10 Truths of No-Bullshit Triathlon Training.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

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Triathlon is big business now. With profits to earn and gadgets to sell how do you cut through the marketing haze and decide what really gets you to the finish line?

There are 2,377 books about triathlon on Amazon.com. An online seminar, a Facebook page and- bam, anyone is a triathlon coach. Add triathlon forums, that guy with an M-Dot tattoo dispensing advice and the amount of bullshit heaped on new triathletes is harder to cut through than the swim pack at Lake Placid.

Here are 10 no-bullshit, hardcore, old-skool insights on triathlon training. No quick-starts, no “12 Weeks to Ironman” plans. They aren’t easy, they aren’t pretty, but they produce results. You may not like them, you may disagree with them, but history proves these are solid producers for getting better.

  1. Fire your coach.

You don’t need them and they’re probably not qualified. You can learn everything you need to know about swim stroke, bike handling skills and transitions faster and for free on YouTube. Mostly, you just need to train more. Your first year in the sport should be about building an aerobic base and slowly developing technique. As a wise old-timer once said, “Intervals are the icing on the cake, and you don’t have a cake yet.”

Triathlon coaching in the U.S. is a mostly B.S. affair. Anyone who passed a three-day clinic can call himself or herself a coach. By contrast, in Germany using the title “coach” requires a graduate degree in exercise physiology. While there are outstanding triathlon coaches in the United States there are many more who are not qualified to dispense training advice, especially to new athletes. The difficulty in knowing the difference between the few truly good coaches and the many truly bad ones combined with the basic goals of building an aerobic base while losing weight mean coaching can wait.

Take ownership of your knowledge of the sport. Learn basic exercise physiology. Learn technique. Do the reading. Be a student of the sport, not just a consumer of cookie-cutter coaching plans. And most of all, put in more time.

  1. Actually Learn How to Ride Your Bike.

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Get on the road. Yes, a car might hit you. You might fall. No, you will fall. There are two kinds of riders: the kind who have crashed and the kind who will. Sport has risk. The difference between a competitor and spectator is accepting- and managing- that risk, not just avoiding it.

Wear a current helmet adjusted properly. Find out the safest routes to ride from local road cyclists. Get out of the protected parks and onto roads that are appropriate for cycling. Ride in the real world. It is dangerous. But it is important to develop good bike handling skills and the ability to not panic when you are in a real-world riding environment. Your “A” race won’t be held on a spin bike at the health club. And, you may be interested to know the facts show that road cycling is safer now than in previous years.

  1. Take Responsibility for Basic Bike Maintenance.

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Can you fix a flat tire? Remove and replace your wheels? Put a bike in a flight case? Do you know your bike fit measurements? If not, learn those skills from YouTube. Don’t be the person who can’t change his or her own flat tire, didn’t carry a spare and has no clue how to remove and replace a rear wheel. Take responsibility. Be competent. Learn today. If you can’t name the components on your bike, start there.

  1. Your Bike Doesn’t Fit. 

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It doesn’t. I’ve been fitting triathletes on their bikes since before triathlon bikes were invented in 1987. I see good triathlon bike positions about once a month. I do about four bike fits a day. Very few triathletes I see are on a bike that is the right frame size for them, and even fewer are in the right position to remain comfortable and be efficient.

If you hear a bike fitter say, “We’re going make your position lower and more aggressive and get you more aero” don’t walk, run out of there. No one can guess at aerodynamics. No one can guess at what will make you “more aero”.

If you’ve heard an athlete say, “Triathlon bikes are less comfortable than road bikes” what they are really saying is; “My triathlon bike doesn’t fit me and I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Spending money on a bike that fits and is comfortable is one way you actually can buy speed, and it doesn’t have to be a $10K superbike. It just has to fit, and your bike likely doesn’t.

  1. Get in the F@#king Open Water. NOW!

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Scared of the open water? That’s fine, there’s still bowling and ballroom dancing.

Triathlon was born in the ocean, by people who were competent and comfortable in the ocean. Lifeguards, swimmers, surfers, watermen, Navy SEALs. Yup, there are sharks. They won’t hurt you. Well, probably not. There are waves. You’ll get seasick. The salt will burn your eyes. Deal with it. This is triathlon. We swim. In the ocean. With the big fish.

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If you are doing all of your swimming in a pool and expect to be immediately comfortable in an open water mass swim start- that is not a reasonable expectation. You will panic and be a danger to yourself and athletes around you. You will get kicked and shoved. When you freak out (and you will) it is your fault. You failed to prepare adequately. Get your swim anxiety under control before race day. Way before. Take responsibility for being competent in the unforgiving maritime environment. Your race will depend on it, and someday your life may too.

  1. Swim More. Way More.

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Good swimmers swim a lot. Three days a week might get you through the swim leg. It might. It also might not. There is an axiom in triathlon: get tired running, and you walk, get tired cycling, and you coast, get tired swimming, and you drown. The reason the swim is first is to improve your chances of living through it.

Talk to any good open water swimmer and their yardage and time is incredible. Five days a week. Six days a week. Two times a day. Swimming is no-impact (except on race day) so you can put in long training sessions regularly and not suffer overuse injuries. On race day you will not only be a safe, competent swimmer you may actually have a decent swim split. This one is easy: Swim more.

  1. Ditch the Superfluous Gadgets.

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If it takes you more time to learn how to use your GPS, power meter, training log website, “smart” indoor trainer, smart phone app, body fat calculating scale, swim gadgets and all the other crap available to triathletes, than you spend in a workout- get rid of them. And just train.

