There are two types of surprises that may present themselves on race day: the 'never saw that coming' surprise and the 'I should have seen it coming' surprise.

Flat tires, a super strong head wind or another athlete doing something careless to cause an accident all fall under the 'never saw it coming' category. These occurrences are all completely out of our control. As we race more, we learn to deal with them but we can't predict them, so there is no point shifting any of our focus away from our training to deal with them.

On the other hand, part of our training focus should be to review the course before race day to avoid a long list of 'I should have seen it coming' surprises. Hill gradients far steeper than you ever expected, wildly inadequate aid stations along the route, and don't forget about those hidden gems like cattle grates railway tracks, potholes and uneven surface -- all hidden danger zones. These "surprises" can throw you off your race day pacing, energy and hydration strategy very easily, and quickly deplete your reserves of positive mental attitude.

Basically they can make or break your race.

So ask yourself this... If you have not prepared mentally and physically for the race course, how can you expect to exert dominance over the course?

Know your race course.

Ideally, we'd all love to train on the race course itself -- swim in the waters of the race venue, ride the bike leg and run on the course. It is an excellent opportunity to get to know the race course profile including location and duration of the climbs, the flats, the danger zones including tight turns or obstructed sight lines.

If you are able to spend some time on the course pre-race day, be sure to pay close attention to aspects such as:
  1. Where you will enter and exit the water, the general layout of the swim course and what you might be able to use for sighting during the swim.

  2. Where you can make up time, on the bike and the run, without putting to much out, and where you should 'hold back' to conserve energy.

  3. Where the aid stations will be placed along the course. This impacts your race hydration and nutrition strategy.

  4. On the bike and the run course, develop a good understanding of the terrain and the course profile. This knowledge will help you develop the best race day strategy possible.

  5. Being on the race course, at the same time of day as the race, you will hopefully get to experience the environmental conditions first hand. For example: perhaps the race is run in a hot and dry climate and your training is done mostly in cooler, wetter conditions. How will the different environmental conditions impact your performance? Will you need to adjust your pacing strategy? What will the impact be on your hydration and nutrition strategy? Will it affect your race result goals?

For me, knowledge of the race course increases my confidence and allows me to focus on other aspects of my preparation.

I also find it helps to discuss it with a training partner or listen to others talk about the course... "At kilometer 93 it just kicks up, and keeps going up. It was the steepest hill I have ever climbed - brutal." Yes, that climb is steep. But it's just another part of the course, and it won't break my race because I have experienced it, and have prepared myself accordingly.

Start online and have a better finish on the ground.

With life's other commitments, training on the course, arriving at the race venue 5 - 7 days before race day or getting to the venue for training camps, may be a luxury. Fortunately, there are other ways to 're-con' the course without even being on the course itself.

Start with the official event website. Here you should be able to acquire course maps and course descriptions, and if you are very fortunate, a profile of the race course. I like to know if I am in for a 12km, 9% climb at kilometer 130. At least my training can take this into consideration and I prepare mentally and physically for it.

If the official event site has limited information, many organizers will give you a profile, but no gradient details, go to and to get a better idea of the course profile.

Look at what you will be riding and running on, and use this to further refine your training program accordingly.

If the bike course is a very hilly one, with long climbs and short steep rollers, make sure you are doing hill work, and focusing on power intervals to keep your output consistent through and over each ascent. Being able at accelerate the crest and then accelerate down the other side.

On the run, if the course is fairly flat and fast, you would want to put time into developing your lactate tolerance, with sub-threshold tempo work and threshold increasing training.

The old adage 'if you fail to plan, plan to fail' fits in perfectly here. So take my advice and spend an extra day or even just a couple of hours researching the race course. This will minimize the 'I should have seen it coming' surprises during your event and help you have the best possible race result.

James Greenwood is a competitive tri and multisport athlete currently training for Ironman Canada 2009. A level 1 Triathlon Coach, he holds a post graduate degree in Exercise Science, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the NSCA. James is also currently the resident health and fitness programs expert at, and has starred in a number of multisport specific fitness videos.
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