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Priorities – What Will Really Make You Faster

Priorities – What Will Really Make You Faster

During our off season, many of us ask ourselves what our priorities are for the next triathlon season.

Different people have different priorities. For some it may be improving their swim, learning more about different training methods at a training camp, or perhaps upgrading their equipment. Sometimes this can lead to buying new equipment we don’t really need (or want), although another jersey or a new bike may provide motivation to train harder. 😉 Priorities all serve a similar purpose – to help us to be faster in the next season.

Every year there are ‘breakthroughs’ in new equipment, training protocols, recovery methods, and nutritional products. However, we should not forget the basics, of what actually makes us faster. It is training  and common sense…, so often forgotten or over shadowed by the promises of improvements without effort or commonly called ‘free speed’.

I recently came across an article (Forget The Gadgets and Hacks: Nail The Basics) which examined these current trends in a simple but powerful comparison. Athletes who are chasing the ‘last’ 1% might have forgotten that what actually makes them faster is the ‘first’ 99%. The 99% being the basics: a sound training plan executed well, accompanied by recovery (primarily sleep) and good natural nutrition.

It is my belief as a coach that even sound nutrition and recovery are secondary to a good training plan executed well!


Avoiding the gadgets decreases distractions. Photo: The Guardian

I would like to use the example of an athlete I coach. She has a very demanding and stressful job, gets by on limited sleep, and her nutrition could be better. She has a basic understanding of equipment, and her position on the bike has room for improvement. Despite what many would see as shortcomings, she has instead focused on the 99%. The result; a 2 hour improvement in her Ironman.

Why has she improved?
She takes her training seriously, yet is not tempted or distracted by the 1%. Whilst training is a priority in her busy schedule, she still finds time for family and friends. However what she does not spend time on is reading about triathlon, researching new equipment, trying superfoods, doing fitness tests and analysing every workout! Her head is not filled with clutter. If she has an extra 30 minutes, she goes for a short swim or a run.

With permission below are extracts taken from her race feedback after her recent ‘A’ race (where she recorded her huge Ironman distance PB).

  • I was so fit and felt so good. I was actually thinking the other day that one of the advantages of always eating sweets and all sorts of things is that then in the races I can eat anything on the bike with no problems at all. I ate so many chocolates on the bike that for a moment I thought I would end the Ironman weighing more than when I had started!
  • Yes it is true about pushing more in the Ironman. I do not think I could have pushed more on the run, but then when I see the pictures at the finish still looking so fresh, I am wondering if I just wanted to look good for the picture, that I always keep 1% energy to cross the finish line, or maybe simply that I still had something more to give?
  • My bike position, indeed, possibly loads to improve (I did not tell you as I felt embarrassed but I had not practiced with the aerobars on my bike before the race except that day in 70.3 race last month, all the aerobar position I had practiced was on the watt bike in the gym).
  • My friends and triathlon colleagues were shocked by my performance in the Ironman, and started asking about the type of wheels I had as they noticed I never had aero wheels before. None asked about the training plan, the coach ( or all the effort we have put in to make me fitter; rather it was like they credited it to the wheels only.
  • We did certainly cause some sort of shock in my club as I was first female in the race and nobody expected this considering I was one of the slowest people on the bike at any distance and now many want to know about what do I do, what bike I have, etc etc. I would rather be unnoticed and keep doing my training.
  • I am recovering much faster than I had expected. I have been doing 20 minutes of swim, or very easy bike every day, and that has helped a lot.
  • Training for the Ironman was easy. Every day I did the training plan you sent me. I have no time to read or think about my sessions, it is your job to do all this stuff and give me sessions that are right for me.

The improvements this athlete achieved last season were great. Could she improve more? Probably yes!
We start this season with more experience, and with that we may choose to focus more on nutrition, better equipment and recovery. Last season we worked with what we had, with the time available, and what she was comfortable with. We concentrated on the first 90%, resulting in an outstanding race performance.

Happy Training and a successful 2017 season.


Rafal Medak is a coach based in London.
Join Rafal in Maspalomas, Gran Canaria in March and April for his Triathlon Camps. online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.


