Winter Triathlon Racing and Training Tips
Winter triathlon seems to be a relatively new sport which has very little information available to athletes. On January 14, 2007, a pre-US Winter National Triathlon Championship race was held at Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Tabernash, Colorado. On February 4, 2007, on the portions of the same course, the actual championship race was held in brutally cold temperatures. Before toeing the line, I searched the internet for any information regarding winter triathlon, only to find next to nothing of practical detailed value. There were some great tips by a few individuals, but for the most part, information on the “information super-highway” was sparse at best. Upon competing in both events, a wealth of experience was bestowed upon me while contemplating my “whipping” at both races. The run/mountain bike/Nordic ski format was followed in each race, and had been expertly conducted by a professional race management team. With the 2008 USA Winter Triathlon Championships in Bend, Oregon on February 9th, 2008, I hope the following tips will help ease the pain of those competing or looking into a future winter triathlon. Visit usatriathlon.org for the championship race information.
As a coach, it is my job to cut down the learning curve so athletes can become more proficient with less time. For starters, I learned quickly that technology and equipment can be the deciding factor, and using the right “stuff” can make or break your day. There will likely be competitors with special snow bikes designed or modified to ride specifically on snow, but if you do not have thousands of dollars to buy one of these specialty bikes, there are still some shortcuts to close the gap between you and the sponsored or financially well-endowed athletes.
Some things that apply to all phases of the race are:
1) Do not change gloves. Find a pair of insulated gloves, such as Nordic ski gloves that will allow you to run, bike and ski the entire race from start to finish. Changing gloves is a hassle because it is time consuming. It sounds obvious, but I changed gloves in my first race, only to have the sweat freeze after the run while trying to put on dry gloves for the bike.
2) Use gloves without Velcro closures if possible, opting for a soft cuff such as some made by Toko. The Velcro straps can “grab” the Velcro on the straps of your ski poles during T2 while putting on the poles, and then you will need to take extra time to untangle them. Yes, I managed to actually have this happen during the first race.
3) Use a windproof or Gore-Tex pair of socks for the entire race, it will keep your feet toasty and dry while running and biking.
4) Use a thin skull cap or hat if it is not bitter cold, so you can run with it, and still put a helmet on for the bike, then finish the ski portion. A thin balaclava may be another good option.
5) Realize that when you start racing, dress as if it will be 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than when you are standing still.
6) Start SLOW and build your pace. Should the race take place at medium altitude or higher, you will be in oxygen debt quickly if you are not conditioned to race efforts at certain altitudes. Let the pretenders burn themselves out in the first couple of miles, then build your pace and pick them off once they become anaerobic, gasping for air.
1) Get to the race early, and get a good spot. Learn the transition area, and where the run/in and bike out/in locations are. Try to take the closest most direct line to those exits/entrances. Remember that you will have to run through transition in either a pair of running shoes, bike shoes or ski boots. It is not easy to run in snow, and losing time in transition is amplified when you have to run further on it with boots or stiff cycling shoes.
2) Booties? While cycling booties will keep your toes warmer on the bike, they take time. Opt for layering duct tape over the mesh or toes of cycling shoes or use toe covers. Combined with a good windproof or Gore-Tex pair of socks, the toes should be fine unless you have extremely poor circulation.
3) Use elastic laces in your running shoes. Elastic laces are not just for summer racing. You can be in and out of your shoes and on the bike much faster, saving those precious seconds.
4) Have your ski binding in an “open” position. Otherwise, you will have to open them when you get to the ski mount line.
5) Use a red piece of tape just below the handle of your right ski pole. Right pole = Red tape. When your heart rate becomes high after the run and bike, and you start skate skiing without ski poles to get up to speed, you will need to identify the left vs. right specific pole grip while moving. Color identification such as a 2 inch piece of red tape will save you from having to read the tiny word “Right” sewn on the strap of most modern ski poles. One glance at the red tape below the grip and you know exactly which pole goes on which hand.
6) Use clipless or toe clip system. The cleats on the bike may get clogged with snow, but a quick smack on the pedal should clear build up. I noticed one athlete who had a top three bike split (and who is a pro mountain biker), using toe clips WITHOUT the strap, and rode the entire course in Nike racing flats.
1) Make sure you do your speedwork. If the run is the first leg of the race, you will want to finish near the front as much as possible. The trails are narrow on the bike course and could be clogged with mountain bikers; which increases the likelihood of a deep-snow pile up in front of you. The last thing you want is several people buried with their bikes knee deep in snow on a downhill when evasive action is difficult. Do yourself a favor and get ahead of the “crashers”.
2) Check out the course and know trail grooming styles at the race site. Usually there will be a skate ski track and a classical/diagonal ski track, which may be used for portions of the run. The weight of the equipment near the classical/diagonal ski track is often heavier because of the depth of the track needed for this ski technique. The ground is often more firm right next to the track, and a faster running surface if you have to run on part of the bike or ski course. Some groomers will go over the skate track several times to pack the skate track down more, thus making the snow on the skate track more firm. Learn which grooming style your locate race site tends to utilize.
3) Sheet metal screws are not needed unless running on ice. Research online hinted at using several sheet metal screws in the forefoot for better traction during the run. I found this to actually be quite useless unless the ground underfoot was ice. It is much better to use a larger deep lugged shoe to grab the snow, keeping the feet from slipping on the softer snow packed trail. I never had an issue with the larger tread clogging with snow (which would render the lugs useless). Had there been ice, the sheet metal screws would have been an excellent idea.
