Over my career as a triathlete, and since as a physio; working with lots of athletes of all kinds of abilities, I’ve learnt plenty of lessons. Whether it is completing your first triathlon or whether it is striving for better times, there are always things that can be learnt – it may be different ways of training and preparing, or it may be reinforcing some of the things you do already. One thing is for sure, we can always get better.
1. Find a good training partner, but also train alone.
Training with friends or with a partner can really help. It can make things more enjoyable, it can help push you as different members of the group may have different strengths. This may allow you to learn from other people. Watch what they do, the good and the bad, and see how you think that may benefit you. You must remember, however, that when you’re running or biking in a group, you can draft or hang on to other people to keep you going through tough spells.
When you’re racing, however, you may not have those people around you, when you’re really battling, you may be on your own, especially if you’re doing an Ironman, and it is up to you to bring yourself through. So get to know yourself, get to know how much training you need to do on your own.
When I first started my career in triathlon, I got to a certain level by training with my buddies, in groups and non-structured environments. I then left for a while and came back with a whole new attitude. I found a coach I liked and really appreciated his ideas. So I committed myself to the training. I rarely trained with people.
Eighty-five to 90 percent of the training I did alone, which worked for me. I think athletes now have this notion to show off their fitness. They always want to be out in front when it should just be a training session. Training alone created self-confidence. I came out and won my first three back to back races by training alone, which were Ironbridge, Windsor and the European Junior Championships.
2. Do drills.
It goes without saying that when doing a long race, such as an Ironman, being as efficient as possible throughout the race will be a huge benefit in the latter stages. This is why I find it so surprising that so few people choose to neglect cycling and running drills. I felt I could be more efficient, and I worked to engrain my technique so that even in the most fatigued state, my technique would stay strong, I wouldn’t start falling apart in the latter stages.
The reality is you should be doing drills all the time, year in and year out, constantly striving to improve. As a physiotherapist now I am a true believer also that specific drills will also reduce the chance of injury. With the amount of training that you will be doing, your body will already be tested, why put more pressure on it by ignoring drilling and developing bad habits!?
My favorite drills included the water polo drill for swimming (where you spend time swimming with your head-up, as you will need to when sighting the buoy in an open-water swim), single leg cycling drills on the turbo and hamstring recoil pre activation drills for the run (especially important for after the bike when your quads are tired.
3. Be Specific – plan your training.
It’s clear that adhering to a structured training programme will reward you in the long run. However, you should also think about how specific your plan is. It is one thing to get lots of miles in your legs or meters in the pool, but how specific are you really being? If you are training for a particular race and are trying to improve your time, then be specific. Get to know the course and structure your training accordingly.
My coach had me train specifically for the long distance triathlon in Nice. When I trained for Nice, I'd incorporate rides and runs similar to that course. We developed a mammoth turbo session which replicated the cycle course. It was only on the third of 11 switch backs on the descent that I realized there was one aspect I was very much unprepared for!
A structured training programme should also ensure that adequate attention to given to recovery. We spend a lot of time thinking about when we’re going to get the miles done, but you must also ensure you get adequate recovery. This is when you must get to know how much recovery you need and when it best fits into your programme.
Monitor your training and record what you’ve done. I use the Garmin Forerunner to help me keep focus on my running. By recording what you’ve done, you can see the improvements and try to isolate what part of training gives you the greatest benefit.
4. Know your Body.
Listen to your body, understand it. If you’re starting to feel a niggle, it may be best to tweak your programme or even take a day off. Make sure this isn’t being used as an excuse, but in the long run, it may save you a lot of heartache. I’ve seen so many people who have felt a niggle, but have chosen to ignore it, until they can’t keep going and have to take a long spell on the sidelines. It may be something very simple that can be fixed quickly, so get it sorted.
It may be really helpful to design a short and simple exercise programme that will aid your programme. When training for three disciplines, swim, bike and run, it can seem that there just isn’t enough time in the day for all the training that needs to be done. It may appear that there really isn’t more time to be doing an exercise programme. The reality is however, that an exercise programme, if well-designed need not be too time-intensive, and if it keeps you healthy and performing to your best then it will be worth it in the long-run.
