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by Erica Slaughter

June 30, 2020

Choose races that are the appropriate fit for your ability level

With pool closures and the remainder of 2020 triathlon races being canceled or uncertain, you have a choice: Resign yourself to sedentary pity, or use this age of quarantine to develop your next race season and start training now. Even if registration won’t be open for a while, you can still conduct research on the available races and consider what fits with your goals.

To have the most successful and satisfying race season, you must carefully select the competitions while neither over- nor underestimating your fitness level. If you’re principally a swimmer who wants to try doing triathlons, it’s a mistake to presume the aerobic fitness gained from swimming will be sufficient for you to endure the bike and run courses. You may be easily capable of swimming 1.2 miles in open water but find that your advantage runs out against the other triathletes as the race continues. As I’ve learned, technique only goes so far.

In my first season of doing triathlons, in 2006, I threw caution to the wind and embraced the thrill of entering the now-discontinued Ironman 70.3 Timberman in beautiful (and hilly) Laconia, N.H. Prior to the race, I’d successfully completed a few sprint triathlons and had been continuously training in all three disciplines for months.

The morning of Timberman, the race organizers almost canceled the swim because of stormy weather. The waters of Lake Winnipesaukee were churning and choppy. I cherished every second of it and came out in the first pack of my wave. Then, a mere 10 miles into the bike course, everyone was flying by me like I was standing still. One guy whizzed past me and shouted, “You must be a really good swimmer!”

Point taken. I managed 30 more miles and took the DNF because my legs were gone, and I wasn’t going to make the cutoff anyway.

Understanding and Avoiding the Bonk

What I experienced somewhere around mile 25 of the bike course in the Timberman Half is commonly known as the bonk, usually attributed to a misstep in the type and timing of nutritional supplements in an hours-long race. But it’s much more than that. Strategically consuming a whole case of energy product wasn’t going to get me to the finish line. I simply wasn’t ready for those bike and run distances.

There’s no gimmick that can supplant aerobic endurance built through many hours and miles of hard work devoted to each discipline. The fuel simply supplements the engine to withstand more intensity and longer duration.

When planning your race calendar, it’s important to take an honest assessment of your ability level and endurance specific to each discipline. How long can you maintain good technique at race pace individually in swimming, cycling, and running?

The science behind triathlon training and racing is fascinating because it’s necessary to factor in how much your experience and performance in one discipline can affect the others. It’s a game of addition and subtraction—you can’t estimate your total race time without considering the carryover factors of fatigue, limb soreness or weakness, oxygen deficit, and, last but not least, the psychosomatic processes over the course of the race.

Training for Confidence

One of the biggest mistakes beginner triathletes make is to simply train for the exact distance of each component. This is a shortsighted strategy—all that you accomplish is proficiency in each distance on its own.

For a triathlon of any distance, what you need most is to build your overall aerobic capacity (endurance). Then you can start training for endurance specific to each discipline. Aerobic adaptations you make in swimming will not necessarily translate to endurance on the bike or in the run.

Endurance is your foundation and building it beyond what you think you’ll need for a specific distance will help you face unexpected conditions. Your ability to respond to unfavorable weather, choppy water, or equipment failure will prepare you to overcome obstacles and stay in the race. Loss of confidence is a major reason for DNFs.

Choosing the Right Races

Once you feel comfortable choosing the right race distance, you should also plan for the environment in which the race will be held. Train for all potential obstacles and challenges so that you can have confidence that you can complete the race.

If I’d been wiser when I began doing sprint triathlons, I wouldn’t have skipped over Olympic-distance triathlons to try a half-Ironman. I was destined for that DNF and I never tried again. Stepwise progression is always best when devoting your time and energy to any athletic endeavor.

There’s also much to be gained from adding additional races that focus on only one discipline: Masters swim meets and open water swims, century bike races, and 10K and half-marathon running races. These activities will make you a better athlete who’s ready for any and all challenges ahead.

Don’t be discouraged by this temporary stall during this season—stay vigilant about your health and wellness and start planning for 2021.


  • Triathlon


  • Training
  • Triathletes
  • Triathlon