The Triathlon Race Simulation SessionDonovan van Gelder
These sessions are some of the most fun we have in training. They are where we get all the fast equipment out and try to simulate our goal race’s conditions and course. They are like mini races but without any pressure. A race simulation session is planned to test and to learn. We want to gauge the efficacy of our training up until that point and test the specificity of our preparation. So not only have we improved and are we on track to achieve our goals, but also, is that track aiming in the correct direction? Many races are quite generic, where the courses and conditions are very similar to many others. However, there are some that have quite unique aspects and these we should always try to prepare for if we can. That said whether the race is completely unique to anything we have done before or an event that we do every year. If it is an important goal, we should include some specific race simulation sessions in the final period of training leading up to the event date.
Race sim sessions should not be complete race efforts covering the full distance at planned race pace. We want to leave that kind of, ‘all cards on the table’ effort for when it counts. For one thing, we will not be completely tapered, and our preparation will not be complete yet. Roads will not be closed or marshalled and there will be no competition to motivate us. So, what are we looking for in a race simulation session if it isn’t a full gas effort? We are testing our bodies and equipment in as close to race day conditions as possible. We are subjecting our bodies to some of the specific stresses that we will encounter at our race and also to the equipment and nutrition that we will be using on the day, that we may not be on every, normal training day. Here are some factors and considerations to take into account when planning race sim sessions.
Swim – We want to try to mimic what we are going to encounter as much as possible. In the swim this could mean rough water or and ocean surf swim or strong currents. If the field is going to be large and the swim start chaotic, we could try to find open water events that will give us the opportunity to battle it out in a big group of swimmers, which we don’t encounter in our nice, calm lane at the local club. If events like these are not available, we could get some training mates together and all jump in our usually placid lane and practice swimming close to each other.
Very few of us are able to train in the open water on a regular basis, so most open water training can probably be classified as race simulation sessions. Open water swimming has its own set of skills and lessons that, while possible to learn and practice in a pool, are best trained in a deep, open and often rough environment. Skills like sighting for buoys or landmarks and swimming in a straight line without a lane line or ropes. Breathing to both sides depending on where the chop is coming from. Shortening the stroke and increasing the cadence in choppy conditions. Swimming on the hip or feet of other swimmers in order to draft effectively. These are all race simulation skills that can be planned into and worked on in open water swim sessions.
These workouts will generally involve travelling to a lake or the ocean and it would make sense to make the most of that by taking the bike and / or running shoes to combine the day’s training into an even more effective race simulation session.
We will not train in our wetsuits that often and, if the event is going to be wetsuit legal, we definitely want to squeeze into the rubber during our race sim sessions. Perfecting getting it settled on our bodies so that there is a minimum of hindrance to our stroke takes practice and trial and error. As does identifying the areas of our bodies that require anti-chafe application. No matter how good our suit is or how well it fits, there will always be some subtle differences in the way we swim in one and the only way to get comfortable and efficient in a wetsuit is to swim in it.
Getting out of it is another skill that needs to be practiced. A wetsuit comes off much easier when it is wet. So, the best time to practice this essential part of our first transition is to do it after a swim in the suit. Trying to take it off dry will be an exercise in frustration and could potentially result in damage to the suit.
Cycling – Being the most technical of the three disciplines, a race simulation session on the bike is arguably the most critical. We want to simulate the route as much as possible as far as gradients and technicality goes. Will the course be flat, rolling, have long climbs or steep ones? Bike handling is also an often-overlooked factor. Many of us do our quality sessions indoors, where everything is a straight line. If the route that we will race on is a lot more technical, it is a good idea to get out on the race bike and get comfortable cornering and descending at race speeds. Obviously, we are bound by what our training roads are like but as much attention to detail as possible should be applied. Sometimes a short trip to a nearby location that more closely resembles our race will be worth it for the session.
Climatic conditions are also a critical factor to try to emulate. Most amateur athletes will do their first session of the day early in the morning when temperatures are cooler and it is generally, less windy. We could also be doing a lot of our riding indoors on the trainer. Even if the triathlon that we are training for starts fairly early in the morning, in all but the shortest of races, we could experience wind and heat on the bike later in the day. So, it would be best for us to make a plan, at least once or twice in the run up to the event, to ride our bike session when conditions will be more similar to what we are expecting on race day.
Again, we are limited to what the weather is like where we live and train but even rain is something that we could get used to if the opportunity is provided. Very few professionals or amateurs will willingly choose to head out on the bike in the rain, when we have more comfortable options indoors nowadays but, if we are going to be travelling to a race which has a high likelihood of rain, it is not a bad, if slightly crazy, idea to head out for a race sim session when our local forecast indicates precipitation. It will provide us with opportunities to try different clothing options, learn how to handle the bike on slippery roads and other, smaller but no less significant things like, which glasses fog up and which don’t, that we will not realise if we avoid training in the bad weather altogether.
Equipment choice is a major factor for the bike leg of a triathlon. We should all have a day-to-day training set of wheels, and a super-fast race day set, which we bring out on big days. While we should definitely have these set up so that they are interchangeable on our bike without requiring adjustment, there can always be subtle differences. So, popping them on for a race sim session in the weeks leading up to our big event is definitely advisable to make sure that all is working as it should and there are no surprises on race day. Lighter and more aerodynamic wheels can often have quite different handling characteristics to their heavier and shallower rimmed counterparts. Most of this is very positive in the sense that they feel great to ride and are faster but, we don’t want any surprises on race day. Especially if it has been a while since our last event.
Running our full, race-ready bike in a race sim session will also give us the opportunity to pick up any issues which we may not have noticed since the last race. Doing the session timeously will allow us the opportunity to sort these out well in advance and keep us relaxed and in a peaceful state of mind in ‘race week’. This also applies to aero helmets, clothing and other accessories that we will be using on race day. We all know that nothing new and untested should be used at an important race, so, if we have been doing some shopping since our last event, race sim sessions are where we make sure that all of these things work as intended and agree with us.
Running – In the final discipline of a triathlon, it is almost impossible to avoid the warmest part of the day. It is rare that we will train our running between mid-morning and mid-afternoon during a normal training week, so it is definitely a good idea to work in one or two race sim sessions at the time of day that we will be departing T2 on our next big event. Heat and humidity are definitely something that we can acclimatize to if we subject the body to these stimuli. Paying attention to hydration and what works in terms of clothing, caps and sunscreen are all details that range from major to minor, but all of which can make a significant difference to how our bodies react on race day.
Intensity and duration – Race simulation sessions are not just about testing equipment though. One of the most important aspects of these sessions is testing our bodies’ abilities to handle the physiological stresses of racing. It is a workout that allows us to test pacing strategies and nutritional plans in a way that will allow us to make alterations from lessons learned come race day.
As mentioned earlier, the only time we want to go at race pace over race distance is… at the race. In training, we can simulate different components of the race however, and gauge how the body handles it and how effective our training for the race has been. These sessions should be done in the final four to maximum six weeks out from the race, so there will not be enough time to make any significant changes to our training. If adaptations need to be made, these will take the form of an altered race approach, based on the form we are in now, rather than trying to alter that form in any significant way. That said, any conclusions that we draw from race simulation sessions should always take into account that we are were not tapered and peaked, which we will be on race day.