By Nenad Rodic, posted 04/05


Unless you are competing in a draft-legal race (elites only), triathlon is not a sport of elaborate tactics, but this doesn’t mean there are no tactics. Let’s review a few important things to keep in mind when racing different distances so that you can more effectively gear your training toward the best tactics for you and the race you are preparing for.

This type of racing requires fairly intense effort 95-100+ % of anaerobic threshold, which is very hard to sustain psychologically. It is wise to know your competition, their strengths and weaknesses in relation to your own. It is very important to be realistic about your abilities. Devise your tactics in such manner that will allow you to utilize your strength and minimize your weakness. If you are a fast runner make sure to stay in contact on the bike without ever going anaerobic so you can run people down. If you’re a strong cyclist you would want to demoralize competition by flying by them while trying to maintain a sustainable pace that will give you enough lead over fast runners. There are so many ways you can set up your race tactics. It is best to consult your coach about this and come up with something that will work. It is prudent to try different things at smaller races so you know what to expect form certain moves when you come to the big one.

There is very little you can do in long distance racing if someone is faster than you. You should always concentrate on getting maximum out of your body when racing this type of race. It is very easy to misjudge your ability and go to hard. Try not to worry about other people and do your own thing. There is always time in long races. Especially pay attention to the swim, since it is at this portion that people go to hard. From personal experience, I can tell you that swimming hard never pays off. Every time I tried to go for the swim preme I had a horrible race. Find a good spot where draft is good and go very easy. Swimming wastes too much energy and can become anaerobic (create lactic acid) very quickly if you’re not careful. Use the technology on the bike. Trust your HRM or a power-meter and maintain the same heart rate and power output on the hills as on flats. Do not get over-geared. This could kill your legs and make your run a miserable experience. After you get off the bike don’t think much about how you feel. Allow yourself few miles to get into the running rhythm. Once this happens try to maintain that good, strong yet comfortable pace until it becomes uncomfortable. Then, maintain that very uncomfortable pace. Hopefully by then you’ll be less than an hour from the finish line. You may think about changing the pace only in the last 2-3 miles. Pick it up if there are people to pass ahead or ease up if there is no one close behind and you’re about to run down 7 % grade hill to the finish (like at Wildflower); save your legs.
Race tactics for triathlon need to be devised at the beginning of the season or a mezzo-cycle so you know what you’re training for. Have a realistic goal and train for it. Do as many test races as possible until you’re confident that you can achieve your goal in the final race.
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We talked about what you need to do in the hours prior to the race start. This chapter concerns only with nutrition after the gun goes off. Swim, unfortunately is the time when it isn’t possible to eat. From personal experience, I know that there’s always some water that gets down, mostly unintentionally. If the lake or a river is clean that of course is a good thing, but if you’re swimming in a polluted or seawater you want to refrain from any water intake during the swim. I’ve seen so many people throw up at Escape form Alcatraz triathlon because of dirty sea water they swallowed. Once you’re out and on the bike it is essential to get some water down, even if you’re not thirsty. Most swims are with wetsuits in the water that’s way too warm (over 60 F/ 15 C), and the swims without wetsuits are in the really warm water, so people get dehydrated. This is especially true for hot ocean swims like the one in Hawaii.

Generally, water should be your first priority at all times, then come minerals and lastly comes energy. Faster you go more water you will need per hour. The only sport that compares to triathlon in duration and intensity is cycling. Former five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault said that at the beginning of his pro career he used 2-4 water bottles for a 5-6 hour race. At the end of his career when he was at his peak he used 14-16 bottles for the same type of race. Similarly, a seasoned professional triathlete will use 2-3 750 ml water bottles per hour. You’ve noticed that I talked about water while most people use fluid replacement drinks like Gatorade. Reason is very simple. When you take fluid replacement drinks offered on the course you never know what you’re getting. They are supposed to isotonic solutions (7%) for easy absorption but they can be anywhere from 4-10 %. If the percentage is lower than 7 you’re are miscalculating the energy amounts you’re getting form a drink ( you're getting less than you think) and if it is higher you’re taking “unanswered” carbs. If you take too much carbohydrates and there is not enough water in your system you will not be able to digest them and they will sit in your stomach; infamous bloating. I recommend taking enough energy with you in form of food, gels or whatever you use and take pure water at every aid station. Just like oxygen consumption is a measure of exercise intensity so is the water consumption. If you drink a lot  (2-3) bottles per hour and you don’t need to pee you’re doing excellent and most likely going very fast. Do not worry about electrolytes (minerals) that you are not getting from the fluid replacement drink. Those things don’t have any anyway. Getting dehydrated is very dangerous. For some reason skeletal muscles will keep working longer than some internal organs (kidneys or small intestine). If you’re very low on water and keep going it is possible that you can loose these organs, so next time you are suffering in the sun and you think how tough you are think about this issue. Health is not worth a silly sport accomplishment. Do not attempt races that you are not ready for, and if things go wrong stop and heal your body before you continue or drop out before it’s too late.

