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August 19th, 2011 / Sean Willson

Triathlon Training Suggestions And Lessons Learned

Packing For My Half Ironman Fills The Dining TableDuring my Half Ironman and Sprint Triathlon training I’ve learned a few things and made a few mistakes. I thought it’d be helpful to others if they’re thinking about training or perhaps have hit a roadblock. I know I’m far from an expert, I’m more of an average joe so forgive me if these are to basic for you hardcore types out there. Everyone has to start somewhere!

Checklists Are Your Friend

Because of the nature of triathlons being 3 sports in 1 you have 3 times the gear to keep track of. I don’t know if you’re like me but I’ll invariably forget something unless I write it down. Because of this I started collecting triathlon related must haves and don’t forgets into a checklist that I now go over before each race.

I can honestly tell you that I haven’t forgotten anything for any of my rides or triathlons because I regularly use these checklists. Since I don’t plan on stopping the use of them I also can’t tell you that they don’t work either. So I guess I’m strongly suggesting that you use a checklist (even if you’re repulsed by them) or the outcome could be bad if you leave behind something important.

Here are a few of the checklists I’ve recently used:

Be Self Sufficient

On the bike leg of most races there are support vehicles that’ll help you when you’re in need. They could take quite a while to get to you but they should arrive … eventually. If you’re the kind of person that likes to watch the minutes passing hoping for their arrival then go ahead and ignore this suggestion. If however you want to get back to competing in the race then I suggest you plan on being self sufficient. So what does this mean?

For the bike leg it means learning how to change your flat tire and practicing it a few times. It means coming prepared with a tire removal kit, a spare tube, and a pump. It also might mean knowing how to put your chain on or repair a broken link. I’m not talking major bicycle surgery here folks, I’m talking simple repairs that anyone can do. Check out Park Tool Repair Help, Bicycle Tutor, or Sheldon Browns how-to articles on simple bicycle repair. A few tools in a bag under your seat can go a long way during a race.

It might also mean not depending on the race organizers to fuel you during the event. Bring your own food and drink instead of hoping they’ll provide you the right mixtures of food that’ll settle and fuel you efficiently. If you’re doing an Ironman and you know 100% that they’ll have what you need then that’s great but does that mean you shouldn’t bring anything? I’d argue no it doesn’t. Never put your fate in someone else’s hands unless you’re 100% certain of the outcome or your trust is really strong.

For all of my races I brought all of my food the morning of and enough food to fuel me during the race. Did that mean that I didn’t partake in the on course food & drink? No, I took a few Gu’s and drank some Gatorade but I wasn’t forced to out of necessity, it was a choice.

Leave It All Out There

You can probably say this about any sport that you’re taking the time to compete in but for me it’s especially true with triathlons. With 3 disciplines in 1 this means 3 times as much regret if you don’t give each discipline 100% while you’re doing it … leave it all out there. Finding that balance between overexertion and maximum sustainable effort will be hard at first but through practice and focused training you should be able to find that balance. If you hold back too much you’ll be kicking yourself later.

Know Your Limits

This goes hand in hand with the previous suggestion, you need to know your physical limits. Whether we’re talking about how heat or cold impacts your sustainable effort or not overexerting you need to understand and know your limits.

For me part of knowing my limits has been being aware of where my Heart Rate (HR) is at all times. Using a Heart Rate Monitor (HRM) like the Garmin FR60 and knowing a little about Heart Rate Zones can help you to understand where your heart rate should be during different levels of activity. Training in Zone 2 vs Zone 4 can have different effects on endurance and short term performance.

Every person has different training zones based upon their age and overall fitness levels. Once you find yours then you’ll be able to tailor your workouts to hit different long term goals in your triathlons or other sporting event.

Train In All Conditions

What’s it like running in the rain? Cycling? What about running in 100° heat? 40°? Swimming in waves? Until you’ve tried training in all conditions you’ll never really know how your body will react. Invariably, on race day you’ll encounter a unknown environment and unless you’ve covered your bases you’ll be caught off guard.

I’d suggest taking note of how the weather effects your training zones (see previous suggestion). You might find that your pace increases dramatically in cold weather (up to a point) and decreases just as dramatically in warm weather. Knowing where these HR limits are in different weather will help you to leave it all out there with no regrets and not overdo it on race day.

Next time you think it’s too cold to run or raining too hard to ride maybe you should rethink your decision and train to learn instead.

Fuel For Success

I’m sure you’ve read a million posts about bonking while running or during some type of physical activity. It seems like everyone has a tale to tell about not having enough gas in the tank to continue or give it any more.

