One of the cardinal rules of triathlon (or really any race) is “nothing new on race day.” The idea is to prevent any surprises that you have control over. One way to minimize those surprises is to do a race simulation before your major race. In fact, you may want to do two — one several weeks before the race day and one seven to 10 days out.
The purpose of a race simulation is to recreate as many of the race conditions as possible. The more specific you can make it, the better your race day will tend to go. Ideally do your simulation on the race course or as much of the course as possible, but note that some parts of the course may be closed prior to the event due to traffic or other safety concerns.
It’s also ideal to do your race simulation with a group, so if you have some training partners, bring them along. A group allows you to practice a more realistic transition set-up and swim start.
It is important to remember you are not doing a full race. Keep your simulation distance at about one-fourth of the race distance, and don’t necessarily go at race pace. If you are doing the simulation a week or so before a big race, going hard means you may not have sufficient recovery time before the real thing.
Here are some other things you will want to simulate:
- Nutrition: Mimic how you plan to refuel during the race. Since the race simulation is a shorter distance and time, you may not need to refuel, but prepare as if you do. If you’re planning to tape gels to your bike frame, do it here. If you plan to carry jelly beans on the run, take them along in the simulation.
- Hydration: Likewise, replicate your hydration plan. Use your water bottles, camelback or aerobar drink system as you will during the race. If you plan get something at the aid stations, make sure you find out what kind of sports drink they will have, and practice with it! Remember “nothing new on race day”? You don’t want to discover your stomach doesn’t like a new sports drink during the race.
- Start Time: Try to begin your simulation at the same time of day as the race start. Will you be swimming into the sun and need darkened goggles? Will that impact your swim sighting?
- Gear: It goes without saying, you want to practice the simulation with all the gear you plan to use during the race. Not just the hardware; practice in your same wetsuit, goggles, tri shorts and shirt, race belt, socks and shoes.
Let’s look at some of the race simulation specifics.
Race Day Checklist
Use your race day checklist (or start with mine) to make sure you are including all your gear. Pack everything into your gear bag to make sure it all fits and that you can carry it to the transition area — either on foot or on your bike.
Setting Up Transition
If you are doing the race simulation with a group, set the transition area up in minimal space so everyone is squeezed together like in the real race. Standard bike racks can sometimes be used, or you can tightly string rope between two objects (like trees) about 44 inches off the ground to make your own rack.
If you are doing the simulation on your own, start by putting down a towel with the rear tire of the bike resting just on one side. Your goal is to lay out your gear and do all your transitioning on that towel. That might actually be more room than you have on race day!
Once your bike is set, put out everything you’ll need for the bike and run in the smart order (avoiding my “Transition Mistake No. 3”). Place bike needs toward the back tire and run gear in front of that. Stage everything for a fast transition — bike helmet unbuckled, shoe laces untied or loosened, socks rolled down to the heel and placed in the shoes, and so forth.
Practice your race warm-up as you plan to do race morning. New triathletes often skip a formal warm-up, using the swim to warm up for the bike and run. More experienced triathletes feel a short warm-up is necessary, often going in reverse race order. Start with a 3- to 5-minute run, then 5 to 10 minutes on the bike (run through all your gears!). Finish with a 100-meter swim.
The swim start is another place where doing the race simulation in a group will help. Scrunch everyone together as tightly as possible, so you get used to starting in a crowd with all its jostling and flailing arms. Seed yourself as you should do at the race: fast swimmers in front, and new or nervous triathletes toward the back.
Enter the water using high steps and dolphining, until you can get deep enough to go into your regular stroke. Some more experienced triathletes in your group might want to position themselves in the water a bit off the beach to purposely be obstacles in the way. If you race is a deep water start, everyone should go out deep enough where they can’t touch bottom. Tread water until you can get everyone scrunched together, then start.
A great reason for doing a race simulation is to get a feel for exiting the swim and running into transition. After a time being horizontal, the body goes quickly vertical, and blood drains from the head. Get your goggles and swim cap off quickly, to avoid any dizziness, and start unzipping your wetsuit.
What if you’re doing your simulation with no swim? Well, you can try to recreate this feeling by bending over and twirling around fast (just be careful). One coach mentioned to me that he had his group roll down a hill to start the race simulation, so they’d head toward the bike dizzy and a bit disoriented.
Once you reach your bike, how you will get out of transition? Create a mount/dismount line for your simulation, and get on your bike like you would on race day. Going to steer your bike holding the seat while you run? Do it, but make a lot of direction changes as you will most likely have to do on race day to avoid other athletes. Will you be attaching your bike shoes to the pedals beforehand or doing a flying mount? Do that here.
Now reverse everything when you come back on the bike. Practice getting out of your shoes, doing a flying dismount, hitting the dismount line and running back to your transition area. Once again, practice everything you plan to do on race day.
Review and Analyze
Don’t forget the very last activity: review your race simulation. What went right? More importantly, what went wrong? How can you make sure that doesn’t happen at the race? If you felt bad going from biking to running, practice more bricks. Didn’t swim straight? Work on your sighting at every swim. Dehydrated? Maybe consider a water bottle in transition and a handheld on to take on the run.
So remember: you shouldn’t have anything, or do anything, new on race day. Simulate and practice everything before the big day.
Ken Johnson, M.S., M.B.A., C.P.T., is a corporate health coach and was triathlon coach at the largest municipal fitness facility in the U.S. for over 10 years. A USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach since 2003, he can be reached at 3-fitness.com.