I’ve been in the triathlon industry since it started in the 1980’s. I am one of the guys responsible for selling this stuff to you. Much of it is useful. Some of it has made training more convenient and easier. I use two gadgets: A Garmin 920XT since it is easy to use and does what I need and a Wahoo KICKR smart trainer. That’s it. Only two. Both appliances tell me how far, how fast, how hard. That’s all I need.

Think about this: how much data do you really need? The sport is pretty basic: Speed, time, distance. Most fitness apps are so overloaded with features that cutting to the chase of how fast and how far takes scrolling, clicking and sifting through reams of superfluous “data” that is really just bullshit.

Remember, at the finish line only one metric counts: how fast you got there.

  1. Practice Transitions.

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You say you are just there to finish, but I have been doing this long enough to know that you are lying. If all you wanted to do was go the distance you wouldn’t have pinned on a number or paid an entry fee. It’s a race. Race it.

The best way to shave a few seconds (or minutes) quickly is to practice transitions at home. Set up a transition area in your driveway and let your neighbors laugh at you. You’ll get the last laugh on race day when you win your age category by the 15 seconds you just learned how to save in transition. That is free speed.

  1. Lose Weight.

You’re too fat. Don’t take offense, I am too. The fastest way to get faster is to be lighter. Nearly all of us could drop 10-30 pounds. Finishing a triathlon when you’re overweight is an impressive accomplishment, but it doesn’t give you a pass on being overweight. It is less healthy, harder on your body and your equipment and even more dangerous.

Take responsibility for your fitness. This isn’t about body shaming. It is about health, safety and performance.

Losing weight is basic: burn more calories than you take in every day. That’s it. Do that and you’ll lose weight. It is inherently simple. That doesn’t make it easy. It’s one more reason not everyone does this sport. If it were easy, everyone would.

  1. Just Train More.

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More is more. There are no shortcuts. Time and distance are ruthless, indiscriminate arbiters. On race day you learn that you either put in enough time or you didn’t. Almost everyone realizes they didn’t. There is no faking it.

We live in an iThing, instant gratification, One-Click world where almost everything we aspire to can be had quickly and easily. Not here, not in this sport. If you want to have a good race you have to earn it in the months and years before race day. There are no shortcuts. You either have the miles in your legs or you don’t.

Before race day, make sure you do. There is no bullshitting the miles or the clock into believing you do.

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17 comments
  1. h2ofeo2 said:

    Thank you! It’s what I’ve been saying for YEARS! (I started in this sport in 1982 after YEARS of running and cycling)-got the swim down before I ever entered a triathlon. Do it out of pure love and passion for all three sports-now you have reinforced my thoughts about changing my wordpress site encompassing some of these thoughts and practices. The marketing side of triathlon has gotten crazy and I try to stay away from it now although it’s difficult as I continue to love the competition. A conundrum for sure….particularly like the statement “fire your coach”! 🙂 Great article!

  2. Vicki said:

    Fine comments, but #1 is SO wrong. It should say….”FIND a good coach who understands your needs and desires and goals. Work closely with that coach and TRUST in him/her.”

    A triathlete’s mind must be cleared and properly directed by a good coach to correctly approach this sport. A GOOD coach teaches the triathlete to focus, step-by-step, in order to accomplish the other nine points you make. GOOD coaching enables the triathlete to grow in strength. A GOOD coach is there, also, to teach mental endurance when the going gets tough. The road is too rocky to reach, step, and pedal out alone.

    I know this to be true, because my son is a superb triathlete who is, also, a superb triathlete coach. He has worked with many triathletes who would not have accomplished their goals, had it not been for him. It is your prerogative to have your opinion, but you should reconsider #1 for the sake of all triathletes who believe your written advice. My guess is that when you read of a fine athlete, there has been or is a fine coach working all the way with that athlete.

    • I agree with you.. I have tried it both ways and have made much, much more progress with a coach who has taken the time to plan for me based on my skills and goals. There is a lot of information out on the internet. Tons including training plans and workouts, but what a good coach does its put it together in a way that allows you to improve fitness without getting injured. My run time alone made more progress in the first year I had a coach than in the two years prior to that doing it on my own and I ran fewer miles on average each week. Not all coaches are alike. I have had two good ones who have improved my fitness. I really like all other parts of this blog, but do not agree with #1.

      • Vicki said:

        Thank you, Jay. Your first-hand perspective is well expressed..

  3. Sarah DP said:

    Thanks for the nice read. So true about the distance and time with no shortcuts allowed. And the bit about the swim–so right about open water training helping to minimize fear and potentially life saving skill. Had to laugh about the tracking/tech gear as I have scaled back because I was becoming a slave to the most mundane data. Ding ding ding…I’m one who needs to gear up on my bike mechanics 😉 Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Steve said:

    Great stuff!!

  5. DPS said:

    Totally true. Way too many weekend coaches out there, far too many gadgets, & not enough people just swimming, biking & running.

  6. David said:

    I don’t even Tri, but for some reason I’m reading this.

  7. Scott Hacking said:

    Excellent blog– sure it is harsh, but it had to be said. Music to a lot of ears…

    • h2ofeo2 said:

      Funny when I have said those things to people, either in person or on various means of social media I have been called every name in the book…and I wasn’t as straight-forward as Tom here. Maybe it has something to do with trying to communicate with females, and being a female who has been in the sport for over 30 years-well, I have been called a “bully” and much worse. Women are more cruel than guys- far more. But they come across as “super-supportive” and “I can walk you through this” when basically they are saying “pay me and I will give you a generic training plan I got off the internet”. Hey, thanks for listening! This post was so good I RE-POSTED it on my site!

  8. B. Harvey said:

    Tom, always appreciated your no bullshit approach.
    In the Peacefull Tribe we are more the same than we are different

  9. Raul said:

    Thank you for this article, it’s eased my mind. I don’t need all that stuff

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