Want to power up your performance—without logging more miles? Race more efficiently with these expert tips.
Holly C. Corbett 1 / 13
When it comes to reaching your peak performance during a triathlon, having the proper gear and fit is just as important as the number of training miles you log. “Getting a professional bike fit and run stride analysis can increase your efficiency so much that it’s not uncommon for an Ironman triathlete to drop as many as 45 minutes off of his race time, while a guy doing a sprint tri could compete up to 12 minutes faster,” says Eric Prager, exercise physiologist, Level 2 USA Triathlon Coach, and a member of the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
Finding the best wetsuit for your unique physiology can take you from finishing last to being a real powerhouse in the water. “Many guys are winding down their races during the fall, so now is the time—rather than before a big race—to make adjustments to your training techniques and test out new gear,” says Prager. Try these expert no-sweat tips to slash your swim, bike, and run times without kicking your butt.
Swim Faster With a Wetsuit
“A wetsuit should make you go roughly 10 to 20 seconds faster per 100 meters,” says Jake McLaughlin, Aqua Sphere Triathlon Specialist. “Even the fastest swimmers will choose to wear a wetsuit given the option.” That’s because wetsuits improve buoyancy, and many are coated with slick silicone to help vastly decrease drag. Tip: Try cutting an inch or two off of the legs so you can peel it off more easily to get out of the transition area faster.
Find the proper wetsuit fit
“The number one thing to look for when searching for a swimming wetsuit is fit, and this requires trying a few on,” says McLaughlin. “The suit should fit you very tight—on the border of uncomfortable—because it will loosen up in the water. Selecting the proper size comes down it fitting like a super hero suit to increase your efficiency so you glide through the water–no extra material, no bunching.” Keep in mind that a swimming wetsuit will have varied thicknesses throughout. Most suits have a thick panel down the front (from the neck to the ankles) while the back is thinner. The Aqua Sphere Racer wetsuit blends a thick front panel, thin shoulders and sleeves, and a semi-thick back panel for an ideal balance of buoyancy and flexibility. ($499.95; Aquasphereswim.com)
“During a competition, wetsuits can help level out the playing field between proficient swimmers and beginners,” says Prager. “The cheaper the wetsuit, the less elastic the material, so you’ll feel more restricted and have less range of motion during your swim.”
There are four different price points for suits, starting around $200 and ending around $1000. “It’s definitely worth investing the money for a slightly more expensive wetsuit so it doesn't hinder your performance—especially if you’re a beginner," says Prager. "But if you really can’t spend a lot of money on a wetsuit, go sleeveless, so your arms aren’t as restricted by cheaper, less flexible material." The majority of swimming wetsuits use Yamamoto rubber or neoprene and label it with numbers such as 38, 39, 40, and 44 aero dome (this material looks like it has golf ball dimples in it). The higher the number, the better the buoyancy, as well as the softer and more flexible the material. Check out the sleeveless SL Pursuit wetsuit, which has an Aqua-Flex collar seal to keep water out and reduce drag. ($250; AquaSphereSwim.com)
Have peripheral vision
Vision becomes even more important in open water because there’s no black line to follow, as there is in a pool. The typical goggle has a flat lens that provides little to no peripheral vision, but you need that side vision during open water swims to help keep you on course and maneuver around obstacles such as other swimmers, says McLaughlin. Being able to see better is an easy way to improve your time during a race. Try the Kayenne goggles, which come with an anti-fog coating.
Improve your cycling technique
“You could improve your cycling time from half of a mile to one-and-a-half miles an hour with only an one-hour session with a professional on how to improve your biking technique, such as shifting more efficiently,” says Prager. Another way to shave time off of the cycling portion of your race is to get a professional bike fit. Optimizing your bike fit not only improves your performance, but also increases comfort while decreasing your odds of injury.
“To improve your pedaling power—as well as prevent injury and knee pain—you don’t want your saddle to be too low or too high,” says David Dow, kinesiologist and advanced bike fit specialist at Endurance Monster in Skaneateles, New York. “Ideally, your leg extension should be between 140 and 150 degrees. If you have too little leg extension, you’re not recruiting both your hamstrings and quads. If you have too much, you could cause injury from hyperextension.”
“I tend to see a lot of cyclists pedaling with their knees going out rather than straight forward, and that not only wastes energy, but the movement can put a lot of stress on the joint and cause overuse injury,” says Dow. “For more power and to prevent pain, you want your knee to be going straight up and down rather than in and out or sideways.” Getting a professional bike fit can help you determine if your knees are tracking correctly to help improve your pedaling efficiency.
“Improving your flexibility is key to improving your performance,” says Dow. “That’s because your leg extension won’t be as good if you’re inflexible. You’ll have to sit up higher on your seat, which means you’ll catch more wind and lower your time. Yoga is the best thing a triathlete can do to improve hip and hamstring flexibility, because it creates longer muscle fibers to help you fire through a bigger range of motion.” Try taking a restorative yoga class on your day off from training for better flexibility and to bust stress.
You should replace your running shoes every 500 miles or so for optimum performance. While having a cool-looking pair of sneakers may motivate you to run faster, it’s obviously far more important to find the proper fit. “There’s a whole process to finding the best shoe for your individual body to help balance out your foot and improve your stride,” says Prager. “About 93 percent of adults have some kind of pelvic misalignment, and that’s why it’s so important to get fit from a shoe shop where the salespeople specialize in understanding the body’s anatomy versus a big chain store.”
Know your technique
When you run, do you hit the ground heavy with your feet? Do you hit light? Are you injury prone? How many miles are you running a week? “All these things will determine the amount of arch support and cushioning you need,” says Prager. Also, consider your body type when choosing running shoes. “A tall guy with a big frame would probably want heavier shoes that offer more shock protection from impact, compared with a shorter, slighter guy who may perform better in a lightweight shoe that won’t weigh down his feet.”
“Buying a shoe based on how your foot pronates makes a big difference by balancing your foot out for maximum efficiency while helping to prevent injuries such as shin splints and knee pain,” says Prager.
The three types of pronation are neutral (your heel strikes first, your arch supports it, and then your step rolls through to your toes); over-pronating (your foot rolls inward and arch collapses down); and under-pronating (when you put all the weight on the outside of your foot). Overpronators will want to be fitted for a shoe that has extra support on the inside. Underpronators should look for a shoe with more cushioning on the outside to protect the foot bones that are taking most of the impact.
Track your performance
“There are many tools out there to help you maximize your training time. “Using a GPS watch lets you track your distance and pace more accurately while giving you more knowledge about your physiology to help you race more efficiently,” says Prager. Try using a GPS to help switch up your training runs by doing mile intervals to boost speed; or long, slow distance jogs to increase your endurance. We like the Timex Run Trainer, because it not only tracks distance and pace, but also shows extras such as elevation gain. ($189.95; Amazon.com)