Training for Drafting Races

This piece was written for TriNews in June 2005

Drafting races were a controversial addition to the Triathlon programme.† Introduced by the International Triathlon Union to make the sport acceptable to the Olympics they have created a chasm between Elite and Age-group racing over the shorter distances.† Before 1995 age-groupers could compare their own performances directly with those of the elites.† An elite was simply a triathlete at the front of the field.

A different sport

Nowadays, especially in the UK, elite racing is almost a different sport.† Itís difficult for organisers because the roads really need to be closed so there are very few races.† With few races it becomes difficult for anyone to compete who canít justify traveling abroad to race. †The gap between those who can (mainly the handful of athletes on the World Class Performance Programme) and those who canít has been growing larger.† This has been bad news for UK drafting races and bad news for our hopes of remaining competitive at international level.

A different future

The scene is changing, however, due a decreasing number of senior athletes getting WCPP funding and an increasing number of youths and juniors competing in drafting races and developing the skills, attributes and enthusiasm for this type of racing.† Their biggest problem is now the lack of understanding of drafting racing within the triathlon community of age-group racers, clubs, coaches and organisers.

A similar standard

Drafting need not be synonymous with elite. Itís just another way of racing for competitors of similar standard.† In the majority of sports competitors are categorised by ability rather than by age.† Would you rather race against someone the same age who is 15 minutes quicker or someone of a different age but similar ability?† Are you actually racing against someone if he or she is 15 minutes quicker?† Sounds like a bit of a mismatch to me.† For the most part peopleís performances are far more dependant on talent, time, dedication, experience and, dare I say, coaching than the year of their birth.

So if you are an ambitious young triathlete, a competitive age-grouper or a coach, parent or mentor what are the skills and attributes that you need to develop to give drafting races a go?† What are the significant differences from the non-drafting game?

The biggest obstacle for most potential drafters is the swimming.† If you come out of the water behind the pack in many races you donít stand a chance.† So far this has been a much bigger problem in the UK than elsewhere in Europe where far more competitors enter drafting races.† You donít need to be within 60 seconds of Richard Stannard or Julie Dibens to get in a pack in Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy or Holland.† It is still worth putting in the extra time in the pool and perfecting a fast T1, however, because while a few seconds dropped in a non-drafting swim is a few seconds on your overall time, a few seconds dropped on a drafting race swim might mean that you end up in a different pack on the bike.

The cycling is where the biggest differences lie and here there is a complete difference in philosophy.† There is much more to draft-legal cycling than simply taking pace from the opposition.† Training for effective drafting cycling is different from training for non-drafting cycling:† Bike-handling skills, top speed and the ability to recover from repeated efforts are the critical factors rather than average speed.† Itís very difficult to learn and develop these on your own Ė at least until you know what is involved.

The run leg is different too.† Drafting triathletes typically start the run in groups and, though the drafting effect is less than on the bike or in the water, the run can be equally tactical.† The ability to change pace, either to pressure the opposition or respond, is important.† The run leg is also when the effects of the swimming and cycling take their toll.† Two runners might start at the same time but if one has used his energy more wisely heíll be better able to run to his potential.† Itís not necessarily the runner with the fastest 10k PB who wins.

Training for drafting races requires more training towards the extremes in all three disciplines.† Much of the base training is the same but during the pre-competition and race phases there is a need for repeated, short, intense (anaerobic) efforts at close to maximum power.† Training with others of a similar or higher standard, especially single discipline athletes (swimmers, cyclists and runners) is valuable.† Swimming with a squad will help to maintain pace through long sessions and high quality sets, cycling with a club will develop your ability to ride close to others and to ride fast in a group, and running with a club will help you to respond to changes in pace and at a pace dictated by others.

A tactical game

Drafting races are not just about following others.† Indeed itís the tactical aspects that make them interesting and exciting.† Races have to be won with positive moves, moves which disadvantage or weaken the opposition.† With races played out over two hours it can be a long time before a move succeeds or fails.† A lone attack on the swim or bike leg might look like suicide compared to the Ďsafetyí of the bunch but sometimes it will work.† A small group working together on the bike will often go more quickly than a large, disorganised† group and, possibly, with less effort.† Simply Ďtaking it easyí in a large group is sometimes possible, but not always.† On a tight circuit itís hard work at the back of the bunch where the fluctuations in pace are the biggest, while holding a position close to the front requires 100% concentration.†

Transitions are often the best time to make a move so instead of being an opportunity to recover slightly they are the most intense part of the race.

Aim high!

Draft legal racing brings another dimension to the many already on offer in triathlon.† Thanks to its adoption by the Olympics, however, itís the one that draws in the top athletes, the big crowds, the big money, the sponsorship and the media: The competition is the hottest and the standard is the highest.† And itís not inaccessible.† Tim Don, Stuart Hayes, Will Clarke and Olly Freeman are the best in the world and all graduates of BTA clubs and BTA programmes.

Tim Williams - June 2005


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