You’re having a great day at the races. The start was smooth and you made it through the pool with no problems. The bike ride was great; All the time on the indoor trainer in winter was definitely worth it and you could really step on the gas. You enter T2 in the heat of the day and are already busy at work. When you go running, try to maintain your target pace and your heart rate will immediately increase to meet this requirement. Without the cool breeze you felt on the bike, you instantly feel warm. Your body is trying to increase your sweat rate to compensate, but your water bottle ran out of water 10km ago and you are not hydrated enough to sweat at the required level to avoid overheating. Your body takes immediate action to keep you upright. It sends perceived signals like tiredness and thirst to reduce heat production and encourage you to drink. What you thought was a smooth final stretch has turned into a long and painful jog from one aid station to the next as you struggle with your body to keep going. This or a similar story is probably familiar to many triathletes: we all had this race where everything looked good until the race. How can we master T2 and avoid this fate?
I think first we need to understand a bit what makes T2 so difficult. First of all, running is more physically demanding than cycling or swimming. When you swim and bike, your body is semi-supported, either by the water itself or by the saddle and handlebars of the bike, but when you run, you have to carry your full weight the whole time. This requires extra work and means that as soon as you get off the bike and start running, your heart rate will increase immediately, even if you stay at the same relative effort level.
Bermuda’s Tyler Butterfield in transition during the Commonwealth Games Mixed Team Relay.
A higher heart rate means higher oxygen consumption. This can cause you to cross the threshold or “red line” if you’re not careful. This alone can burn you out very quickly. Even if that doesn’t happen, the extra oxygen consumption also means extra heat production. Our body only works within a very narrow range of internal temperatures, so this heat needs to be dissipated if you want to keep going for long periods of time. To make matters worse, the cooling airflow that comes with cycling has been lost. The running portion of a triathlon also often takes place during the hottest part of the day, adding to the heat of the environment. When you add all of these factors together, the added heat load from running can be significant.
As you enter T2, you may also begin to feel the effects of dehydration. He’s been sweating for a while, maybe hours at a long-distance triathlon. All these exercises have slowly emptied his fluid reserves. Now that you’re generating more heat, your body has to sweat even more, which can lead to even more dehydration. If you’re running low on fluids or you’re already sweating at top speed, the only way your body can prevent overheating is to slow down.
These three factors together (higher heat production, more demanding heat dissipation and lower liquid reserves) are mainly responsible for the unpleasant scenario described at the beginning of this article. Add the risk of crossing your “red line” and clearly having the right T2 is an important part of a successful triathlon.
So how do you do it right? First, set your body to do whatever it takes to keep you cool. This means heading into the race well hydrated so you can work up a sweat before dehydration affects your performance. This starts a few days before the race. You don’t have to do anything extreme, just drink water regularly, try to keep your urine on the light yellow end, and avoid diuretics that you’re not used to. That means no extra coffee or wine in the days leading up to the race (an extra coffee on race morning is fine as long as you drink extra fluids to compensate). You can also help yourself by drinking while running, which you’re probably already doing. Remember that it is better to drink early than late during the race. Your body can’t sweat liquids if they’re still in your stomach, waiting to be absorbed.
Lucy Charles uses an aid station during the 2019 Ironman World Championships. Photo: Kevin Mackinnon
It’s also important to remember that it’s easier to stay cool than to cool down. One way to do this is to be proactive while still on the bike. If it’s a hot day, spray your head and back with water while you ride. The extra air movement created by your bike’s speed increases the rate of evaporation and cools you down more effectively than if you waited until you ran.
Finally, and most importantly, you need to practice your transitions from bike to run. I’m not talking about making a slow and steady stone or working on the technical aspects of the transition: where to put the sunglasses, how to put the laces on, etc. Although you need to practice those things too, I’m going to talk about it: practice the tempo change that happens when you switch from cycling to running. That means making racing bricks with expected racing performance. This will help you build your fitness, but more importantly, it will help you learn how proper pacing really goes in and out of T2. Keeping some strength or heart rate on the bike for hours is great, but in a triathlon you need to find the right mix of cycling and running to reach the finish line.
Practice these tips and techniques before your summer run and you should be ready to ride through T2 and achieve the smooth ride you’ve been looking for.
Tips for a great race of T2:
Practice more transitions at race pace. It’s about more than just improving fitness. It’s about learning how fast you can ride a bike while maintaining the ability to run at your desired effort/pace. Don’t overexert yourself on the bike. From the pros on down, excessive exertion on the bike is coming back to bite you when you race. This is much easier once you practice (see tip #1). Drink in the days before the race to start with all the hydration reserves. Drink as much fluid as you can when you start cycling (practice this in training) so you have time to get it down before the race. Staying cool is easier than cooling down. If you know it’s going to be hot, spray yourself with water on the bike instead of waiting to run. Do some of your training in the conditions you will be competing in. You don’t have to do all your hard training in the middle of the day on the hottest day of the year, but doing all your training indoors with air conditioning doesn’t prepare your body for the heat of a summer run.
Example of a brick workout at race pace:
This works best if you set your bike up on an indoor trainer and use a treadmill or other place where you can run in close proximity to the indoor trainer. It can also work outdoors if you have a good place to park your bike during the race.
Pedal at a steady, comfortable pace for at least 10-15 minutes. Over the next 3-4 minutes, increase the pace to complete the effort
Repeat the following 2-3 times (or even more if you’re aiming for longer runs)
Drive at your predicted race performance for 10 minutes. Change into your running clothes as soon as possible. While running, quickly increase your predicted running effort and run at that pace for 10 minutes. Finish the race where you left your bike. Ride at recovery pace for 5 minutes and repeat the cool down:
Bike or walk at a recovery pace for at least 10 minutes.
Darian Silk is a Toronto-based triathlon coach and clinical exercise physiologist. Read more about Darian here: https://teamatomica.com/training/coaching/coach-darian-silk/ or email email@example.com. This story originally appeared in the July issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.