Podcast, Racing

Triathlon race planning with David Tilbury-Davis | EP#150

 October 1, 2018

By  Mikael Eriksson

​Triathlon race planning with David Tilbury-Davis | EP#1​49

Coach David Tilbury-Davis shares the process of creating a triathlon race plan. Going through the race planning process and doing your homework can be the difference between having a real shocker or your best triathlon ever.

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  • Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • What elements go into a good race plan?
  • Pacing for the bike and the run.
  • Planning your nutrition.
  • Planning for the environment and weather conditions.
  • Preparing for the mental battle in your head.
  • When and how should you adapt your plan on the fly in the race?

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Elements needed for a good race plan

3:41  -

  • The purpose of a race plan is to make sure there are no surprises on race day, or the days leading up to the race.

    You will cover aspects of logistics, travel and execution. 
  • Ideally you would do as much homework about the race - i.e. getting a copy of the course map or watching video footage so you can try to replicate it. 
  • Assessing the weather for race day can lead to important decisions too, particularly regarding equipment choices.
  • You need to understand what you're trying to achieve from the race. 
  • In the context of long distance training, you need to understand the nutrition available on the course and whether you will use it.

    If you don't plan to use it, you will need to plan and practice how you will carry your own. 
  • For those at the 'pointy end', it's also about planning how the race may pan out and what other competitors may be there. 
  • As you get nearer the race, you will put together a more detailed plan about the execution and thought processes you'll have during the race. 

When and how to race plan

8:05 -

  • You can do it on pen and paper, or an electronic format you can refer back to. 
  • The method I've used is to structure it similar to a school report, which helps athletes get mentally prepared, but also to reflect back afterwards and learn. 
  • You start by considering the environment, and how it will impact your choice of kit. 

    For example: Cody Beales races at Mont Tremblent this weekend, he won the race but the swim was delayed. One of the things he'd picked up through experience was that it was potentially going to be a non-wetsuit swim, but he went to the start and warmed up in his wetsuit. That was a smart decision because he was able to maintain his core temperature better during the delay. 

    For age groupers, having a foil survival blanket and an old pair of socks and gloves to keep you warm can be really helpful. 

    You will also make decisions on the day of the race, such as toe covers, but they can be prepared for during the plan.
  • The race plan is usually done a week before the race, and my athletes will then email them to me and we'll go through them together. 
  • I believe it's better for the athlete to write the plan themselves, because they have more ownership and emotional investment. 

    The coach is there to help, particularly with things like the pacing strategy. 
  • In the swim, you may note things about focusing on a certain rhythm, or other cues. They may also note a single word to remember this during the race (e.g. smooth)

    In WTC Ironman events you can use tempo trainers, which can be beneficial during a race. 
  • This process is repeated for the bike and this is where it's important to understand the course and what you want to achieve.

    The pacing strategy of a draft-legal Olympic distance race would be very different to a 14-hour age group Ironman athlete. 
  • For the run, you can consider the pace, and posture you want to execute and how you will achieve this. 

Pacing strategies 

15:45 -

  • If you have somebody racing at the top end - e.g. a professional, or someone wanting to podium in a world class event, there may be times where you need to surge to respond to other athletes.

    It's important to do research to understand how this may fit your race. It would be naive to think that to get this result you need to swim, bike and run as fast as you can at one set speed. 
  • Racing can be like a poker game - if you're playing, you need to understand the hand you hold, when to bet and when to bluff. 
  • There may not a requirement to react as much in the older age groups, but it comes down to knowing your competition. 
  • The best physiological outcome you will have is if you settle into a good even pace on each discipline. How granular you get with that, depends on whether you're racing by feel, power, heart rate, pace etc. 
  • If working off feel, it's important to understand how you feel near the start of the bike is very different to how you'll feel towards the end. 
  • The caveat with heart rate: it's a gauge of effort, but the more you race the more cardiac drift you'll see for the same mechanical effort. 
  • In 20 years of coaching, I haven't seen many individuals racing an Ironman, and running well, after cycling at 75% of FTP. That takes a huge amount of fitness. 

    For most people, closer to 70% of FTP is a more sensible starting point for Ironman. 

    For 70.3, 78-80% of FTP is more realistic than the classic 85% suggestion. 
  • A good litmus test for pacing strategies would be doing a metric Ironman a couple of weekends before the race. 

    An Ironman is 2.4 miles swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run. A metric Ironman would be doing these distances in km's, and doing them using your planned pacing strategy.

    For shorter distances, you can sensibly apply the same logic. 
  • If you can't do the metric Ironman, practice your pacing on long bike or long run sessions - aim for 50% of the session at your planned pace, which should be achievable if it's a realistic plan. 
  • It can be helpful to understand your aerobic and anaerobic thresholds - this can be done by testing your ability to talk. If you can comfortably talk, you're functioning aerobically. 

    If you're 'pausing for breath' you're close to aerobic threshold, and if you no longer want to talk, you're likely functioning anaerobically. 
  • In a long distance race, if you're pushing to the point of not being able to talk, you're likely going too hard. 
  • For pacing the run, you need to understand the distance and how familiar you are with that. 

    Bric sessions serve a purpose, but repeated 'epic' Bric sessions are unnecessary.

    For an Ironman if you can run off a 3 hour bike for a max of 1 hour and settle into a rhythm while practicing nutrition, that should be enough. 
  • For Olympic distance, practicing transitions can be very important. 

    A recent study looked at Olympic distance triathletes and found that those who sprinted through T2, didn't perform as well over the proceeding 10km. Those who slowly jogged also didn't run as well. The best were athletes that ran through T2 a little below threshold.

