Triathlon is hard. And while we may chafe under that fact at times, it’s also what we secretly love about it—and why we keep coming back. The key to success on race day is to anticipate those specifically hard moments and come with proven strategies in place to deal with them.
Here are the top eight hardest moments in triathlon and guidance on how to navigate them.
1. The Swim Start
Oh the swim start. So much excitement. So much adrenaline. So many bodies. These first few minutes of your race can be challenging in so many different ways, no matter how long you’ve been in tri.
Mentally, it can be hard not to let the excitement and adrenaline take over as you enter the water, which can result in expending way too much energy during the first few minutes of the swim and tanking the rest of your race. It’s okay to go for it for the first few strokes, but you want to settle into your planned effort level for the swim within the first 100 yards. Prepare for this by incorporating some race-start 50s into your swim workouts leading up to race day: Swim the first 15 yards/meters hard, then settle into race-day effort for the remainder of the 50.
Physiologically, the swim start is hard if you try to floor the gas pedal for an engine that’s not yet warmed up. Asking it to do so may feel okay at the time, but it’ll lead to aerobic decoupling later in your race, which is a fancy way of saying that your run pace will feel harder than it should—and no one wants that. The best way to allow for the opportunity to start with a good burst of speed while avoiding aerobic decoupling down the road is to execute a good pre-race warm-up.
2. Buoy Turns
Buoy turns in the swim are challenging because your solo sport suddenly switches to a full-contact one. You can feel like you’re swimming all by yourself, and then suddenly you arrive at the buoy with twenty other athletes that have appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
The good news is, you can pick your line at the buoys to avoid the congestion at the buoy itself. Swim wide! Given that everyone else is seemingly crammed into a space no wider than the average swim lane, you don’t even have to swim that wide to find a little space for yourself.
Anything in life is hard when you are trying to do a lot of things quickly, and that’s exactly what happens in transition. Your goal is to find your racking spot, swap out gear, and head out with everything you need—all in just a matter of minutes.
Smart preparation race morning is one big key to navigating the two transitions. First, set up your transition area like a pro with two small, discreet, tidy piles for each of your bike and run gear so you don’t leave transition without everything you need for the next discipline. Also, be sure to walk the path from both “Swim In” and “Bike In” to your racking position so you know exactly how to find your spot from each entrance.
That said, the most important thing you can do to prepare for transitions on race day is practice, practice, practice. You can’t truly practice the route in transition on race day, but you can spend time going from swim to bike to run.
4. The First 10 Minutes of the Bike
The first minutes on the bike can be hard either because your legs don’t want to respond or because they respond too easily. Both options present challenges.
If your legs have a hard time getting into gear during those first miles on the bike, look backward—it’s likely because of what’s happening during the swim. Your body is directing blood supply toward fueling the upper-body muscles needed in swimming, rather than the lower-body muscles that you’ll be using once you get on your bike. To redistribute the blood supply toward your lower body and prime your legs for the transition to cycling, increase your kick rate during the final few minutes of your swim.
On the other hand, if you find that your legs respond too easily on the bike, the challenge becomes more about having the discipline to hold back. This is typically because your heart rate is elevated from the swim and your body is warmed up and already in working mode, but your legs—having done relatively little work in the water—are rested and fresh. In this case, you need to know your proven-in-training power or pace targets (heart rate will be elevated from the swim, so you unfortunately can’t rely on that metric) and have the patience not to exceed them.
5. Aid Stations on the Bike
Moving through bike aid stations is a special combination of challenges, incorporating the flurry of transitions overlaid with the congestion of swim buoy turns. While not quite a recipe for disaster, it’s certainly a moment that can cause some hiccups.
To ensure that you are able to dispose of your trash and grab your replacement water and/or fueling within the short span of a bike aid station, it’s best to get prepared before you arrive at the aid station. Make sure you know what tasks you need to accomplish so that you can get them done in just the few seconds you spend rolling through transition. You’ll also want to have heightened awareness of the athletes around you; hand signals and an “on your left” can be especially helpful as you move through aid stations.
6. The First 20 Minutes of the Run
Similar to the first minutes of the bike, the first minutes of the run can be hard because either your legs respond too easily or they don’t want to respond at all.
You might find that your quads simply don’t want to engage when it comes time to run off the bike. In that case, you need to prime those quads ahead of time – increase your bike cadence by 5-10rpm during the final minutes of the bike leg to adapt muscle activation and raise your heart rate in preparation for the run. Additionally, the more you practice running off the bike in training, the more your legs will become accustomed to the transition.
In contrast, you might feel like superman as you run out of transition. That’s because physiologically, the transition from bike to run resembles blood doping: Your legs, having spent hours cycling and then suddenly stopping, are flooded with oxygen-rich blood which super-fuels your leg muscles which are now being recruited in a non-fatigued, running-specific way. To conquer this challenge, knowledge is power. You need to start the run knowing that you cannot trust the perceived effort signals that your body is sending. Know your pace target, stare at your watch, and do not exceed it. For twenty minutes. Once you hit that magic number, the excess oxygen-rich blood has cleared from your muscles and you can once again trust your body’s feedback.
7. The 2/3 Point of Each Discipline
Mentally, the two-thirds point of each discipline is often a low point. An “I-have-been-doing-this-forever-and-it-will-never-actually-end” kind of low point. There’s just something about having swum/biked/run for a long time already, but still having a long time to go, that’s particularly awful.
This is a great time to dig into your mental toolbox: Focus on form, find short-term milestones, count your strokes/strides, focus on mantras, and most of all know that this low point will end, even if it doesn’t feel that way in the moment. If you can distract yourself for a bit, you’ll be in the final portion of that leg and a whole different mindset will take over.
8. The Final Miles of the Run
There’s no way around it: The final miles of the run are going to hurt. But there are two kinds of hurt: the kind where your day has gotten the better of you and you’re struggling to just maintain forward motion, and the kind where have control over your effort level and are choosing the discomfort in chase of a goal.
You can prepare yourself for that discomfort in training. Pick a few runs off the bike and long weekend runs—not all of them, just one or the other over a few key weeks during peak training—and run the final five to fifteen minutes at race pace or faster. These should be pretty uncomfortable, just like on race day.
To avoid the first kind of hurt, the key is to make every decision on race day with an eye toward those final miles. Your effort level at any and every point during the race should set you up for a strong final few miles on the run. Your fueling, hydration, and electrolyte intake should also be designed to carry you through those final miles. If you know your final miles need to be your strongest, you’ll make smart decisions during the race to support that.
Alison Freeman is the co-founder of NYX Endurance, a female-owned coaching group based in Boulder, Colorado, and San Diego. She is also a USAT Level II-certified and Ironman University-certified coach as well as a multiple iron-distance finisher who has qualified for U.S. age group national championships four times.