How To Conquer Triathlon

Blenheim Palace Triathlon is looming this weekend for myself and many others, so to help a few with some details, I have put together this post to try and calm friends and strangers alike. It certainly doesn’t cover everything – I could write a book on it, and several people have – but it covers the main points.

So, you’re having a meltdown because you have signed up for a triathlon and now it’s only a few days away! I am going to impart as much wisdom as my brain has, and hopefully it will help any budding triathletes, out of practice athletes, or anyone who has a brain like a sieve like I do and needs to check their kit bag 30 times before they leave for an event! This is based mostly on a shorter distance triathlon, but can be applied to longer distances if required.

If the race is coming this weekend, then I won’t need to give you any training advice – you should have done that part already! If you feel under-trained, then my advice would be to consider if you have done at least enough to get you round, otherwise you could be risking yourself and potentially risk others on the course. But, hopefully you have done some training and you’re good to go. If you are still worried, there is no point trying to cram training in this week – it should be a gentle week for training; just keep yourself ticking over.

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The beautiful transition area at Blenheim Palace

Next step: whether you have trained hard or not, I would recommend some time invested over the next few days in training your brain. A lot of things are controlled by your mental state, and I like to use some time in the run up to events telling myself that it is possible, I will make it round, and I can do this! It doesn’t always matter how quickly you do it, it’s all about finishing, and gaining experience. PB’s are a bonus!

I think it goes without saying to get plenty of rest and not to overdo it this week. Gentle exercise – certainly nothing at race pace, and a good amount of sleep. If you’re going a distance, a couple of days of carb-loading won’t go amiss! Don’t eat a huge mountain of carbs in one sitting, go for smaller portions in every meal. This will help load your muscles slowly with the energy they need to perform.

Now you’re loaded up, you’re probably going to start looking at your kit bag. Below is a list of essentials, and then I will follow it up with “luxury items” that you may want to include. Just remember, you don’t need to pack the kitchen sink – ask yourself, “do you really need this?”. The worst thing you can do is put too much in your transition area, and give yourself too many choices when you get there in the race. You will spend too long dithering and deciding: socks or no socks… these gloves or those, sun visor or cap? etc. Spend the time now making those decisions and pack ONE!

transition-funnt

Bare necessities:

  • Tri suit, or shorts and top – what you will wear for the whole race, and under your wetsuit
  • Sports bra (if you are a female)
  • Socks – if you have chosen to wear them for the bike/run sections
  • Wetsuit – unless you are brave enough to go in without?!
  • Goggles
  • Towel (for drying your feet off after the swim)
  • Trainers – for running, and cycling if you don’t clip in
  • Cycling shoes – if you do clip in
  • Helmet – a must for riding your bike!
  • Swimming cap (just in case, but generally you will be supplied one for the race)
  • Push bike
  • Fuel and hydration – I will come to that in a bit
  • The contents of your race pack – numbers, stickers, timing chip, safety pins…

That should be all you need to get round, with maybe a couple of extra bits if you are a minimalist! Another decision you should make now – what you are going to put it all in. I remember my first triathlon, where I was lucky enough to have my boyfriend carry my things from one end of Dorney Lake to the other with me, in about 3 different small bags. I saw loads of people wobbling about trying to balance big plastic boxes on their bikes walking along. It seemed to be the norm. I have always wondered if these people have ever heard of rucksacks, or bags, which you can put on your back and then have your hands free to steer your bike to transition. I was fortunate enough to be spoiled with the gift of a transition rucksack, which is a little large, but will be able to carry my wetsuit (with a special compartment of its own for when it’s wet), and everything else I need! I would recommend the rucksack approach.

Luxury items you may wish to bring – the basics, although certainly by no means limited to:

  • GPS watch (probably the most popular item)
  • Bike repair kit (inner tubes, pump – mine is always bolted to my bike, tyre levers, etc.)
  • Sun glasses
  • Sun visor or cap (remember, choose one and take one only with you!)
  • A pair of old flip flops to abandon lake side
  • Race belt – used by many to attach numbers to your body for the cycle and run. For the bike portion you will need a number on your back, and the run a number on your front. You can just spin it round and it saves either re-pinning a number if you are only given one, or wearing one front and back.
  • Lube! This will help your wetsuit slide off like Bruce Almighty’s clothing (if you have ever watched the film). Everyone has their favourite. I prefer a concoction of baby oil and Vaseline – I don’t believe the myths that Vaseline destroys your wetsuit; I have found no physical or scientific evidence of this – but there are other good products like Body Glide. I even read in an entertaining book I once, that there is a lady out there that swears by Durex Play!
  • Sun cream – the waterproof variety
  • Something comfortable to wear afterwards, if you are fortuitous to be racing somewhere stunning that you can look round post-race, such as Blenheim Palace, or you have a celebration after. Also, bear in mind whether there will be somewhere to change, although there is nothing wrong with getting changed in the loo, and wiping yourself down with baby wipes!
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Swim start lining up at Blenheim

Nutrition. My main point here would be the golden rule of all racing events: Never try anything new on race day! You might do it once, and then you will never do it again, after one bad experience. Use what you have been training with, and what your stomach and body is used to. If you can stomach gels and you have been using them, that’s what to go for. As a side note, if you want something similar to gels, but can’t get on with them, energy chews such as Clif Shot Bloks are a good alternative. Jelly babies, Haribo, fig rolls, dried fruit (I like apricots)… Whatever your poison is, that’s what you take. Be sensible – you don’t need enough to survive a week in the jungle – take enough, and a little bit extra in case you struggle, to get you round.

