25 Mar Incremental Gains to Make Big Leaps
by Patrick Evoe, Professional Triathlete
Now that winter is upon us and your racing season has wound down, you’re probably looking forward to next year’s racing. No matter if you’re a swimmer, cyclist, runner or a triathlete, now is the best time to start planning how you intend to improve your performances next year. We all want to get faster, but that doesn’t happen on its own. Even if you have a coach, it’s your responsibility to take charge of your performance. We’re all looking for that breakthrough race or season. Have you thought through how you will make that happen?
Making a big leap forward isn’t always about training more or training harder. It certainly can help, but rather than shooting for the grand slam, to use a baseball analogy, why not instead look to “Moneyball” your performance. If you’re not familiar with the book or movie based on that book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, I’ll summarize what you need to know and how it’s applicable to endurance sports. In the true story, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team takes one of the worst teams in MLB to being one of the best teams, not by acquiring the best and most expensive players, instead they identified the cheaper players who got them the small gains, the base hits. By building up all of the base hitters, rather than players who swing for the fences, the team became a force with which to be reckoned. Now to your sport, if you focus on making small incremental gains in many different areas, they can add up to make a massive improvement in your overall performance. Hitting a ton of singles can add up to a lot more points than a couple home runs.
To do this, you need to take a step back, break down your sport into its fundamental elements, and look there for smaller areas where you can make changes where each results in incremental improvements. You will need to do your homework, but hopefully, here, I can give you some ideas that will start you on your way. I’m giving you ten ways to make small gains to make next year your big leap forward!
Equipment – One of the quickest and easiest ways you can shave off your race times is through equipment improvement.
through equipment improvements, especially in cycling. Luckily for us, the industry and enthusiasts are always researching and developing new ways to get faster. Even better for us, they continue to offer new equipment or publish how to modify our existing equipment for “free speed.” Your only barriers to making gains for next year in this area are your budget, taking the time to do the research, and your willingness to make equipment changes. First, you need to decide how much money you want to spend to get faster, then you need to research where you can get the “biggest bang for your buck” when it comes to purchasing or upgrading equipment. Most upgrades relate to making yourself and equipment more aerodynamic, lighter, or reducing the friction of your bicycle’s drive train. You can invest in race wheels, aero-helmets, bike frames, aero water bottles, ceramic bearings, low friction race bike chains, an aero sleeved race suit, just to name a few.
Not all equipment changes cost the big bucks, something as simple as changing the positioning and set-up of the water bottles on your bike can make you more aerodynamic and thus save you time over your race. One industry website I’ve found helpful for researching equipment is www.aeroweenies.com. Spend some time on the website reading their reviews, data, and explore their links to other useful resources.
One of the lower-cost improvements to shave time off is through faster racing tires for your bike. Every tire and tube combination has a certain level of rolling resistance that you have to overcome to move your bike forward. There are faster and slower tires, each costing a certain number of watts. The slower tires are eating more power away from the watts you produce from your pedaling. Check out www.bicyclerollingresistance.com. This site tests, reports, and ranks a large number of tires. A couple years ago, after some research, I found that just by changing my race tires, I could save up to 8 watts. To put that in perspective, I may train for a whole year to hold 8 watts higher in a race, but I can make myself that much faster instantly with the cost of two new tires. If you’re willing to make some changes, chances are, with some research and investment, you can engineer time off of your next race just through your equipment.
Nutrition – The next most important area is nutrition. In the sport of triathlon, athletes often refer to race nutrition as the “fourth discipline” after swimming, biking, and running. To be honest, I’ve seen poor race nutrition result in more bad races than lack of fitness. Having an optimal nutrition plan is critical to successful performance. Don’t limit yourself only to race nutrition. Think also about your fueling during training and recovery. If you can train harder and recover faster because of what you’re putting in your body, then you’ll get faster, it’s that simple. In a race situation, if you can take in more calories, or absorb more of the calories you’re taking in then you’ll have more energy during the race. That’s where a superior nutrition product like XRCEL Athlete Fuel can help. Because you’ll absorb more of the right fuel and calories when using XRCEL, versus conventional sports drinks or gels, you’ll have more energy to spend on the course. Now is the best time of year to make changes to your training and racing nutrition so by the time you’re in big training mode and race season, you’ve dialed in your improved nutrition plan.
