A world champion’s 14 top tips for beginning triathletes
Three-time Xterra world champion and triathlon coach Melanie McQuaid offers some training tips for those getting into the sportPhoto by: Getty Images
The avalanche of information on triathlon training available on the internet is a gift and a curse. Sorting it for relevancy is a difficult task. This list of tips, organized into segments or aspects of racing triathlon, are the ones I wish I had been told when I started the sport so I would have known where to focus my efforts.
Hopefully, this list can save a new triathlete from some of the pitfalls beginners face, while also highlighting something a more experienced athlete might continually overlook. The best case scenario is this list offers great ideas on how to tackle preparation for 2021.
1) Invest in technical coaching early
If you are learning to swim as an adult, you will quickly realize that the effortless strokes you imagined for yourself are frustratingly elusive. The technical requirements of swimming are essential in order to propel yourself through water. Without some lessons, you may feel like your legs are magnetically drawn to the bottom of the pool. Invest in coaching for swimming early and you will enjoy your time in the pool a lot more.
2) Work on mobility
I have yet to work with an adult athlete looking for swim improvements who isn’t dealing with some sort of mobility restriction. Sometimes the shapes you want to adopt are out of reach because you have learned to work around that mobility restriction. Mobility is a key limiter for body position and fundamental technique requirements. Working on the range of motion in your shoulders, pelvic alignment and strength is fundamental for swim training. Start mobility work early in your training cycle, and be consistent.
3) Invest in good quality cycling clothing.
Starting with cycling-specific clothing is imperative. Cycling or tri shorts are key to feeling comfortable on your bike. If you have good clothing, and you are still uncomfortable see tip #2.
Bonus tip: You do not wear underwear underneath cycling clothing (unless trying it on).
4) Get a bike fit.
Part of a good bike fit is determining the right saddle for your body type. A bike fit should reflect where you are now, not the ideal position. An aggressively aerodynamic position is not going to make you faster if you can’t maintain that position for the entire distance. Start with a fit for your current flexibility and fitness, then slowly adapt it as you progress.
5) Ride as much as you can very easy.
Your progress in the sport is going to be dictated by the number of hours you ride. You will be able to ride more hours, more often, if you keep most of them at an easy and a conversational pace. Contrary to what many beginners think, riding medium hard is not going to make you faster than an equivalent length easy ride. If you go past an aerobic pace, you are training the wrong physiology. Ride a lot, and make most of it fairly easy. If you focus on simply doing this for the first one to two years, you will be further ahead than doing any variety of hard workouts would get you.
Bonus tip for Ironman athletes: Ride as much as you can, very easy, in an aerodynamic position.
6) Learn how to pedal efficiently at a variety of cadences.
There is a cadence that will be the most efficient for your fitness level on race day. Cadence on a bike is a neuromuscular skill. Other than race day, you need training that builds on an ability to do a variety of cadences. While you are riding easy, you can vary the cadence you are riding at.
Riding in a bigger gear teaches pedaling with more torque at low cadence. Shifting to an easier gear and riding at a higher cadence develops leg speed and efficiency at higher cadences. Most beginners are only efficient when pedaling at low cadence. Cycling power is a combination of force and speed. Developing leg speed allows access to higher power, so you will want to work on both force and leg speed in order to become a more powerful cyclist.
7) Wear a size of shoe larger than your dress shoes
You’ll save yourself a lot of pain and suffering by purchasing the right sized shoe. For running, you will want some space between the end of your toes and the end of the shoe. Get used to wearing a size 0.5 to 1.5 sizes larger than your dress shoes.
Different brands and shoes are different shapes. Don’t buy a shoe because you like the color. Certain shoes will fit your feet better than others. You’ll know that a shoe is right for you because it is immediately comfortable. Don’t count on being able to “break in” a shoe.
8) Easy is a feeling, not a pace.
In order to develop elasticity in your tendons and ligaments, which is key to running economy, you need to start with mileage. The physiological training of your muscles is important, just as it is for cycling (tip #3) but, added to that, is the impact stress of running. Your body is designed to absorb that impact, but you need to build the strength and “bounce” in your body’s natural spring mechanism. That comes from learning the next two tips with a good coach and incrementally increasing your run mileage at a pace your body can adapt to.
9) Watch your posture
Slouching all day results in slouchy running form, which does not allow you to load your “springs” correctly. Just as mobility is key to good swim technique, posture is key to good running technique. Spend some time looking at video of yourself running, see how you land, and look at your posture. Use this information when deciding which exercises to do in the weight room. See tip #5
10) The key is learning how to land, not where to land your foot
Your foot position before you hit the ground is more important than where initial contact is initiated. Stop trying to land on your midfoot, pointing your toes at the ground. This is the single worst, and most incorrect coaching advice, I see in runners of a variety of experience levels. Athletes pointing their toes at the ground are most likely to get injured.
11) Go to the gym
If you want to run consistently, you need to do supplemental exercises for foot strength, leg strength, hip strength and torso control. This is a non-negotiable requirement for any runner wanting to run any distance. Spend time working on your feet and ankles as well as the rest of your body.
12) Yes, professionals pee on their bikes.
Enough said about that. If you aren’t worried about seconds in an Ironman, you can afford to stop at a portaloo and avoid the nasty cleaning job that results from executing this time shaving strategy.
13) Focus on process, not outcome
World Champions and Olympic medalists dream of winning races, but execute winning performances by planning execution according to their best ability, not planning specifically to beat their competitors. Always focus your mindset on what brings out your best and you will consistently race to the best of your ability. You can’t control an outcome, only yourself, so learning to focus only on yourself right from the start is key to achieving your potential.
14) Don’t fall for fad diets
Every few years someone comes up to a ground-breaking new nutrition program that is guaranteed to help you lost fat, build muscle, look younger and feel like an Olympic decathlete. These diets have swung from all carbs no fat, to all fat no carbs. None of the fads have stood the test of time, or research.
Your nutrition should be sensible and balanced. Focus on proper aerobic training and balanced sensible nutrition if you want to become an efficient fat burner. Fasting from carbohydrates is particularly detrimental to hormone balance if you are a female. If you think you need to optimize your body composition, stop eating the unhealthy crap you think you deserve because you completed training. (That is harsh, but, in reality, we all know that is the true pitfall, if there is one, in our otherwise healthy diets).
Your ability to burn fat during aerobic exercise is primarily limited by the level of aerobic training you have performed. Athletes need carbohydrates to perform aerobic exercise. Eat sensibly from a variety of food sources and fuel your activity properly. If you need help, consult a registered dietician for advice, not any programs you find marketed on the internet.
This story originally appeared in the January, 2021 issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada. Melanie McQuaid is a three-time Xterra world champion who lives, trains and coaches in Victoria, B.C. Find out more about her coaching at melrad.com