I think there are a couple of things that differentiate not only successful athletes but successful people in all walks of life. I’m a big fan of both business and sports personality interviews and with the growth in podcasting it’s possible to binge listen to and accelerate learning from very succesful athletes and business people. My favourite type of story is the one of the person who starts off in a very ordinary situation and figures a way to either master a sport and gradually rise up to become world class or they build a business from nothing to success. As inspirational and fascinating as the stories of the Steve Jobs or Usain Bolts of this world are it’s almost impossible for me to relate to them. They are just so far from my or for that matter most of our realities as to be fantasy. Listening to someone tell the story of how they have gone from nothing to starting a business to building it to a level of success that, while aspirational is within the scope of most peoples reality I think is a great way to learn. And to be honest it makes a pleasant change to learning from my own mistakes.
One of the things I’ve learned from a lot of those interviews is that it’s difficult to beat hard work when you’re chasing results. But there is also something else. So many of them talk about being lucky or fortunate or in the right place at the right time but I think that this is where it’s easy to mistake what they do right for random coincidence or fluke. I think successful people make their own luck and I believe we can all do the same.
Maybe another way to look at it is that we can all do a lot of things to minimise bad luck and then be in the position to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.
For a number of years now I have been racing at, watching or working at triathlons doing mechanical support and I realised that I saw the same athletes who were dealing with last minute calamaties before the race were also the ones pulling out due to punctures, mechanical failure, lost nutrition or some other problem.
For me the critical lesson was that in almost all these cases the problem was avoidable with better pre race preparation. These athletes weren’t lazy, on the contrary they were often fast and raced at the top end of the field but they hadn’t yet learned that in a sport where you rely on a mechanical object it requires the same attention to detail as they put into their training.
I tried relating what I was learning to my Ironman racing and training. I realised that there was a lot of things that were within my control that I could do to maximise the potential for being “lucky” So before I race there is a number of things I do to make sure I eliminate the possibility of “bad luck” sabotaging my race. I test and practice using race day kit and equipment prior to the event. Some of the things we do ourselves and have athletes do are the following:
- Swim in our wetsuit either in open water or if thats not possible then in a pool.
- Swim in the open water with all the equipment & kit I intend to race in including, hat, goggles, wetsuit, tri suit/top/shorts. I also use body glide and or tri slide to make sure I know exactly what works and what doesn’t. Bryan Mc Crystal told me last year when he broke the Irish Ironman record he ran into trouble in the swim as he wore one of the new faster speed suits and put it on all the way under his wetsuit but they are very tight and restrictive while swimming and he fatigued much earlier than normal during the swim. Those suits are better worn around the waist under the wetsuit and only pulled up fully in T1 before heading out on the bike. It was a lesson Bryan wont have to learn twice but it cost him at least a couple of minutes in the swim.
- Practice sighting in the pool during every swim for the last 2 months. Swimming 300 meters takes me in the region of 5 minutes. In a 3800m swim it is very easy to add 5-10 meters per 100 because of zig-zagging or drifting off course. Most people would be happy with a 5 minute improvement in their swim times over a year, to lose all the gains you’ve worked for by not swimming straight could negate all of the fitness gains made in 6 months of hard training. The other reason for practicing is that the muscles at the back of the neck need to be strengthened to lift and hold your head up 100-150 times to sight in a 3800m swim. If they aren’t strong enough then at the end of the swim when concentration is harder due to fatigue there will be less sighting and therefore more chance of going off course.
- Practice swimming in close, rough contact with others either in the pool or open water. A lot of Ironman athletes don’t race very often and it can be very nerve racking even for experienced athletes during the first time back in a big swim start.
- Make sure you know how to put on your wetsuit correctly. A properly fitted wetsuit will be considerably faster than the same wetsuit which isn’t worn correctly. I would estimate 3-8 minutes in an Ironman swim just down to putting the suit on correctly.
- Have spare goggles, nose clip and ear plugs if you use them and test all of these to make sure they fit comfortably and work ok.
- Know how to break down and rebuild the bike well before you travel to your race if you need to pack it for transport.
- Fit new tyres and tubes.
