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Successful strategies on race day for sprint distance

By Wesley Hobson, Michael Vickers, and Clark Campbell

The Race
You’re now warmed up and ready to race. Before the start, position yourself where you want to be within the heat. Remember that mass-start swims are a mad dash at best, especially in sprint races. If you’re a fast starter, get to the shortest point between you and the first course buoy. If you start a bit more conservatively, start at the sides or back. Save yourself a lot of grief by getting in the right area. Once you have assumed starting position, try to relax, give yourself a few words of encouragement, and get ready to hammer down.

The Swim
The gun firing can create a maddening scene: arms and legs fly everywhere, some athletes start in a dead sprint to get away from the pack, while other swimmers almost immediately go off course. Try to start the race with a calm mind and a race-ready body. The more you can disassociate from the pandemonium of the mass start, the better. Get into your race rhythm as quickly as possible. A sprint triathlon swim should feel like aerobic power (AP) high intensity. Keep your strokes long, avoid applying too much force to the water while pulling (attempting to overpower the water), and swing your arms comfortably. Let your stroke carry you. Sight breathe as conditions warrant, and swim in a straight line from turn buoy to turn buoy.

Breathing plays a major role in race-day success. It’s very easy to start hyperventilating at the start (especially if the water is cold), and taking in air feels like you’re sucking eggs. It is very important that you get your breathing relaxed and under control. If you experience the sucking eggs feeling, slow your breathing and focus on taking full breaths. Concentrate on exhaling completely through your mouth and nose while underwater. When you take a breath, let the air "fall" into your lungs - don’t force it or gasp for air. Feel like you’re breathing deep, from your belly, not your throat. Keeping your breathing in check significantly helps your stroke stay together and conserves precious energy.

As you near the end of the swim, slightly increase your kick tempo to help bring blood to your lower extremities. But don’t overkick and use more energy than needed. Also, visualize your bike location and mentally rehearse the first transition.

Transition #1
Once you complete the swim, make your way to the bike, swiftly but in control. Usually there’s some form of running between the water and the transition. If you used a wetsuit, begin to remove the top portion as you jog to the bike. Don’t make the mistake of sprinting full-bore from the swim to the bike. Your legs still don’t have their usual supply of blood and oxygen, and a hurried sprint to the bike will spike lactic acid production and leave you hurting later in the race. If you gradually increase your running tempo as you progress toward the bike, the run from the water to the bike can help your legs get ready to bike.

Once you arrive at your bike, remove your wetsuit (if used) and get your bike stuff on quickly. In a sprint, a swimsuit is all you need for the body - don’t even think about putting on shorts. Don your helmet and sunglasses (to keep debris out of your eyes while flying down the racecourse and to keep your face, and thus your body, relaxed). If you need to wear a race number during the bike, make sure you have that as well. Learn to put on your cycling shoes while they are attached to the pedals. It’s a simple trick to learn and makes your transitions much faster. Just pedal with your feet on top of your shoes until you reach a good cruising speed and then put your feet into your shoes while coasting for a short period of time. Secure your shoes with the Velcro strap. Practice this before race day. Make your transition as seamless and streamlined as possible.

The Bike
Some triathletes find biking after the swim challenging, mainly because of the lack of blood flow to the legs. It’s important to start the bike portion in a reasonable gear and allow for adjustment. But don’t waste too much time, as the bike portion will be over before you know it.

You should already be familiar with the racecourse. Save time by effectively cornering and climbing any hills in the optimal position for you. While in the flats, use the biggest gear you can while maintaining 80 to 100 rpm. Try not to under- or overgear, as both are a severe waste of time and energy.

The pace and tempo of a sprint bike leg should feel at AP high. In your aerobars, assume the most aerodynamic position possible, and stay in that position. Anytime you open up your chest and expose a large frontal area, you’ll slow down immensely or cause unnecessary energy expenditure. When you need to shift gears, do it quickly, smoothly, and accurately. Be familiar with the course - anticipate your gear changes or, better yet, completely rehearse them in advance.

Keep your breathing in check on the bike, just as you did during the swim. Exhale completely and fully. Inhalation should be natural and feel as if you’re breathing deeply, using your stomach muscles. Focusing on breathing helps maintain concentration and increases your body awareness of the effort you’re exerting. If you have a cylcocomputer, keep tabs on your mph or rpm; don’t let either get too low.

During a sprint, avoid aid stations on the bike, unless it’s impossible. One water bottle will be plenty. Getting a drink or a new bottle slows you down and takes you out of your rhythm. But be sure to drink along the way during the bike; hydrating will pay off later in the run, especially if the weather is warm.

As you near the end of the bike, gear down slightly and stretch your legs briefly. This will help you in the run. Let your heel drop below your pedal to stretch your lower leg, open your knees to stretch your groin, stand up and arch your back to stretch the lumbar region. Just as you did in the swim, visualize a perfect transition from bike to run.

Transition #2
Safety is a big concern now, as you have athletes flying off the bike course into the transition area. Slow down, and pay attention to race officials, who are looking out for your safety. Reckless behavior can lead to disqualification or injury. Any loss in time is negligible if you simply must slow down to play it safe.

Once you reach your transition area, rack your bike and quickly put on your running shoes. Some triathletes struggle with the switch in shoes, but elastic laces and quick-ties help a lot. Also, if you did brick intervals in training, this transition should be a snap. Take off your helmet, and be sure your race number is clearly visible. Now let’s get going and finish this!

The Run
The first few steps after the bike can be very awkward, but if you practiced bike-run transitions in training, you should be okay. One tendency sprint triathletes must avoid is taking out too fast on the run. After spending a good deal of time on the bike zipping down the road at 20 to 30 mph, running at 6- to 8-minute-mile pace seems really slow. This is due simply to the kinesthetic "feel" your body adopted while cycling - you became accustomed to what it’s like to move fast on the bike. To keep yourself from falling into this trap, pay attention to your stride length and frequency, and again, check your breathing. Keep your stride short and quick. Many triathletes overstride at the start of the run and waste precious energy. Starting too fast will come back to haunt you later. Feel like you’re building your tempo the first quarter to half mile.

Settle into a pace that again feels like AP high (a recurring theme during a race of this length). If there are corners to negotiate, be sure to run the shortest distance possible and pick up your pace in and out of them. Keep your effort even up hills, and aggressively attack downhill portions. If people are in front of you, go after them. As you get close to the finish line, start building your speed. Instead of sprinting the last 100 meters in world-record time, use that energy more evenly over the last 400 to 800 meters. Reserve a full, dead-on finishing kick for a potential victory (or for beating your training buddy).


This is an excerpt from Swim, Bike, Run.

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