How to perform to your potential on race day with Sara McLarty | EP#164
Sara McLarty is a former professional triathlete for Team USA, with a particularly strong swim, coming from a competitive swimming background. Today, she coaches age-groupers as well as travels as a Team Leader with the USA Triathlon Elite National team to ITU World Triathlon Series events.
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In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Preparation for a race.
- Going through race morning.
- What you should do while standing on the start line and waiting for the gun to go off?
- How should you execute a great swim?
- How should you execute a great bike?
- How should you execute a great run?
- How should you execute two great transitions?
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About Sara McLarty
- I am a former professional triathlete and professional swimmer.
- I coach age group athletes and travel with the USA National Triathlon team to the World Cups and World Championships.
- I've been a writer for Triathlete magazine for over eight years, writing about swimming.
- I enjoy triathlon! I've been a triathlete since I was seven so it's a big part of my life.
When does race preparation start?
- I believe that what you do in practice is race practice - I always reiterate with my athletes that 'perfect practice prevents piss-poor results'.
Trying to do the right thing each day in practice, so on race day you can turn your brain off and do what comes naturally.
- For long distance athletes, we work on executing race day nutrition on longer key sessions in training.
This is particularly important where I'm based (Florida), as the heat in the summer is very high.
Executing race nutrition in these environment can be difficult - getting enough fluid in to replace the sweat is hard, so we try and practice in on big training days.
- My triathlon team has 7-8 swim practices each week which gives an opportunity to practice swim execution.
Once you're out on the bike or run it's a more solo event, but we try to prepare our swimmers for working around different people and different challenges - somewhat similar to the famous Clif bar commercial!
Race prep immediately before the race
- Approximately 1-2 weeks ahead of their A race I send my athletes a questionnaire which goes over key logistics.
(e.g. where are you staying in relation to the race? Does it have a kitchen, and what will you eat the night before? What time will you be driving to the race? etc).
It often prompts athletes to remember things they haven't considered.
- 3-4 days ahead of leaving I'll put a workout block on their TrainingPeaks that says 'pack for your race and send me a picture'.
We then make sure everything is being packed.
- I also check in to make sure the bike has been taken into the bike shop ahead of time too.
Race morning preparation
- I make sure my athletes have gone through their predicted race morning, hopefully more than once, ahead of time.
- Making sure your alarm is set at least 3 hours before the race so you can get up and start eating as it takes 2.5-3 hours to start digesting things like oatmeal.
- We go through the same warm up over and over again - and it's one I took from being a swimmer at the University of Florida.
At the start of each season our coaches would give everyone an index card, and you'd write out your swim meet warm up. We then executed that over and over again throughout the season.
Once you are 5-6 swim meets into it, you don't even think about the warm up, it comes naturally and you can switch your brain off.
I now do this with my athletes, once they've selected a warm up they execute it constantly throughout the season.
- On race day you cannot think your way through anything, it should be happening naturally and subconsciously.
- Most of my warm up is a run warm up because you will usually be allowed to do that at a race (i.e. if you are not allowed in the water pre-race).
I do have some of my top athletes invest in a pair of swim stretch cords which remain in their race bag. They can tie them to a fence/bench/spouse/me while they execute 5 minutes of 30 seconds on:30 seconds off swim motions.
This is just a warm up/muscle activation so don't buy the heaviest stretch cords available! Some people do this with therabands too.
- Warm ups are slightly different for elite athletes, and their races generally start later in the day on the WTS circuit.
Generally the shorter the race, the longer the warm up is required.
- Before a sprint, most elite athletes are up in the morning before the race doing a training session.
It's typically a run warm up so you have the longest recovery time before the race.
The run will usually have some activation drills, strides, and full speed practice to try and clear the sleep out and get the heart rate up. Sometimes even using a downhill to get the speed without as much effort involved.
It's not a workout - the athlete doesn't want to feel tired, it's just aiming to activate them.
- A lot of our athletes have worked with Bobby McGee, the run specialist, to make sure they have a morning plan.
I'm sure it's also the same over and over again so they don't need to think their way through it.
- We travel with bike trainers so no matter the weather, the athletes are on their bikes doing a spin warm up either in their hotels or at the race start.
This year Katie Zaferes used this before all of her races and went on to have a phenomenal season. She knew she needed to come out the swim with her legs ready to fire on the bike.
- 90% of our elite athletes are at least getting in the water before the race, but perhaps less if it's a cold temperature race.
Standing on the start line...
- Standing on the start line waiting for the gun you should be thinking calm thoughts.
You shouldn't be thinking about anything beyond the present moment, and getting through the first 400m of the swim calmly - not destroying your race in the first 400m.