- Check all bearings, chain, derailleurs, mechanical parts and get a full service 6 weeks out and a check over service 2 weeks out where you fit race tyres, tubes, chain, bearings as needed.
- Bike is cleaned and final prep including new bar tape 1 week out (I love the look and feel of new bar tape on race day)
- Ride and test race day kit on long rides including tri shorts/top or suit.
- Practice with your Co2 if you don’t know or aren’t sure how to use it. And by practice I mean go and deflate a tube, connect the cylinder to your pump or nozzle and pump up your tube. Yes I know you’ve just wasted a Co2 and yes I know they cost money but how much have you invested into this Ironman in not only money terms but how many hours, days weeks only to come undone by a €3 part?
- Train with any aero hydration system you intend to race with so that it is set up correctly and you are comfortable using it.
- I incorporate nutrition training days into my long rides from 3-4 months out, training with whatever I intend to eat or drink on race day. These teach me how much and how often I need to eat and drink at Ironman race intensity.
- Test race day runners and socks on long run.
- Start to train with and test race day run nutrition in as similar conditions as possible to what’s expected on race day as possible. I usually start this at least 2 months out.
- I make sure I have a run cap I’m comfortable with in case it’s a hot day. Keeping the sun off my head seems to help me control my temperature. I will also put ice into the hat on race day.
Last two weeks
- I try to swim more often than I normally do,. Frequency will help with my feel for the water. While there isn’t any real gains in fitness to be had in the last week I can improve my feel in the water a little.
- I don’t eat anything different in the last 2 weeks. The “don’t try anything new on race day” rule applies to nutrition in the last few weeks too. Don’t think you need to drink an extra 2 litres of water a day to hyper hydrate.
- We bring as much kit as possible for race day. In 2015 I raced Ironman UK wearing my winter Goretex jacket as a huge storm hit Bolton on race day. It’s better to be looking at it than looking for it. Bring everything you might possibly need, worst case scenario is that you leave most of it in your hotel room.
- I bring spare tyres and tubes even though I have new ones on the bike, again it’s easier to deal with last minute mechanical problems if I have as many of the of the basics with me as possible.
- I bring a spare Di2 battery and the charger.
- I bring a set of whatever tools I am likely to need as well as a travel track pump not just a mini tool and mini pump.
- I travel with my bike shoes, wetsuit, tri kit and runners in my carry on luggage. They are the only kit I can’t really replace if luggage goes missing.
- Whether flying or driving we bring our own food. We will travel with a full packed lunch and snacks so that we aren’t becoming depleted during a long journey and aren’t restricted to eating food we don’t like in airports, roadside services or on a plane.
- I always have an eye mask and ear plugs for sleeping in case we end up in a noisy hotel or one where the curtains aren’t great. I try to get as much good quality sleep in the last week as I can.
- Don’t try any last minute nutritional products you’ve bought at the expo. The chance that beetroot juice or some other super nutritional product might make you faster is greatly outweighed by the risk that it might not agree with you. Smaller practice races or training days are the time to experiment, not the biggest day of your sporting year.
- Plan out each day at the race site. We list out every job that needs to be done then schedule it into the day. It’s amazing how quickly you can run out of time between setting up your transition, race briefing, practice swims etc.
- We have lists of everything we need to bring to a race and use them while packing which eliminates the headless chicken last minute panic.
- We pre pack for our transition bags. The run stuff goes into a run bag, swim into a swim bag and the bike stuff, well you get the idea. We then don’t touch these until they are going into the race day bags to be left in transition. The only exception is the kit I carry on, runners, wetsuit etc as mentioned above.
- Build, check and test ride the bike as soon as you arrive. The bike is likely to be the most difficult item to sort out if you have a problem or if it’s been damaged in transit so giving yourself as much time to deal with problems as possible is crucial.
- I always have a race day plan as regards pacing and nutrition and this is based on specific training sessions during the build up to the race. That being said it’s fluid and flexible so I will adapt depending on race day conditions or unexpected events.
If mistakes or problems do occur after you have checked and prepared for every eventuality you can think of, and invariably they will, they should be small and manageable and there are likely to be less of them.
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