4) Continually search for hard snow when racing. Stay out of the other foot prints of runners in front of you. Chewed up soft snow (already run on) is more difficult to grip, and as previously stated, many athletes do not know the snow is often harder near the diagonal ski track (if there is one). You can make up a lot of time on the run if your competition stops running on firm snow and you mentally stay in the race by seeking harder snow surfaces to run on.
5) Practice running in snow. This is quite a different experience than on the road or treadmill. Build up your ankles and reflexes by training on snow. Don’t be surprised on race day with a sudden sprain because your body was not ready to handle the unevenness of the run course.
1) Use 2.3+ tires or wider, such as Boazobeana, Kenda or select Conti models. There are many brands out there, but internet searches showed this was an excellent snow tire. Studded tires will not help in soft or deep snow, and could be dangerous if you crash into someone else. Use a non-clogging wide tread pattern when choosing a tire.
2) Purchase a double wide rim such as Snow Cat rims (www.allweathersports.com) I wish I had a pair of these, as the fastest bike splits came from an athlete using these. Although it is not necessary for a fast split, wide rims helped a great deal in producing great bike splits for two competitors (Nat Ross and Mike Kloser). Older frames may need modifications (as my borrowed bike would have had to been so modified), so ask a lot of questions about compatibility with your current bike before you purchase. They do fit most modern frames per the above website without any modifications. Snow Cat rims are a 44 mm wide rim compared to typical 22-32 mm wide rims. The width increases the contact surface area with the snow, giving you better “float” across the snow.
3) Lighten your bike up. I borrowed a near 37 pound mountain bike from a friend. I did not own a mountain bike, and used the tank-like bike with 1.90 inch tires for my first race. I then bought 2.3 inch tires which made it easier to ride on the snow, but the bike still just plowed deep into the snow from all the weight. This resulted in one of the SLOWEST bike splits of the competitors down to my placing (well, other than the fact I’m lacking mountain bike skills). The plan here is to FLOAT on top of the snow, not burrow down into it with to heavy of a bike.
4) Practice biking in the snow. Since I do not own a mountain bike, I spent more time pushing the borrowed bike than riding it. Biking in snow is very different from riding on dry dirt paths. Please note: full suspension is NOT needed in winter triathlon, it will not give you much if any advantage, and the weight may actually be a disadvantage. The winner of the US Nationals “warm up race” actually had NO suspension on his bike at all.
5) Leave plenty of space between you and riders you are about to overtake. Although I was the one being passed 99% of the time on the bike portion, the few I did pass were hair-raising encounters. A wheel in the snow tends to track deeply, and adjustments can be difficult to make, especially on a downhill. If the person in front of you ends up falling, the extra room to avoid a collision will quickly become apparent.
6) Weight of the tire/rim combination is not as important as float and stability for winter triathlon riding. Use a low tire pressure such as 15 to 20 psi. If you have double wide rims, you may be able to use slightly less pressure.
1) Do not depend on the information for waxing from anyone, even the pro shop at the race site the day before. Learn about waxing, then wax the morning of the race if you have to. I unfortunately did exactly this, and paid the price. I ended up being two wax colors off for both races, and had what I consider horrific Nordic ski splits. As an experienced former NCAA II racer, I knew better, but tried to save time on race morning by waxing the day before. Conditions at the site were very different two days prior to race day, than they were anywhere else in the state. However, the night before the race, conditions went the opposite of what they had been. It was not the pro shop’s fault; they just told me what they would do based off of the history of the last several days. In hindsight, I have nobody to blame but myself for poorly waxed skis. Save a poor ski split and figure out the waxing yourself. At least bring your waxing gear with you and wax AT the race site, as attempting to predict conditions from hours away and in the city like I did, can come back to bite you on race day. In my case, I used a much warmer wax than what the conditions called for. The colder/sharper snow crystals anchor into the warmer wax and shorten glide. It really felt like I was skiing through mud and the results were quite “off” for me. Attend a wax clinic at a local ski shop and then use your knowledge to come up with the winning wax of the day.
2) Search for firm snow. Most athletes will use the skate ski technique on the ski leg of the triathlon. The push-off phase of the skate ski motion depreciates power (and glide) in soft snow. This means you should develop the feel for harder snow when racing, to find solid snow to generate a stronger push off. One hint is to look at where most skiers have already skied, as it is often packed down by the weight of the skiers in front of you. On downhill sections, the diagonal/classical track is many times faster than the skate ski track. Getting into an aerodynamic tuck while in the classical track on a downhill is a good time to catch your breath and rest up for the flatter or uphill sections.
3) Wax two pairs of skis. If waxing on race morning is not practical for you, and you happen to have two pair of skis to race with, bring both with each of them waxed differently. One pair should have a warmer wax, the other with a colder wax which nearly overlaps the bottom temperature range of the warmer wax. This way, you ought to have a wide range covered, and will be prepared for most snow conditions.
1) Smile. While some will take the competition too seriously, remember above all, winter triathlon is a sport. Do not yell at the volunteers or other competitors if they knock you off your bike, or crash into you while skiing. Give a shout out to let athletes know you are coming up on them before passing. Thank a volunteer, or owners of the race site, and even encourage a struggling athlete who is losing steam as you pass them. They may be ready to throw in the towel, and your kind words may be just enough to keep them in the game. Of course, if someone is hurt, ask if they need help. Passing an injured athlete is un-sportsman like. A result is not as important as helping someone in need.