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Suck at swimming? How to gain time on the bike in a triathlon

By Micah Ling

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Ironman swim startPhoto: Eric Wynn | Slowtwitch

First of all, you don’t suck. Most people who pick up triathlon aren’t doing it because they just love to swim in open water. For many, swimming is their weakest link. So, even if you do "suck" at swimming, you’re in good company. And, it’s technically the shortest leg of the race, so why not concentrate on the best, most fun leg (in our opinion)? The bike leg! Just remember that many athletes (even the pros) come out of the water feeling sluggish and defeated. But where being five minutes behind on the swim is an eternity, making up five minutes on the bike is much more doable.

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Prepare!

1. Ride the course: If you live near the race venue, practice the bike route at least a couple times before the race. If you’re traveling from far away for a race, try to arrive with enough time to ride at least part of the course. Or, drive it in a car to see the terrain.
2. Mounting and dismounting: No matter where your race is, practice mounting and dismounting the bike. Everything will seem hectic on race day, so make sure you know how to work all of your equipment on the go.
3. Practice for disaster: When would be the absolute worst time to flat? During a race, right? While not ideal, if you practice changing a tube on the road, even this won’t ruin your day.
4. Don’t forget the little things: Try to get solid sleep in the week leading up to the race so that even if the night before the race isn’t great, you’ve gotten a good base. Trim your toenails, shave your legs, take care of all the little things that make you feel fast and ready.

Swim to bike transitionPhoto: Eric Wynn | Slowtwitch

Control what you can

There are plenty of things in triathlon that you’ll never be able to control, like the water temperature or weather, but don't stress. Focus on what you can control. When it comes to the bike, that’s a lot. Make sure that by the time you put your bike in the transition area it’s fully tuned, the chain is lubed, and the tires are at your preferred pressure. Put your bike in a gear that will help you get up to speed quickly — not too high, not too low. Make sure that your water bottles are filled, your helmet and sunglasses are easily accessible, and your bike computer is ready to go. Having a smooth transition from the swim to the bike will be a step in the right direction, even if your time in the water was less than impressive.

Mindset

No matter how your swim goes, put it behind you. In triathlon, it’s easy to look back on previous portions of the race and beat yourself up for fumbles, poor pacing, or weak transitions. But the best thing to do is focus forward. As soon as you’re solidly on your way down the bike course, take a few deep breaths. This helps settle the jitters, a common distraction in these events. It’s easy for a triathlon race to feel like absolute chaos, but one thing that will help immensely is staying calm. Let the first few miles of your bike leg be just about breathing and finding that calm.

Triathlon bike legPhoto: Eric Wynn | Slowtwitch

Pacing

After you’ve found your breath and are settled into a strong but manageable pace, think about the bike course. Hopefully you’ve been able to preview some or all of the course before the race, but if not, focus on what you know. How hilly is it? What’s coming up? What’s the toughest section? What speed can you maintain for the distance you have in front of you? Work off of the energy of others. Know whether or not drafting is allowed. Bike with a group in a safe and efficient way. Start setting small goals for yourself. Can you maintain 20mph until the next turn? If not, what about to the next traffic cone? Pay attention to your speed but don’t obsess over it. You want to push yourself but keep the upcoming run in mind, too.

If you don't have one already, consider adding a power meter to your bike. If you train with one and know your numbers, it will be the most valuable pacing tool on race day.  

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Hydration

The bike portion of the race is the easiest place to catch up on hydration. You should have plenty of liquid on your bike, and while you don’t want to cramp from downing too much too quickly, take the opportunity to sip as often as possible. It’s much harder to take serious amounts of liquid while on the run, and if you’ve taken in any water on the swim, it probably wasn’t on purpose. On that note, if your swim was in salt water, know that even small amounts ingested likely made you even more dehydrated.

Nutrition

The bike is also a good place to get some calories in. Whether you’re depending entirely on liquid calories, or prefer gels, chews, and bars, the bike is the easiest place to eat. Again, you don’t want to make yourself sick by chowing down too much, but if you’re going to consume solid calories, the bike is your friend. We cannot emphasize this enough: practice, practice, practice. Know what your gut can handle and what it can’t. Don’t try anything new when it comes to nutrition (or anything else for that matter) on race day.

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Triathlon bike legPhoto: Eric Wynn | Slowtwitch

Equipment

This is where your setup can really shine. If you get a proper bike fit, and have your positioning fully dialed, you can easily shave minutes off your bike split. Concentrate on your touch points: your cleat position, your saddle height and position, and your hand position. Even though you’re out of the water now, here’s where you really want to make things as fluid as possible.

Transitions

- Know when the transition area opens and closes.
- Arrive early so that you can pick a spot that will be easy to get to when you come out of the water. (Near the end of a row is best).
- Set your bike and gear up in the same way that you’ve practiced.
- Make sure you’ve got everything ready for a smooth transition from the swim to the bike, and from the bike to the run.
- Put everything you don’t need (like early morning layers) back in your triathlon bag and away from what you do need for the race.
- Make sure your number is securely attached to your bike.
- Make sure your handlebars have end caps.
- Memorize your spot by walking from the water to the transition area — know what it looks like from the water and from where you’ll be returning once you’re off the bike.

Conclusion

There’s a lot to think about and a lot to prepare for when it comes to triathlon. The stuff alone can get overwhelming. But the bike portion is where you can really settle into the race — it’s where you can calm down, take in some nutrition, and feel strong. Above all, don’t forget to enjoy yourself!

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