- The first 400m of a race can make or break the day, especially in a long distance race. If you burn all your matches fighting and being aggressive, it may well come back to haunt you later.
It usually thins out in the second 400m, and your mentality shifts to race focus.
- In our open water swims we do start practices and group people together to try and see how they will react and practice remaining calm.
General preparation advice
- Don't do anything different on race day!
Stick with what you know, don't make changes in equipment or nutrition etc.
Executing a good swim
- I work on stroke technique, which is a big part of my coaching business.
- I try to encourage people to think about the technique changes in the warm up and drill sessions, and then in the warm down.
However, not to try and analyse the finite details when you're trying to work hard in the main set.
Over time, the goal is the little things you're focusing on in the slow part will start carrying themselves over to swimming fast.
If you start thinking about these things while you're working really hard your brain will explode!
- Similarly in a race, you're not going to be fixing a technique during a race! Go and do what you are comfortable with, and be present in the moment.
- If you do it right by getting your swim lessons in the winter and working on technique during that time, it shouldn't be something you need to think about by race season during your main races!
Executing a good T1
- For myself when I was racing, my mind would shift to T1 in the last part of the swim.
I'd run through in my mind what I was going to do when I hit the land: stand up, goggles removed, start taking wetsuit off etc.
- If you want it to happen smoothly, you've got to practice it many times so it becomes subconscious.
- When I assign brick workouts for my athletes I make sure they have their shoes, running belt, hat etc sitting on the ground/in the car so they can practice transitioning into that equipment once they finish the bike.
This isn't a time to check your phone, rinse off etc.
Executing a good bike
- Your legs do need to be ready for the bike - as mentioned in the example with Katie Zaferes above.
- With my long distance athletes we work on spending the first 15 minutes rehydrating and refuelling.
They start their rolling buffet, it doesn't involve going in hard at the start of the bike.
This is particularly critical here in Florida because if you're not constantly refuelling and re-electrolyting, you will lose a huge amount of nutrition through sweating.
- Some of my athletes have a timetable for how frequently they need to drink - I often talk about never being thirsty throughout the race.
- This allows the legs to warm up while you focus on nutrition and making sure everything is set and ready to go.
- When I was competing, I would hit the start of the bike so hard that my quads would seize up - this would often cause the whole race to suffer.
- We work with some form of effort measurement, either rate of perceived exertion, power, speed or heart rate.
This will have been outlined in the pre-race plan so the athlete just needs to work on executing that for the bike.
- I have previously brought in adventure racing experience to work with a long distance athlete who was attempting their first Ironman.
There are dark places in multi-day adventure racing!
One thing that helped in these races was having a snack that was waiting for you at a transition area - it wasn't racing food, it was something nice (e.g. pizza, coke, pringles). This was something to look forward to and could put you in a happy place and refresh you.
- For the Ironman athlete, he had an aid station out on the bike so we thought about what would make him the happiest at this point, and he put this in his special needs bag!
- This attitude of having something to look forward to - whether it's a treat food, your favourite flavour gel, an inspiring note etc - can really help change your perspective and keep you going.
- Regarding pacing on the bike, I think if you're going too fast to eat and drink, you're going too fast.
If you're pushing to the heart rate level that when you take a sip and you burp half of it back up, or try and chew and it's making you sick, it's the end of the race.
You might take a couple of minutes off your bike split, but you'll end up walking half the run.
Executing a good T2
- It's very similar to T2 so the practice will be similar.
- Transition depends on the level of the athlete - some athletes will snack and change their clothes, whereas others will get in and out as quick as possible.
- I remember someone telling me to keep in mind that as you move your legs on the run, those legs have been just doing small circles for the past hour or significantly more.
Through transition and the first kilometre on the run it's important to make sure you're taking small steps that allows your body and muscles to adjust and flow differently.
After this, you can get into how you stride should be.
Executing a good run
- The process of taking small steps and treating your legs like they're still on the bike teaches athletes to not take the first km too hard.
- When I was racing in Florida, I found myself lying on the side of the road multiple times or in an ambulance with an IV in my arm because I passed out.
We as athletes coach based on what we've experienced in our own lives. For me, the priority for the run is to be safe, survive and stay hydrated, and only then can you start thinking about speed.
- I'm a stickler for hats! Also taking water and pouring it on you, and carrying ice and putting it in your suit where possible.
- Now that I'm coaching I try to be at more of my athletes events, and we've teamed with a local bike shop, so we usually have a big presence at a race to cheer people on which I think helps.
- Pacing on the run is difficult because you know you will inevitably fade, as you would in any race.
