So, we start this little series with Here's What I Know About Sprint Distance Triathlon. My thinking is this post will be mostly geared towards the newbie, considering or preparing for their first triathlon. So if you're a grizzled veteran, take note. A reminder again that this is just in my experience - peep the preface to this series by reading this post.
The Sprint distance is a great way to cut your teeth on triathlon in general and see if you dig it, or to do once or a few times in a season just to really go hard. If you want to really race the distance, you can just redline the whole thing with very little strategy - just go fast all the time. Or, if it's your first foray into the game, the distance gives you a great taste of what all those people in lycra are in love with. So here, in no significantly meaningful order, is what I know:
- At this distance, less is more. At my first race ever, it was a chilly May morning. In Transition 1, I stopped to put on Under Armor tights over my tri-suit, and a tight long-sleeved compression top. Putting them all on while wet. Then I put on some cycling gloves. I could have ordered a pizza and watched an episode of Mad Men in the time it took me to get on the damn bike. Remember that transitions are part of the race - not a break between events. Get in, get out, get going. Of course dress comfortably and for the weather, but try and get by with the least amount of moving pieces - ideally you wear one thing (for me, usually a tri-suit at this distance, or a tri-top and tri-shorts) for the whole race, swim through bike through run. Cycling gloves are really designed to help with discomfort and fatigue that can come from having your hands absorb vibrations for a long time on the bike - I wear them only for Iron distance races. A typical Sprint race is 12-15 miles on the bike - taking the time (I timed myself on videotape once, after my second race ever, and I spent 2 minutes in T1 trying to get my gloves on. 2 minutes!) to negotiate gloves is probably time wasted.
- This is true for nutrition and hydration as well. Even if your pace on the bike is a relaxed 12-13mph, and you walk the run at a 15:00min/mile pace, the race would still take you a little more than 2 hours. If you're going hard, you'll finish in a little over an hour, 1:15-ish. You don't require more than a few hundred replacement calories in the course of a race. Again on my first race - which was a 13 mile bike - I had 4 full bottles of Gatorade on my bike. What the hell am I doing to do with 4 bottles of Gatorade in an hour!?!? It was a lot of extra weight on my bike, not to mention the prep time and hassle factor to get them filled up, transported along, and ready to roll. At another early race I had one of those fancy aero-drink things on my bike, again fully-loaded. It started to leak from the bottom before the race, so I was getting sticky Gatorade on my front brakes, calipers, and tire. I sent Amy and my friend Mike on an emergency Duct Tape run so I could fix it. So when I should be relaxing, thinking about the race, instead I was worrying about my stupid beverage holder, and panicking that I wouldn't get it fixed before the Transition area closed. At this distance, at most you can manage with a single bottle of Gatorade and a bottle of water. I prefer just the bottle of Gatorade. (Of course, if it's 92 degrees outside you'll want to be more attentive to hydration concerns.) In my experience the bike course in a Sprint race rarely have aid stations, but there's likely water somewhere on the run, which will suffice. Nutritionally, a single gel on the bike (for me, actually an hour into exercise, so whatever your swim time is accrues to the time you spend on the bike) is probably all you need. Every once in awhile you'll run across somebody's bike in transition that has 14 gels taped to the top tube. Oy. No.
- The Sprint distance is a great race for any level or experience triathlete. If it's your first race ever, you might consider one where the swim is in a pool - you'll typically share a lane with one or two other swimmers, and swim 10 or 12 laps or so before getting out and running to your bike in T1. Having a comfortable, controlled environment for the swim can be a great way to get into the sport. If your first triathlon is in open water, make sure you've done some open water swimming first. A wetsuit isn't necessary for a sprint distance race (I'll let you be the judge of if water temperature is an issue or not, but I speak as a matter of speed or strategy), but you'll not want for your first ever open-water swim to be surrounded by 50 other people. There are lots of adjustments to make that your pool training simply can't emulate - water chop and temperature, sun glare, lack of visibility in the water, sighting (where you lift your head every few breaths to see where the hell you're going), and - oh yeah - all these limbs around you. The thing about swimming in a crowd is you can only get comfortable with that - and learn to use it to your advantage - with time and experience. You should do some training in open water to develop an understanding of all the other stuff I mentioned, but on race day, feel free to hang wide on the edges of the main group, or way in the back and wait until the large mass is underway. My first open water race ever I positioned myself right in the front - where I have no business being (the fast people start in the front!) and got totally mowed over as soon as the race started. I nearly suffered a panic attack and had my race end before it even got underway. Nobody wins the race in the water, so it's better that you take your time, and are safe and comfortable. On the other hand, if you're ready to rock with everybody in the water, staying in the mix will allow you to draft off of other swimmers, and allow you to save some energy. The big mass will disperse after a few hundred yards, and the swim distance in a Sprint race is short enough where the advantages of drafting aren't, in my experience, terribly significant - but if you have ideas for racing longer distances like 70.3 or Ironman, being in the mass of swimmers who are hell bent to go as fast as they can is great for developing experience that you'll use elsewhere in your triathlon career.
- With those notes on effort in the water, I'll mention that I redline every Sprint race I'm in. I go as fast as I possibly can through all 3 disciplines. I treat the race as a very hard, brief brick session (a brick workout is combining two disciplines into one workout - swim/bike, or bike/run, for instance). It's a great speed workout, a great way to get the heart rate up, and a good assessment for strength and speed moving from one sport to the next. That effort doesn't have much real-world significance on my favorite distance races (70.3 and Iron), but it's great in context of a season-long build, or just to get out and have a fun day at the races.