Open Letter To Ironman: Age Groupers Deserve a Fair Race

Labelling age group athletes ‘cheats’ and ‘people without morals’ overlooks the real problem.

I will start with a disclaimer that the opinions and comments expressed in this blog are mine and not those of Trisutto, our coaches or athletes.

I would also like to explain my ‘relationship’ with Ironman racing. I have been racing IM and 70.3 for more than 10 years. I have completed 25 Ironmans and 40 something 70.3 races. This was my 6th consecutive Kona. I love the sport, it is my hobby, lifestyle and escape from the daily stress at work. I’m passionate about it. I also coach a small number of athletes, most of whom will race events organised by Ironman next year, with some having a realistic chance to qualify for Kona. I would like them to have best possible experience during their races and be able to show what they have achieved through hard training.

I want the best for our sport and for Ironman to continue being as successful organisation as it also allows us to have the great experience of racing long distance. However, in order to deliver best product some things need to change as the format of a number of races, including Kona, effectively have these events ‘semi-drafting’ at best.

Finally, I will also admit that until not so long ago I was of a very strong view that drafting is only caused by athletes who choose to cheat in races. That it was only an athlete’s choice to ride fair or not and this opinion was primarily based on my experience from races having quite hard bike courses – like Ironman UK, Wales or South Africa.

However, following Kona 2016 and discussions with fellow athletes, coaches and people who have a deep understanding of bike race dynamics I understood that riding in a pack is now actually unavoidable in many races. The responsibility for a fair race lies not only with athletes but also the race organisers who design the courses and format of the race.

Men’s AG Race in Kona

I, along with many others, were very disappointed and angry during the race because, despite of what people may say, it was not possible to have an individual race. It got even worse after the race due to a number of comments on social media accusing a large number of male age groupers for blatant drafting. Athletes riding in packs were called all sort of things (cheats, drafters, people without morals are just a few examples); often by people working in the triathlon industry, who should but not always (similarly to me before) understand dynamics of races and courses.

These people ‘without morals’ and ‘cheats’ are your customers. How would you feel if you were called this way if you were being overtaken and caught in a picture in the middle of a pack?

Example of media posts by people from the triathlon industry include:

In Germany we call this: Cycling Tour Ride – not a World Championship.

Bad to see so many age grouper athletes without any morals; The organisation should react with start waves and bigger penalty tents!… Not only for pro-athletes;

IM Kona is a joke…..

We would love to put a secret container next to the road and film cheating age groupers and then present it at the finish line: ‘There is no finisher medal or T Shirt for you… Mr Cheater!’

I waited few weeks for the emotions to settle, waiting for more comments, maybe someone writing something less accusing about this situation, but I have not found anything comprehensive so far (even Brett Sutton’s blog which only touched very lightly on this issue).

There was also a heated discussion agreeing with my conclusion on Slowtwitch where actually they show that the problem exists in a number of races:

ironman-draftingRecent Ironman events at Kona, Brazil, Cozumel, Arizona, Melbourne, Florida…

Thanks to Jonathan Caron for compiling them:

I decided to write a cold analysis of the problem, rather than an emotional one.

What was happening on the bike course, my perspective:

Everyone could see the packs riding on the course. There must have been as big as 30-40 riders, maybe more. Often athletes were riding 3 or 4 wide and the space between the packs, if there was any, was very small not allowing packs to spread as there was not enough space on the road. Racing Kona since 2011 it has got worse, but I have not experienced anything even remotely close to what I have experienced this year. Maybe because I exited the swim in 1:05 (instead my usual 1:10 or 1:15).

Looking at the pictures and what I could see on the course 100s of male AG athletes should have received a drafting penalty or got disqualified as not many could actually ride following the rules. Someone made a comment on Facebook: ‘the first 25 guys were ‘clean’ the rest were ‘cheats’. Really? Everyone else are cheats? Or is the real problem somewhere else; maybe only those top 25 very fast swimmers/bikers had enough space to race?

There were no marshals on the course around the packs, they started appearing on the climb to Hawi often giving penalties for slow overtaking into head wind to people who were riding 2 aside. However, I have seen no marshals at all when all those pictures were taken during first 90 or 100km. I assume marshals were with Pros or at the back where they had space to ride their motorbikes safely.