The beginning will be your fastest pace, and if you aren't properly prepared for this it may put you into a negative place.
It's important to know this will happen and have a plan for it.
How to learn good execution
- You can either race a lot and this will help your practice, or you can practice in training if racing is not as easy.
- In Florida, we can race every other weekend for the vast majority of the season - and it's a long season (March to December if needed).
- Often we need to spend time working out what are the training races, and what are the 'A' races.
- If performance is your goal, you should have the mentality of an elite athlete - they race and race and race!
You need to learn how to race, and it is a skill which cannot easily be re-enacted in training sessions.
- If it's not that easy to race frequently, you can do the best you can by putting yourself into race mode in training sessions.
Fully act like it's a race - go to bed early, eat the same food, start at the same time etc.
- Either way, have a purpose each time you go out into a race.
E.g. can I ride harder on this race and still keep my 5km run pace high.
Post-race analysis and learning
- Write something down as soon as you can! It's so easy to be just 48-hours after a race and only remember the major milestones and all the fine details will disappear.
- Try and piece out good and bad things that happened, and what you want to work on in the future.
Gwen Jorgensen was always really good at doing this.
- If you're going from race to race to race and just shaking it off, what are you learning from it? Also how can you use it to make your performance at the next one even better?
Insights into triathlete development
- I've seen that all personalities, all body types, all mentalities can succeed.
- You have people like Gwen Jorgensen who are Type A personalities, tracking everything from sleeping, eating etc.
You also have athletes that I travel with who show up at the race and their wetsuit is ripped.
But they're all succeeding!
- It's not just body type, it's also mentality and approach to training.
- Whether you're in the sport for participation and finished, or qualifying for Kona and World Championships, don't write yourself out of it because you're not X, Y, or Z.
You can work out how these factors are your strengths - e.g. maybe you're not triathlon focused 24/7, but then when you are you're especially focused and try really hard, and in between you have fun and spend time with family.
Use what you perceive as your negatives and find them to be positives.
- Nothing is cancelled out based on backgrounds either - look at the back stories of the elites, they're from various different sporting areas, or some not even from sporting backgrounds!
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to triathlon?
- My swim workout blog, which is free for anyone to access! There are three levels - A (4km range), B (3km range), and C (2km range).
- What is your favourite piece of gear or equipment?
- My swim goggles - it's easy to travel anywhere in the world and turn an ocean into a swim workout.
- What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point in your career?
- Nothing. I loved every moment of my triathlon career.
- Practice everything you're going to do on race day in training!
This covers every aspect: flying mounts, equipment, nutrition etc.
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Sara McLarty
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.
I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show.
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There are 2 kinds of changes before a race:
1—-High risk changes
2—-Low/Calculated risk changes
High risk changes include: nutritional changes, shoe changes, bike position changes, going without socks on the run, etc. These should be practiced in training 1st.
Low risk changes include: adding or eliminating a speedsuit, going from a road helmet to an aero helmet with taped ventilation on a cold day, wearing calf sleeves under your wetsuit, etc. These are low risk/calculated risk changes and can be done. There IS risk associated with any change but this kind of risk has a low downside with a potentially high upside (an example would be switching from a road to an aero helmet particularly in a cooler race). While ALL changes would best be tried out in training, with a amateur triathlete’s busy schedule, this is not always possible. So, a CALCULATED Risk/Low Risk might be appropriate in some circumstances. When evaluating these one should evaluate both the potential upside AND the potential downside of changes.
I agree that there are different levels of risk for sure. I assume that in case 2 (low/calculated risk) you still are saying that these are things that at SOME point have been practised in training, although perhaps not very recently. If that is what you mean, I agree with you.
Even if it’s 2-3 months since you last wore your aero helmet, you could go for it in a surprisingly cool race as long as at least you HAVE done it in training at some point, but it doesn’t have to be in specific race-prep close to the race for these more low/calculated risk items. Same with speedsuit.
However, it is a very high risk to use a taped aero-helmet even in cooler conditions if you’ve never done that before in training and that’s something that should never be done. The potential upside there is not big enough to compensate for the risk. You might not even be more aerodynamic in the aerohelmet – you don’t really know before you try it in training and at least get a gut feel for your speed improvement in it.
Somehow missed this episode when it aired. Must have been one of the people busy with the holidays Mikael mentions at the beginning of the episode. Haha I think this is one of the best non-technical episodes of TTS! Put it on a best-of list. I was expecting all the tips to be obvious same-old stuff that’s recycled in Triathlete mag and whatnot. I would love to see Sara’s questionnaire of pre-race logistics. Mikael, did you implement this for your athletes?