The great thing about a lot of tri gear is that it has places to put things. If you wear a tri suit, it may have pockets in the back, a bit like a cycling jersey. If you have a race belt, you might have purchased one with gel holders in, so you can fix them in before the race. Make it accessible to yourself. It’s easy to take on nutrition on the bike, and if it’s a short distance, you may get away with running without anything. Plan what you are going to eat and when, and stick to it.

Hydration wise, I tend to put a bottle on my bike for a short ride and load it with 2 for a longer one. You won’t be out on the bike for that long in a sprint triathlon, so carrying an extra bottle of water will just be more weight on the bike. You can leave another drink in the transition area if you are worried and drink it when you get off the bike. Water is fine, or you can pop hydration tablets in, if that’s your thing, or simply some squash for a bit of flavour.

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Aerial shot of the beautiful grounds

RACE DAY

  • Make sure you have had plenty of sleep the night before and you are well rested. Don’t fret going to sleep – everything will be fine and all that positive thinking you have been doing will pay off. Check your bag has everything in it before you go to bed, if that puts your mind at rest.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to eat breakfast, get to the event early enough to get parked, set up your transition area before it closes to competitors, and to absorb the atmosphere.
  • Breakfast should be nutritious, and something you are used to. I have inherited my favourite pre-race breakfast from a running buddy, which is porridge with blueberries. He says, “If it’s good enough for Bradley Wiggins, then it’s good enough for me.”. Then, around 30-40 minutes before the race, I will have a banana to top up my energy levels.
  • Practice the day before how you want your transition area laid out, and even practice transition, if you think that will help. Or just spend the time organising in the morning when you are there, making it easy for you to grab what you need fast, and continue your race. Learn from your mistakes. I used to put all my things on top of my towel, and then realised when I got out of the lake and wanted to dry my feet, everything was on top of it, which was no good! It will also make a difference how you lay things out depending on if you have a single transition area, or two separate areas, more commonly known as T1 and T2. Find out what is there on the day and plan around it.
  • Give yourself some extra time to get lubed up, into your wetsuit, and ready to swim.
  • You’re ready to race! Don’t forget all your race numbers, head down to the water, take some deep breaths and go for it!

Do your best, and most importantly, enjoy yourself. If you aren’t enjoying it, and it’s not down to bad luck, I always ask myself, “why am I doing this?”. Push yourself as hard  as you can, and achieve what you want to achieve. You have got this!

finsihing-pain

Thanks for reading, and good luck to those of you racing this weekend!

Amanda x

Swim For Your Life

It’s been a little while – training and life has been keeping me busy, but I have some spare time to share a new post with you all, having just come back from physiotherapy! This one is all about open water swimming. It’s worth a read if you are a seasoned open water swimmer, triathlete, just starting out, or really just fancy having a go! It’s a nice refresher for myself as well.

I think a lot of people have a little fear of the open water, and for several different reasons. “I’m not a good swimmer”, is a common one. This is something you will have to judge yourself a tiny bit. If you can hardly swim 10 metres (I’ve been there too), then you may need a little more practise in the pool. If you can happily swim 200 metres – it doesn’t matter how fast or slow, and not necessarily front crawl the whole way, i.e. you can breast stroke until the cows come home, then I would say you can brave the lake.

“It’s cold and dirty”, is one I hear a lot. Yes, the lake is colder than the swimming pool, and yes, fish, birds and other life forms swim in it. But, on a warm summer’s day, there is nothing more refreshing that jumping into the cool lake and enjoying a swim where you don’t have to avoid “that guy (or girl)” who has arms like an octopus and won’t move out of the way, or endlessly turning at the ends of the pool to look at more tiles, or swimming in what I have heard referred to as ‘human soup’! (Definition: where people have had a wee, snot-blasted, dribbled, shedded hair balls – true story – or any other human substances in a chlorinated body of water.) Also, most open water swimmers wear wetsuits, which are designed to keep your body warm, so no excuses!

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Showing the glamorous side of neoprene wearing, and how many chins you can develop sprinting out of a lake!

