Xterra Racing 101

Spring is officially only a week away, and triathlon season is coming in full force! Which also means the start of Xterra season for those who enjoy switching up the pavement for dirt.  The world of  Xterra (off-road) triathlon is a unique blend of tri-geek  personalities mixed with laid back mountain bike personalities. Where else can you see athletes riding around on a mountain bike in full spandex and compression socks, ha! Overall though, it’s a friendly, fun, and laid-back crowd and I think that is what draws many to want to get involved in the sport. I’m asked now and then about how to get into Xterra racing, so here are three of my biggest tips from experience….

1. It’s a lot about the mountain bike! If you don’t come from a mountain bike riding or racing background the most important thing to do is focus most of your time getting comfortable on the bike by improving your bike handling skills on technical terrain. The added dynamic of Xterra that makes it so exciting is that you could be the fittest athlete in the race on paper but if you waste too much energy just trying to stay upright on your bike, a more highly skilled and efficient bike handler will gain time and go into the run with more energy left in the tank! Of course, every race course is unique as far as the technical demands, but in general bike times in Xterra are about 60% of your entire race, so it is worth spending the time on your bike. Ride with more skilled riders whenever you can (you’ll improve fastest when riding with others) and enter mountain bike races to get comfortable riding technical trails at maximum effort, and learning to pass and be passed by others doing the same.

At the same time, one thing that blew me away at many Xterra races when I first started was other athletes asking me the night before the race, “so what is the course like?” Before getting into Xterra racing I competed in cross-country mountain bike racing for five years. The most important thing in preparation for a race is pre-riding the course, figuring out the best lines to go the fastest according to your ability, deciding the best places to eat or drink, where you’ll be able to push hard, recover a bit etc. If you’re new to the sport it is particularly important to decide if you’re uncomfortable riding any sections. Although most Xterra courses are less technical than mountain race courses (except in Canada, ha ha :)), there can still be steep ups, downs, or obstacles that are challenging. My philosophy is that if you can’t ride something while pre-riding, don’t expect to miraculously be able to clean it with the added race adrenaline and fatigue while going at race pace. Also, if there is a part of the course you’re fearful of, just commit to jumping off and running it, instead of dreading it and likely unconsciously slowing down as you approach it. Ride within your limits. Although some choose not to pre-ride a course to save energy, particularly when Xterra courses are longer loops, if a course is technical, I would say knowing the course and what to expect trumps a little extra pre-race fatigue most of the time. As anyone who was there may agree, the bridge-packed Whistler Xterra Canada course was the best example of the need to pre-ride!

2. Get to know the brick. Although I spent most of my life pre-Xterra competing as a runner, the biggest shocker when I started racing was the feeling from the bike-to-run transition. Your legs may literally feel like bricks for the first 5-10 minutes or more. Anyone from a triathlon background will have some experience with this feeling but the added challenge of Xterra is coming off the full-body effort on the mountain bike onto running trails, which can often head straight up or down with added roots, rocks, logs, mud or loose terrain! Doing workouts that involve race intensity from your trainer to the run, or even from your mountain bike to varied terrain trail running outside are great preparation for an Xterra.

3. Open water swimming practice. Unless you have a rock star swimming background, often the most feared discipline is getting through the open water swim. While smooth, no-contact lane swimming in a pool is great fitness preparation, whenever weather permits prior to a race, take any opportunity to swim in a wetsuit in cold and/or rough, ocean or lake water. It is also important to practice sighting where you’re going, and checking your ability to swim in a straight line! AND get comfortable swimming with others in very close proximity, and knocking you around at the same time. With all the extra external distractions, don’t forget to breath and find your own rhythm too!

A good option for trying out an Xterra race is to enter the sport race, which is half the distance of a full Xterra (approximately 1500m swim, 30km mountain bike, 10km run). For a fun challenge against changing terrain in beautiful places, think about trying some Xterra racing in 2012!

For the full U.S.A. and global schedule of Xterra triathlons and trail runs here

For the entire Canadian schedule click here.

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