Triathlon Alchemy – Plan for the Unplannable

The perfect triathlon performance is out there… or so the way we go about preparing for one would have us believe. As triathletes we dream of the day when we stand on the start line waiting for the starters horn, heart crammed with confidence that every session in our preparation went smoothly; that our body is unequivocally in the best form physically possible; that our equipment is meticulously primed for quality performance and our mind is tuned to the task at hand with laser focus. But that’s what it always remains – a dream.

The science of ‘Triathlon Alchemy’ (that is, the attempt to combine base elements of swimming, cycling and running into a final product of “gold performance” through specifically and meticulously tweaking characteristics of the elements until a pure product conjured) is one of the most addictive aspects of our sport. Every triathlete, despite their circumstance, will have in mind a picture of their perfect race. Whether that picture involves completing a super sprint in relative comfort, nailing an elusive finish time or winning an Olympic medal, there needs to be a formula constructed with the solution bringing that mental picture into reality. The problem is that triathlon, when considered deeply, can be a mind-boggling formula with three quite distinctive and somewhat contradictive sports in one, multiple distances, widely varying athlete backgrounds and distinctive theories of training.

As an athlete and now as a coach, almost everything I design and do in training is a means to an end – that end being the best performance in competition I can produce. But over the years I’ve come to realise that in racing and competition s#*t happens. Crude, yes but it sums up my point perfectly. Triathlon is complex. There are uncountable aspects of this sport, both leading into and during competition, that are both within and out of our control.

This creates a domino effect – for it to run 100% smoothly is mathematically impossible. Even the great Emma Frodeno said of her Olympic gold-medal-winning performance at the Beijing Games that her race was far from perfect. She was devastatingly dominant. No one apart from Emma and her close circle would have found fault in her preparation and performance. But it wasn’t perfect.

I have a mantra that I attempt to apply to everything I do in life: “Accept that perfect is not possible, but strive for it anyway.” So, in training and competition,

I design all plans around the perfect race but I also plan for the unplannable.

This is where, when working with high-performance athletes, the term ‘resilient’ pops up – it’s a pretty apt adjective that describes what I attempt to encourage. If we consider that the perfect race is not possible and that something within the methodically concocted formula will react unpredictably we create a secondary formula. This secondary formula is not fixed – it’s fluid and dependent on three things: the element that skewed from the plan, the current circumstance, and (the essential part of Formula B) the person. The person is what the whole salvation of the formula depends upon. The person has to consider the unpredictable reaction and the current circumstance, and fuse Formula B as close to the original as possible.

We’ve all heard the nightmarish tale of the athlete who has the perfect, long-range preparation for a big event only to have injury strike weeks out from said race. A volatile reaction occurs in Formula A; Formula B is then initiated and it comes down to the person as to what happens next. A race marshal at a crucial turn on the bike course takes a personal relief break just as a perfectly conditioned racer approaches with a handsome lead only to miss the turn and fall behind. The only property that will bring that plan back as close to the original Formula A is the person.

Planning for the unplannable, as impossible as it sounds, can be trained. And it can be trained within the structure of existing training. How often does your training end up different to what you were expecting? Has the facility you usually train at closed without notice? Has the weather changed suddenly giving you a challenge just to make it home? Forgotten to pack your lunch so the post work swim session ends early in a state of wet and hangry? These are all examples of opportunities to rehearse catalysing Formula B – on the spot, under pressure and solely reliant on the person.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe due only to my pessimism I am incapable of the perfect race – of devising ‘Triathlon Alchemy’. Maybe the only perfect race is the one that has the most well executed Formula B. A wise person once told me that only from hardship does success initially take root. With that in mind, I’m comforted that the perfect race is just a dream and that the soil of the unplannable element will always appear to plant success.


Brendan Sexton

As a youngster, Brendan’s life ambition was to be the fifth Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. That didn’t quite pan out. But triathlon did. A decade on, he’s still at it.
Follow Brendan
Twitter: @kung_fu_sexton

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