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Principles for Triathlon Excellence

By Carl Regenauer | Dec. 21, 2021, 12:44 p.m. (ET)

cyclist riding at USA Triathlon age group nationals

“You have the potential to become a better triathlete.”  It’s likely that you have heard someone say that or had that thought yourself.  I don’t intend to suggest that you should try to become the best triathlete that you can possibly be… unless you are a professional triathlete.  For the rest of us, being the best triathlete that we could be would likely mean that we wouldn’t be a very good spouse, parent, or co-worker.  However, we can certainly strive to be the best triathlete that we can be within a balanced life.

I recommend four practices that you can follow to become a better triathlete and I’ll give you some examples of how to implement them:

  • Practice habitual behaviors that lead to excellence.
  • Recognize that every workout is a chance to raise or lower your standards.
  • Demonstrate a daily commitment to priorities.
  • Increase excellence to become the best triathlete that you can be (within your well-balanced life).

Practice habitual behaviors that lead to excellence. This principle has the biggest potential for payoff, but also requires the most thought and discipline.  I’ll break it up into several parts to make it a little easier to take in.

At a foundational level, we can work on the things that provide the base for everything else we do.  You should eat well, rest well, and allow for post-exercise recovery.  Those things actually are foundational to a healthy life! You’re probably doing these already.  Let’s move on to some sport specific ideas.

Many triathletes come to the sport without a swimming background.  Therefore, swimming is the area in which the majority of us can benefit most! 

Warmup laps: These can be throw-away yards in which you get your heart rate up a bit and warm up your muscles or they can be an opportunity to improve your swimming.

  • When you push off the wall of the pool that first time, establish the best streamline you can.  Then make sure you do that every time you push off the wall of the pool.  Your streamline will improve and you’ll develop a good habit.  You’ll never have to “spend time” practicing a streamlined position.
  • Be conscious of your body position and stroke technique, making adjustments while it’s easy, that is, while you’re not swimming at a challenging target speed or level of effort.
  • Think about how you are breathing.  Are you lifting your head?  Are you getting sufficient air easily?
  • Compare your breathing to the left and to the right.  Is one direction more awkward than the other?  There’s no better time to practice breathing to the less comfortable side than during an easy warmup.  Alternatively, you could wait until you are in a race with waves coming from the side that you always breathe on!
  • Check that your kick is compact and feels effective.
  • Count how many strokes you take to traverse a lap.  You will quickly gain a feel for your baseline and be able to detect whether you’re getting more efficient or getting sloppy.

Main Sets: I know what you’re thinking. Your coach or workout plan already tells you what to do in the main set.  But there is more that we can do in the main set to develop great habits while we’re training.

  • Once you can breathe effectively to both the left and the right, do your main set breathing only toward one side of the pool so you practice equally, breathing left on the way down and right on the way back.
  • You can become conscious of stroke technique, breathing technique, etc. at higher and higher levels of effort.

Cooldown:  Like the warmup, these can be throw-away yards or you can use them to see how efficient you can be and how well you can hold form when you’re tired.  Try counting strokes and compare the number to your warmup numbers.

In summary, let’s make swimming mindful throughout the set.  If you engage your brain the whole time, it can be an activity that allows you to let go of the stresses of the day while you improve your ability.  You don’t even need to support your body weight!  Can it get any better?

Riding a bicycle is literally child’s play.  Therefore, the basics should be easy enough for us to be able to derive a lot of additional benefit while we’re doing it by creating great habits.  Let’s go:

Mount your bike at the beginning of the ride just like you would in a race.  Think of it this way: You could practice five transitions three times each summer and you will have practiced 15 bike mounts.  If you ride three times per week for 17 warm weather weeks, and practice your mount each time, you will have practiced 51 bike mounts!  For free!  No extra time spent.  Practice your dismounts at the end of each ride, too.

Shift mindfully.  Figure out the patterns that best fit the configuration of your bike and are most comfortable for you and the cadence that fits you best.  You won’t even have to think about it during a race.

Practice taking in calories and fluids.  This one is really, really important.  You do not want to get race day and realize that your stomach isn’t ready to receive gels and electrolyte drinks for several hours.  Your stomach needs training just like the rest of you and it needs some of that training while you are going at your planned race intensity.  Additionally, you’re going to do most of your drinking and eating on the bike.  It’s simply much easier to take in food and fluids while riding the bike than while running or swimming.  When you’re running, your stomach is getting jostled around a bit so, although you’ll be able to do some intake, it’s just not as easy.  While swimming… I don’t think I need to elaborate.  

