How to Get Faster at Triathlon with £500: Stuff Vs Experience

Let’s play a game. Maybe it’s one you’ve played on more than one occasion in your head (or better yet, in real life).

You have a pot of money to invest in triathlon. For the sake of this scenario, we’ll say £500. How do you spend it?

For many age-group triathletes, with all kinds of competing priorities, this situation is a real one. At the end of the day, triathlon is a hobby. A hobby we love and compete fearlessly in, but a hobby nonetheless.

Though a hobby, triathletes still crave improvement. We all want to improve our performance and our times. This requires huge investments, whether commitment, dedication, time, or money.

Here in lies the tension. Where can we focus our triathlon investments to get the biggest bang for our performance buck?

Some are fortunate to have disposable to drop on the newest carbon TT bike, wetsuit, or race wheels. It’s no coincidence that the most populous triathlon age groups are over 30 years old.

Credit: wsj.com
Credit: wsj.com

But if you’re a young, cash-strapped athlete or a money-conscious mom with two young children, you’ll inevitably face trade-offs. Whether once or every year, you’ll need to decide how to allocate your pot of dedicated triathlon money.

You have £500. How do you spend it?

As a coach, I hear this question often. Out of all the things I could buy, how do I decide what’s best?

First, step back and understand your goals and where you’re coming from. These should always guide your decisions in the sport. Are you just out for enjoyment? Are you a beginner and finishing an IRONMAN is on your bucket list? Or, are you a top age-grouper with several years in the sport who’s trying to qualify for Kona? Your answers to these questions will help inform how you allocate your money.

I think about triathlon investments in two buckets: Stuff and Experiences.

Stuff

The ‘Stuff’ category includes all the gear. You could sell your old bike and upgrade to a new one. The same goes for new carbon race wheels, or switching to an aero bike helmet. This might gain you a few minutes over the course of an IRONMAN distance bike leg. Of course, the longer the triathlon, the more cumulative time you’ll save through improved aerodynamics. But, in general, these are steep investments for relatively small returns. As Jim Gourley, author of FASTER: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed, puts it:

 “Bikes are neither fast nor slow. Bikes are shiny or expensive. Bikes have a lot of mass or a little. Without a rider, they are stationary.”

A £5,000 bike is only worth it if it fits properly. And it only goes fast if the rider can produce a lot of power to propel it forward.

Experience

Instead, you might consider the “experience” approach, and focus on the rider. One of the best predictors of cycling speed is a rider’s power to weight ratio. A 72 kg athlete who averages 250 watts during a 90 km half-Ironman bike leg will be faster than a 90 kg athlete who holds the same power output on the same course. Shedding a few pounds of body weight will result in larger gains on the bike than shedding a few grams of bike weight. To achieve this, an athlete might consider any number of approaches that are a much cheaper alternative to a new bike: nutrition changes; more training time; a different mix of cycling training sessions; strength training; or improved sleep.

Craig_0142Many of the same principles apply to running. It’s no secret that the best runners in the world can produce an incredible amount of power while weighing just 60 kgs.

Okay, if you’re a slender athlete and you want to increase your power output, what could you invest in? Again, a “stuff” approach might point towards purchasing a power meter. Now, I’m in no way discounting the benefits of training with a power meter. There are huge benefits. There are also more options on the market beyond just a Powertap, including the new Garmin Vector pedals, the Quarq, which Team Sky uses, or the new inRide power device that pairs with the Kinetic by Kurt turbo trainer.

You could, instead, take an “experience” approach with training and racing. Spend more training time riding hills. Sign up for another race. Enter century rides or other cycling-specific events, like time trials.

Let’s switch to triathlon’s most technical discipline, swimming. You want to cut 10 seconds off your 100m time. One simple solution, if you don’t have one, is a wetsuit. This is a triathlon staple, almost as important as a bike. But, while a wetsuit improves buoyancy, improves body position in the water, and reduces drag. It shouldn’t be a crutch.

Your best bet will be to take the “experience” route; focus on improving technique and critical swim speed. This is where some small investments can produce some pretty large gains. A swim stroke analysis or a few sessions with a coach can help correct stroke flaws. Or, pick up a swim training book, like Swim Smooth, which offers a suite of drills and sets to incorporate into your training based on your particular weakness.

This article isn’t about sharing any secret formula. Instead, I encourage you, like I do with the athletes I coach, to think about your goals and the necessary steps to get there. In many cases, that £500 I gave you at the beginning of this article can’t buy one of the things that separates age-groupers from professionals: time. We have full-time jobs, family commitments, home improvements, and any number of obligations that fill our day. We don’t train 30 hours per week.

But with triathlon, like many other financial decisions in our lives, we can choose to buy more “stuff” or we can invest in “experiences.” Research shows that it’s generally the later that makes us happiest. So, when it comes time to allocate your triathlon pot of money for the year, consider experiences.

This article originally appeared at TRAINING a RUNNER: the better running magazine.

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