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The Five Elements. 4 - Tactics

There are five elements which I believe are at the heart of performance and each has its role to play in contributing to an athlete’s success; physiology, psychology, technical and neuro-muscular strength, tactical understanding and finally an athlete’s lifestyle.

Over the next few blogs I’ll continue to briefly introduce my reasons for including each one of the five elements, some will of course, be obvious, whilst others might not be at the top of your list.

Element 4 – Tactics

It is possible to argue that each of these five elements is the most important one. In reality their importance varies at different times with different athletes. However, some might say the tactical element influences the others to a greater extent and here is why:

If you are going to achieve the best possible performance in any given race, it is important to know what that performance looks like. Knowing this tactical approach can then have an influence on what happens within the other elements for example; knowing what you need to do and when may well dictate the physiology you require and therefore how you train; having balanced expectations can influence your mental preparation going into the race; whether your approach to the race requires any particular technical focus during training and whether you are required to adjust your lifestyle to accommodate any of the other changes you are making.

The tactical side of triathlon varies greatly depending on three key factors:

  1. the specific profile at your chosen event,

  2. the restrictions that the event might impose and

  3. the strengths and weaknesses of you as an athlete.

To make things a little more complicated it is necessary to combine these factors with each other in order to properly understand the tactical possibilities. The remainder of this blog will provide an overview of these factors and how they may interact. Later blogs on this topic will go into much greater details and offer more specific examples on each of these areas.

Factor 1: The event profile

The first step to understanding the profile of an event is knowing and understanding what the distance of the event means for you. This will then influence one key tactic: pacing. Pacing is of fundamental importance to racing, go out too hard and the remainder of the race leaves you digging yourself out of a hole (if indeed you finish the race) stay on the easy side and you are left with that nagging feeling you could have done more and finished faster. Pacing is one of the biggest errors I’ve witnessed in athletes[EK1] . If you are unable to understand your bodies ability to sustain effort, you are not getting the best out of your body.

The second step is having a more in-depth knowledge of the course. What is the swim environment pool, lake, sea, river and what are the consequences of this such as currents, wind, entry and exit; to the bike course? Is the bike course hilly, flat or rolling, twisty or straight? What are the gradients of any hills? What is the predominant wind direction? Of course, the same questions can be asked of the run course. Knowing and understanding the course to this level allows you to know where you can apply your strengths and weaknesses. More of this below.

Factor 2: Event restrictions

Within a particular event there will be restrictions placed on your performance; these come in the format of draft legal or non-drafting racing; the quality of the other athletes racing and, for the longer races, where nutrition is supplied.

How much are you able to interact with athletes during the race? Obviously drafting is possible in the swim for everyone should you choose to use it, but the effect of a draft-legal bike section will dramatically alter the approach you can take during this section of the race. This will then also affect how you are able to approach the run section.

The quality of the field will also affect how you race, particularly where you place yourself at the start of the event. If the event is draft legal, knowing the quality of the other competitors offers and insight into how you might expect the race to unfold and the role you are able to play in that outcome. If the race is not draft legal, you need to decide where you want to be at which point of the event. Having an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of other athletes can help you plan where you might expect to be relative to others at certain times of the race and understand your final placing in the event. This is very important to allow you to manage your expectations both before and after the event

Of course, the more dynamic the event or the field of athletes, the greater the flexibility required and therefore a broader understanding and experience of different tactics is needed so that the appropriate tactic can be drawn upon at the appropriate time.

Finally, in races over longer distances, the placement of nutrition aid stations may also affect how you plan your race.

Factor 3: Your own strengths and weaknesses

Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses allows

you to decide where to place the emphasis of your training. Do you train your strengths to press home your advantage or your weaknesses to limit your losses? It also allows you to work out how to approach an event to get the best outcome; a strong swimmer may decide to push on and get as much of a gap as possible at the start of the race. Someone who is powerful and light might decide to push a little harder on the hills in the cycle section and a good runner might be aware that the final section of the race is where they really start to overtake others. Finally, it allows you to think through the potential outcomes and again manage your expectations about how the event might progress and finish.

As demonstrated throughout this blog the tactical element has a heavy influence on all parts of your training and racing. For this reason when planning for a race you should consider carefully where to spend your preparation time and where to focus your efforts during the event itself.

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