When the Wheels Fall Off - Part 1

"A Goal Without A Plan Is Just A Wish" 

That is one of our company mottos. When it comes to triathlon, I am fond of telling my athletes that it is about “controlling the controllables” (and occasionally making up a word for effect). In other words, control as much as you can because this sport can always throw you a curve ball. Be fit: follow a good plan or work with a coach. There is no reason to toe the line unfit. Doing so without considerable experience and body awareness is just a recipe for disaster. Have the right gear: That means have what you need (This does not mean a $10K carbon space ship. It means well fitting wicking clothes, the right shoes, a well-tuned bike, the right tires, a tire change kit, good goggles with new seals, and so on) and have tested all of it in training. Have the right nutrition: know how many calories you need to finish well and have used that in training many times so that you know your gut will tolerate it. Know how much fluid you need and whether it's appropriate to be drinking water or sports drink.

Have a plan for transition. Have a pacing plan. Have a nutrition plan for the day before and the morning of the race. Know the course. Know the rules. Yeah, it's a lot. That is why so many people seek a coach or a tri group for help.

BUT....... what about when things don't go as planned. When you've got a check in all the above boxes, plus a few extras, and things still go wrong. What about when you've done your homework and the wheels still fall off the bus? What do you do? How do you save your race?

In a single phrase:

You stay calm.

It's never over until you are 6' under and pushing up daisies. So, the best advice is always going to be “stay calm and think rationally”. I have seen this single bit of advice save races and save people's health. If things are going awry, the first thing to do is remember that you have enough time to address the problem so there is no reason to panic. Take a deep breath, relax, and bring your heart rate down a tick. Now that you are calm and can think clearly, trouble shoot the problem like you would in a training setting with no one to solve it for you. I'll go over a few common scenarios over the next few days and offer some specific suggestions, but every situation is a little different and the real answer is to approach the problem rationally.

Scenario One:

Your pace/nutrition is off and you're dizzy or cramping or you've hit the wall!

You've prepped. You know what you were supposed to eat/drink. You had a pacing strategy. But suddenly your body and mind rebel. Maybe you dropped a bottle, forgot to fuel, or maybe you went out a tiny bit too fast. What now? This is the one where it is the easiest to panic. Why? Because part of the emotions that flood your brain are symptoms of being behind on fluids or fuel. In fact, a sudden shift towards negative thinking is often the first sign that you've gotten behind. Your brain is sending you all kinds of negative feedback right now because there is a real problem. It is trying to shut this show down before it gets any worse, even if that means making you feel like the sky is falling. The key is, when you feel that way, realize that this is a physiological response to a solvable problem. Is it going to affect your race time? Probably. Is it hopeless? Maybe not. Even if it is signaling the end of your race day, calm and rational thinking here could save you a trip to the medical tent or even the emergency room, so it's probably more important at this moment than at any other. If your race can be saved, you have precious little time or energy to spend panicking or wallowing in the negative emotions.

First, walk or slow down and SWITCH OFF THE NEGATIVE THINKING. This is not the time to lose your mind. It's the time to think rationally and follow the following advice.

Take a physical inventory. If you are used to doing this in training, you should be able to check in with your body. Not injured? Good. Move on to the next step.

Next step, eat and drink. Unless the problem is an upset stomach from too many gels or the wrong food, this is going to bump your energy. This is not the time for complex solids. You want a gel or block. They are practically pre-digested and will hit your blood stream sooner than anything else. Take them with a generous amount of straight water. In the event that you have taken gels with sports drink, plain water is the answer. If you have been taking only liquids for hours and have an upset stomach, now might be the time for some solids, which of course you will have because you prepared. If the problem is a dropped bottle in long distance races, then grab a hand-up. In shorter races, either be very proficient with your bottles, use a BTA mount, or carry a spare. Also, leave a spare in T2.... just in case. If you've dropped a bottle in a short race, take a second to take a big drink, and consider starting the run off with a bottle in hand. Jogging a bit more slowly while you catch up could make all the difference.

Now, chill and let your body relax. SO many races have been saved by a period of lower intensity to allow for recovery and some fuel/fluids. If you are cramping, walk it off and see if it subsides. Most cramping is actually a neuromuscular response to going too far past the limits of your fitness and benefit from a period of recovery. In some cases it is due to dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance. If you correct for all three, you're putting yourself ahead of the game. If you are bonking from a lack of fuel, let your body recover while the nutrients absorb, speeding their effects and reducing the likelihood of a sloshy stomach. If the problem was pacing, a period of recovery can allow you to carry on as well, just be more conservative the second time. Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes to recollect (even seconds in a shorter race), and you get a second wind and are on your way. Even if it takes longer (and believe me it feel like years when this happens), rushing or getting upset is unproductive.

Once you have let your body recover, and set off at the correct pace. Simply slowing down can work wonders by itself, all other solutions aside. Resist the urge to make up lost time. This could prove disastrous, especially if you are cramping. If your problem was nutrition and your stomach does not punish you too much, you may find you get a big second wind and can finish quite strong anyhow.

If you have symptoms of serious dehydration, hyponatremia, sharp pain, or any symptom that could make you unsafe such as dizziness, be honest with yourself and stop. There is no glory in permanently harming your body. Some people think it makes you tough, impressive, or a bada**.... it doesn't. It makes you stubborn and stupid. Especially in longer races, situations can arise that could permanently damage your health or even kill you. You can make a smart decision and race for many years in the future, or you can push it and risk becoming a statistic and a warning for future generations of racers. Be familiar with the symptoms of more serious conditions, including the ones listed above and make sure you aren't deceiving yourself into pressing on when you should be stopping.

In summary, every situation that you run into will be solved or, at the very least, improved by taking a moment to calm yourself down, handling the problem as matter-of-factly as if it were a routine training day, and setting off at an appropriate pace. So take a deep breath..... think things through..... and remember that this is fun.

Lora Popolizio
iTRI365 Head Coach

Follow our Blog for Scenario Two: 

Your goggles break/get kicked off/leak/fog. How do you cope?