    This study also found that those who held 90% of their open 10km pace in the first km, and then settled into 95% of their open 10km pace for the rest of the run did much better than runners holding above 95%. 
  • When you go to a race and rack your bike, walk the route of your transition from the swim and out to the bike. It's easy to get this wrong when under duress in the race, so it helps to practice it beforehand. 
  • You don't want to be the athlete who decides to try a flying mount on race day if you haven't practiced it before. 
  • Knowing the course can help you decide what to do in transition and how you plan to mount your bike. 

Planning nutrition

35:49 - 

  • There's recently been a big argument for LCHF and not needing carbs in a race, but the reality is there's 40 years of sport science that suggest if you want to go fast you need glycogen. 
  • For any athlete, you need an understanding of what you prefer (e.g. gel vs drink vs real food) and these can then be practiced over and over. 
  • There is evidence that the gut can be trained to deal with calories. 
  • A sensible starting point is 1g/kg body weight of carbohydrate per hour, which will change depending on how fast you are etc.

    For example, if you're a 75kg male this would be roughly 3 gels per hour. 
  • For age-groupers, don't look at what the pro's are doing! Some are freaks of nature in terms of their ability to metabolise carbs, and the resilience of their gut. 
  • The key is you train your body by practicing your nutrition, therefore it needs to be planned as early as possible. 
  • Know where you're racing and what is required, and use this as a starting point for your nutrition planning. Wherever possible, do not suddenly change anything about your nutrition on race day. 
  • Related to nutrition is sweat rate, and loss and replacement of electrolyte. 

    There is no hard and fast rule on amount of sodium you should intake, as sweat rate and sodium loss varies from person to person.

    If you're finding in long distance races that your muscles don't seem to be firing well, you may need more electrolytes. 
  • It's important to consider the environment of the race, as your sweat rate may well be different if it's a hotter or colder environment. 

Take an online sweat test

  • Take Precision Hydration's FREE sweat test and learn how you should hydrate. It's a good start to get some ballpark figures regarding your sweat rate, which can be used in your nutrition planning.

Mental preparation

43:38 - 

  • It comes back to the race plan, which should have key words and phrases which can then be used in the race to remind yourself of your process. 
  • In long distance racing, there will inevitably be a dark patch. It's not the point to start questioning your training, but it's time to go through an 'MOT' - am I drinking? Am I on top of nutrition? How is my breathing?

    This helps you re-centre yourself and remind yourself what you need to do. 
  • Athletes often deal with anxiety, particularly if they're newer to the sport. The presence of this is a good thing - it shows you are emotionally invested in what you want to do. 

    Try and use the anxiety to act as a laser, making you focus down and inwards on the sensations and feelings that you've had during a good training session or previous race. 
  • Reflecting back to when you've had a good race, and the thought processes you experienced at that time. Thinking about this, rather than the outcome of your current race, can be really beneficial. 
  • Sometimes using a particular song can get you fired up, and can be more powerful than a word. 
  • Many people race for a cause particularly close to them, which can be helpful to focus on to drive your mental strength. 

Run pacing

48:44 - 

  • There's not a certain percentage of heart rate you should be running at. 

    If you've done an open 10km, running at 90% of that pace in an Olympic distance race would be an impressive performance. 

    If you could run at 80% of that during a half Ironman, and 60-70% of that during a full Ironman, that would be a good reflection of full fitness. 
  • However, this is a hard and fast rule that doesn't always apply - long endurance runs in training are often run at a quicker pace than the run in an Ironman. 
  • I don't see much benefit in doing 10min/mile endurance runs if you anticipate your race pace to be 11min/mile. You need to prepare your body for the pace you are planning to execute. 
  • Doing half of your long run comfortably at the pace you intend to run in the race will show you are prepared. 

    This can be done as part of a Bric, as long as each session isn't too long. 
  • Training is testing and testing is training.

    There are litmus tests you can do to assess your fitness and how you're progressing, but ideally these are part of a training session. 

    There are so many factors that go into a race that can't be replicated in a lab, so having a real world test can be more accurate. 
  • You need to anchor the sensation of how you feel during particular sessions, to replicate this on race day. 

When do divert from the plan

55:16 - 

  • If you find yourself in a racing situation that you haven't experienced before, you can start by asking yourself questions about how you feel to then make decisions about deviating from your plan. 
  • In general you rarely see people deviating from their plan by +/- 5%. It's usually small changes with intelligent decision making. 
  • Athletes that throw their plan out the window and get caught up in the race experience will usually see everything start to unravel.
  • You need a clear set of numbers to be working towards, understanding that a small amount of deviation is okay. 
  • For example: If you're in a run and you're struggling to maintain the pace you planned to hold, start by asking questions. Perhaps the weather is hotter than expected, in which case others in the race will be slowly down too. Don't judge yourself for your decisions as everybody could be in the same position. 
  • If you're finding yourself deviating significantly from the plan, it may be that you didn't plan well enough and thus it's something you can reflect on and work on for the next race.
  • There shouldn't be any surprises in an endurance event. Never expect the race day to make you infinitely faster all of a sudden, it doesn't usually happen. 

Key takeaway

  • If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.
    • If you don't create a race plan, you are setting yourself up for failure. It gives you the best possible chance in the race.  
  • Splicing workouts - leaving it up to the athlete how they splice the workout. 
    • You can take the work duration and recovery duration and splice it up in different ways to get different things out the workout. 
    • Listen to David's previous episode to learn more about this. 

Links, resources and contact

Links and resources mentioned

    Connect with David Tilbury-Davis

    Connect with host Mikael Eriksson


    Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

    I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.

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    Mikael Eriksson

    I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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