Electrolytes, as the name suggests pass electrical impulses throughout the body. This is just one of many roles they play in our bodies, but perhaps the most important during racing. How to keep the levels high and avoid loss due to sweating? My recommendation on this issue would be to find a high electrolyte content drink that you like and stick with it. Issue of electrolytes is very important. I believe that low electrolytes are the most common reason for poor racing. One of the reasons why this is, I believe is fluid replacement drinks offered on the course. They do not have enough minerals to match the loss of electrolytes through sweating you’re experiencing during the race. Australian athletes like to make a Veggie mite sandwich (a very potent and salty yeast butter-like product). I drink tomato juice or ruby red during long distance racing. These products have ten times more minerals than Gatorade. Trust me when I tell you that you need them. Cramping, inability to sustain cadence and running tempo, lack of coordination, and low heart rate can be signs of low electrolyte levels in your system. I cannot explain how dangerous it is to let the electrolyte levels go down. Without them electrical activity in muscles will stop. The most important muscle we have is the heart and you definitely don’t want that one to stop. Another issue is the electrolyte imbalance. Many minerals have antagonistic relationship with others meaning that higher concentration of one will cause the fall in concentration of the other. Fluid replacement drinks almost exclusively contain sodium, completely disregarding body’s need for potassium and other minerals. I believe this has something to do with their cheap formulation and profit and quality not being the main goal of their manufacturers. If you’re going to rely on these products I recommend Cytomax. It is not that this product is just better than Gatorade or other Ades; it actually works while others don't help but make you feel even worse. Cytomax company went out their way to create a balanced formula in many different domains. They use maltodextrin and fructose only (Gatorade uses cheap high fructose corn syrup) for sustained energy, well-balanced mineral formula and lactic acid buffer (I am skeptical of the benefits of this, but it’s there) and certain amino acids for easy absorption (not complete proteins).

If you’re racing a short race this is not an issue. Energy you get form Cytomax or an energy gel or two should be enough to keep your glucose levels high. I an Olympic distance race you’re most likely to work at 800-1200 Cal per hour rate depending on your fitness. At this rate your glycogen reserves should be enough to get you through the race. Extra energy taken orally will not slow down the rate of muscle glycogen depletion but will keep the liver reserves up by keeping the blood glucose levels high. As long as you feel strong and alert you’re doing a good job keeping the glucose level up. If your attention starts to wonder or you start to feel weakness in your extremities it is likely that blood glucose is dangerously low and bonk is nearing. Always anticipate this state and take appropriate measures-have something to eat.

If you’re racing long distance race like ironman energy becomes just as important as water and minerals. Races that last over seven hours don’t have any effect on digestion, meaning that you can eat  and have time to digest anything you want. You should try to eat carbohydrate rich food with some protein added for transport purposes. If you took Cytomax Preformance or Metabolol before the race you can skip the protein all together since it’s likely that you have enough in your system already. Since ironman is just on that seven-hour line for a really fast people many of them eat liquid food only. If you’re slightly slower find what works best for you. Try to find an energy source that also has plenty of minerals and energy (bananas) so you kill two birds with one stone. If you’re racing a shorter race (4-6 hours), you may want to consider alternative energy sources like gels or Enervit (500 Cal diluted in 120 ml of water). Enervit has been a choice of pro cyclists for past several years and is the easiest way to get energy. It is as easy as drinking water unlike gels that need to be squeezed out and washed down with water. You do not need to be concerned about the insulin response to 500 Cal of monosaccharide since insulin secretion while racing at 1000 Cal/h will be much lower than if you were sitting on a couch watching Monday Night Football. Make sure you have enough water with it. I usually drink a 750 ml water bottle after every Enervit I take. How many you will take depends on how hard your racing. At pro level one enervit every 45-60 min is enough and on amateur level enervit per every 60-75 min would suffice. Finally, quality and convenience of enervit does not come cheap. It retails for five USD per container (500 Cal); which is still cheaper than most gels ($ 1.25/100 Cal=$ 6/500 Cal). When using such advanced and extreme product as enervit it is wise to try it in a long race pace training session so you know what you are dealing with before it surprises you on the race day.
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SUMARRY: Fulfill your water needs first, than electrolytes than energy. Without water nothing works; without electrolytes some things will still work but you’re risking a permanent damage to some of your systems, and without energy things just don’t work as well.


We talked about race tactics earlier on this page and mentioned how to implement them in your training and racing. However, a time may come during a race when things do not go as we planned. We've all been there. This can happen due to many things: improper training, high expectations, mistakes on the course, competition, biorhythms to name a few.
When this occurs, it is essential to stay calm and keep your focus. You came to race, and race the best you can, you shall. Getting angry or demoralized will not help. If you are in a short race try to correct the error (if there's one) gradually. By this I mean, do not change the pace dramatically so you can drink, eat or rest. There is not enough time for these things in a short race. If you are in a long race think about what the best approach to solving your problem may be. In an Ironman there's always time to correct the errors (unless you are one of those guys trying to catch Norman Stadler on the run during the 2004 Ironman edition). If you think you are going to fast, slow down. Sometimes, slowing down by one mile per hour which accounts for ten minute slower bike split can be the difference between running a decent marathon and walking for seven hours.

No matter what happens on the course, it is important to keep your focus on what you're doing. If you are present in the moment you will not get discouraged, dishearten or depressed. Only when you wonder away from the present and project yourself into something you're not at that moment negative thoughts creep in. While racing you are a triathlete, and that is a privilege not many people have. You should be joyous every second of the race. Racing and training can easily be the best part of your existence; the only moments when you can be really free. Don't blow it by allowing yourself to be trapped with silly outcome expectations. Triathlon is as much spiritual experience as it is physical and psychological. Allow that experience to happen and your racing will reach new level and get new meaning. For more on how to stay focused and positive refer to our psychology page.
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By Nenad Rodic, founder of