can deal with later when it won’t impact what I’m doing in the moment,” she says.

Also, don’t waste time arguing with a race official. Not only is it disrespectful, it won’t change the penalty. “Likely an official on a motorcycle isn’t in a position to overturn a penalty, so don’t waste anymore of your time trying to have a discussion,” says Robin Barth, Head Coach of Rise Up Racing.

If you’re not competing for a top age group spot, Barth says the best thing to do is let it go and move on. But for some athletes, 30 seconds or 5 minutes can make a big difference. “Wait until after the race and make your case when you’re a bit more level-headed and can actually talk to the leading official,” she suggests.

A quick note about protests and appeals: A protest is filed against an individual, while an appeal is filed against a decision. Appeals can’t be filed against any penalty that requires a “judgment call,” like a drafting violation, blocking, or unsportsmanlike conduct.

Know the rules. Use your time in the penalty tent wisely.

If you receive a penalty on the bike course, you must serve it at the next available penalty tent. In a 70.3, there’s typically one penalty tent at the end of the bike course before transition. In an Ironman, there can be 2-3 penalty tents on course. Don’t skip the penalty tent, or you risk disqualification. Penalties given on the run course are served on the spot.

When you’re in the penalty tent, think about how you can use your time wisely. Riccitello confirms that age group athletes may consume food and drink they have on their person, but they cannot perform bike maintenance, remove gear to prepare for transition, or use the restroom, otherwise the penalty clock will stop.

“If you have to wait at a penalty tent, use that time to hydrate and fuel,” Barth says. “Adjust your bibs, put on more sunscreen, or stretch your hamstrings. Use the time wisely and try to readjust your mindset, because that’s what can totally wreck you.”

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Adjust your mindset. Shift focus forward.

Shifting focus to the impending run is exactly what Jewett did at Oceanside 70.3. “I used the time in the tent to visualize the transition and run ahead and mentally gear up for a bit of extra work at the run start,” she says.

The race never stops, so instead of looking back and reflecting on what happened, shift your focus to the next event. “Don’t stand there and be angry, thinking about how you didn’t deserve it. Instead, think about what you can do to make up time and benefit yourself,” Barth says.

If you’re stuck at a penalty tent, you might as well do something beneficial with your time. You can cheer on fellow athletes or chat with volunteers.

“I really take to heart the fact that volunteers working at the penalty tent don’t have control over the calls,” Jewett says. “I really wanted to make sure that I was as polite and cheerful as possible. I also think being good-natured about a probably deserved penalty is important to show respect to my fellow competitors.”

Being able to accept a penalty graciously is the mark of a mature athlete, who shows respect to their fellow competitors and race staff. It’s important to remember that race officials aren’t out to “get you.” Referees are just doing their best to ensure athlete safety and a fair playing field.

“I tell my athletes they’re representing our club, Ironman, and the sport of triathlon,” Barth says. “We don’t act disgruntled and angry. Honestly, it makes me not want to root for a pro if I see them act like that.”

Ease back into the race. Save it for the run.

Once you’ve served your penalty, don’t make the mistake of spiking your heart rate and power in an effort to “make up time.”

“You don’t want to take out your frustration by pushing beyond your prescribed heart rate or wattage,” Barth says. “Ease back into what you were doing before you got the penalty, especially if it’s a cold day and you need to warm back up.”

Instead, use the remainder of the ride to make a plan of attack for the run, especially if you’re competing in a long distance race where anything can happen.

“At the end of the day, you can’t predict how a penalty is going to affect your race,” Jewett says. “You don’t know what performance you will be able to put down. You don’t know all the crazy things that could be going on in your competitor’s race. Save the analysis for after the race, and keep buoying yourself up for handling the situation well, however the final result turns out.”

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