There were 2 or 3 marshals’ motorbikes parked next to Hawi penalty tent and when I ask them why they are not doing anything they replied: ‘It is too dangerous, the packs are too big’…

I was also caught in the middle of all of this but it was really impossible to ride ‘clean’. I tried to go to the front when there was a gap, then I would be caught by a pack, then you are in the middle of the pack, I tried to find some space dropping back only to see that there was absolutely no space as more people were coming from behind pulled by stronger cyclists. I looked back at the top of one of the hills and I could not see the end of the line of athletes riding 2 or 3 side by side so dropping back was not an option. I could have stopped and waited on the side of the road for 10 minutes, but should we train hard and come to Kona to experience this?

I agree that there are a small number of athletes who draft bluntly and intentionally, but most of people I spoke with during and after the race wanted to be able to ride legally and they have qualified riding legally. Chris McCormack summarised it very well in his Facebook post.


Why do we have this problem?

There is now not enough space on the road to accommodate so many strong athletes. Either the format of the race needs to change or the number of competitors should be significantly smaller if the race continues as a mass start event.

The AG athletes are getting faster, they train more, harder, smarter, and are coming from other sports into Ironman. In order to qualify for Kona one needs to be able swim around 60min or faster and ride around 5 hours on a course of an average difficulty. This applies to pretty much all male age groups between 18 and 55. This means that all those competitors exit the water in Kona around the same time and ride at a very similar speed so if there is no space for them to spread out a pack will form. It is not such a big problem in qualifying races as maybe there will be up to 100 people being able to swim and ride that fast, while in Kona there are probably closer to 1,000 – though some races are known for drafting (e.g. type in google ‘IM Barcelona drafting’ and go to Images tab). In a number of other races there are also rolling starts so people spread over 20-30min even before they enter the water, then the marshals also have space to monitor what is happening on the course and give penalties to those cheating.

To illustrate the scale of the issue I’ll give another comparison – pretty much all Pro Men exited water within 5 or 6 minutes. In the AG race over 350 male athletes exited between 60 and 65 minutes – can you imagine what would be happening in the Pro race if there were 350 Pros in it? To make it worse close to 270 AG men swum between 55 and 60 minutes and 285 between 65 and 70 minutes. If you add those 100 who swum sub 55, there are 1000 athletes exiting water within 15 minutes!

The number of athletes racing Kona has been increasing slowly over last years with approximately 2,300 racing this year and with the addition of 70.3 Kona qualifying races in China we should expect that there will be more people on the start line in 2017.

Also the ocean was relatively friendly this year and the swim times were faster. This allowed people who otherwise may have swum 5-10 min slower to exit the water towards the front. As mentioned before there were no marshals on the first half of the course to prevent packs from forming, even if they were there they would not be able to do anything.

Most importantly the mass start format is not appropriate anymore for this race due to the the level and the number of the competitors. It is a Championship race and pretty much everybody is fast here.

By the Numbers


Being an accountant I thought should be able to illustrate my assumption that there was not enough space on the road numerically. I came up with a simple analysis trying to prove that it is impossible for top AG man to ride within the rules – see the table above.

We had ca. 350 athletes exiting the swim within 5 min with the swim time 60-65min. In order to ride legal 12 metres apart (front to front or 6 bike lengths or 10m + a bike) they would need over 4.2km of the road to spread into one long legal line. Travelling at 36kmph 4.2km takes over 7 minutes but they have exited the swim within 5min so already 40% of this group don’t have the time/space to ride legally. Also people swimming between 55 and 60min and 65-70 don’t have enough space as they need more than 5 minutes to cover distance required to ride legally. If people go slower they will need more time so riding slower actually makes the situation even worse.

What about overtaking? Faster athletes may attempt to continuously overtake those traveling at 36k. In order to overtake 4.2km line of athletes riding at 36kmph in one hour the overtaking athlete needs to go 4.2kmph faster – over 40kmph and it would take them 40km to get to the front, not many Pros average 40kmph and over 40k they would be riding parallel to someone else. More realistically a faster cyclist going at 38kmph (also not many of those) would need 2 hours or 76km to overtake such a line! If people were riding side by side 4.2 line becomes two 2.1k lines but is it realistic for 350 people ride at slightly different speed orderly side by side?

