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The Climate Factor: Impact on Triathlon Training and Racing

BY Melissa Mantak

The changing climate will have an increasingly significant effect on the way we race and train. Here's how you can prepare.

Weather is nothing new for triathletes, it happens and it’s often unpredictable. We take what we get, and sometimes even revel in the added challenge. With all the talk of climate change lately, I had to wonder what impact it might have on triathlon training and racing. I found that the changing climate has had an increasingly significant effect on our sport—but we can all take positive steps to ride the wave.

To paraphrase from the NASA website on climate change:

Weather is what happens in a place from day to day — it might be cold and rainy today, and warm and sunny tomorrow. Climate, on the other hand, is the typical weather pattern of that place. This generally means hot and humid in the summer, and cold and snowy in the winter. Weather can change in a matter of hours, while climate changes over hundreds, or millions of years. Climate changes include the amount and location of precipitation, humidity, length and location of heat waves or cold spells, increased storm intensity, and more.

Information on climate change can be confusing and polarizing. This has as much to do with the general nature of weather (i.e. unpredictable), as it has to do with what we see with our own eyes and experience in our daily lives. However, scientists overwhelmingly agree that Earth’s temperature and climate are changing, and that we are in a warming trend, which will increasingly contribute to a cascade of weather phenomena.

Impact of climate change on races in recent years

Although I have no scientific evidence of these phenomena in triathlon, my observations over the past ten years indicate that weather has a significant effect on endurance races—and it’s increasing.

IRONMAN North Carolina shortened its bike course after Hurricane Matthew in 2016; IRONMAN Maryland postponed and changed its course after Hurricane Joaquin in 2015; and IRONMAN Lake Tahoe was cancelled due to smoke pollution from California’s King wildfire in 2014.

2018 proved even more unpredictable. Hurricane Florence forced the cancellation of the 70.3 North Carolina, and just a few months later, IRONMAN Florida was moved to another location and date due to Hurricane Michael. IRONMAN Hamburg canceled the swim because of high levels of harmful blue-green algae, which flourished due to the persistent sun and warmer temperatures during Europe’s summer heat wave.

In the late-summer, multiple smaller and single-sport events were cancelled or postponed because of wildfire-related air pollution in the Pacific Northwest and into Canada; and in the winter, snowshoe races were canceled in the Northeast and Rockies due to the lack of snow.

“It’s what we must deal with now,” said Bjorn Steinmentz, IRONMAN operations director for central Europe, on the Hamburg swim cancellation.

How to ride the climate wave

The climate may be changing, but we are a resilient sport of dedicated athletes and human beings with a strong sense of community. When race venues are affected, great humanitarian support and community action can often be a result. Here are some things to keep in mind when training and racing in our changing climate.

Prepare for warmer weather.

Train in the heat and understand your nutrition and hydration needs by doing a sweat test. Heat-simulated indoor training can help your body adapt to hotter conditions.

Prepare for ANY weather.

Along with changing global trends, climate change also means unpredictable local weather conditions. For example, it could be unseasonably cold in a normally warm place, like Florida. Bring extra gear in case of unpredicted warmer or colder conditions.

Safeguard your health.

If weather conditions or air quality might cause injury or illness, skipping a race altogether might be your best option. In training, sometimes forgoing the outdoors for a controlled environment indoors might help you stay healthier.

Be tactical about where you choose your destination race.

After May, stay north of Oklahoma or North Carolina to skip the worst heat waves. Avoid coastal areas in the fall months (hurricane season). In the summer (July to September), remember that the west and southwest will likely be dealing with wildfire season.

Sign up for races and book travel as late as possible.

Would you be open to an alternative race if yours is negatively impacted by weather? If your race offers insurance, buy it and remember that race directors often have contingency plans. IRONMAN often provides entry into their other races or a deferment to the following year for a cancelled race.

Training and preparing for a race should be a dynamic and flexible process. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by our changing climate, but it helps (with life and with training) to focus on what you can control. Be adaptable, keep yourself safe, and embrace any unexpected roads you may travel!

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About Melissa Mantak

Melissa Mantak, MA is USAT Level III and USAC Level I certified coach and has a Masters degreed in Sports Science. Melissa presents at USAT Level I, II and III Coaching clinics as well as at the Coach Mentor program at the OTC in Colorado Springs. Coach Mantak is a former overall ITU World Cup winner, USOC Triathlete of the Year and USAT National Development Coach. In 2010, she was voted USAT National Coach of the Year. Coach Mantak is a full time professional coach currently working with athletes of all levels.
Contact her at Melissa@empoweredathlete.com or www.triathlontraining-coach.com

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