It doesn’t need to be complicated or have the need for lots of equipment, it may just need some thera-band to help with work on your shoulders, a foam roller for your thoracic spine after you’ve had long ride, or to help de-tone your ITB’s before a long-run. We can easily develop some imbalances that can lead to serious problems in the future, yet a few simple exercises can help prevent this.
5. Get the right Equipment.
The commitment to training for a triathlon is huge, so the last thing you want to happen is to be hit with a mechanical failure on race day. Equipment can be expensive, but I’ve seen so many people have their goals destroyed by something relatively minor. Get new tyres or a new chain, but most importantly find a mechanic you trust with your equipment and make sure they give all your equipment a thorough examination.
Try and learn from them as well, you never know when you may need those skills. If you’re doing a race abroad and you’ve had to dismantle your bike for the flight, the last thing you want to do is not know how to deal with a problem the night before the race.
6. Figure out your nutritional plan.
The longer the race, the more important your nutrition plan is. This is a simple two-part strategy:
1) Figure out what works best for you
2) Train like you race.
And always remember to bring your own food. There's a good chance that the race won't have your preferred gel or drink and this can be a complete disaster.
I remember racing a half ironman in Switzerland and getting to kilometer 15 on the run and feeling my energy levels fading. I grabbed an energy gel from the next food station. This was like trying to swallow thick glue. Needless to say I coughed and splattered my way to the next drink station where I was then able to wash it down with water.
I stole my best secret race supplement from a former training partner. When I was training I loved to eat Snickers bars. Get the fun-size bars as they come individually prepackaged so they don't make a mess when you pack them in your food bag on your bike. If it was a hot race, I made sure to freeze them the night before so that they're ready to eat on the bike. Best of all they're about 270 calories each, making sure I got plenty of fuel into me quickly when I needed it. For me this is the perfect amount of fuel for a strong run time. Find what works best for you.
7. Remember the Little Things….
- Find a comfortable race outfit and train in it before the race – the last thing you need is chafing during the swim or to be uncomfortable half-way around the cycling course.
- Put your swim goggle strap under your swim cap – otherwise in a competitive open-water swim they may get ripped off.
- Wear you race number under your wetsuit – it will save you time in the first transition.
- Invest in a helmet with adequate air vents - especially if you’re racing in a warm climate.
- Elastic laces or toggles on your laces with powder in your shoes – means no need to tie your laces or put socks on, saving you time in the second transition.
- Practice your transitions – this is easy to do, it saves you time, and keeps your momentum in the race!
About Beth Borthwick
Beth was born in Cottesloe, Perth, Western Australia and grew up a block away from Henk and Leon Vogel in a small suburb called Roleystone. She is a multiple state athletic and cross country champion, and completed her first triathlon after leaving school. From there she was selected in the Australian junior triathlon squad and finished 2nd in her first world junior triathlon championships.
Having British parents, she decided, after much deliberation to race for Great Britain. Beth competed as an international triathlete for eight years representing Great Britain at senior level; with career highlights including finishing 3rd in the Austrian Ironman and a world-ranking high of 5th. During this time she achieved a BSc in Sport and Exercise Science from Bath University before qualifying from Cardiff University as a Chartered Physiotherapist.
She has experience working as a senior clinician in the NHS and working as physiotherapist for the British Bobskeleton team. Beth currently works for Six Physio on Harley Street in London.
- Three time junior and senior member Great Britain Triathlon team 1997 - 2004.
- World Junior Championships 1997: 2nd; 1998: 3rd.
- European Junior Champion 1998.
- European Triathlon Cup Champion 1999.
- 15 International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Cup competitions; 6 top ten finishes
- 20 European Triathlon Union (ETU) competitions; 6 victories, 10 top five finishes, 4 top ten finishes
- Klagenfurt, Austrian Ironman 3rd; time 9hrs 29mins.
- World long distance Championships 2002: 8th; 2003: 5th.
- European long distance Championships 2003: 5th; 2004: 8th.
- World Triathlon long distance ranking 5th 2003; 5th 2004.