I’ve had this issue in my training but during my races I’ve been extremely sensitive to making sure I’m eating and drinking regularly. For the swim (when I had one) I’d eat immediately afterwards. For the bike I’d use my bike computers lap alert (every 5 miles) to remind me to eat & drink something small. During running I’d use my Garmin HRM lap alerts (every mile ~ 9 minutes) to drink and/or eat.

I don’t care what tools you use, low or high tech, to remember to fuel … just make sure it happens. Fueling your body may not guarantee you’ll win but not fueling will guarantee you won’t.

Say Hello & Smile

Sporting events like triathlons and runs are always more enjoyable when you have a good time. Sometimes that means being in your own head and focusing on the effort and sometimes that means saying hello to people and cheering each other on.

I know this bit of advice isn’t for everyone but I’ll tell you this, for me it’s always more enjoyable to see a smile and hear a hello than see a grimace and a stare. I don’t care if your flying by me at 25+ mph on the bike or running past me on a trail. That small gesture of comradeship might just help me out of my slump and might also help you pass the next mile a bit faster.

I’m not telling you to go out there and talk someone’s ear off unless you’re into that and you know they are as well. I’m just saying that it’ll help pass the time during those 56 mile bike rides and 13.1 runs to have a half dozen conversations with your fellow participants. You never know what fun and interesting new people you might meet :)

You Can Do More Than You Think

You may think that you can’t swim 750 meters but you can! You may think that you can’t cycle 20 kilometers but you can! You may think you can’t run 13.1 mile but you can! Trust me … as someone who used to be 450 pounds and found it hard to climb a flight of stairs without breathing hard, I thought everything was impossible … I was wrong!

With the right training, a positive mental attitude, and determination you can do anything you put your mind to. I don’t care if you just finished your first 5k or 10k, you can signup for a Half Ironman, I did. Last October after running the Great Turtle Run and having never attempted a triathlon I signed up for Ironman Steelhead.

Why? I was inspired by a YouTube video from Ben Does Life, it gave me an itch and inspired me to Do Life so I just signed up. It was that simple, once I asked the wife if it was cool that is 😉

So whether you’re out on a run and wonder if you can make it another mile or if you’re contemplating your first Sprint Triathlon, trust me when I tell you think, you can do it … you can do more than you think!


Those are a few suggestions for training and preparation along with a few lessons I’ve learned over the past year or so. I don’t think any of them are revolutionary but they were fundamental to my training and success.

I’d love to hear your lessons or suggestions for training for triathlons, running, or anything related if you have any.

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  1. Jeannie / Aug 19 2011

    Definitely some good tips! Triathlon or any sport is an ongoing learning process. Thanks for sharing. :)
    Jeannie´s last blog post ..Tapering Requires a Change in Routine

  2. Kevin Neumann / Aug 20 2011

    Be Self Sufficient
    -Absolutely 100% agree. SAG is there for emergencies only. If you get a single flat or have a minor issue, you need to be prepared. I talked to a guy before a race who rented tubular disc wheels but had never changed a tubular tire. I would not be comfortable at all riding a bike with something I had no idea how to do.

    Leave It All Out There
    -Go until you puke. When you puke it means you have pushed your body to the limit and then went a little further. That, or you ate spoiled eggs before the race 😉

    Know Your Limits
    -I have a love/hate relationship with my HRM. I know I should use it more, but I always forget.

    Train In All Condition
    -Love this. I did a post a while back about how you can’t pick the weather on race day so why pick it on a training day.

    Fuel for Success
    -Learned this the hard way after my first half IM. I almost think everyone has to bonk at least once to learn the importance of proper nutrition though.

    Say Hello & Smile
    -If you aren’t having a good time, then what’s the point?

    You Can Do More Than You Think
    -That Ben Does Life video is amazing! I saw it last year and it brought tears to my eyes. Nothing is impossible!
    Kevin Neumann´s last blog post ..How?

    • Sean Willson / Aug 28 2011

      Stellar comment man … I always love seeing other triathletes perspective on races and training advice. Keep up the awesome blogging, you’re going to do amazing at IMWI :)

  3. barak / Aug 24 2011

    To Know Your Limits Its the most importent and fundamental part. Without it guys can physicaly hurt themself. thank you for mention this issue in your post.
    barak´s last blog post ..How to cope with your dog’s death?

    • Sean Willson / Aug 28 2011

      I’ve certainly tried to always be aware of my limits while at the same time making sure I’m not mentally talking myself out of pushing harder because of what I used to be (heavy). It’s a challenge but because I’m always a bit worried about hurting myself I think it helps.

  4. Jo / Aug 26 2011

    I totally agree with what you wrote, as everything can be applied to other life situations as well. Checklists are always a good thing if you don’t want to forget something important, and same for bringing your own food. And of course the most important is to Believe that you can do more then you think. Thank you for your post.
    Jo´s last blog post ..The advantages and disadvantages of "LED Grow Lights"

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