From a high heart rate to cramps, here’s how to troubleshoot your way out of these common race day scenarios
Lead photo by Getty Images/Unsplash+
Multisport races, specifically triathlons, have the understandable reputation of being hard to plan around and manage. As an athlete, not only do you have to learn and train for three sports, the logistics for each are also complicated by themselves.
Pool access, a decent cycling route or indoor setup, and a run venue are all important but often not easily addressed. On top of that, traveling to a race is a large production number; most of which revolves around transporting the bike to the race venue. Such an endeavor can be by car, airplane, or in some cases, by boat.
Aside from all these things, there’s the additional concern of managing one’s efforts during the race itself. The unseen cost of racing three sports in rapid succession is that there are a multitude of scenarios that can happen on race day. With that in mind, here is a troubleshooting guide to common scenarios you might encounter on your big day.
Problem 1: You’re out of breath during the swim
This is a common problem a lot of people encounter. In the pool, we have the luxury of stopping at the end of the pool for breaks; there’s also that added mental safety net that if you do need to stop, you can either stand, or grab onto something. Such privileges are not something we have access to when we’re in open water. This makes being out of breath and the closely-related occurrence of hyperventilation more common than we’d like.
First, let’s differentiate the two. Being out of breath simply means that we went too hard more than what our lungs and aerobic system can handle. This results in an oxygen deficit that, if left unchecked, will cause us to gasp uncontrollably for air.
On the flip side, this is related to but not exactly the same as hyperventilation. In the latter, we’re breathing too frequently than what our body needs. This results in a rapid “dumping” of carbon dioxide to the bloodstream. This causes an imbalance in our body that makes us think we need more oxygen, thereby resulting in a loop-back effect that exacerbates the problem.
Even if the two are different, the way to solve them is pretty much the same. The first thing to remember is to not stop. Stopping is like putting your engine on neutral when your foot is on the gas pedal. It will cause your body to rev up uncontrollably. Usually, this results in a panic attack or even a black out in some cases.
The quick solution is to be more aware of your immediate surroundings. Instead of thinking about what “might happen” focus on what is happening. This “grounding” will allow you to be more in control of your thoughts and movements.
Secondly, swim slowly and breathe purposefully. By dialing back on your efforts, you’re giving your body a chance to recover. On top of that, exhaling and inhaling in a well-timed and controlled manner will help you relax and bring your heart rate down. Once you’ve recovered, ease back into the race.
Problem 2: Your legs are heavy during the bike ride
We’ve all probably experienced this: Out of the water, we hop on our bike but quickly realize that the legs don’t feel right. They feel heavier, and the efforts feel harder. Most of the time, this is because we’re still getting used to an upright position coming from the water. A lot of the blood is still pooling in our arms and core such that our legs get the short end of the stick.
Rather than forcing our legs to cooperate, my advice is to shift to a lighter gear, spin it out a bit faster, and use this time to take in nutrition and hydration. Just like in training, we can’t really expect our body to be at 100 percent off the bat. We also need to warm up and ease into the effort. By using a lighter gear, we can gradually rev up our engines to our target efforts. In some cases, staying upright or standing on the bike while maintaining a cap on power might help.
Problem 3: You have a mechanical issue
This is every cyclist’s nightmare. A mechanical issue on the bike is often a “red card” that gets you thrown out of the game. However, it doesn’t always have to be that way; you can be pretty well prepared for such a scenario. This time around, our troubleshooting guide will be more proactive than reactive.
My advice is to have these things with you during the race:
1. Spare inner tube
2. CO2 valve with canister
3. Tire levers
4. “Missing link” chain attachment
5. Multitool with blade/scissors and chain breaker
7. Some duct tape
While it might seem like a long list, you can easily fit these into a small bag or canister that you can carry around with you on the bike. I’d say this setup would handle around 99 percent of common problems you might have on the road. From having a flat, getting a loose bolt, having your chain snap, etc. you’re pretty much covered. Whatever the issue may be, follow these steps if ever you do encounter one.
