There’s no better feeling than finishing a race with a strong effort. Perhaps you invision leaving it all out on the course in the last mile or maybe you remember your last race, sprinting to the finish with your hands in the air. It’s not easy to finish a race strong, especially in an endurance race but with the right pacing strategy with a well-fueled and hydrated body, every athlete has it in him/her to experience how amazing it feels to give a full-throttle effort to the finish line.
But no athlete likes to remember the end of a race as being a horrible finish or perhaps, not having any gas left in the tank the last few miles. Feeling empty, depleted and dwelling on not being able to race strong to the finish line is not something you plan for and even with the best intentions to pace your own race, you never know what the body will do throughout an endurance race.
It’s far too common that athletes will talk about the end of the race either with positive and motivating thoughts of being able to race smart and finishing strong or having nothing left to give and suffering well before the finish line chute. That later memory often stays with the athlete for a while and particularly for goal-driven athletes, those athletes will likely relate that poor performance with the need to train more or harder (which is not always the immediate answer and may even do more harm than good). Sure, there are times when you are feeling horrible and giving your best effort and the outcome works out exactly as you wished, but the key to experiencing a successful race performance is an unique combination of taking a few risks but also pacing your own race.
There have been several group bikes rides that I have participated in in the past year or so that I had SO much fun in the ride - typically riding with the guys and a few super strong girls. I was pushing, my legs were burning and my heart was pumping and I was in total enjoyment with all of that suffering. But during and after these rides, I knew that this “workout” had nothing to do with my race day pacing or even my training plan in general. But sometimes you have to change up the routine to experience what works and doesn’t work to help you understand your race day efforts and group rides have little to do with how I can pace my own race on race day. But they sure are fun!
Imagine standing at the starting line at a running race and feeling trained and ready to go and then, when the gun goes off, you start out running with the lead group because you feel good at the moment and you want to be as "fast" as everyone else (and don't like being passed). Perhaps a pace that is 10 seconds, 30 seconds or even minutes faster than a pace that you trained yourself to do or even a pace that you could never even hold in training. It’s through common sense that a body that tries to push harder than it has trained to push (or to push for a specific amount of time without risking serious fatigue or bonking or injury) will not be able to finish strong, even with the strongest mind and sport nutrition/coke at aid stations.
Here lies the biggest problem with triathletes is not understanding how to pace the bike portion of a triathlon in order to set the body up for a strong run. Similar to a running race, most runners know exactly (or a range) of efforts that will allow for steady pacing and a strong finish or a slow gradually fatigue from starting out too fast or pushing too hard throughout the race. Through a smart training plan that allows for a lot of brick workouts as well as test sets to understand the best pacing on the bike to ensure a strong run off the bike (alongside proper fueling) a triathlete will be very prepared with a good range of “efforts” to race a smart in the bike portion of a race and to finish strong.
So, how do you know what this effort should be? Well, heart rate is not a very valuable tool on the bike and neither is speed. There are so many factors that can affect both and you may find yourself constantly struggling to be consistent with training and racing by using these two tools. You can still monitor the HR but the weather, sleep, stress, nutrition, effort, distance and fitness level can all affect the heart rate.
Perceived effort and watts on the bike (with a steady cadence which you can also monitor) are the two most valuable tools that I encourage athletes to use when riding on race day. A separate bike computer on your bike will also help you monitor these variables. Specific to long distance racing, the majority of athletes should not “hurt” on the bike. Certainly "hurt" is relative and can be defined differently from an experienced to inexperienced athlete. There should be a max sustainable effort that should allow you to race hard enough to put your training to the test but this effort should give you the least amount of stress possible so that you can still run strong off the bike. As for watts, this should be determined well before race day by reviewing power files (IF and TSS are two good numbers to review) and doing several “race prep” workouts (bricks) to perfect pacing and nutrition.
Before I get into the specifics of the St. Croix 70.3, 56-mile bike course in my next blog post, here are a few tips that I will share as to how I was able to race on the hardest course I have ever raced my bike on but also how you can prepare yourself for your next triathlon race.