Preparation. As I quickly mentioned just now, you may (probably will) want to wear a wetsuit. They keep you warm, and are quite buoyant, so they will help you float. Most lakes will also allow swimmers to go in without a wetsuit, although you might find you have to sign a ‘no-wetsuit waiver’. I recommend the wetsuit, and if you’re not sure, hire one to try it out. Generally, if you are feeling committed, it will work out cheaper to buy your own than keep renting one – remember, you don’t have to buy a top of the range one – but do go for a swimming one over a watersports one. They are more buoyant, and are built stretchier, to allow for full movement of your arms when you swim. Other than that, you will just need a brightly coloured swimming cap, so that the lifeguards can see you, which you can pick up for about £3 in Sports Direct, and a pair of goggles, which I hope you would have anyway! If not, try Sports Direct, or a similar shop again for a reasonably priced pair (£10?), and make sure you try them on to find the ones that fit your face the best. You don’t need to go out and buy some fancy, expensive open water swimming mask (generally the masks leak – I warned you, ok?).

Finding a lake. Google, ask around, contact your local triathlon club. More and more swimming lakes are popping up all over. DON’T go and find a random body of water and start swimming in it. There are plenty of safe, life-guarded lakes with courses marked out and lots of friendly people! If you are near me/Burnham, you have a choice of Bray Lake, Liquid Leisure in Datchet, Westhorpe Lake in Marlow, and Heron Lake in Wraysbury. All are great lakes, and I believe they all still only charge £5 a swim, which is cheaper than the local swimming pool! My favourite is Bray, because it’s local, and just such a lovely lake to swim in.

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Bray Lake enticing you in – go on, you know you want to swim in it!

Getting help. Find a friend who is enthusiastic and a current open water swimmer, and ask them to go in with you, if you are worried. Another great way into the sport, is to take an introduction to open water swimming course. These are fantastic, as they run you through everything from putting your goggles on so that they don’t leak, to taking you round a small loop in the lake and making sure you don’t drown.

Sighting. If you skipped the introductory session, it may be worth noting one small point. In the swimming pool, it’s well-lit, and the water is clear, so you can see to the other end of the pool. The lake is a little bit different. The water is green-y and darker, so you won’t just be able to keep your head down and swim along – you will need to check where you are going. Open water swimmers use a technique called sighting, specifically for this purpose. During front crawl, just before you turn your head to the side to breathe, lift it slightly so that your goggles clear out of the water and take a peek  – I imagine it like taking a quick photograph – then turn your head to the side to breathe as normal. It’s a quick glance, and you are looking for some big, brightly coloured buoys that mark out the course set out in the lake. If you’re still not sure, have a look on YouTube – there are some good videos that run you through the process.

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Mass swim start, team relay tri event. Spot me above the word ‘Tri’, with the blue goggles on! Open water swimming can open up opportunities like this one.

Swimming. Now to get on with the bit you have all come for – the swim! Don your swim cap, your goggles and your wetsuit (unless you are brave!), remembering that the zip goes at the back – we have all been there once – and use the pads of your fingers to pull it up. Avoid getting your fingernails dug in, as this will tear the suit. Get in the water, and allow it to get into your wetsuit and trickle up the zip. It may feel a bit cold, but take a few moments to acclimatize, letting your body adjust to the temperature. I would recommend either washing your goggles about in the water, or for the less precious of us, spitting into them and giving them a quick wash out. This stops them from fogging up, so that when you need to see where you are going, you can. Your hands and neck should go in next, and when you are ready, dunk your head under. This will all help adjust to the temperature of the water. If you’re really cold, have a wee! I’m not joking – everyone does it, and it sure warms you up. To quote something I read recently, “there are two types of people in the world; those who wee in their wetsuits, and liars.”.

Then, don’t think too much about it – swim! If you aren’t feeling too confident, start out on the shortest loop. In some lakes, this may be 400m, and others it may be 150-250m. Don’t panic – if you need to stop swimming, simply stop. Treading water is easier than you think, your wetsuit will aid in keeping you afloat, and if you want to paddle around a bit you can. You can breast stroke if you are tired of front crawl, or you can just float on your belly or your back – just be careful waving your arms around if you are on your back, or staying like it for too long, because floating on your back with your arms in the air is actually the distress signal in open water. So, unless you need rescuing, keep your arms down!

Once you are finished and satisfied with your swim, get out, have a lovely warm shower, and bask in the glory of what you have achieved. Get a hot drink if you fancy one – most lakes have a little cafe on site – and plan when your next swim will be. Most of all, enjoy it!

Some of my favourite things about lake swimming:

  • Swimming continuously without having to stop and turn around, or avoid people
  • A sense of freedom, getting close to nature, and being outdoors
  • Enjoying a sunrise, or a sunset, if you get in early, or out late
  • Training with and around some wonderful people, who are all as enthusiastic and in love with the sport as each other
  • And, with risk of sounding a bit like a hippie, feeling alive!
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Two very happy girls, having completed their first lake swim of the year – a chilly 11°C. Me and my cold swimming buddy, Helen.

Arguably, not everything is for everyone, but I think you should at least have a go or three at most things to see if they suit you. You never know, open water swimming may just be your thing. As a good friend of mine always says, “I think I’ll be really good at that, because I haven’t tried it yet.”.

Happy swimming, and thanks for reading as always,

Amanda x