If you can combine a bike workout with riding a course you’ll race on, do it!  And do it mindfully.  Are there hazards on the course that you should be ready to avoid?  Where do you need to think about shifting pre-emptively, say a turn followed by an uphill?  Where might you be tempted overdo it?  Where can you get a little break?  Where’s a good place to take in a gel?

Finally, let’s discuss mechanical aspects of the bike.  You should know your bike well enough to do minor maintenance and get back home successfully if you have small breakdowns like getting a flat tire.  Speaking of flat tires, how can you spend less time fixing them?  By not getting them in the first place.  It’s a good idea to establish a routine of inspecting your tires after every ride for wear and looking for little embedded pieces of glass that will cause a flat at a later date.

Your opportunities when running are a little bit like when swimming, but probably fewer for most triathletes.  Your warmup and preparation are important for injury prevention.  During easy intervals or running prior to the main set, you can think about form.  The same goes for the cooldown when you can try to maintain form when fatigued.  You can count strides per time during any part of a run to see how that changes with speed and fatigue or just to make sure that you don’t get complacent.

Racing:  Your habits on race day (and days before race day) can really make a difference.  Prepare early so that you have time to take corrective action if something goes wrong and so you can avoid last minute panics.  Fill up the car with gas the day before the race.  Plan the route that you’ll drive to the race and estimate how long it will take.  Write up a plan, a checklist, and what you learned during the race (see How Writing Helps Your Training and Performance, Multisport Lab, January 26, 2021).  On arrival, study transition area and course details if you haven’t already had the opportunity.

Recognize that every workout is a chance to raise or lower your standards. The intent of a workout is to do something that moves you toward your goal.  There’s not much point in wasting time or energy if it won’t do that.  Here are some thoughts on how to put this principle into action:

  • Understand the objectives of the workout.  If you understand the objectives, you’re more likely to achieve them.
  • It may be better to cut a workout short than to “dog” it or give a partial effort.  Some days, you might not be “feeling it” and pushing through the workout could do more harm than good.  On the other hand, starting the workout may give you a little boost and you’ll nail it.  No one knows you better than you, so use your best judgment.  The plan is meant to serve you, not the reverse.
  • Working hard and maintaining great form late in a workout will pay off greatly on race day.
  • Overtraining will set you back a long way.
Notice that I intentionally did not write, “…every workout or race is a chance…” here.  In a race, the environment is different.  A race isn’t a training session so the calculus regarding cutting it short or gritting it out to finish will not be the same as in a training session, but you should still be smart and consider long-term consequences.  The bottom line is that an ‘A’ race isn’t a training session.

Demonstrate a daily commitment to priorities. Your priorities don’t start with triathlon, even if you’re a professional.  For professionals, the triathlon priorities are just higher up in the list.  Here are some starting points for putting this principle into action:
  • Do the things that make it easier to have time for triathlon (and everything else in your life).
  • Get rest.
  • Eat well.
  • Spend time with family and friends.  Make sure that triathlon doesn’t have a negative impact on them.
  • View workouts in your weakest sport as opportunities.
  • Build and maintain strength.
  • Educate yourself in triathlon, but not just in triathlon.
  • Use your off-season to let your body recover, to reassess, and to focus on improving weaknesses.  For the last two in that list, you should think beyond just triathlon.
Increase excellence to become the best triathlete that you can be (within your well-balanced life). The point is subtle, but important.  The aim should be to improve overall, rather than to do well in a particular event.  Race results depend on too many external factors to let a particular outcome (AG placement, time) in a particular race be your ultimate goal.  However, if you are prepared, strong, healthy, well-nourished, smart, well-trained, and live a balanced life, the race results you desire will happen more often than not.

To recap, here are those four practices again:
  • Practice habitual behaviors that lead to excellence
  • Recognize that every workout is a chance to raise or lower your standards
  • Demonstrate a daily commitment to priorities
  • Increase excellence to become the best triathlete that you can be

Undoubtedly, you will find more ways to implement the details than I have suggested here.  I’ll also note that these ideas are sufficiently general that you could apply them to the rest of your life with only minor modifications:

  • Practice habitual behaviors that lead to excellence
  • Recognize that every interaction is a chance to raise or lower your standards
  • Demonstrate a daily commitment to priorities
  • Increase excellence to become the best partner (parent, sibling, etc.) that you can be
Let’s put these principles into action and become better at everything we do!

Carl Regenauer

Carl Regenauer is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach from Saratoga Springs, New York. He coaches with T3 Coaching and will be doing his 100th triathlon in July 2022.