-Cassette – I used a 11-28 cassette. Instead of a 10-speed I had an11-speed cassette. Thiis allowed for less jumps between gears compared to a 10-speed cassette. This also helped with smoother shifting. Be sure you have the right cassette for your race depending on the terrain, you can discuss this with an experienced bike mechanic or read forums from experienced athletes who have rode your course. This will be a game changer for you if you do/don’t have the right cassette. If you have ever climbed and wished you had just one more gear to shift too, that is what it is like to not have the right cassette (although when climbing the beast I would have loved a 14-speed cassette :)
-Di2 – Electronic shifting was the best addition to my new bike (thanks Karel!) especially on a hilly course. I have shifters in my base bars in the brake levers and in the aero bars. Additionally, I can stand and shift at the same time and shift from big to small (vice versa as well) while standing. This played a huge impact on keeping a steady effort throughout the race in St. Croix and since changing gears is key to keeping a steady cadence, it is nice to be able to have electronic shifting so I can just hit a button and my gears change. Karel also put in a chain catcher on my bike so the risk of my chain falling off is less if I accidentally cross my gears when shifting.
-Develop your own riding style – Every athlete will have his/her unique style of riding, especially on a tough course. This is specific as to how an athlete will climb. 90% of the time you will likely see me climbing out of my saddle for this is how I am able to get the smoothest pedal stroke and save my legs for the run. This does require a bit more energy from my upper body but I am much more comfortable standing than sitting. As I mentioned above, I can shift as I stand so that is a big bonus for my riding style. Sitting in the saddle is another way to climb. Do not feel as if you have to stay aero for your entire bike ride, especially on climbing. Sit or stand and stretch those hips. If you do stand or sit a lot when you are racing, an aero helmet will not be to your advantage.
-Bike tune up – Your bike should be tuned up and ridden before race day to test anything new or changed on your bike. Be sure your drive train is as smooth as possible and there is no friction. Karel does a complete overhaul on each of our bikes before a race (and throughout training too) which can take up to 2 hours to get our bikes race ready. He takes the bike completely apart and every part is removed and he makes sure that all the bearings and all moving parts are smooth and there is no friction. Many bike mechanics will not go to this great of detail for a bike tune-up and you may find your bike with a clean chain and a sparkling frame and that is it. Invest the money for a really good tune-up on your bike to ensure that you can take your engine on your bike and race the best race possible. A new chain and tires may be all you need depending on how regularly you take care of your bike. Karel has worked on some bikes that are rarely taken care of and although he tries to do his best replacing cables and bearing and other parts, some parts are not fixable and require new parts (more money for the athlete). Also, you want to be aware of any cracks in your frame which need to be taken care of ASAP with the manufacture of the bike. I should also mention here that a good bike fit should be an immediate decision after you purchase a bike OR if you have never had one before on the bike you are riding OR if you feel as if you are not fitted right (or sitting) right on your bike. Karel has helped so many triathletes, cyclists and MTBers in and around our area with his RETUL fit system and we consider it “free” speed for the investment of the fit. If you are put in the right position on your bike, not only will you be able to generate more power BUT you will reduce risk for injury and can train more efficiently. Fits are not just for the elite or experienced – every triathlete should invest in a bike fit from an experienced fitter especially if you are expecting your body to perform in training without injury and to improve.
