Triathlon Troubleshooter

Top triathlon coaches from across the country arm you with tips to implement in the off-season for fixing some common swim-bike-run issues.

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Top triathlon coaches from across the country arm you with tips to implement in the off-season for fixing some common swim-bike-run issues.

I’m stuck on a plateau the size of Kansas.

You may have all the aerobic base a triathlete could ask for but you just can’t get your swimming, biking and running into a high gear.

Solution: Take the “fast before far” approach this off-season. Cautiously sprinkle in some speedwork, says James Loring, a triathlon coach based in Ontario, Canada. “If a triathlete has several years of mileage but not much intensity, the first question I ask is, ‘How durable is the athlete?’ They may not have the neuromuscular background to handle an injection of speed without getting injured.” In these cases, Loring likes to introduce speed with a gradual and progressive approach. “It could be sprinkling in 30-second pick-ups into their daily workouts.” As the triathlete gets the hang of these easy sprints, Loring will add speed-enhancement sessions such as tempo work and interval training. If your plateau is primarily in one area, do a two-week block where you do that sport—even just 20 minutes—every day.

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I freak out in the swim.

During the swim leg of your races, you habitually struggle to ward off panic attacks, hyperventilation and the like.

Solution: “Fear in open water is generally lack of familiarity with the race environment,” says Tower26’s Gerry Rodrigues, a swim coach with 30 years of open-water experience. “Those fears get reduced or managed with practice and frequency of practice.” In most areas of the country, winter is not an easy time to practice in open water, but you can use the pool to familiarize yourself with open-water techniques. Rodrigues has his athletes practice triathlon-specific skills in the pool throughout the year. He suggests taking lane lines out, setting up buoys and doing mini open-water workouts. Try a mass start: Have 3–4 people push off together for a series of 25’s, or put 15–16 people in one lane so it’s very crowded. “You have to learn to become familiar with the discomfort,” Rodrigues says. You can also practice drafting by doing a pace-line train for 600–1000, switching every 100, at a vigorous and intense pace. Once it’s warm enough, swim regularly with a group in the open water. Specifically, do race simulation and circuit training sessions. “This helps with adaptation from the continued exposure to race starts, familiarity with pack starts and elevated heart rates at the beginning, while building sighting, navigation and drafting skills,” Rodrigues says.

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I run out of gas during the late stages of the run.

You can’t hold goal race pace, and when the going gets tough there’s no toughing it out. The body slows down into a bare-minimum walk-jog, and the last miles of the race seem to take forever.

Solution: “Newer triathletes usually don’t have a solid mechanical or aerobic foundation, so they can’t hold a high exertion rate for a long period of time,” says Jamie Ingalls, a triathlon and cycling coach based in Chattanooga, Tenn. The solution? “You might need to slow down in your training.” When Ingalls begins working with a new client, he typically has them run at slow paces and heart rate levels to construct the proper cardiovascular foundation, which will later support the faster paces desired for race day, for longer periods of time. He also directs his athletes to simultaneously develop a biomechanical foundation. “Even though they’re running at a slow pace, I want them using a quick cadence to develop the right neuromuscular pattern.” So as his athletes conduct their early-season training runs at slow heart rate levels and corresponding paces, they also practice a short, peppery stride rate of approximately 90 strikes of each foot per minute. This sets the stage, Ingalls explains, for a faster future when the triathlete will be prepared to hold goal race paces from start to finish.

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I can’t stay in the aero position for more than five minutes because it’s so ungodly uncomfortable.

You have your gleaming new aerodynamically super-charged triathlon bike that would for sure slice through the wind like a throwing star … if you could only manage to stay in an aero position for longer than a minute at a time. The problem is that sharp pains and discomfort in your neck and back force you to sit up on the bars and effectively become a parachute.

Solution: Now that you have less training to tackle, it’s time to invest in both fitting your body to your bike and your bike to your body, says Loring. In addition to getting a quality bike fit, Loring sends his athletes to a team of physiotherapists (aka physical therapists) to deduce what sorts of imbalances may be screwing up the athlete. “It’s a matter of good posture,” he says. “If you have a job sitting at a computer all day, it’s likely you’ve developed imbalances that need correction.” Loring will work with the physiotherapist to develop a set of stretches and strengthening exercises that will improve range of motion. “Every triathlete should get assessed by a physiotherapist,” he says. “It’s a great return on the investment both in eliminating problems like neck pain and in becoming a more efficient triathlete.”

