10 Ways to Race to have a Great Triathlon Long Course Race

Triathlete leaving transition with their bike
January 8, 2017

Dave Sheanin



Whether you're getting ready for your first or fifteenth full or half distance race, it can be easy to lose sight of the details that will get you across the line. In short-course racing, mistakes are often forgiven by the shorter duration. At long course, it's very difficult to recover from mistakes. Go out too hard on the swim or over ride the bike, even by just a little, and you're shuffling (or walking) your marathon. When the wheels come off at this distance, they come off. Here are some tips I wish I had fully understood before my first full distance race.

1. It's the inputs that matter. What many triathletes get focused on are the wrong things, things like a finish time and age group placings and qualifying slots. These are outputs, you don't directly control them. Some outputs you don't control at all. So spend exactly zero time worrying about them. What you do control are the inputs, the quality of your training, having the right, well-maintained equipment, properly pacing your race, mastering the mental aspects of racing. Practice the inputs every day and you'll see the outputs you want on race day.

2. Goal setting. Your first goal is to finish. Second, finish with a smile. For most age-groupers, that's it. Everything else is gravy. Note that "finish time" was on the list of outputs. Does this surprise you? You're the racer, don't you control this? You do, but not the way most inexperienced triathletes think they do. You control your pacing and nutrition, these two elements make up at least 80 percent of your day. Get either one wrong and things get sideways, likely irreparably so on race day. So DON'T SET A TIME GOAL even if you think you're going to Kona. This is an output. See item 1.

Instead, set process goals that will ride 92 cadence at 150 watts during the first hour of the bike and build gradually to 170 watts by the last hour. If you hit all of your process goals, you'll be happy with your overall time because it will be the best time you're capable of racing. The problem with a time goal is that all sorts of things happen on course that you have to work with and around. If you set an 11 hour goal and go 11:30 because the bike was slowed by wind, would you be disappointed that you missed your goal, or happy that you're an Ironman who adapted well to the conditions of the day? To answer that question, you'll look at your inputs, you hit your process goals, there's nothing to be unhappy about. You'll have raced your best race.

3. Get your nutrition and hydration right. Your race day nutrition plan will be individual to you so I won't be able to offer a formula here that will work for everyone. Make sure you discuss your plan with your coach well in advance of race day so you have plenty of time to practice during your long workouts. Why do you think you have those 6 hour rides on your plan? It's really not primarily about the physical training. Just about any ride over 4 hours is about the mental training along with race day logistics. Simulate race day on your long workout days and practice what, when, and how you'll eat and drink.

Can you eat in aero position? Do you crave (or tolerate) the same food during hour five that you did during hour one? Are you drinking enough? Can you use concentrated bottles? How will you get the calories you need?

Talk to your coach. If you go into race day thinking that you'll eat when you're hungry and drink when you're thirsty (or have some other non-plan), you've just thrown away six months of training. I guarantee you're going to have a bad day.

4. Practice transitions. Fast transitions are less critical at long course, but you should still have a plan. Read the athlete guide for your race and understand how transitions will work. For example, at Ironman you generally won't have your own transition area like you do at most other races. Practice your transitions the way they'll be on race day. Make yourself T1, T2, and special needs bags and practice with them in the weeks leading up to the race.

5. Wear what you will perform best in. Most athletes will wear a trisuit throughout the race, but you might consider a complete change into sport-specific clothing. I know this is not what you commonly see, but it only takes an extra minute or two in transition. I've raced both ways and though you don't necessarily look like a triathlon pro when you ride in a cycling kit and run in running clothes, there's a certain logic to it. It's hard to put a price on comfort. Obviously, this plan only works if there are changing tents (common at full-distance) at your race so be sure you know how transitions will be set up at your race.

6. Know the course. You definitely want to know ahead of time that there's a killer hill at mile 90 of the bike, or there's no shade during the first half of the run. At a minimum, read the athlete handbook or study the course on the race website. Check out the course in Google Earth.

