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Stepping up
Posted by: Bill Black
Posted on: Monday 26th May 2008


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As triathletes we often reach crossroads in our careers. One crossroad for many triathletes who race over the standard distance is whether to a) try and qualify for the Age Group Championships or b) to increase the distance to the half-ironman or 70.3 races. Whichever of these two challenges you decide to accept, there will be implications for your goals, training and races for the season.


Respect the past

It is only from our past experiences (both good and bad) that we tend to learn more about ourselves: our strengths, weaknesses, abilities and potential. It may have been a few years ago when you first accepted the challenge of triathlon. It might have started with a ‘super sprint’, a sprint or even a standard distance race. Again, it might have been as part of a relay team. However, over the years you have gained valuable knowledge on many race courses and in varied weather conditions. You will know what it is like to swim in pools, rivers, lakes and the sea; what you are like on a flat bike course or a hilly route; and how to balance your energy systems from the swim through bike and onto the run.

The key to your successful training regime is how you have managed to fit it into your lifestyle with family, friends and work commitments. You will know how many hours you can dedicate to training, plus the financial implications of race fees, travel and accommodation. Not to mention the equipment you have bought over the years to make you go quicker! You may have found a good, qualified coach to help you achieve those original aims and goals, or have joined the local triathlon club. All this information that you have gathered will point to what works and what does not work for you. Hopefully, you will have it written down in your training diary…

Question the present

Now that you have this sound base of valuable knowledge to work from you can make that decision on whether to go for a World Championships slot or step up the distance. So, where do you start?

It might be worth looking at the approximate race percentages in both the standard and half-ironman distances:

StandardSwim1.5 k ~ 18%Bike 40k ~ 50%Run 10k ~32%
Half-ironmanSwim 1.9k ~ 11%Bike 90k ~ 56%Run 21k ~ 33%

It can be seen from the figures that if swimming is one of your strengths then the standard distance race is better for you. It is likely that those who are not good at swimming will opt for the half-ironman as the swim plays less of a part in the whole event. There are also differences in the importance of the bike section and a stronger biker may also opt for the longer race. There is little difference in the percentages for the run.

Depending on your strengths and weaknesses, if you have speed and generally finish in or near the top 5-10% of your age-group, you might decide to try for the Worlds. Overall you will need to increase the quality of your training as well as the speed in all three disciplines, plus not forgetting T1 and T2. Work on your weaknesses as there will be more to gain here and try and be balanced in all areas across the board and not reliant on just one or two elements.

Remember, should you qualify that is only the start (although it might be your main goal to qualify) – but you will be racing the very best in your age group from all over the world and they have got to be good to get there as well.

Create the future

To make these changes in training you might need to review your schedule and train alongside others who are better than you in each of the disciplines. For example, you could join the local swimming club and swim with a Masters group and take in some coached sessions. Here you may not be the ‘big fish’ you were in your tri club – but just remind yourself every now and again that most of these swimmers in the club probably cannot bike or run as fast as you. So, use them as a training aid!

If you have plenty of endurance, like Forest Gump, and can go on for ever and ever then the longer the better; maybe the half -ironman is a better choice for you. Whatever your decision, here are a few pointers worth thinking about.

Going for the gold

For age-group World Championships racing you will need to analyse your previous seasons results and see where you where placed (and what the time differences were) in each segment for the top ten in your category. This will give you an idea of how much work will be needed to gain qualification in each of the areas named above.

There are usually two to four qualification races spread over the season; early, mid and late on. These will be on a variety of courses around the country and you will need to choose one to peak for. Select a course which plays into your strengths. Remember, some athletes seem to race well at the beginning of the season while some are better towards the middle and end of the season. Which sort of triathlete are you? You will also have to consider the courses on offer at these various times of the year and hope that it fits into your racing season and training plans. If you are better at the start of the season – and don’t manage to qualify – you will still have other chances throughout the season. If you qualify then the pressure is off and you can enjoy the rest of the season, using your race schedule to practice certain aspects as part of your training for the World Championships.

Again, if you take time during your season to come to a peak you can still try the early races and use these as part of your training for your big one later on. You will also gain knowledge of your opponents, those who will be fighting you for a place in selection. There could be a chance that you might be lucky and have a cracking race and qualify – purely because you are relaxed and under no pressure. And always remember that once you are on the list others may drop out before the big day leaving you the chance to take their place.

Going the distance

Well then, Forest; you have decided to up the race distance and probably decrease the race pace a little. Not only that, you may actually have to increase your training time. It is possible to train on an standard distance schedule as the swim is only a few hundred metres more than the standard swim distance and if your swim sessions are around 3k then that will be fine. For the bike, again if your long bike ride at the weekends goes over three hours then this would not need to change – although I would suggest it goes up to four hours (maximum) if that is possible. Your long run, again if around 90 minutes, would not need to change much – say to a maximum of two hours.

The most important move up to the new race distance is the fifth discipline (we already know that transitions are the fourth) and this is the one by which you will either live or die – Nutrition and Hydration.

Yes, I know you had the odd sip on the bike and run when racing standard distances when you were out for two to three hours but you are going to be out nearly double that time; and that requires more fuel. If you can get this right then you will race well – get it wrong and you will never want to race the longer distance again!

Many triathletes I have coached still mix and match both World Championship qualifiers and half-ironman and middle distance races in their season. The majority have raced standard and saved their first ‘half’ to the end of their season and used it as a climax; say racing the Vitruvian in early September or the New Forest at the end of September. Very much like those who aim to qualify for the Worlds are happy to simply make the team while others are aiming for a podium finish.

In the half-ironman I think most just aim to complete their first and then, if it has proved a successful and enjoyable experience, come back next year and try to improve their times and position. And they will probably race more longer distance races in their next season.


In the next part of this article I will be looking at how a couple of athletes that I have worked with made the step up and sharing some of their training sessions with you. Until then, happy racing.


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