RELATED: Seven Tips To Get Comfortable In The Aero Position

During a race I try to maintain my goal wattage and heart rate levels, but I can’t keep up and ultimately blow to pieces.

Based on your training, you’ve made a race plan that has you adhering to specific heart rates, power meter levels and/or GPS-tracked minutes-per-mile pacing. But during the race you can’t sustain these speeds.

Solution: Don’t be the slave of your technological devices, especially during a race, says Loring. Ditch the devices this off-season and start listening to your body—“perceived exertion”—for pacing. “You can use your power meter as a guide, but ultimately you should try and follow in the footsteps of Chrissie Wellington—she’s a master of basing her paces on how she feels as opposed to what a device might be telling her,” Loring says. Check your progress with blind tests: Do a time trial every few weeks, such as a 5K run or a 1000-yard swim, and don’t look at your watch until the very end.

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I get off the bike, put on my running shoes, and my legs feel like sludge and I can barely run.

You transition from the bike to the run and your legs feel like bags of sand.

Solution: You may need to spend some time working on your pedal stroke, says Ingalls. “If you’re just jamming the downstroke you’re using a very specific muscle group and having it do more than it’s designed for. As you get off the bike and start to try to run, you realize you’re quad-dominated technique on the bike has exhausted muscles you need for the run.” Ingalls suggests smoothing out how you pour your leg power into the cranks by adding one-legged cycling drills to your off-season training and aiming for a smooth cadence of 90-100 revolutions per minute. Try working on a CompuTrainer and using the pedal scan to give you feedback on how you’re progressing. When you leave mashing the pedals behind for the smoother stroke, you’ll be saving your quads for the demands of the run.

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During the run, my legs cramp up like I’m getting stabbed with knives.

Your nutrition plan, or lack thereof, is leaving you vulnerable to this painful problem that tends to really bite hard in hot weather racing situations.

Solution: “Most people just don’t like to focus on nutrition in their training,” says Tom O’Neil, a triathlon coach in Miami Beach, Fla. “If you’re racing half- or full Ironmans it’s just something you have to do if you want to perform optimally.” One way O’Neil gets his athletes to develop precise race nutrition plans is to use weigh-ins to illustrate the problem: Weigh yourself nude immediately before and immediately after a long training session, and note how much you’ve lost. “If an athlete is losing only a couple of pounds, that’s not a big problem. But if they’re losing say, 7 or more pounds, then they’re just asking for trouble.” O’Neil sees a whole new level of motivation after an athlete has seen with his or her eyes a large loss of weight. From there, the athlete starts setting targets for how much fluid should be consumed per hour during training and racing. When it comes to how many electrolytes per hour—sodium and potassium—O’Neil advises considering first where you fall on the “sweat scale,” a technique he learned in working with Brian Shay of Personal Best Nutrition. On a scale of one to five—one being the athlete who barely sweats a drop and five being the athlete who pours gallons of sweat—estimate where you fall. “Take that number and multiply it times 250mg per hour for each of your electrolytes.” Add this requirement to your calculation of fluid intake and test and retest it in your training and racing until you have your nutrition completely dialed in—the best defense against muscle cramps.

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I get lazy in the winter and skip a lot of workouts.

Sometimes you look at the day’s training plan and rather than head for the door, you alter your workout from a swim-bike brick to something more like a refrigerator-sofa session.

Solution: The cold, dark days certainly don’t elicit extra motivation. Push through by developing your own reward system, says Julie Vieselmeyer, a triathlon coach and sports psychology consultant in Seattle. “The first thing I want my athletes to do is to think about what they want from the sport. You need to dig into what motivates you. Once you’ve tapped into your motivation for being a triathlete, you can come up with tools to get you out the door.” In her back and forth discussions with athletes they will come up with a set of concrete rewards. “Is it to enjoy a fancy dinner after a hard day of training? Is it the social aspects of being in a group training situation? Is it to earn the right to buy a new bike?” As a triathlete becomes more experienced, the motivation to train offers the reward of the feeling of training itself. “Getting out the door can be the only reward you need.” But even for the veteran triathlete, Vieselmeyer remarks, sometimes bad weather or some other obstacle may require you to dig into your bag of flashier rewards.

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