Due to the complex nature of triathlon training and racing, triathletes have to be diligent about their training and racing preparation.
There are a lot of key components to be able to train and race successfully, but as a coach with over 25 years of experience, I have observed five key issues and mistakes triathletes make, common to all levels of triathletes, and they include: Poor catch and pull swim technique, flexibility, core strength, race day hydration and race day bike pacing strategy.
I will identify each problem and provide a solution to fix.
Poor catch and pull swim technique and early vertical forearm (EVF) position
The problem: During the swim, many triathletes pull incorrectly and as a result are not maximizing their propulsion and efficiency in the water. After spending hundreds of hours videotaping and reviewing athletes swim form, improving EVF stands out as a key component to improving an athlete’s swim performance. EVF positioning begins by focusing on your catch. Specifically maintaining a higher elbow position as you begin the catch phase of your stroke so you can create a more vertical position or paddle formation with the forearm while improving the leveraging power of your chest, shoulder and upper back muscles.
EVF is established by anchoring the elbow during the catch phase, allowing the forearm and hand to pivot around that anchored position. Improving this position of the arm in the water increases propulsion creating a vertical paddle making it possible to “grab” more water and minimize slippage. Slippage occurs when the elbow leads the hand through the pull phase and no vertical paddle is formed.
The fix: To improve EVF triathletes should work on two drills - the fist and swim catch drill (before each pull phrase pause for two seconds in a bent elbow, EVF, position. Alternate the right and left arm on each length of the pool doing this drill). Triathletes can also use a parachute for short 25 to 75 yard swims to help improve this technique error.
The problem: Flexibility in the shoulders, upper back, chest, hips, hamstrings and lower back are key areas of the body that will lead to enhanced performance. Improving shoulder, upper back and chest flexibility can help in all three triathlon disciplines but they are particularly beneficial to swimming. Improving your flexibility in these areas can improve the flow and efficiency of your swim technique, while reducing your overall drag with improved body position in the water.
Improving the flexibility in your hips, hamstrings and low back will allow for improved postural control so the body can engage core muscles more effectively in all three disciplines. Good flexibility in these areas can also help reduce low back issues during training and racing, as well as reducing tightness and tension during running to minimize injury potential.
The fix: Improved flexibility comes from proper stretching and rolling (foam, ball, stick, etc) after every workout for at least 10 minutes on all major body parts, with specific emphasis on the muscle groups mentioned above.
The problem: Having good core strength is critical to the success of a triathlete for many reasons. In the swim, it supports good body alignment, reduces drag and improves efficiency. Since a lot of an athlete’s power in swimming comes from the core and hips, having good core strong also enhances the kick and upper body propulsion. Good core strength also supports the athlete’s ability to maintain good body position on the bike reducing lower back issues while improving the power in the pedal stroke. Finally, good core strength provides an anchor and stability for your hips legs, torso and arms to generate optimal movement and reduce overall fatigue during the run.
The fix: To improve core strength there are several exercises that can be done on a regular basis which include planking, glute bridges, balance ball pikes, and Russian twists. Perform these exercises three to five times a week, three sets of 15 to 25 reps to get optimal results.
Hydration and Fueling
The problem: Proper hydration is a critical component to a successful race, especially as the race distance increases. Often I talk with athletes who finish races having consumed only a partial amount of what was planned and that lack of hydration and fueling can be a direct attribute to their performance issues. Proper hydration helps athletes to avoid dehydrated states, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. It also helps to maintain blood volume for better cardiac output and provides the right solution for carbohydrate intake and water absorption.
The fix: There are a few key elements to consider when choosing the right hydration strategy. To begin, an athlete’s hydration intake should be between 12 and 28 ounces per hour depending on the weather conditions and your sweat rate. This strategy should be a combination of plain water and a carbohydrate/electrolyte drink. In addition, part of a good overall strategy is to consume solids with water and not a carbohydrate drink which can slow down fluid absolution and increase gastrointestinal issues. Every athlete reacts to different hydration strategies so be sure to develop a good strategy in training before you use it in a race.
Bike race pacing strategies
The problem: Trying to find the right pace on the bike during a race can be a challenge. Swim and run pacing strategies can be easier to develop given the nature of tracking laps or mile times and the slower paces of the swim and run. The bike is challenging because of the faster speed, the variety of terrain and changes in weather conditions that can affect the speed on the bike more dramatically than the run.
The fix: A couple of ways to help you develop a bike pacing strategy is to complete field tests such as an FTP, a time trial, or some type of lab assessment such as a lactate test. These types of tests can help you develop heart rate as well as power zones if you use a power meter. In addition, athletes should pay close attention to their perceived effort or RPE, during race simulated training rides on bike courses that mimic the race course. These efforts will help the athlete to reinforce the accuracy of the zones, relative to their perceived effort and bike pace. Athletes should then use all these tools (heart rate, power, RPE, and speed) in a race to help them compete at the proper bike effort.
John Hansen, USAT, and USA Swimming Level 1 Coach and USA Cycling Level 3 Certified coach, Folsom California. Hansen has an MS in Exercise Physiology and previously worked at the UC Davis Sports performance lab for five years. Hansen currently coaches the UC Davis Collegiate Club Triathlon team. Hansen also has his own coaching business, primarily coaching long course athletes, 70.3 and 140.6. Visit HansenMultisport.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.