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Easy upgrades for better triathlon training

October 18, 2016

Earlier, I wrote a blog about what equipment you might need for your first triathlon. I counselled a cautious approach in spending money when you are first getting started, and I recommended things that are low-cost and represent what I feel are good value-for-money, before you get into this (wonderful, fun, crazy, specialist, expensive, addictive) sport. Now, I am aiming this blog at people who might have done a few triathlons or have been training for a while, have found that they really do love the sport, and have decided they want to start looking at some ways to improve their training experience (and, perhaps, racing performance) with some simple upgrades.

 

Once again, I am counselling some frugality and intelligence in your spending. Some of the pointers I will provide here are echoes of what I said in the previous blog, because some bits of advice are applicable to everyone, at every stage of their experience curve, such as:

  • Spending money on equipment doesn't make you faster, stronger or fitter. Smart training makes you faster, stronger and fitter.

  • Sometimes spending money on support services, like expertly coached swimming lessons, training plans from a qualified and experienced coach, or consultation with a qualified and experienced nutritionist, will give you the best return for your money.

  • Whatever purchasing decisions you might make, make them with the aim of supporting your training, in the way that will work best for you. Investigate a little bit before you buy, and don't just hop on the latest bandwagon.

  • Trying on your wetsuit before you buy it, getting some help putting it on so that the material is gathered in all the right places, and making sure that it really fits you well, is the best way to start improving your training experience and racing performance in a wetsuit.

  • Getting a professional bike fit is probably the best way to start improving your training experience and racing performance on the bike.

  • Keep your bike in good working order, either by learning how to maintain it properly or by getting it maintained regularly. Things like keeping your tires inflated to the correct pressure; keeping your chain and drive-train clean, well-lubricated and running smoothly; keeping your brakes properly adjusted; and keeping your wheels true, will make your bike faster, more efficient and more pleasurable to ride.

  • Perhaps consider changing the tires on your bike to thicker, heavier treads for winter rides and then over to thinner, slicker treads for spring and summer rides or for races.

  • Being comfortable in your running shoes is probably the best way to start improving your training and racing on the run.

  • Trying out different  race-preparation strategies throughout the year will also help you to be more confident and race-ready, which will probably  make you faster on race day. For example, in the spring, you can try cycling and/or running without socks. You can also make sure that the gels or sports drinks or bars that you take in your training sessions are to your liking and will not upset your stomach on race day.

  • There are little, relatively inexpensive pieces of kit that you can get that will help you a lot on race day, making transitions smoother and easier (e.g. a race belt, a trisuit, elastic laces for your running shoes, etc).

 

I can argue all sides of all the technology pros and cons out there that claim to make you faster, fitter and stronger - and I have experienced most of them myself. The most convincing argument that can be made for you to consider buying something new is the argument that you think it will make you feel better about your training, and encourage you to train smarter and more consistently.

 

Below, I will provide some more recommendations for equipment purchases you might consider, as well as links to web sites that have descriptions and prices for these products. Let me make it clear that, unless I specifically recommend a product or a shop by name in my blog, the links I am providing here are in no way an endorsement of a specific product or a specific shop, and are just for the purpose of showing you the equipment I am talking about. In some cases, I am providing these links to help you find specialist equipment, or to avoid embarrassing mistakes (a Google search for "body glide lubricant," for example, will turn up some suggested links that do NOT take you to sporting goods stores...).

 

Swimming

Start by looking at your swimsuit. If it is billowy and doesn't fit close to your skin, it will create drag and slow you down. The same for your wetsuit, trisuit, or whatever you wear when swimming, Make sure it fits well, with no billowing, and you have put it on correctly.

 

When using a wetsuit, make sure to use some kind of vegetable-based lubricant, especially around the neck, to prevent chafing and discomfort. [DON'T use vaseline or baby oil, as they contain petrochemicals that will slowly rot the neoprene material of your wetsuit.] You can buy expensive lubricants that are sold in sports stores as wetsuit-specific lubricants, or you can use a vegetable oil that might just cost 1/10 the price.

 

Then, look at your goggles. If they do not fit your eyes well and they are always leaking and distracting you, then you need to find a pair that fit your face/eye sockets well. Try this the next time you look for goggles: see if you can press the goggles onto your eyes without using the straps. If the suction created by the goggles is really good and they stay on your face without the straps, then they fit you well. If they don't stay on and you will always need the straps to keep them in place, then they don't fit you well.