Who is affected by the situation?


It is not only problem for the athletes and the organisers. It is a WTC business decision to have so many people but there is a risk associated with it, we don’t come to Kona to ride in a leisurely pack. I come to Kona to test myself in an individual race and I would like to be able to do so.

The coaches should take the note, your athletes train to race individually and some of them will be negatively affected by the drafting problem as they will finish in a much worse position than they would otherwise. Especially if they are not great runners.

The equipment manufacturers are next. All the benefits of aero helmets, super-bikes, bearings, aero clothing mean nothing if you are not riding individually but in a pack. This problem was best summarised by one of the pros who wrote a following message on Facebook:

If I ever go to Kona again as an age grouper, I think I can leave my aero helmet at home, save the trouble and money for bike transport and rent a road bike…

What is also important is the fairness of the competition, the spirit of sport. I think few people might have been ‘robbed’ from the podium and the umeke went to someone else. If a strong swim—cyclist rode solo all the distance it is likely that he/she was outrun by a good runner who was forced to ride in a pack. I’m sure most of us would like to know that our champions are the strongest triathletes not fastest runners.


This year for the first time I started asking myself questions I thought I would never ask: Do I need to race Kona again? Is Kona a Championship course or maybe there are other locations where the race would be more fair? The answer to those questions is still yes – I love Kona and I would like to come back here and I think it is a magical location, however, I would not like to come back next year to be forced to ride in a pack and be called a ‘cheat without morals.’

Happy training and racing to everyone and I hope to see you out there in a genuinely non-drafting race.


Rafal online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

Training by Feel: It May Save Your Race

Training by Feel: It May Save Your Race

Running Hill Reps ‘on feel’ at St. Moritz training camp earlier this season.

Following the response to my article Training by Feel last week and some of the comments I received on email and social media I would like to share with you my own experience to illustrate why training by feel and learning to listen to your body is so important not just in training – but for your racing. This is my own example but I’m sure it will be familiar to many racing.

In my last Ironman I had a very average swim which wasn’t a surprise, I was coming off a shoulder injury and so didn’t panic getting out of the water. I knew I can do much better on the bike with all the consistent training I did over last few months. I do race with the power meter, more for keeping my enthusiasm at the bay rather than anything else, as like many I tend to go to hard in the early stages of the bike. I have an alarm set at a certain level and every time I go to hard it goes on and I need to ease off. From time to time I look at my average power and the normalised power to confirm if I’m working at the ‘right’ intensity. I know what I can do over a distance and adjust it for the specific course profile and weather conditions and as long as I’m within 10-15W either way from what I did in training I’m happy. However, in this race the computer did not start, there was no power readings, no cadence, no heart rate!… I have no idea why, It never happened to me before, the equipment was tested in so many training sessions, batteries charged before the race, powermeter calibrated, I did everything the manuals required me to do, still no readings!!!

I have to admit that when I realised what is happening I have panicked for a moment, how I am going to pace myself now? No power reading is not so much an issue for me but I often pace myself using the heart rate monitor and I use cadence in races. Not this time!

Then I thought ‘I will not allow a piece of electronic equipment to ruin my race’, especially as it something that it cannot slow me down, it is not a broken wheel or a flat tyre. Living in England for years I’m often exposed to their dry sense of humour and one of the sayings that I’m very often exposed to is ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ and this is what I decided to do in the race. Control what you can control, stay focused, read what your body is telling you, race the way you feel at the moment. Basically, focus best you can on the process and accept the outcome whatever it is going to be.

MMM training explained.

