Triathlon in the WindDonovan van Gelder
Triathlon is not an easy sport. Three disciplines, transitions and possible heat and hills all play a role in increasing the challenge, but that is why we do it, not so? There is another climatic condition that can have a serious impact on racing and that is wind. A lot of triathlon events take place in coastal areas which are prone to strong winds. Blustery conditions impact each discipline so here are some tips on how to lessen the impact or even, how to turn the conditions to your advantage.
The Swim – Although the shortest discipline in both distance and time to completion, the swim is probably the most stressful for the majority of triathletes, and that is in good conditions. Add in some less than gentle wind and it can become a nightmare for some. The answer is to practice. All triathletes will include open water swimming into their schedules but let’s be honest, we will pick a nice day at the beach or the lake and rather head for the pool when conditions are not great. As long as things are not dangerous, and we are not on our own, heading into the open water on a windy, choppy day is a great way to get familiar with these potential race-day conditions when there is nothing at stake. Being calmer as a result, will allows us to think more clearly about what we are doing and how the conditions affect our swimming and help to find the best way to deal with them. Most will realise that they are not as bad as they seem.
The first thing we need to do in windy, choppy conditions is shorten our stroke and pick up the cadence. In messy, open water conditions, trying to maintain that long, streamlined pool stroke that we have perfected, will not be the most efficient way to get out of the water as quickly as we can. Too much can happen to our body position and glide-speed while we are stretching forward in an extended catchphrase. We want to be applying pressure to the water throughout the stroke. This means that as soon as the hand enters the water, we want to catch and get straight into pulling. This way we will always have one hand pulling us forwards through the water and also anchoring us in the churning water. It will definitely not be as pretty as that long, gliding pool-stroke, but way more effective in bad conditions. This type of stroke should not be left to race day though. We want to add in a few sets of short intervals in the pool where we deliberately shorten the stroke and increase the turnover so that we are prepared for a choppy day at the races.
Another thing that we should be practising in the pool is breathing to both sides. Even if we are a one-sided breather and don’t feel comfortable at all breathing the other way, we should still spend some time in every session breathing the other way, or at the very least, bi-laterally. Having that skill in our ‘bag of tricks’ on a windy day will come in handy when we turn a buoy and find ourselves swimming with the wind blowing the chop in towards our breathing side. The chances of getting a good, clean breath every time we try into the wind does not present good odds and it will be useful to be able to breath away from the wind, even if it is not our stronger, most efficient side.
The Cycle – Although it may not feel as life-or-death as the swim, the bike ride is probably the discipline that is most effected by strong winds. Crosswinds are scary on an exposed road and all the things that make our bikes aerodynamic going forwards, generally make them a bigger target to winds from the side. Broader flatter frames and deep section wheels can make us feel like we are tacking with a sail full of wind. The trick is to remain aware of our surroundings and where the wind is coming from. Riding towards the side of the road that the wind is blowing from gives us sliding room when a bigger gust gets hold of us. We don’t need to fight it then. We can just drift until it dissipates if we give ourselves space to do so. This is not only more energy efficient and safer, but faster too.
Obviously we can’t change our frames but wheels are interchangeable. The first rule would be to be prepared if you know that you are heading to a potential windy race. Although solid disc wheels present a large surface area for crosswinds to catch, the front wheel is the critical one, as this can turn. In all but the most serious winds, a disc or very deep rear wheel can be used because we are sitting on it and it is fixed in the frame but bring along a shallower front when if you think it could get windy and switch that out with the deeper one you may have preferred for aerodynamics sake.
Crosswinds are not the only thing to consider though. Riding into a pumping headwind also bears some thought. Most will end up humping a bigger gear than they should into a headwind and blowing out their legs and lower back (excuse the pun). We should rather keep our gears light and our cadence up at our normal levels, which will not only save the legs but will probably be faster as well. Riding with a strong tailwind seems like the least of our concerns but, while being super-fun and a reward for slogging into the headwind on other parts of the course, we do want to make the most of it. With a tailwind, cyclists tend to do the opposite to what they do in a headwind, and that is pedal too light a gear at too high a cadence. Clearly the bike has limits to the size of our biggest gear but we should always be trying to push the biggest gear we can while holding our most efficient cadence in order to get the most speed we can while we have the wind at our backs.
Run – The discipline that is least affected by strong winds but there are still some things to consider. Even in a non-drafting triathlon, we are allowed to draft on the run. So, forming a nice working group into a headwind will be beneficial to everyone in it. Taking turns at the front, as we would on bike ride, will increase the groups overall pace and also allow those behind to recover in the draft. A tailwind presents it’s own problems though. While we are not fighting to go forwards, a tailwind on a hot day can increase the effect of the heat where we feel like we are running in dead air, in a cloud of our own body heat. Keeping the body wet with water over the head and down the legs in conditions like this will help to maintain a good core temperature even more than fluids we swallow.
Hopefully the next windy race we arrive at will be considered an opportunity rather than a threat. One where we can say that the conditions suit us because we are more prepared than our competition.