During my days of high school athletics, my coaches—field-hockey, basketball, softball, track and field—always encouraged our team to watch more experienced athletes play our sport. Whether it was going to a Syracuse University women’s basketball game or viewing the WNBA finals on TV, we could learn a lot about the game by studying what others do. I’ve always been a sports junkie—most likely the cause of my unrelenting Olympic fever—so it wasn’t too out of character when I watched both the women’s and men’s Olympic triathlons live. (Why yes, I did wake up at 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. to see both in real-time.) By observing the pros and listening to the NBC commentators, I learned a lot about the swim-bike-run endurance test. A lot of these takeaways are little things that might seem like no-brainers to veterans, but it’s good to review the basics.
1. If at all possible, draft off other swimmers. Staying in their wake serves two purposes: First, you don’t have to exert as much energy because you experience less drag and coast in their wake; two, if you’re following another swimmer, you don’t need to sight—you just follow them and the bubbles they make—which helps you conserve energy.
2. Roll onto your back when circling buoys. Switching to the backstroke gives you a quick breather, and it also lets you survey the field; you can easily see your lead and how many triathletes remain behind you. Based on this information, you can adjust your pace.
3. As you near the swim exit, begin to kick harder. This breaks up lactic acid and preps your legs for the jog to transition.
4. It’s important to spend as little time in transition as possible, but don’t sacrifice efficiency for quickness. During the men’s triathlon, Great Britain’s Jonathan Brownlee was slammed with a 15 second penalty for an illegal transition. Sure, he went on to take the bronze medal, but he might’ve had a shot at first or second place if he waited to mount his bike. Likewise, Team USA’s Hunter Kemper had a good swim and bike, but he stumbled through T2, which he said affected his run.
5. Although we non-Olympians aren’t allowed to draft while riding, you do want to stay close to other cyclists. Having another rider nearby helps in terms of pacing; at the very least, you can play a continuous cat-and-mouse game where you take turns passing one another.
6. If it’s raining, avoid the painted lines on roads. There were a ton of crashes during the women’s triathlon, most of which occurred because of slippery road conditions.
7. Make sure you hydrate and take nutrition (if necessary). Not only is it easier to do so on the bike, but it also gives your body time to absorb the calories, so they’ll kick in during the run.
8. If you’re pacing off other cyclists, make your final move to the front as you near transition. This ensures you’ll have a clear path to your area and won’t have to maneuver around others. Also, increase your cadence, which gets your legs ready to run. If you can, stretch out a bit, too.
9. Just like drafting while swimming, try running with a pack. Maintaining contact with other triathletes will make this final leg easier; the last thing you want to do is complete the run in “no-man’s” land.
10. Keep your composure. Loops/out-and-back runs constitute most courses, which gives you an opportunity to see the competition. Look at it this way: If you maintain a straight face, other triathletes can’t guess your emotions or assess your pain threshold. However, if a competitor sees you grimacing, they’ll know you’re on the ropes and might surge to catch you; likewise, if you see someone who’s looking worn out, you should push yourself to pass them.
11. Leave it all on the course. Nicola Spirig of Switzerland and Lisa Norden of Sweden sprinted to the end in a dramatic photo finish.
What have you learned from watching triathletes compete?