 

Swim caps also come in different varieties. The cheapest and most common ones are made from latex, which some people find catches their hair in an uncomfortable way, sometimes making it difficult to put on and take off those swim caps. The next grade up from there are swim caps made from silicone, which tend to be thicker and slicker, easier to put on and take off your head, more likely to insulate your head while swimming in cold conditions. After that, you have neoprene swim caps, usually intended for very cold swimming conditions in open water, and often having a chin strap to hold them in place.

 

And, then, there is the huge area of swim training accessories to consider. Before I get into this part of the discussion, let me pause to point out a few things about swimming that I have learned:

  • Swimming is the most technically complicated sport a human being can do.

  • Swimming benefits from lots and lots of smart, guided practice.

  • Swimming technique is complicated and is the subject of some disagreement amongst different swimming schools of thought.

  • I would suggest that good swimming is about 75% technique and about 25% fitness. So, when you are first getting started pursuing swimming as a serious discipline, you are likely to see your most dramatic improvements in swimming by improving your swimming technique first, getting it to a really good level, and then working on your swim-specific fitness.

  • You can't teach yourself to be a better swimmer.

When you swim, you really can't see much of what your body is doing, you can't even hear much of what your body is doing - you are pretty sensory-deprived. As opposed to, say, when you bike or run, you can look down at your legs, watch your shadow, or catch a reflection of yourself in a window or something, and you have some ability to check your technique when you bike or run. But, your ability to give yourself feedback is virtually non-existent when you are swimming.

 

At some point, you will need to get some expert instruction, ideally triathlon-specific, and check in every now and then with (ideally) that same expert instructor to get some objective feedback on your progress. A good swim coach or instructor will give you some sensory cues to help you gauge your own progress, as you go along. But, it is a simple truth that there is nothing so beneficial to your swimming technique as some expert swim coaching advice.

 

It's also quite frustrating for a lot of people (myself included) that a lot of people in the swim technique world can't seem to agree on the "received wisdom" of teaching swim technique. Because swimming is such a technically complicated sport, different coaches/instructors/schools will emphasize different starting points for you and different progressions through your swim training. It can be perplexing if one instructor tells you to focus first on your breathing, and then your friend who is a really good swimmer swears up and down that nothing in your swimming will be right until you sort out your leg kick. And, perhaps a different coach in your club's swim sessions might tell you something completely different about how important it is to focus on your hands or your shoulders or your hips or your knees. The problem is that they are all probably right! You probably do need to work on all of the things they tell you that you need to work on (it's not just you, everyone needs to work on pretty much everything, all the time, that's just how complicated a sport swimming is). But, it does make it really, really hard for you to know where to start and how to proceed without being totally overwhelmed in the early stages of learning to swim properly. That's why I would recommend that you find one good instructor/coach/school and stick with it for a while, so that you can at least get some consistency in your feedback and progression, build your confidence slowly and steadily, before you get too overwhelmed by all the different advice out there.

 

So, before you rush off and buy any of the following equipment, I would strongly urge you to go and get some expert instruction and then use the swim training accessories recommended by the people who are teaching you. Once you do that, then this following list will make a lot more sense.

Plus, most of these things are not very expensive and, used correctly, they really can help you improve your swimming:

  • Training fins. The purposes of fins are (a) to force your feet into the correct position for kicking (toes pointed, ankles supple, feet very slightly apart), (b) to give you more feedback on what your legs are doing while you're kicking (increased pressure, increased force, increased exertion means you feel it more), and (c) to provide more propulsion to maintain a good body position in the water for a lot of the drills you should be doing.
    Of course, be careful when you start using training fins, as they will put more strain on your legs, ankles and feet, and can even sometimes cause cramps. Another thing to be very mindful of is that you do NOT want to be splashing more when you use fins. They are not an excuse to be making more noise and turbulence, they should be encouraging you to kick smoother, with better technique.

  • Pull buoy. The purposes of a pull buoy are (a) to stop you from using your legs, so that you can focus more on other aspects of your swimming technique; and (b) to see what happens to your whole body position when you don't use your legs.
    So, when using a pull buoy, make sure you don't use your legs (I see a lot of people accidentally or sometimes intentionally kicking their legs when using a pull buoy and it is just sooooo wrong). One recommended approach is to hold the pull buoy between your knees or ankles to stop you from accidentally kicking, and keep your toes together.
    You will probably also benefit tremendously from engaging your core muscles more conscientiously when using a pull buoy, in order to achieve a straighter spine and more stability in your body position now that you don't have your legs to rely on for that.

