triathlon training mistakes

4 Triathlon Mistakes That Are Keeping You From Performing at Your Best

By Nick White and Chris Carmichael

The complexity of triathlon is one of its most alluring attributes. You can get started simply, but then your engagement with the sport continues to grow and develop along with you. For time-crunched athletes the complexity sometimes needs to be trimmed back; there’s only so much time and focus you can apply to it. In the early season, athletes place a tremendous amount of focus on elevating their aerobic and lactate threshold performances so they’re ready to race. In the middle of the season, however, once you have a few races under your belt, it’s time to take a look at the details that are preventing you from performing at your best and make sure you’re not making these triathlon mistakes.

Mid-season corrections are detail-oriented changes you can make without wholesale changes to your training schedule. Many times they are technique or drill-based solutions; subtle changes that may not impact your fitness that much but that can have tremendously positive impacts on race-day performance. Remember, in highly-nuanced sports like triathlon, it’s not just fitness that wins the day. You have to be fit and ready, but you also have to minimize waste – wasted energy, wasted time, wasted movement.

Correction #1: Can’t Swim Straight in Open Water

Your swimming fitness might be great, but if you’re taking the scenic route you’re wasting time and energy. One common cause of pulling to one side is an arm crossing the centerline of your body, or extending too wide of your center line, during the pull portion of your stroke. Your hands should enter the water in front of your shoulder and should not cross the midline of your body. Perhaps even more important, the paths of both arms should be as equal as possible. This is sometimes difficult for athletes who have had shoulder injuries or have limited range of motion in one shoulder.

One solution is to sight more regularly, but if you increase sighting frequency you’ll also want to practice minimizing the upward head movement during that action so you can minimize stroke disruption. One of the best ways to eliminate the need for frequent sighting is to practice straight-line swimming by swimming in a lane by yourself with closed eyes (it’s useful to have a reasonably accurate count of your strokes-per-length so you know when you’re approaching the wall). Start by trying to take 10 strokes before you touch a lane line, and work up to the point where you can do an entire length of the pool.

Correction #2: You Fade Dramatically After the First Few Miles of the Run

It’s rare for athletes who are pushing themselves to maintain a steady pace throughout the entire length of a triathlon run, no matter if it’s a Sprint, Olympic, or Ironman-distance event. You’ll likely slow down gradually, but if you’re seeing a precipitous slowing after 2-3 miles it’s likely because your pace is too aggressive in the first mile out of T2. But rather than back off your opening mile pace, you can gain the fitness necessary to avoid the drop-off by doing more brick runs after your bike workouts. Some of these brick sessions should be training-focused: a bike workout with 15-30 minutes of accumulated time at lactate threshold power output, followed by a 10-minute running interval at your open 10k race pace. When your rides are longer (2+ hour endurance rides), try a 10-20 minute run at approximately 15-20 seconds per mile slower than your goal race pace.

Correction #3: You Fall Apart in the Final 2-4 Miles of the Run

For beginners, this is sometimes an endurance issue, but for more experienced triathletes – especially triathletes who have bumped up race distance or opted for more aggressive pacing – it’s frequently nutrition related. And it’s not necessarily that you’re consuming too few calories during the run; it’s often a cumulative deficit from the bike leg. You need to train your gut to handle more calories and adjust your nutrition strategy to support your expenditure. The exact amounts and composition of your sports nutrition strategy will vary from athlete to athlete, but aim to get your carbohydrate intake to 25-35% of your caloric expenditure (if you’re using a power meter on the bike, your kilojoules value is approximately equal to your caloric expenditure). If you’re doing 700 kj of work per hour on the bike, that would mean consuming 175-245 calories of carbohydrate, or 44-61 grams. At the same time, aim for 20-40 ounces of fluid and 500-750mg of sodium per hour if you’re not already meeting or exceeding those amounts.

Correction #4: Your Transitions Are Ridiculously Slow

This is something we practice at triathlon camps, and what we see time and time again is that many athletes just take too much stuff to transition. Really, if you want to go faster through transition, take a minimalist approach. At the very least, separate your gear into “must have” and “might need” categories (a.k.a the “Oh S#&t Bag). If your race is going according to plan, you’ll only touch the “must have” gear. And then you have to practice, not just a few times in the two weeks before your race, but frequently. This is one of the unanticipated benefits of the brick-heavy “Time-Crunched Triathlete” training programs; there are a lot more opportunities to practice race-pace transitions. Watch our video on transitions to learn how you can improve.

In the middle of the racing season, endurance and lactate threshold values are often on target or well on the way to new heights. But it isn’t until this portion of the year, when you have a few races under your belt, that you can truly examine your race-day performances and look for the problems that can’t just be solved by improved physiology.

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Nick White is a Premier Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. (CTS). He coached Craig Alexander to Ironman World Championships in 2008 and 2009; as well as 2010 Ironman St. George winner Heather Wurtele. Chris Carmichael is the Founder and Head Coach of CTS, the Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. For information on coaching, camps, and performance testing, visit

Originally published in Triathlete Magazine


Learn more about working with a CTS Triathlon Coach here.

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