If you look at the combination of equipment and nutrition this way you’ll get a good idea of what I’m talking about – You can have a super car, like a Ferrari, but if you put low octane gas in it, it won’t perform optimally. Think of yourself as the owner and driver of that super car. The combination of great equipment and great fuel is the under-pinning of great performance and helps to get the most out of all of those long training sessions.
Technique – Each endurance sport has its own unique movements. The timing and manner by which your body engages muscles, coupled with the positioning and angles of your limbs greatly impacts the power your body produces. There are always technique improvements you can make in each sport. Unless you’re a world record holder, you can make improvements. You don’t necessarily need to completely break down and rebuild your running form or swim stroke to create a benefit. Try focusing on one small improvement in each discipline. Stay focused on that one item until it’s ingrained in your technique.
Bike Position – The way you sit on your bike can hurt or improve both your power output and your wind resistance. Small changes to your bike position can lead to gains on the race course. During my off season is the time I play around with my bike position to see if I can make small gains. You can work with a professional fitter, or if you have a decent awareness of your own body you can try to make changes yourself. I once had a professional bike fitter raise my saddle to make it “perfect” by the numbers. Over time, I found I just couldn’t push the same power in that position, so I lowered my saddle a little. By doing this, I found I could engage my glutes more in my pedal stroke and produce more power.
On the aerodynamic side of your bike position, most athletes try to lower the front end (think handlebars) so they’re more aerodynamic. This can help, but it’s not the only place that can lower your drag in the wind. Look at your elbows, shoulders, and head. Think about the shape that your body presents to the wind. Yes, being lower helps, but if you can be narrow, that’s just as important. If you can bring your elbow pads closer together, you’ll improve your profile. Focus on shrugging your shoulders and tucking your head down (while still looking ahead). Instantly, you’re more aerodynamic. It’s not comfortable at first, but the more you practice and train doing these things, you’ve found more “free speed.”
Discipline – Let’s face it, what we do is hard. We all have a tendency to gravitate towards certain habits while training and racing that don’t help our performance because they represent the path of least resistance. If you make the effort to have the discipline to fix or improve some of these habits, performance gains will naturally follow. In running, I found if I don’t focus, I tend to tense and shrug my shoulders. If I concentrate on relaxing my shoulders, that loosens up my body and thus I expend less energy. In cycling, the most obvious example is staying in the aero-position. When you are not tucked into your aerobars, you are sacrificing a lot of aerodynamic drag. This translates into lost speed. The more time you spend in your aerobars, the faster and more efficient you will be. I see countless athletes sitting up in races, just wasting their energy and speed because they’re not in their aerobars. This is nothing but being lazy. Maybe they’re bored or perhaps their backs get stiff from being in the bars too long? Well, that means they’ve been lazy in training and haven’t spent enough time training in the aero-position. Or they’ve been lazy and haven’t worked on their bike positions to be comfortable in the aero-position. You need to have the discipline to spend hours and hours in that position in training if you expect to be able to do it on race day.
Mobility – You will become a better swimmer, biker, and runner if you can improve your body’s ability to create more power through mobility and muscular engagement. By working these areas, top level athletes have discovered and implemented these techniques into their training with great success. A friend of mine who is also a subject matter expert in this area has posted a number of how-to videos on his YouTube channel so you can learn how to do this. Lawrence van Lingen has created movements/exercises to work on your mobility. Take some time to watch his videos and incorporate his exercises into your training, gym, or stretching routines. I can tell you that every athlete I know who’s done this has seen improvements in one way or another. You can find his YouTube channel by searching his name or his user name: lorenzomojo1.
