Remember that there are many little steps that make you successful on race day. Here are some of the common mistakes that triathletes make in their race preparation. Learn from the errors of others, without paying the price yourself.
Mistake #1: Swimming Too Fast in Practice. While a pool swimmer's races require quick bursts of energy, even a sprint triathlon is an endurance-based, aerobic event. Most triathletes train with masters swim teams, which emphasize short, fast interval training. This may be fun, but it is not the best way to prepare for open-water races. Workouts should not be designed solely for entertainment. Include easy swims of 30-plus minutes and reps of 500 meters or more at race intensity. Leave the sprinting to the sprinters.
Mistake #2: Taking Insufficient Rest Between Workouts. Self-coached athletes tend to train medium-hard all the time, which is very ineffective. Well-rested athletes have better workouts. Pro triathlete Ryan Bolton once told me 'The very top guys maintain balance in their lives. They are not the crazy, obsessed type.' Only one or two key workouts per week really improve speed and endurance. Between these longer or faster workouts, go easy and get rest.
Mistake #3: Ignoring Economy. Genetics plays a huge role in endurance performance, and several years of consistent training bring athletes very close to their potential for sustained energy expenditure. A mid-packer who already trains hard isn't going to get that much stronger, but every triathlete can become more efficient. Professional athletes improve efficiency by more than 4 percent working specifically on running technique. No amount of training would make them four percent stronger. Working on technique in all three triathlon segments is the number one way to improve.
Mistake #4: Dismissing Mental Preparation. Triathlon guru Joe Friel says that working on mental skills is the most neglected aspect of triathlon training. Most athletes work out to make their legs stronger, but many ignore mental strength. Focusing on mental skills is not a sign of a weak mind any more than focusing on long runs is a sign of weak legs. We train, physically or mentally, to make what is already strong even better. Developing mental skills improves an athlete's ability to focus on the task at hand and get the most out of the body despite the pain. Many athletes think about anything but the effort and the pain of racing at the red line (disassociate). Top athletes stay intensely tuned in to the pain and effort in order to constantly monitor the body's condition and pace appropriately.
Mistake #5: Not Consuming Enough Protein. Giving the body the right nutrients during training, racing and recovery is critical. Few athletes consume enough protein. Recent research has determined that hard-training athletes need about 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight, significantly more than previously thought. Loren Cordain's book The Paleo Diet is a resource every athlete should read.
Mistake #6: Never Training in a Wetsuit or in Open Water. Pool swimming is cross training for triathlon swim racing. The dynamics of swimming in a lake or the ocean are quite different from swimming in a pool, enough that they are almost like two different sports. Try doing a hard 500 without pushing off the wall and you'll see what I mean. Practice swimming in open water in your wetsuit as often as possible.
Mistake #7: Inadequate Race Nutrition. Triathletes need to consume two calories per pound of bodyweight per hour during races. Race performance declines from carbohydrate depletion well before an athlete bonks. A car may have the same horsepower with one-quarter tank of gas as with a full tank, but our bodies don't work that way. Consume the optimal amount of carbs in races this year and watch your race times go down.
Mistake #8: Skipping the Bricks. Running a fast 10K or a fast marathon is a different proposition after 40 kilometers or 112 miles of hard cycling. Brick workouts train the legs to transfer from cycling to running quickly and efficiently. Getting these workouts in consistently makes for better race day experiences.
Mistake #9: Not Working with a Qualified Coach. Someone who spent four years studying exercise physiology knows more about how your body will respond better than you do. A coach can be objective about your training and racing, while that is hard for the individual racer. If your bike costs thousands of dollars, isn't the guidance to help make a stronger engine worth an investment as well?