  • Hand paddles. The purposes of hand paddles are (a) to enable you to focus more on your catch at the front of the stroke; (b) to give you more feedback on what your hands are doing under water, throughout the stroke pathway; and (c) to provide more propulsion for some of the slower, gentler drills that you should be doing to improve your catch.
    When using hand paddles, it is best to start with small ones, no bigger than the size of your own hand. Also, use as few straps as possible to hold your hands on the paddles - one strap, if possible - because you actually want to feel if and when the paddles pull away from your hands if you do something wrong.

 

Cycling

This is the most expensive part of triathlon and the list of things you can do, the equipment you can buy is virtually endless. So, let me try and summarize a little bit here, sort of working from the top down:

  • You can buy a whole new bike, maybe even multiple bikes.
    This is your most expensive option, but there are still ways you can aim to get good value-for-money, if you do take this route. Maybe you can ask around and see if any of your friends want to sell an old bike (you might be surprised at how many triathletes and cyclists own multiple bikes and often find themselves needing to clear out precious space in their flat by selling off one of them). If your friend takes the same size bike as you, and especially if that friend can help you understand the bike's unique features, let you try it out before buying, make sure it is fitted pretty well for you, then it might be a great way to find a bargain.

  • You can buy second-hand, but you probably need to know a LOT about bikes to make sure you get the right one for you (see my personal experience tales below of purchasing second-hand equipment).
    You can sometimes pick up end-of-season discounts from bike shops when they want to sell off last year's stock and make way for the new year's stock (usually before Christmas).
    But, before you go out and buy a whole new bike, I would recommend you think about some of the other following options first.

  • You could upgrade the frame of your bike to get something lighter, more aerodynamic or in a different profile.
    A whole new bike can cost thousands of pounds, but you might be able to get a new frame for much, much less. Of course, it will require that you have the tools, the skills and the time to disassemble your old bike and put the components on the new frame (or pay someone else to do that for you), which might make it more expensive and not actually save you any money, in the end...

  • You can upgrade the wheels on your bike.
    After the frame of the bike, the wheels are the next heaviest element of your bike. They are also very, very easy to swap over without requiring any tools, if the wheels have quick-release levers.
    A new wheelset can be VERY expensive, too, and they come with some caveats (e.g. does the diameter and thickness of the wheels match your frame, does the cassette on the rear wheel match your gearset, what types of tires do they take, and other important questions need to be asked). But, upgrading the wheels is where most people turn when they want to make a dramatic difference to their training and racing without buying a whole new bike.

  • You can upgrade other components on the bike.
    Instead of getting a whole aerodynamic TT bike, you can install clip-on aero handlebars on your bike. It may take some time to get used to riding in this new position with a totally different feel for how you steer the bike, and a totally different approach to braking and shifting gears. But, this is a popular option for a lot of triathletes.
    Sometimes changing the saddle or the handlebars on the bike can make a really positive difference to your training and racing, in terms of comfort and efficiency.
    Don't discount the importance of comfort when it comes to training and race performance. You could spend hours riding a super-light, aerodynamic, top-of-the-line bike that makes you feel sore and achy, perhaps even slightly out of control; or you can spend hours on a somewhat heavier, less aerodynamic bike that makes you feel comfortable and confident - which one do you think will make you stronger, fitter and faster?
    Sometimes changing the rear cassette or front chainrings (as long as they are still compatible with your shifters and derailleurs) can make a difference - either by giving you a wider range of gear ratios or a narrower one, depending on what you want to achieve.

  • You can upgrade your pedals.
    YOU DO NOT HAVE TO WEAR CYCLING SHOES WITH CLIPLESS PEDALS TO BE CONSIDERED A GOOD CYCLIST.
    If you currently ride on ordinary flat pedals, you can upgrade the pedals by adding toe clips, which do not require any special kind of cycling shoe. The advantages of toe clips are numerous - the relative low cost and ease of installation (they usually just screw into your existing pedals), the aforementioned lack of requiring special cycling shoes, the ability to ride around without placing your feet in the toe clips if you don't want to, and the ability to adjust the strap on the toe clip pretty quickly, are a few of the advantages. It takes a little bit of getting used to sliding your feet into the toe clips, but I would argue it is much easier than learning how to click and unclick from clipless pedals.
    And, then, if you get confident with toe clips and want to upgrade further, you can get those much-coveted cycling shoes and clipless pedals. The main benefits to them are that (a) they hold your feet to the pedals more efficiently than any other means, (b) they make people feel like "a proper cyclist," and (c) they provide excellent entertainment value for onlookers when you (inevitably, no matter how experienced you are, at least once a year) can't seem to unclip your feet from the pedals and fall over sideways in slow motion.

