Wind? Rain? No problem! Strategies for keeping your head above water when the unexpected hits on your big day.
by Marni Sumbal and Gloria Petruzzelli
As any experienced athlete knows, unfavorable racing scenarios, whether weather-related or not, can be mentally defeating and ego-deflating. Let’s face it. It’s unlikely that we will have perfect racing conditions at every race this year. Your physical readiness, however, does not vanish just because the weather conditions are not ideal, or some other surprise comes your way. Success starts with advanced planning.
1. Scenario: Can you say "brrrrr?"
Why we worry
Water pulls heat away from the body 25 times faster than air, a pertinent fact for the swim portion of your triathlon. Cold temperatures require your respiratory system to work harder, and the muscles, ligaments, and joints may feel unusually tight. Additionally, your body requires extra energy to warm itself, and you'll lose more fluids (to humidify the air you breathe). Not only that, you may find the cold causes an increased appetite and reduced thirst. Lastly, being cold is a miserable feeling and can negatively affect your physical and mental performance.
- Prior to the swim, give yourself extra time to warm up on dry land with dynamic stretching, a jog, or by using stretch cords. You should feel your core temperature rise through your warm-up, so consider staying fully dressed in warm clothes and warming up indoors, if possible.
- Minimize the risk for a muscle cramp/spasm by easing into each leg of your triathlon more than normal—at least for the first 10-30 minutes.
- A well-fitting, comfortable wetsuit will help fight heat loss and offer insulation and buoyancy. It will also prevent the heart and muscles from having to work extra hard.
- The wind and air temperature will change throughout the day. A moisture-wicking base and easy-to-pocket items can save the day. Consider packing a tight-fitting outer shell or vest, arm warmers, light gloves, and a cycling cap/ear covering for extra warmth and stashing them in your jersey or at the transition area.
- Stay on a consistent fueling and hydration schedule.
- Solid food may be more palatable and easier to digest in the cold than it is in hot conditions. Aim to finish a bottle of your electrolyte-plus-carbohydrate rich drink every hour, and keep your stomach satisfied with well-practiced, 50 to 100 calorie solid food snack as needed. Think small bites taken more frequently (every 20 to 30 minutes).
2. Scenario: Gone with the wind
Why we worry
When it comes to equipment (i.e. your aero helmet, wheel depth choice, and hydration set up), it may be in your best interest to not focus so much on what’s fastest (or what the pros are using) but instead, use what you are most comfortable with.
Windy conditions also require a lot of energy and can be physically and mentally draining. Don’t stress or obsess about your times or paces, even if your race is famous for being a fast course. Your performance will all come down to pacing. An epic bike time is worth bragging about only if you can run strong afterward. Race the competition, not the clock, and never try to beat the wind.
- There’s not much time to gain while swimming in choppy conditions, but a lot of energy to potentially lose. Conserve your energy on the swim—it’s simply a warm-up for a tough day ahead.
- Review wind conditions on race day morning so that you can anticipate shifts in the wind on the course. No matter the wind's direction, stay relaxed. Keep a steady cadence with a relaxed upper body by shifting your gears as needed and focusing on a smooth and efficient pedal stroke.
- If running on a flat course, be mindful that a strong wind can affect effort and form just like running on hills. Focus on holding good technique and pacing to conserve energy.
- Keep your fueling strategy super simple by relying on primarily liquid nutrition every 10 to 15 minutes. This will help you focus on your effort while meeting your hourly fluid, electrolyte and carbohydrate needs.
3. Scenario: Rain?! Ugh
Why we worry
"PR or ER" is not the mindset you want to be racing with here. If you want to have a great race, safety is going to come first. No matter your fitness level, it all comes down to skills and experience. Most of us will not feel comfortable taking risks in rainy conditions, so it’s normal to feel like you can't race at your planned intensity. But that doesn’t mean that all that training was for nothing. Although you may not notice the rain in the swim, be aware that your bike brakes are a lot less efficient in the rain, and you may be running in heavy, soaked shoes with increased potential to cause blisters.
- Unless you ride on a leather saddle, there is no need to cover your seat if the rain starts overnight. However, you do need to consider your moving bike parts. If your bike gets wet overnight, lubricate your drive train in the transition area, or cover if allowed.
- Because your stopping distance is increased on wet roads, give yourself more than enough time to stop or turn, and feather your brakes to clear debris from the brake pad and rim.
- Be aware that newly laid tarmac, road paint, puddles, gravel, sand, and oil are hazards to a cyclist and require extreme caution. You'll need to be able to think quickly, and those with exceptional bike skills will be rewarded.
- In the case of a dry run, keep your running shoes in a plastic Ziploc bag in T2, with a pair of fresh socks.
- Choose clear or rose sunglasses for better visibility in the rain and a visor or hat for the run.
- Running in the rain may be fun at times but your form may be altered—especially on rolling courses, courses with off-road sections, or where debris has accumulated. As you begin to fatigue throughout the race, consider adjusting your effort and stride to keep a steady and controlled gait to avoid ankle, knee or hip injuries.
- Seek out the ideal opportunities to fuel (a break in the rain, at the top of a climb, or on flat road) so that your health and performance are not compromised.
4. Scenario: It's a new race
Why we worry
If you are racing an inaugural race, there will be no race reports, race results or forum discussions for tips or advice.
- Remember that the race directors and crew will be learning just like you.
- You're more likely to have a good race if you realize ahead of time that something is probably going to go wrong. Remember that you have prepared your best, but you may need to adjust your plan.
- Mindfulness mantra: "Everyone is learning."
5. Scenario: The course gets modified
Why we worry
It's tough to deal with last-minute changes, like a canceled swim or modified course, when you've been so diligently preparing and visualizing things a certain way. Control is comforting, change is not.
- If possible, study the modified course ahead of time. If the course is modified at the last minute, remind yourself, again, that everyone is in the same boat. This should be validating, because everyone is mentally revising his or her race strategy.
- Remind yourself that you can’t change the situation but you can choose how you respond. Don’t react out of stress, respond by adjusting your attitude and rising to the new challenge. Who said triathlon was easy, right?
- Mindfulness mantra: "Respond, don’t react."
6. Scenario: The race is canceled
Why we worry
With months of training and resources invested, it’s not easy to accept a canceled race.
- It’s important to remind yourself that it is the main priority of every race director to keep the athletes safe. It’s never an easy situation for an athlete to handle, but often what keeps us safe is not what we want in the moment… and that’s OK.
- Mindfulness mantra: "Where does this fit in the big picture?"
If you encounter any of these scenarios, remind yourself that you already have the skills to control situations that are out of your control. Adjust your expectations and plan accordingly. Accept that uncomfortable, unexpected, and unwanted things happen all the time in training and in life, but that doesn't have to stop us from living life. When we choose to focus on what's working well instead of what's not working (or what we wish could have happened), we can perform at a much higher level than we previously thought we could attain.
Marni Sumbal is a top age-group triathlete, coach, and nutritionist. Visit her website at trimarnicoach.com. Dr. Gloria Petruzzelli is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Sport Psychologist at CSU and owner of Life With No Limits coaching.