Mark Allen, six time Ironman Champion, answers the most common questions beginners have in getting into triathlons.
There are a handful of questions that most people just starting in the sport of triathlon have. The answers can make a big difference in both your performance and also your peace of mind. I'd like to give you my top six starter questions as well as my thoughts. So here we go!
What bike should I ride?
The first step in answering this question is to determine how much you are willing to spend. This is the biggest factor in what bike will be best for you. Knowing whether you are going to spend under $1,000, no more than $2,000 or the sky-is-the-limit will narrow your options down immediately.
After you have that, the main issue is going to be fit and comfort of ride. Most popular today for both comfort of ride and good power delivery from your foot to the pedals and onto the wheels is carbon fiber. Aluminum is slightly stiffer, which in theory gives a more responsive feel to the pedaling and handling, but the downside is that there is less shock absorption from the frame on a rough road. Steel is the original standby, but is often heavier than aluminum, carbon fiber, and titanium but the price is usually more palatable. So if you are going to attempt a longer race, think shock absorption. If your will only be doing short races, you might want to consider the tighter feel of steel or aluminum. And just so you know, I did my final Ironman on an aluminum frame, so even at it's "worst" aluminum will work for longer races.
Now comes fit. This is really the most important aspect of a bike. It has to fit your body. Some frames now come only in small, medium,or large just like your running shorts. However, these limited selections of frame sizes will not fit someone with either a very long torso or very long legs compared to their torso. It then becomes a matter of relying on your bike specialist to guide you into a frame that has the characteristics that will serve your goals in the price range that you can afford that will fit your body perfectly. Remember, the most expensive bike in the world won't work if it does not fit.
The final issue on bikes is whether or not to have a bike that has more of a classic road geometry or one that is more forward and triathlon oriented. The difference is going to be where your center of gravity is in relation to your bottom bracket. A road frame will put it farther back, while the triathlon frames move you forward under the justification that being more forward makes it easier to get into the aero bar position as well as saving your legs for the run after the bike ride is done.
In general, if you are flexible in your gluts, you want to go for a more relaxed position. This is where you will generate the most power. If you are older and stiffer in the gluts, you might consider the more forward option of a triathlon geometry because this is where a person with less flexibility is going to be able to generate their maximum power. Some bikes allow you to choose both, which allows you to test different positions and see what works best for you over time.
Should I buy a new bike even though I have one now?
The single best investment you can make with your cycling gear is a good set of wheels. The difference between a good set of wheels and a great set will be less expensive and more noticeable than the difference between a $1500 bike and one that is a thousand dollars more. Again in this category, rely on your bike expert to guide you based on your weight and race conditions. Go with aero rims and a minimum of spokes. However, do not under any circumstances sacrifice wheel integrity for speed. What this means is that if you are a Clydesdale, you will need a heavier rim and more spokes than a ballerina. Also, if you are going to be racing a very technical course then a deep-dish rim is going to be more difficult to corner with than one that has less of an aero component to it.
Do I need a wetsuit?
There is really only one decision to make on a wetsuit. And that is to find out if the swim you are going to be racing in will likely allow them. If so, then it is good to wear one. They increase buoyancy, which will make you faster in the water. If the water temp will likely be near the upper limit of what the USAT rules allow, you might want to go with a short sleeve. If the water is significantly cooler, then also consider the warmth factor and go with a long sleeve. If you got the big bucks, go for both so you are safe no matter what.
Do get in a pool a practice with it for four or five swims in the two weeks before your event to get used to the feel of the wetsuit. At first it can feel restricting both in your arm movement and your breathing. But with practice it will take on a nice rhythm of its own.
What should I eat race morning?
Think about the length of the race you have in front of you as well as the overall amount of time it will take you to go from your house or hotel to the race start and then until your actual swim begins. Now think back on what you would have eaten for a workout as long as your race, and when you would have eaten that meal prior to a similar length workout. Eat roughly the same amount of calories finishing your meal about 2 hours before your event. Then have a bottle with sports drinks with you as well as some sports bars and a bottle of water all to take with you to the start. This way you can keep topping off the tank until your race begins.
How much should I eat during the race?
If you are racing less than 1.5 hours, you will probably only need water. Anything over that length and you will do better if you take in calories. The amount is individual, but it should be roughly 250-500 calories per hour on the bike and slightly less than that on the run. It is always best to get the bulk of your calories in liquid form. A bar might have worked wonders in training, but when you are in the heat of competition it is very tough to swallow and digest solids. The amount you will need is going to be trial and error that you should attempt to discover during training. Keep a mental note of how many calories per hour you need in your longer workouts to feel good at the end of them and not ravenous. This is going to be the best estimate of what you can shoot for in your races.
How much should I train?
Basically what you are trying to do with your training is to get your body used to moving roughly the amount of time your race will take you. So if you have an Olympic distance race and it will take you about 4 hours to complete, then try to build up to having your longest training day be about 3.5-4.5 hours. You don't need to do a bunch of these, but one or two will make the race a much more enjoyable experience.
If your race is going to be an Ironman distance and you are looking at coming in just before midnight, you don't need to do a 17-hour training day, however. The upper limit that seems to do it for just about everyone is a training day that lasts roughly 7 hours total. This seems to build enough endurance in a person to handle all that will come in 17 hours of racing. And remember, the longer the race the more important it will be to keep your calories going in. All the training in the world won't hold up to a calorie deficit on race day.
There you go, a few answers to some of the most common questions we get at Mark Allen Online Coaching. I wish I had these answers when I first started out!