If you can train on the course in the weeks and months leading up to the race, do it! If not, simulate your course as best you can. Should you drive the course in the days before the race? I think you should, but know that driving often takes longer than you think it should and some athletes fell like it makes the course seem daunting‚ especially the single-loop full-distance bike courses. Trust me‚ not as long on race day as it seems in the car.

7. Don't pay attention to that guy/gal at packet pickup. Check out Coach AJ's hilarious video about how to psych out the competition and then don't be this person. More importantly, don't pay any attention to this person. Don't let what you see or overhear change your confidence. Relax and enjoy the whole experience. You're ready for race day, nothing anyone else has done to prepare him or herself takes away from your race. There will always be someone who did a longer long run or nuttier swim set. Good for them (or maybe not). This has nothing to do with you, so be confident in your own training and your own race strategy.

8. Nothing new on race day. For the most part, this is definitely the way to go. Everything you do should be tested in training so you have confidence on race day. Eat what you've eaten in training, wear shoes that have been broken in, even wear the visor you always wear. For experienced long-course racers, you might try one new thing‚ something minor‚ adjust to fine-tune your strategy for future races.

9. Pace your race. No one cares who gets into T2 first. Maybe you've heard someone say they were having a great race until the run. This is almost always baloney. It means they swam and/or rode too hard, they just didn't know it until their race fell apart on the run. At full distance, if you go for it early, you'd better have the strength and endurance to handle it. The swim IS your warmup. Build into it gradually and don't worry about racing. You can't win any triathlon in the water. For almost everyone, swimming 5 minutes slower than your potential best time is the best strategy at full distance. Keep the entire swim comfortable and highly aerobic so you come out of the water ready to ride. Keep most of the ride in Z2 even though it may feel too easy, only pushing into Z3 later in the ride. Stay well clear of threshold unless you absolutely have to go there to get over a steep hill. If you ride with a power meter, know your goal IF and don't deviate. Ride with a smooth, consistent cadence and avoid bursts of power. Run the first 5-10 miles very easy‚ back in Z2. Don't try to build off your bike right away, especially at full-distance. Settle into a controlled pace and only pick it up when you're ready (according to your plan). Don't worry about who passes you early in the run. Stick to YOUR plan.

10. Champions adapt. We used this phrase all season with the 2014 collegiate national champion University of Colorado Triathlon Team. There will be ups and downs throughout your training and on race day. The best racers adapt to the challenges that are put before them. You need to be able to make assessments on the fly and change plans as circumstances dictate. If you make these inevitable adjustments within the limits of your skill and fitness, you'll be happy with your results. Know that it will never go exactly the way you plan. That's okay. Be prepared to have a great day regardless.

Bonus: Celebrate and say thanks! Long course racing is about the journey to race day as much as it is about race day itself. In many ways, race day is the reward more than the obstacle. Make sure that you celebrate every finish. Don't fall prey to what I call the Boulderization of triathlon: it's not JUST a half-Ironman, it's a half-Ironman, dagnabbit! In the days and weeks after the race, enjoy telling the story to your inquisitive and sometimes incredulous friends. If you didn't have the day you wanted, don't make a big deal of it with your admiring fans. (Learn, apply, and move forward.) Plan a special dinner with your family and biggest supporters. Remember that your training was a part-time job over many months. You probably spent most of this time away from family and most friends. Remember to say thanks.

Coach Dave Sheanin is an advocate for aligning triathletes with their race goals. He believes that becoming “triathlon literate” is key to meeting your goals. Triathlon is indeed a lifestyle and like the other important areas of your life, knowledge is power. He encourages you to explore the nuances of the sport, be open to new ideas and ask questions – of yourself, of fellow swimmers, cyclists and runners, and of your coach.  

Coach Dave is a USA Triathlon and Training Peaks Certified Coach.  Coach Dave was honored by USA Triathlon with the Community Impact Award.

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