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Surprises can be fun, but surprises in a race? Not so much. The saying goes, “Don’t try anything new on race day.” Usually this advice applies to equipment or strategy, the idea being to avoid any curve balls during the big day. But what can we prepare for ahead of time? There will be a swim, a bike and a run; there will be a transition between each leg; and the course will be predetermined. We practice swimming, biking, running and transitions, but we should also practice the course.
In 2014, the L.A. Triathlon drastically changed its route from wide-open, big roads to a super technical, steep, multi-loop bike course on tight neighborhood streets. The run went from a typical road course to loops in the soft sand. While most athletes complained about the switch, I spent weeks riding in cramped neighborhoods and running on the beach. I went on to win the pro event that year, beating many athletes that were way better than me.
Even if you can’t train on the exact course before race day, you can still minimize surprises by doing your homework and adding a few unconventional sessions to your workout routine based on the course’s features.
Swim entry and exit
If the swim has a gradual entry and exit into the water, practice dolphin diving. Find a similar shoreline or a shallow pool that allows you to work on jumping forward, keeping your chin tucked upon entry and doing a smooth dolphin kick underwater. Grab the ground, drive your knees underneath your chest and launch yourself at 45 degrees out of the water. I’ve gained tons of time against much better swimmers with a well-practiced dolphin dive—the rise in heart rate from this unfamiliar motion can easily redline even the fastest “fish.”
Because of space limitations, many races have multiple 180-degree turns on both the bike and the run. These turnarounds cause racers to come to a complete stop and start back up again—something that requires a significant amount of power. Practice throwing in some sharp U-turns around a fixed point on a quiet cul-de-sac or neighborhood street once a week during a bike or run. Though it may feel unnatural at first, your legs will thank you on race day.
Almost all races publish the location and the products of their aid stations. If they don’t, ask the race director beforehand exactly what he or she will be serving and where—it won’t be a surprise to them, and it shouldn’t be to you. Have a friend or family member act as an aid station serving the same nutrition as your next event and work on grabbing the food, eating and drinking in the middle of a bike or run. While the act of grabbing the food and drink can be hard on its own, it’s also a good idea to see how your stomach handles the nutrition that the race will serve.