Strength – You’ll hear athletes every winter talk about spending time in the gym to work on their strength for next season. There can be massive benefits to your swimming, biking, and running speed by working in the gym. But is what you’re doing in the gym going to translate into performance improvements? Take time to do some homework to make sure you’re doing the right exercises, weights (heavy/light), sets, and repetitions to benefit your racing. There are a lot of great resources on-line if you spend some time to research. You could spend the same amount of time in the gym this year versus last, but see bigger improvements just by making sure what you’re doing translates directly to your sport.
Focus – Are you focused on getting the most out of each training session? Do you utilize your workout time to the maximum benefit? The best athletes I know are focused when the stop watch is going to get the most out of their training time. Show up on time, be the first one in the pool, and be serious about your session. This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun or joke around, you can do both. You can be relaxed and enjoy what you’re doing, but be focused at the same time. Concentrate on getting the most you can out of every session. Think about the purpose of that workout, then zero in on it and execute. This is a matter of mind set. If you have two athletes doing the exact same training plan and workouts, yet one is more focused than the other, the focused athlete will get more out of each training session and will see bigger performance improvements over time. Don’t just go through the motions of the workout. Make the commitment to yourself that you’ll be more focused in each session. You’re already spending the time, get the most out of it.
Transitions – Have you been racing as a professional in the fast and furious ITU Olympic-distance draft-legal racing for the last decade? I’m guessing none of us have. If that’s the case, I can pretty much guarantee that you don’t have the perfect swim-to-bike and bike-to-run transitions in a triathlon. There is free time savings waiting for you if you can streamline how you move from one sport to the other. Remember, the race clock doesn’t stop between each sport. You may train all year to take a minute or two off of your swim time, but you could take that much time off of your transition with a couple hours of work. (Transition is an optimal time to quickly grab an XRCEL to top off … and GO. In fact, back to my car analogy, the Pit Crew of the PENSKE auto racing understands the urgency of optimal efficiency, having less than 11 seconds to turn over a car. That’s why they choose XRCEL to have a steady on-demand source of energy when they need it most. When there is no room for error they go with the best fuel for the pit crew just like they use the best fuel in their cars.)
Have you mastered the flying mount or flying dismount? That means getting on or off your bike without stopping running. Watch some
YouTube videos or talk to friends who know these techniques. Then go to a safe place and teach/practice yourself. Can you take your wetsuit off in a couple seconds? Practice sliding it off. You can cut a few inches off of the bottom of the wetsuit on each leg so that the hole is a little bigger and will slide off your leg and over your foot easier. Do you run with socks? I found that I can run up to and including a half-marathon without socks in a race if I slather the insides of my shoes with Vaseline before each race. No need to take the time to put on socks! For my second transition, I’ve learned to just take off my bike helmet, slide on my shoes and run. Everything else, putting on hat/visor, putting on sunglasses, putting electrolyte pills in my pocket, putting on my race number, etc, I do while I’m running on the course. Doing all of that while moving forward on the course instead of standing still in transition is free time. A little time thinking through how you can improve your transitions translates directly into real time savings in the race.
Weight – Most athletes know that they should lose a few (or many) pounds. If this is you, then do it this year. Stop talking about it and make it happen. Every pound you lose improves your power-to-weight ratio for both cycling and running. The more weight you lose without losing power is free speed. I’ve always heard that every pound lost is 1-2 seconds per mile improvement in your running speed. Would you like to run 10-20 seconds per mile faster without training harder? It’s “free speed” if you’re willing to lose those 10 pounds.
I’ve covered a lot of ground here, and in all honesty, I’ve only scratched the surface in each of these subject areas. You can see that if you just made a small improvement in each of these subjects over this winter, when race time comes and you add up all of those gains, you are setting yourself up for a big performance leap forward.