  • You can upgrade your clothing.
    I have to say, I see a LOT of "cycling fashion victims" out there these days, especially in the triathlon community. And, I myself have been called that, on several occasions, as well. So, let's just focus on functionality in this part of the discussion.
    Cycling shorts can make your ride more comfortable (padding in the seat) and bib shorts can, too (they have straps that come over the shoulders to stop the shorts from sliding down when you bend over on the bike for extended periods of time).
    Socks, cycling overshoes, gloves and caps can keep critical parts of your body warm in cold and inclement conditions (your hands, feet and head tend to be the most vulnerable parts of your body on cold days on the bike).
    High-tech fabrics like Gore-Tex can keep you warm in wet conditions. And, so can wool.
    A good set of lights and/or reflectors on the bike and on your clothing can keep you safe, ensuring that you see the road ahead of you and you are seen by other road users.
    Some helmets are made especially aerodynamic and space age looking, if you really want to part with more of your hard-earned money trying to look the part and go a teensy bit faster.

  • Cycling computers can be a relatively low cost option (you can start at about £30 for a decent little one that will measure some really useful information).
    You can also spend hundreds and hundreds of pounds on fancy cycling computers, too. I would recommend you start low and then work your way up...
    But, it can be very useful, and very motivating, to have something on the bike right in front of you that tells you how fast you are going, how many miles you have been going for, how fast you are pedaling, and other bits of training-related information.

  • Turbo trainer. This can be a handy piece of equipment if you find yourself struggling to get out on the bike in the colder, darker, wetter months of the year. It can also be a handy piece of equipment if you start wanting to improve your bike skills by doing some technical drills on the bike, or if you do interval training on the bike where you want to be able to control speeds and gears for specifically timed intervals. That sort of training can be very difficult to do on the open road.
    A turbo trainer also has the distinct advantage over, say, the stationary bikes at the gym in that a turbo trainer gets you training on your own bike. With most turbo trainers, you screw the skewers holding on your rear wheel into a mounting system that lifts up your rear wheel and allows you to spin against a flywheel that can sometimes have remotely controlled variable resistance. So, in other words, it turns your own bike into a stationary bike. And you get all the benefits of getting more and more used to sitting on your saddle, holding your own handlebars, shifting your own gears, and clicking into your own pedals.
    Turbo trainers have a wide range of costs and functions, starting at less than £100 and climbing up past £1,000. Probably best to talk to some friends who have turbo trainers, get some recommendations from them, maybe even see if you can borrow one for a couple of test rides, before deciding which one to buy for yourself.
    And, remember, when you cycle indoors, there will be no rush of air blasting over you and cool you down while you ride, so you are much more likely to create an enormous pool of sweat underneath you when you ride on a turbo trainer. Make sure to place a towel (or several towels) all around you to catch the sweat. Seriously, it's an important factor to bear in mind.

 

Running

 

After all that, from an equipment point of view, running is perhaps the simplest part of triathlon. There is not a lot that I can add here that wasn't already said in the previous post aimed at people just getting started in triathlon. In terms of running shoes, we have already discussed that the comfort of the fit of the shoe is probably the most important element. And, the clothing you are going to wear while running is probably going to be decided already, either quite triathlon-specific or cycling-oriented, when you are doing a race and coming off the bike straight onto the run. Other than that, you can run in anything that you feel comfortable in, and whatever keeps you warm and dry while you are running.

 

One piece of equipment I have used a lot in my training and I recommend to a lot of my clients is not strictly limited to running, but tends to be very running-centric: a heart rate monitor (or HRM).  This is a pretty big topic, and I will write a whole blog on just this one, so for now let me see if I can pick out some simpler bits of advice.

