As triathletes, we call what we do in the water and on land training – not exercise. There’s a good reason for that. Exercise is an end in itself, done to feel good, burn calories and for general health benefits.
Although training has the same immediate effects as exercise, it also has a long-term goal, a way to achieve the desired result. It’s like the difference between reading and studying. The main purpose of training is to improve.
Besides success, a less desirable byproduct of training is expectation, and unfortunately the unpleasant byproduct of expectation is often disappointment. Of course, the way you internalize this disappointment can produce motivation or discouragement.
But there are times when you practice and you meet or exceed expectations. Your hard work paid off, or seemed to pay off, and you set a personal record. ” How did it happen ? you may ask yourself. Some athletes go so far as to reverse engineer the exact ingredients of their success, so they can repeat it the next time they run.
It doesn’t always work, as two-time Ironman World Champion Scott Tinley can attest. After winning Ironman New Zealand a year ago, he quickly wrote down everything he did before that victory, with the goal of bottling up the formula. The secret sauce, as Tinley discovered, had an “expiration date” of one minute past the finish line.
But just because it didn’t work for Tinley doesn’t mean there aren’t key things that can increase your chances of setting a personal best the next time you hit the pool, on the track or at Watopia.
Related: Test your way to a swimming PB next season
First, let’s define what a personal best (PB) is not. Winning a race or winning your age group is not necessarily a personal best, as that outcome can largely be determined by the actions or inactions of others. You could have showed up to an event with little or no practice, been the only person in your age group and “win” it. It’s not a feat. On the non-running front, setting a personal best for running 10k when running all downhill isn’t a 10k personal best, it’s a personal best for running that distance downhill.
While it is easy to define what a PB is not, defining what a PB is is much more difficult. That first word in PB is personal – and personal can be very, very, subjective. First and foremost, the milestone you create should be meaningful to you. Multiple-time Ironman winner Jordan Rapp believes a personal best can’t be reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet. He remembers his victory in Leadman in 2011 near Las Vegas. He was the only male professional to finish and won the race over second place Angela Naeth by over an hour. “It was a 223 km course with crazy winds, zero shade and temperatures of 42°C. It was racing that made me feel “I’m back” after my accident in 2010.
Whether you’re an established pro or an enthusiastic age group, a big part of a personal best is the meaning you attribute to the performance.
Absolute vs Conditional PBs
In addition to the specific meaning you attribute to performance, you also need to understand the distinction between an “absolute” PB and a “conditional” PB. An absolute PB represents your best time over a given distance. A conditional PB means your best performance after taking into account environmental conditions (weather, geography) and your personal conditions when setting this PB. For example, finishing a half-distance race in under six hours might not have been a big deal for you when you were in your early twenties, but the same accomplishment in balancing a family, a new job, and Household responsibilities in your thirties or later can be a big deal. With those caveats in mind, let’s look at ways to increase your chances of claiming another PB.
Whether you’re a golfer, boater or triathlete, you can’t deny the important role weather plays in achieving a personal best. The difference between a headwind or a tailwind in a race can lead to huge differences in your split times. The same goes for temperature. There’s a reason why seven people spent less than eight hours at Ironman Copenhagen last August, and why only three people have already done it in Kona. And if you’re a typical Canadian triathlete, the opportunities to get used to doing your best in the heat can be very limited. If you’re about to set a PB, choosing the day to make your attempt can mean the difference between success and failure.
Rest and refueling
Although Mother Nature holds many cards for setting a personal record, there are some factors you can control to your advantage. Your aces in the hole are rest and supply. To maximize your chances of hitting that personal best, sacrifices have to be made and, for us triathletes, one of them is to train less. That’s of course what a cone is, letting the body fully recover before making the big attempt. Life sports coach Lance Watson says tapers aren’t a one-size-fits-all process — an athlete’s unique physiology and the event they’re tapering for must be taken into account.
When it comes to fuel, books have been written and empires have been built on what should go into your mouth to taste gold. Perhaps multiple Ironman Canada winner Lisa Bentley said it best when she said it’s all about salt, sugar and water, and finding the right balance for you. And of course there is caffeine.
Related: 6 Off-Season Nutrition Tips for Achieving Triathlon PB
Consistency versus risk taking
Whether you hear it from your trainer, someone on an internet forum, or a workout buddy, chances are they’re all part of the chorus that follows the concept that “consistency in time produces results”. But, when your consistent training plan locks you into a plateau of mediocrity, it’s time to walk to the edge and take a leap of faith. Does that mean training more? Does that mean less training?
Making changes and taking calculated risks to reach that next level is one of the things that makes participating in multi-sport races so challenging and engaging. One of the risks Ironman and Challenge champion Jeff Symonds took was leaving his training paradise of Penticton. He went to train in Bendigo, Australia ahead of Ironman Western Australia in 2015. The new training environment gave him the edge to win his first Ironman. The following year he returned to Bendigo hoping to replicate his success. It did not work. After arriving in Australia, he got injured and also had mechanical problems with his bike. His final preparation for the race went badly and his race even worse and he had a rare DNF. At the time, Symonds felt like the experiment was a disaster, but looking back, he realizes the backfire is only part of the process. As he says, “I would have preferred to hit multiple times and hit a few home runs, rather than always hitting singles.”
One of the appealing aspects of our sport is that it gives gear fetishists an endless stream of stimulation. And, while there are as many misses as there are hits when it comes to effective gadgets, when something works, it would be unwise not to implement it. When aiming for that PB, are you using the best tools for the specific job? If it’s an open water swim, do you use this long-sleeved wetsuit? If it’s a cycling time trial, are you using a disc wheel and a TT bike? Also, are you using your gear in the most effective way for the specific situation?
Ironman Canada champion Jasper Blake recalls a lesson he learned from a three-time Ironman world champion, in 2000. I had gels stuck on it and in a last minute job I taped a container of yogurt between the TT bars for extra pieces of energy bar. I parked my bike the day before the race next to Peter Reid. The contrast in our setups was sobering. My bike was set up for an epic adventure. Reid’s bike was set up to win. It was the cleanest thing I have ever seen and when Reid was on it the bike felt like an extension of him. His bike was like an F1 racing car.
After the race, Blake took a look at his bike setup and hit a wind tunnel. The yogurt container is gone and it appeared on the top step of the podium in 2006. Like most things in life, it’s the little things added together that can make a big difference in the end.
Between the ears
While using the best equipment you can afford can produce a “no excuses” mentality that can contribute to a personal best, there are other psychological strategies you can use that won’t cost you a penny. Mentally rehearsing the race can help. Acting out the image of you successfully achieving your goal during the days leading up to the event can help promote feelings of trust and familiarity, contributing to a significant mental advantage.
Positive self-talk before a big race can also help, according to Canadian Olympian Joanna Brown. Prior to the recent Tokyo Olympics, she suffered from a kidney infection. She was also stressed about the qualifying process needed to make the team, as well as the behind-the-scenes drama at Triathlon Canada. When she received confirmation of her team status, she began to wonder if her training was good enough. She was afraid to get to the start line in Tokyo and felt lethargic.
To assuage her fears, instead of focusing on negatives and assumptions, Brown relied on all of her successes. She reflected on her previous performances and her successful preparation over the past few years. She thought, “You did the job, now get to the start line and give yourself a chance.” It was just the inner pep talk she needed, and Brown had one of her best swims that day. His advice is to “trust your body on race day – or whenever you ask it for something special, give it a chance, and it can do amazing things.”
Kevin Heinze is a coach at the Abbotsford Triathlon Club and host of the endurance sports podcast, Fitspeek.