Everyone has a plan until they get punched: Strategy, Superstition and Theory in Triathlon

cyclist, triathlete, triathlete cycling, traithlon

Ever seen a bike in the transition area with a little bell hanging off the frame?

They’re known as “gremlin bells,” and as you might guess from the name, they’re meant to ward off “evil road spirits” that cause those random, race-ending mechanical failures you hear about so often. In all likelihood, that bike’s owner has more faith in a thorough pre-race tune-up by a good mechanic than a magic bell—but they also have some faith in the bell! After all, they’re called “random” mechanical failures for a reason: they happen for no apparent reason. So perhaps the best way to look at it is to say that we are 99.9% confident in pre-race tune-ups, and the bell is there to give us that last 0.1% of confidence.

Superstition is funny like that. Human beings are naturally thoughtful, curious and rational creatures. We like to experience the world around us and to gain an understanding of those experiences. But whenever we observe something that we don’t immediately understand, we “invent” an explanation for it. From comets heralding major world events in ancient times to UFOs causing phenomena in the skies today, we allow our superstitious side to create an unreasonable interpretation of things whenever we don’t see the reasonable explanation. We do it constantly, and where triathlon is concerned it doesn’t stop at those little bells.

Keep walking around the transition area and it won’t be long  before you hear some pretty crazy race strategies:

  • “Getting ahead of the pack on the swim is key.”
  • “I’m going to hold an average power output of x-number of watts on the bike.”
  • “I’m just going to keep my heart rate low and then hammer the run.”

Compare that to what you hear in transition after the race:

  • “Man, I just got crushed by those headwinds on the bike.”
  • “I think I came into the race too fatigued.”
  • “I guess I just had an off-day.”

All of those are possible explanations for a bad race performance, but there’s no reasonable evidence to back them up other than a feeling. It’s sort of like superstition.

Boxers and MMA fighters have a saying: “Everyone has a strategy until they get punched.” In other words, a fighter goes into a fight with certain beliefs of how events will unfold. What fighters call strategy, science calls a theory. No athlete ever enters a competition with a theory that says “I’m going to lose.” But in the case of boxers, 50% of all theories are proven wrong. So for the boxers out there feeling bad about getting knocked out, take a more positive view of things. You didn’t lose the match, you achieved an unpredicted result!

This is the fundamental philosophy of both athletes and scientists that our most important lessons come from our greatest failures. Kidding aside, triathletes who have bad races face the same dilemma. We improve and assess our performance, develop an understanding of it, and develop a prediction of how our race will go. That’s a great foundation for a scientific race strategy.

And then we ruin it with superstition.

Every athlete has a phenomenal “theory of self.” You intuitively know your capability better than any VO2max test or blood sample possibly could. But you are only half the story. What about the race course? Listen to the pre-race strategies again. Do any of them consider what the temperature, water conditions or terrain are going to do? Most of the time they don’t. It amounts to a strategy that’s waiting to get punched. Even worse, any unpredicted results are likely to be explained by superstition. That prevents learning, which in turn leads to future unpredicted (and undesirable) results.

We race in a physical world rather than a superstitious one. So it’s best to found our race strategies on physics rather than lucky charms and funny feelings. You get to know your body through training. Get to know your world with a little reading. Improving our understanding of the world around us makes us better prepared to interact with it. A better prepared athlete is less likely to meet with life’s little “random” catastrophes. A race strategy that includes predictions about what the elements are going to do has a better chance of surviving that first punch. It’s certainly more helpful than a gremlin bell.

If you’re interested in getting faster, you’ll be fascinated by FASTER: Demystifying the Science of Triathlon Speed. In Faster, astronautical engineer and triathlon journalist Jim Gourley explores the science of triathlon to see what truly makes you faster—and busts the myths and doublespeak that waste your money and slow down your racing. With this knowledge on your side, you can make simple changes that add up to free speed and faster racing.