 

There are some pretty inexpensive heart rate monitors out there that have some useful features, including being GPS-enabled to give you reasonably accurate measurements of distance and speed, for as little as £60. I would say that the aspect of measuring distance, time and speed is actually the most useful set of features for you to start with. If you are planning on training according to heart rate, then I would strongly urge you to get some kind of a fitness test (like a VO2max test or a Lactate Threshold Test), Otherwise, the recommendations for your heart rate training zones are likely to be wildly inaccurate and, therefore, of little value.

 

 

  • Quite often, people train at the wrong intensity. This is something observed by coaches everywhere, by people much more experienced than me.

  • Heart rate monitors can be one (but certainly not the only) source of objective feedback telling you what sort of intensity you are actually training at.

  • This can be an incredibly useful tool for narrowing down your focus at different phases of training, and a very good way to get greater specific fitness gains.

  • Just remember, it's not the only way of measuring your training zones, and sometimes HRMs are prone to errors, so don't be too slavishly devoted to HR data when training and learn other means by which you can measure your training.

 

Some of My Own Equipment-Buying Experience

 

Some years ago, I had a decent, entry-level TT bike with a kind of aerodynamic frame, handlebars, etc, and after training and racing on this bike for two seasons, I wanted to do some upgrades to take me to another level. So, I got myself a pair of Zipp carbon fiber, aerodynamic wheels with deep rims, buying them second-hand on eBay for about £600. A new pair of Zipp carbon fibre, deep-rim wheels can cost around £1,200-1,600, so I thought I did very well. I was even delighted to see that they were "tubular" tires - the sort of old-fashioned kind where the tire has an inner tube sewn inside, which generally means your tires can be inflated to much higher pressures of 160-220 psi, and therefore can be thinner and lighter than the other kind of tires, known as "clinchers".

 

I was in love with my new wheels, they made my otherwise-quite-ordinary TT bike look more like a top-of-the-line speed machine, and they made me want to get out and ride more often. I loved the way those higher-pressure tires with lighter, stiffer, more aerodynamic wheels felt when I went riding, and I even loved the way they sounded when I had some smooth open road ahead of me. My riding was reinvigorated that winter and I was loving it. Double-plus-good, right?

 

Well, yes, right...until I got my first flat tire, which happened after about a month of riding in and around London and the nearby counties. That flat tire was such an insanely frustrating (it is very hard to pump your tires back up to 160-220 psi when you are out on the road, plus deep-rim racing wheels often require valve extenders be attached to your tires, that are sometimes way more delicate than they look), time-consuming (changing a tubular tire can be very, very difficult and require more finger strength than the Incredible Hulk has), and expensive headache (with a flat tubular tire, you change the whole tire, which can cost anything from  £30 to £120, rather than just changing the inner tube, which usually costs only about  £5). So was every flat tire I experienced after that. Within a few months of having these amazing wheels that started out making me look and feel like a super-fast speed demon, I dreaded taking them out on training rides, and went over every bump and pothole with a level of anxiety and discomfort normally reserved for tax audits and colonoscopies. And I eventually reverted back to my old aluminum racing wheels for most of my training rides, then did my races on the carbon wheels (and prayed, quite successfully, to the triathlon gods not to let me get a flat tire on race day).

 

So, if I only told you the first half of the story, this would have been an example of how spending a decent chunk of money on some flashy bike kit made me look and feel cooler on the bike, and made me want to get out and ride more often.  Which is like a win-win situation, right? I can tell you lots more stories like that, too. The new running shoes, the new cycling clothes, the new goggles, the new heart rate monitor, the new set of rollers, all kinds of equipment I have bought over the years that have motivated me to actually go and use them for more hours of happy training.

 

And, if I only told you the second half of the story, then it would have been a cautionary tale of how an improperly thought-through purchase of some fairly expensive, flashy bike kit ended up in a downward spiral of escalating costs and demotivation in my training. I can also tell you lots more stories like that, purchases I made that weren't as well thought-through as they could have been, or plagued with unforeseen problem: the full-suspension mountain bike, the triathlon-specific running shoes that were only available half a size too big for me and just gave me blisters, the top-of-the-line wetsuit that was on sale for 50% off and always let too much water in around my neck - and basically how I have sometimes ended up wasting money on attractive-looking equipment that did nothing to enhance or support or encourage my training.

 

Put the two halves of the story together and what you have is some really, really valuable experience - for me. It i sometimes an expensive learning curve to go through, and I have taken away some very positive and very negative things, which have helped me to make further purchasing decisions with a little more intelligence.

 

 

 

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