- Calm down and assess the problem
- Make sure you bring out the tools and have them ready
- Run through your mind what you will do and what you want to happen
- Execute the plan and be prepared for a plan B
On the off chance you can’t solve the problem, try and wave down a helpful competitor, a race mechanic or a marshal. Just remember that these are the only people who can “legally” help you during a race. Outside support is not allowed in most races.
Problem 4: Your heart rate is unusually high
If you’re training and racing with a power meter or at least using pace and heart rate, you might encounter a scenario in which your heart rate is usually higher than what you’d expect. There are a lot of nuances surrounding this phenomenon. The most common issues being: you might be recovering from the swim, your heart rate monitor might be faulty, or you are getting dehydrated.
For the first scenario, my advice is to follow my point above regarding heavy legs. Dial back your efforts a bit and ease into the race. There are some cases where you can just ignore it and it will eventually settle down. However, if you’re new to the sport, it might be wiser to take the more conservative approach and hold back.
The most common issues surrounding a high heart rate are you might be recovering from the swim, your heart rate monitor might be faulty, or you are getting dehydrated
For the second scenario, a heart rate monitor issue is not uncommon. Interference, a bad battery, or corroded contact points are common causes. My advice is to discern how you feel, whether you’re having a hard time or not, put your finger on your neck and feel for your heart beat. If both feel normal, it would be best to ignore the data you’re seeing. If one or both are out of the ordinary, then dialing back might be smarter.
Lastly, the most common issue surrounding an elevated heart rate is dehydration. This occurs because our blood volume is significantly reduced due to sweating. As a result, our heart needs to work harder and beat faster to deliver the same amount of nutrients to our cells. This is usually accompanied by an increased rate of perceived exertion, an unwillingness to urinate, and occasionally a headache or lightheadedness.
These symptoms are red flags telling us we need to do something as soon as possible. The solution is quite simple. Hydrate by sipping water or sports drinks frequently and continuously for the next hour or two. As time goes by, your symptoms and your heart rate response should improve. Dousing yourself with cold water and stuffing ice inside your suit might help as well. However, getting some fluids is the best course of action.
Problem 5: You’re cramping up
Cramps are probably the most common issue we might encounter. There have been years of research surrounding this debilitating problem but a lot of myths and misconceptions still plague it.
First and foremost, let me point out that cramps might be caused by different things conspiring together. Traditionally, a lack of electrolytes and dehydration are referred to as the main culprits. Taking in liquids, specifically, carbohydrate-rich sports drinks are often recommended.
This, to no surprise, solves the problem well. However, it has been pointed out recently that being dehydrated and having a shortage of electrolytes are merely secondary causes that make the issue worse. The reason why sports drinks work so well is that the carbohydrates in this drink actually play a bigger role in preventing cramps.
Case in point, cramps usually occur when we’re unfit for the race we’re doing, we go harder than we should, or we don’t take in enough calories during the race. Of course, a combination of the factors usually come into play. When we’re undertrained or we go too hard, this results in an overdependence on glycogen (carbohydrates). If the rate at which we burn such fuel drastically exceeds the rate in which we replenish it (if at all), our muscles will run out of fast-burning fuel.
This is called “bonking,” an unpleasant feeling of feeling wiped out and fatigued. Yet, in some cases, when the conditions are right (by right I mean wrong), we experience painful, paralyzing cramps.
Cramps usually occur when we’re unfit for the race we’re doing, we go harder than we should, or we don’t take in enough calories during the race
The solution, if ever this does occur, is simple but often gets forgotten. Slow down to a light and aerobic pace, take in fluids and carbohydrates (ideally with electrolytes in it), and be patient. Slowing down will help you shift the metabolic engine towards preserving carbohydrates. Taking in the calories, obviously, will replenish depleted stores. Give it time and soon you’ll recover. Just remember to ease back into the pace. Once you’ve cramped up, significantly more muscle damage occurs and this might prevent you from racing at the pace you want.
Whatever the scenario you encounter during a race, what’s important is to calm down, clear your mind, and follow the best possible solution you can think of. A lot of times we experience brain fog and overreact to the situation. Just remember that for every problem there is a solution.