training and information

Race faster by avoiding mistakes

This article has been submitted by Ken Maclaren and is copyrighted by him

© 1999 All rights reserved by the author.

You're there on the start line and you know you are fitter than you have ever been before. You're confident of racing faster than ever before. You are sure that your new level of fitness gained after all those months of hard work are finally going to pay dividends today. You know that you are capable of finishing in front of that woman in the pink suit who has beaten you every time out to date.

Then the gun goes and you're not quite ready (+20 seconds), the tide drags you off course a bit (+15 seconds), and you swim towards the wrong buoy (+20 seconds). Out of the water, well not as good as you hoped but still, now is when you will make your move. Oops, you can't find your bike in the transition area (don't they all look the same?) - that's another 15 seconds extra. You left your bike in the wrong gear that's another 5 seconds as it takes you longer to get going. What, a hill this steep, and you didn't know about! It's much harder to ride up when you haven't got the right gears (+20 seconds). It's steep and windy down the other side too. You take it steadily because you are not quite sure how tight all those corners are, (+10 seconds). You overshoot the next turn because 'you weren't expecting that', (+10 seconds). Oh no a puncture, but those little nicks in your tyre didn't seem too bad. (+3 minutes - at least). Oh well, you know that once you start the run then your fitness will really show.

Back into the transition area. Now where was your spot (+10 seconds whilst you find it again). Out on the run and you are really flying! But not, unfortunately, in the right direction... 30m too far so you have to come back (+ 15 seconds). Into the finish now and suddenly they are all shouting at you - oh you're supposed to run that way to the finish (+5 seconds).

So let's see now: your improved fitness had given you the potential to be five minutes faster than last year but, oh dear, all your mistakes have added up to 5:25! And that woman in pink, there she is just in front of you!

I doubt that all of the above things have happened to you in one race but go on be honest have some of them happened at one time or another?

None of us go into an event with the intention of racing slower than our fitness will allow us to. However there are plenty of things that if you do them will add to your race time or even prevent you from finishing. As the pension salesmen love to tell you, it's not that any of us plan to fail, it's just that at times we all fail to plan.

The best way to avoid these mishaps (that can cost you more time than you have gained from a whole winter's training) is through preparation. 'Don't leave your brain behind in the transition area when you rack your bike', is one phrase I like to use. But the planning necessary should start long before you get to an event.

Most of the points listed here are common sense and you may well have heard them before but like most people I need to remind myself of these things.

Practical pre-event preparation


Swim the right distance. Watch any open water event (especially in the sea) and you'll see people going off in all directions. What is likely to add extra distance to the swim?

Once again with all these points, preparation and thought can help save you those vital seconds. If you know what the tide is likely to be doing then you can take that into account as you race. I other words, if the current is likely to drag you to the inside of the buoy aim to swim to the opposite side.

There are several reasons why we can't see so well when we are in the water. The most obvious being through short sightedness (try optical goggles - available to the nearest 0.5 prescription from Speedo, or contact lenses. Other reasons include problems with your goggles, (they are scratched and so reflect the sun badly, or they mist up.) Solutions here are to have a pair of goggles for racing only and change them whenever they get scratched (leave a towel or something in the transition area to drop them onto to avoid scratching). If you have a problem with misting, try some anti-mist spray, which you can get from most opticians. Never mistake that swim hat for a buoy again!

Sighting the swim.

Several years ago I entered the Porthcawl, Round the Bay swim. As I turned up to the start I didn't fancy my chances as a Commonwealth Games freestyle swimmer was in the field. However I managed to cross the line several minutes before he did, not because I swam any faster but because the last time I saw him was when he was leading a whole group of better swimmers off into the open sea.

In this case the course involved swimming round a pole in the middle of the bay. Half an hour before the race start a quick jog up on the cliffs had told me that a big crane on the quayside on the opposite side of the bay was in line with that not very visible pole and had also shown which way the currents were going. Those ten minutes of extra preparation gained me the advantage that years of training in the pool would never have done.

In events like the Nice Triathlon they put the buoys out a few days before the race so you get the chance to swim out and check on your sighting points.


On the bike the most common 'time costs' are:

Equipment failure

Sometimes equipment failure is bad luck but most of the time it is bad preparation. Check your tyres for any nicks or weak spots. If there are any, change them and use them on your training wheels or training bike. Check your bike over mechanically the week before. If you don't know what to check or look for, learn the basics (brakes, gears etc.) but get your bike serviced properly.

Wrong gear selection

Most organisers will include a description of the route in their race literature including gear recommendations, if it is extreme. If you turn up to a course which includes several one in four climbs with only a 42x17 gear combination the chances are that you are going to struggle and lose time you needn't have.

Not knowing the route

What is the course going to be like? Ideally bike around the course a few weeks before. If this is not possible at least drive around on the previous day. If you know where the sharp turns are, where the potholes are, which corners are not as tight as they seem, etc, then you are in a better position to avoid losing time or puncturing because of them.

Going the wrong way

I last went the wrong way in a race in 1975. I could have placed in the first three but instead placed twelfth. It was an important lesson learnt for a 13-year-old. In the 1997 Guernsey Powerman Duathlon three guys, who could potentially have placed in the top five, blew their chances and their prize money by inadvertently cutting the bike route. (If only they'd been at my talk 'Racing Faster' a couple of days earlier, they'd have known to check, check and recheck which way to go!)


Slightly less important but still worth being aware of is the surface for the run. If it includes cross-country or grass running, then check the soles of your shoes. Some shoes designed for running on the road are just not that suitable for running on grass, especially if it may be wet. As with the bike, make sure that you know which way to go, especially little things like the run into the finish.


Some other general points.

Psychological pre-event preparation

At all levels of competition, athletes let themselves down through their psychological approach. Some people prepare automatically and others need to go through more formalised routines of what they want to achieve and the best way to go about it.

Just thinking positively about the event is enough for many people.

Ken Maclaren is a former international triathlete who writes a regular column for 220 magazine. He has written books on triathlons, duathlons and running. (Details are available from KinEli Publishing, PO Box 289, Loughborough, LE11 1WZ U.K. or KinEli Publishing, P.O. Box 16010, Tamatea, Napier, New Zealand). E-mail [email protected]

He admits to making most of the mistakes he has written about at least once each during his twenty two year involvement with sport. He now lives in Napier, New Zealand

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