Triathlon – the long and the short of it
Australian National Champion Powerlifter, in consultation with Troy Flanagan, Ph.D. , High Performance Director, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA).
Many people start in short triathlons and move up to the longer races, or they train in a group with people who do tris of different lengths. Often people are tempted to stick with their old faithful kit and gear as they go up in distance, or perhaps they’ll run out and get that blue trisuit their squadmate uses, because it makes her look like Mystique in the X-Men movies. This would be wrong (especially the latter, if you’re a guy). There are several subtle differences between the gear and kit you require for short and long course triathlon, and the right choices can make a significant difference to your performance, comfort and how you pull up after the race.
Long vs short course
Short course triathlon gear and kit tends to be based all around speed, both for the race legs and in the transition zones, with little compromise. In long course triathlon, compromising a few seconds here and there makes little difference in the grand total (especially at transitions, which make up a smaller proportion of the race). More importantly, gear and clothing has to maximise the athlete’s comfort and ability to manage their body over the longer racing time. This can also mean more clothing and equipment overall, and the need to gear up appropriately for the weather and the conditions.
Short course – the need for speed
Trisuits Your speedy options for short course tris start with your one-piece tri-suit, especially if you can wear it done up all the way through the race. For many athletes, the shorter the race, the more likely you are to go for the sleeveless trisuit, as they will be able to swim in it with the suit done all the way up with no restriction on your shoulder mobility. However, other athletes – especially those who might be poorer swimmers or accustomed to swimming in a sleeved trisuit – might argue that the sleeves will help with drag reduction on both the swim and the bike legs.
Cooler weather racing
When the water is cold enough to require a wetsuit, many short course triathletes opt for a full-sleeve wetsuit, as the sleeves will add a little more flotation, have less drag and they will let in less water. Some people find that long sleeves can tire the arms with the need to force a higher stroke rate, but this will be less of an issue in a shorter race. Athletes will usually lube from elbows to wrists, knees to ankles and across the feet to help the wetsuit slip off easier. Calf guards and arm sleeves can make it easy to take off your wetsuit, then you can leave them on for the rest of the race – they can provide just enough insulation to keep you warm if it’s cold, plus they will help pump blood back to the heart for better oxygenation of the blood, which will help reduce fatigue.
For colder conditions, you can consider using compression as an undergarment for its ability to help regulate body temperature.
“For cold races I will wear a 2XU Short Sleeve Compression Top under my race suit for the entire race,” says 2XU triathlete Tamsyn Moana-Veale.
The cost aof your bike can range from a few hundred dollars to $20K, but getting the bike set-up right is priceless.
“Racing short course triathlon requires a bike set-up that is a little more aggressive,” says 2XU triathlete Sam Ward. “You need a position where you can be powerful in and out of the saddle and that you are most comfortable cornering, as the shorter races are usually more technical.”
Typically, the short course bike position puts you farther forward over the front wheel so you are more aerodynamic and work your hamstrings more efficiently, which helps your legs in the run phase. The ideal position puts your spine near-parallel to the road and your head is down, but be warned that this position is not so convenient for braking and it’s uncomfortable for long rides.
“Don’t get to carried away with aerodynamics, though,” Sam warns. “If you’re not flexible enough, then you might be sacrificing power transfer as the muscles cannot operate in a state where they are being overstretched and/or lead to injury.”
For the run, racing flats are commonly used – but just for racing.
“I rotate several pairs of Mizuno shoes during training,” Tamsyn say. “I use shoes with more cushioning for long or easy runs, tempo shoes for faster runs and fartlek, and race flats for races.”
Be careful not to overdo it with the minimalist shoes.
“Lots of people go for the lightest shoe and get injured because their tendons and muscles can’t handle the load,” warns Sam Ward.
Long course – ready for anything
Long course racing requires a few little differences and a whole lot of extras when it comes to gear. First up, the wetsuit becomes more prevalent in half and full Ironman events, because over the longer swim leg, the wetsuit might improve your time by 5-10 minutes – and it won’t take you all that to take it off. Longer time in the water means more call for eye protection with goggles, too.
Compression can play a more important role in the longer events, as it helps slow the time to fatigue. This is where a tri shorts and shirts with more compression can help, such as 2XU’s Compression Tri Shorts and Compression Sleeved Tri Top.
Athletes will also start the race with compression calf guards and even compression arm sleeves, which they will keep on for the bike and run legs to support the muscles and even provide some warmth if needed. Calf guards and compression sleeves can also make it easier to slip off a wetsuit, too. The 2XU Flex Compression Run Arm Sleeves are a good option, as they use a seamless construction throughout for greater comfort on the bike and flexible articulated elbow zone for greater freedom of movement when you run.
The longer race duration means half-Ironman and Ironman athletes tend to favour two-piece tri-suits, mainly for ease of access during toilet stops. Just be careful of the ‘burn stripe’ you can get on your back where the top and bottom separate – use sunscreen there! Another consideration is that athletes in the longer races will appreciate shorts and tops that have pockets, and clothing that has better cooling properties, such as the ventilation panels and ICE X2 skin-cooling fabric found in tops such as the G:2 Long Distance Tri Singlet.
The longer the race, the more lube is indispensable. For the swim, you’ll use it on your wrists, feet and ankles for ease of getting the suit off, but also for any high-mobility areas such as your neck, shoulders and armpits. Use chamois cream on the pad of your shorts or directly on skin, and use an anti-chafing product on the bike seat, shorts, your thighs and/or any skin where there can be friction. For the run, consider lubing your thighs and arms, while men’s nipples and women's bra lines tend to need a squirt of lube or some taping.
Cycling – comfort vs performance
The bike position in longer triathlons has to concede a little on aerodynamics to comfort – maybe you can put up with some discomfort for an hour and a quarter, but that little ache can become crippling after a couple hours. The bike leg sees a bunch of items that are optional for short course become essential for long course. There’s the sunscreen and sunglasses. Before race day, test to make sure your sunnies remain comfortable under your helmet after a couple hours), and adjust the lenses for the weather – some glasses have interchangeable lenses for different conditions or you could use photochromic lenses, which vary their tint to adapt to the light. Then there’s cycling gloves and arm sleeves and/or a cycling jersey, depending on the conditions.
More athletes tend to wear socks, too, some even changing into fresh ones at T2. The 2XU Long Range VECTR Socks, an ankle-length sock that protects against abrasion and wicks sweat away from the feet, will be a good option at T1. At T2 it will be worth the extra minute to go the whole hog and put on a set of 2XU Compression Run Socks to support the lower legs and reduce fatigue and muscle soreness by cutting down the vibration through the muscles.
A cap or visor becomes a must-have in the longer races, and the shoes become more comfortable, with athletes typically choosing a well-cushioned road racing shoe. One interesting development recently is the move to ‘maximalist’ style shoes for even greater protection and comfort to the legs and feet. At several major Ironman races around the world, the ‘shoe count’ shows Hokka as one of the top-three most popular shoes among competitors.
Finally, for long course races, pacing is everything. Think about investing in a multi-sport watch and heart-rate monitor (for training and racing) and even a power meter. Learn your ideal race pace and watts in training so you can avoid ‘blowing up’ in a race.