Very often during our training sessions we work off our MMM (Moderate, Medium, Mad) sets. The intensities translate loosely to Ironman, Half Ironman and Olympic distance, most of the time we do them without measuring devices, we go as hard or as slow as our body allowed us to and how we feel on the day. This training helps us to learn how different intensities should feel so I knew what to do – go as in training, feel the pressure on the pedals, don’t spin, but when legs start hurting or I start breathing heavily, back off. This is how I rode the first lap and I felt in control. Around half way point out of nowhere I hear an annoying ‘beeeeeep’. This could mean only one thing – my computer decided to start cooperating and was telling me that on this hill you are going a bit to hard. I continued riding the same way as I started, and only occasionally backing off when I could hear the alarm. From time to time I looked at my HR which was almost exactly where I wanted it to be.

I finished the bike strong and still had legs for a decent run and it was one of my best Ironman rides out of 20- something I completed and overall a very nice experience. Back at home I downloaded the data and checked my bike splits on the Ironman website. I was pleasantly surprised to see very even numbers throughout, although this is what I secretly expected.

Our training philosophy follows ‘perceived exertion’ or ‘train by feel’ approach much more than any other. The main reason is that training be feel helps our athletes to avoid overtraining and eliminate the risk of disappointment which may negatively affect other sessions.

However, now I experienced another very good reason: It can save your race. It is always a liberating feeling to surprise yourself and let your body decide how hard should feel! online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

Training by Feel (And Feeling Better Doing It!)

Training by Feel (And Feeling Better Doing It!)

Summer training in St. Moritz.

At we often remind our athletes about the importance of training by feel. We frequently take away all the gadgets from them before a session and ask them to exercise the judgement in terms of intensity or time of exercise, or both. Recently Head Coach Brett Sutton asked me to give him my stopwatch and the Garmin prior to a track running session. Why? I was supposed to run 200m intervals hard but was training at an altitude of 1825m in St Moritz. Believe me, it feels completely different than at the sea level. I often train on the track in London and try to hit certain splits, but no matter the conditions I try to run equally fast wherever I train. I know I shouldn’t, I know the reasons for running slower but still it’s in my nature (and probably the nature of most triathletes) to try to get the best time each time. But to keep pushing for the sea level splits, I’d be going deep into red and the cost of such a session to my body would be way too big. It may cost an extra 2-3 days of recovery before you could push hard again. Training without the stopwatch meant that I ran what felt ‘hard’ – I didn’t know the splits, I was happy with the session when I completed and I did not have to analyse if I was running at my ‘normal’ pace, or the reasons for running above it or below it. Job done, good session, happy athlete, happy coach.

These principles apply equally to training at the sea level as so many variables affect the way we feel and the intensity and speed we can generate. Chasing your PB in every session is not a good idea and the times or Watts may not be as an objective a measure of the session as many think. Our body responds to training and other external factors like work stress, family commitments, recovery, sleep amount in different ways. Comparing is only really possible if the impact of such stress factors is minimised. As an example one of my athletes a week before a key race during a busy time at work complained that she is unfit, swimming felt hard and slow, no power on the bike, lack of speed on the run. 10 days later after 4 or 5 nights of 7-8 hours sleep and reduced training volume during the taper she had a race of her life smashing PBs in all disciplines asking ‘where did this fitness come from?’

It came from the consistent training and her hard work over many months before the race. There are no mysteries in sport; conditioning, speed, strength and speed are built day after day, month after month and year after year. Comparing each session and measuring everything can be detrimental if taken out of context. I often see athletes stressing about their training sessions which did not go as they would like to, it upsets them causing additional stress that in turn further suppresses training performance. Don’t get me wrong, we are not against all the gadgets all the time. I love them as much as most of you do and if used correctly they do help with monitoring the training and long term performance, but we should not become slaves of the numbers in everything we do in training.

In my next blog I will share with you an example to illustrate the point. In the meantime happy training by feel and ‘perceived exertion’. online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

Part II: Racing in the Heat – It’s Not a Beauty Contest

Part II: Racing in the Heat – It’s Not a Beauty Contest

Fastest amateur athlete last year in Kona, Malte Bruns from Germany! Photo: Malte Bruns

This time it will be more ‘personal’ and so I will start with a disclaimer! The views and ideas expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone. I’m not sponsored and don’t have any association with companies whose products I’m using during races.