-Hydration set-up – I am a big fan of sport water bottles as the main hydration carrier on your bike, in cages that are reachable. It is important to be able to take a sip of your drink frequently to meet your fluid, electrolyte and carbohydrate needs each hour. Being able to shake up your bottle will allow for properly mixed contents (as oppose to sipping from a straw) and being able to toss a bottle at an aid station provides you with a free cage to store cold water for sipping/cooling. Don't use your favorite bottles for race day if you plan to toss a bottle. For a half IM distance, you should have no less than 3 bottles on your bike (or 1x 24-28 ounce per hoour) – allowing for 1 bottle PER hour. I encourage athletes to bring their own nutrition and think of the aid stations as a treat and not to rely 100% on the aid stations (although still use them as needed especially for water or if you loose some nutrition). It is encouraged to use your training nutrition for race day and this should be well practiced (in the same amounts) throughout your longer training sessions. Fuel as tolerated and use cold water to cool the body (heat, back, neck, etc.) as much as possible in hot races. By reducing the need to rely on solid food and prioritizing liquid nutrition it is much easier (and safer as you can keep your hands on your bars and watch the road - think of eating on the bike like texting and driving - you need to maneuver your machine as you ride and sipping a drink makes this a lot easier.) and more efficient to meet individual hydration, energy and electrolyte needs through a one-stop-shop in a bottle.
Karel and I both use Infinit nutrition for our fuel on the bike and I created a custom formula for each of us, which I do for other athletes as well.
Karel and I both use Infinit nutrition for our fuel on the bike and I created a custom formula for each of us, which I do for other athletes as well.
-Practice your skills – This is the area where athletes of all fitness levels can improve. To be a safe and strong rider you have to be comfortable riding on your respective course. The St. Croix 70.3 course never took me out of my comfort zones but I did not feel comfortable “racing” on some of the descends. In my mind I rode scared down many of the descends and twisty roads but I feel this was simply lack of experience on these types of roads. Although I do not climb in training, this is a strength of mine and I love to climb but I know I need to continue to work on my skills on the bike going downhill. I have improved my bike skills tremendously over the past few years with Karel’s help but without similar roads to practice on in training, I know that this was my biggest limiter in this race and where I lost the most time with my competitors. However, I felt like I raced my best race possible and paced my own race. I look forward to our upcoming move to SC for the opportunity to practice my skills going down hills for I know this will continue to limit me in these challenging courses (which I love). All triathletes should feel comfortable on their bike outside on the road (and around other athletes) and should have the skills for a safe and smart race (if you aren't comfortable changing gears or grabbing bottles, practice!). I can’t stress it enough but if you can, please drive or bike some of your course (ex. the start/finish or "difficult sections") ahead of time (before your race) so you are not only prepared for proper shifting, bumpy roads or potholes and tight/sharp turns but also to reduce anxiety before your race (the unknown is always stressful for athletes).
-Wheels and tires – If you are thinking about race wheels, invest in name brand wheels which invest research and money into their wheels to ensure that you have fast AND safe wheels. Just because a wheel has a dish doesn't mean that the wheel is safe to use. Karel does a lot of research on bike gear and is always keeping up with what's new and effective (he's kinda like the Consumer Reports of biking). It’s important to consider your course and how the wheel will function on your course as well as your ability to ride with race wheels. There is a big difference between the dish size in race wheels as well as a disc wheel and this is important to consider when shopping for wheels. Karel went with no disc wheel because not only is a disc wheel heavy but it feels every hole because it is a solid wheel. A disc wheel doesn't absorb the shock of bumps that well so he went with a 90mm wheel in the rear and 70mm wheel in the front for better handling on this course. Because I am a lighter/smaller rider, I feel more wind with race wheels (and thus it is more effort to control the bike) so I have a 60mm wheel w/ tubular tires. For bad road conditions, clincher tires are at risk for pinch flats whereas tubulars are better because your flat will likely be just from a puncture which is out of your control (ex. a nail or glass compared to pinch flat which can occur from hitting a bottle or a big bump). You can also ride with a little less pressure in a tubular and there is no risk for a pinch flat. Karel gave me his race wheels for this race so he had clincher tires but he said if he does this race again he would definitely use tubulars. If you do not have the money (or interest) in investing in race wheels (keep in mind that race wheels are more than just for show – you have to be very comfortable riding with race wheels and the faster the rider, the more benefit you have with the wheels) you can always rent wheels. But be sure you try them out (with good tires and tubes - for rental wheels don’t always have the best tires/tubes on them so you may want to invest in new tires/tubes before the race) in your last few longer workouts to get comfortable with them (and to adjust any parts to make sure you can properly shift).