After published my first blog on racing in the heat I have received few messages asking specific questions. It is very difficult to help a person without understanding how their body works or how they will react to different potential approaches to solving their individual problems – but there were few very similar questions and I decided to share with you my opinions.

I will start with reminding what happens with an athlete’s body when he/she races in higher temperatures than they are used to It is a very simplistic explanation, you can find more detail explanations in different articles or scientific publications:

  • When we race in hot conditions our body tries to keep the core temperature down, protecting itself from overheating.
  • More blood is directed towards the skin, we sweat and sweating helps with the cooling process.
  • The blood volume gradually reduces if we don’t replenish lost fluids, the same happens with salts in our body, they are washed out with the sweat.
  • In order to keep the same intensity the heart needs to pump blood at a higher rate (there is less blood available to be directed working muscles) so our HR goes up. We also use more glycogen as fuel (and it runs out quickly).
  • There is less blood around our intestines and as a result we are not able to digest food/absorb fluids at the same rate. As a result we may end up dehydrated or completely powerless with a stomach full of fluids/food that leads to less pleasant consequences. (Needless to say I have experienced it few time before).

What happens at this stage most of us would know: we significantly slow down, or even are forced to walk and it is not uncommon that we need to ‘reset’ our stomach.

Not a nice picture? Indeed not, I hope we have established now that the key to a good race in the heat is to keep the body temperature down and staying hydrated which brings me to my answers to few questions from the readers:

I noticed you were not wearing an aero helmet in Ironman South Africa, why?

I tend to overheat when I’m wearing an aero helmet in hot races, I start sweating more, the sweat flows into my eyes… I feel hot, you get the picture. I have tried a few options and noticed a big difference in how I feel on the bike and then on the run when I wear a semi-aero helmet or even a standard helmet in hot races. I had by fastest runs when I was not wearing aero helmets.

You had a good bike split, how did you pace yourself?

I race by feel on the bike most of the time but in hot races I monitor regularly my HR, both on the bike and on the run. I have a definitive cap I’m not going to cross whatever happens so I need to be very disciplined. You cross the line once or twice, you may gain a minute or two but it will most likely bite you towards the end of the bike or on the run. Remember – higher HR means you are either overheating, getting dehydrated, working too hard for your ability and fitness level or a combination of all.

It was a hot race but you were wearing an elbow length sleeved top on the bike and on the run?

Yes, but it is not so much for aero advantage on the bike – I spray cold water on the top and when it is wet it feels cooler, it also protects from the sun burn. On the run I was wearing a different top – custom made from cold black fabric. Apparently it helps to keep the body temperature down, I cannot say if it does but if you believe it helps it do the trick! Again long sleeve more for sun protection and to avoid chafing under arms – I hate it!


Finally, on the picture of Part one I’m wearing a Camelbak – did you really wear it on the race day?

Yes, this is a picture from the race. There is a bit of a story associated with this one – Head Coach Brett (Sutton) was telling me stories about his athletes in the past racing with backpacks and suggesting I should use one as I sweat a lot and slow down after half way in an Ironman, but I have to admit I was a bit sceptical. Only slowest Age Groupers wear Camelbaks, right?

My view completely changed when I saw a guy running very well in IM Lanzarote last year wearing one. I ‘met’ him again in Kona charging like a race horse wearing his small backpack coming out of Energy Lab ahead of other amateurs and me struggling again with the heat and dehydration. Then I saw him at the Awards – the fastest Age Grouper last year in Kona, Malte Bruns from Germany! Then I decided to try it myself. I have been training with the Camelback for few months and it was completely natural to me to use it on the race day. Since I sweat a lot I need to drink regularly my own drink with extra electrolytes as I had issues using different products in the past. It allowed me to carry all my nutrition with me and drink what I’m used to and when I wanted.

Has running with the Camelback not slowed you down?

Obviously not, it was one of my fastest IM runs and by far the fastest in a hot race. My issues in the past were primarily caused but gastro problems and pacing. Actually starting with a full Camelbak helps with both, it slows you down a bit when you still feel fresh in first kilometres of the run.

I hope this blog help few of you to have better memory from hot races and allow you to cross the finish line a bit faster if you manage to avoid few common mistakes. online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.