XTerra Series I: Improvement starts with Analytics

In this first installment of my ongoing XTerra series, I’m going to discuss how you need to structure your off-season for greater success next season. Key to that understanding is knowing the difference between XTerra and Road triathlon, and training with this specificity in mind. Contrary to what intuition would tell us, XTerra is more than simply a triathlon on trails. So while the heart of the sport is SWIM, BIKE, RUN, the execution can be vastly different.

Two siblings, different personalities

Road triathlon, in my opinion, is not a particularly complicated sport; I’m excluding draft legal tri’s that in many ways want to blur the lines between road cycling tactics and triathlon. Road triathlon comes down to one predominant factor, pacing. Pacing is so important, and in many ways predictable, that Best Bike Split will guarantee their calculator. While there are other factors that can alter the outcomes, most notably weather, for the most part, it is not hard to plan your training and predict your approximate performance on race day. The other obvious difference is that your budget can affect your ability to acquire equipment needed to level the playing field.

In contrast, XTerra requires a lower investment in equipment, with the performance differences in modest to high price bikes marginal, at best; I’ll discuss equipment in a later article. The major difference, however, is that XTerra is far less predictable, and requires far greater athletic ability and breadth of preparation. Moreover, poor swimming can severely hamper your ability to finish well by slowing your gains on single track sections; I learned this the hard way! In addition, as I discussed in an earlier articlepacing is far different in XTerra, with an overall strategy that requires greater patience and strategic application of power. Likewise, hydration and fueling during races requires both greater planning and compromises that road triathletes rarely need to consider. Finally, the possibility for crashes and mechanical issues is far greater in XTerra, despite your best efforts to prevent either. The bottom line, if you want to succeed in XTerra, you need do more than just clock up the miles. So my objective for this article is to get you started on the analysis part of the plan. Until you know where you’re good (or not good), you really cannot decide what to prioritize.

Getting Started

In my last article, I discussed some general tips for getting started in the off-season, including data analysis. For those who upload there training and races to a site like Strava (with or without power data), you need to look closely at weather data for races, key segments on the course, as well as how you have progressed on those segments, as well as how you compare to faster riders; don’t be afraid to create a few new segments to breakdown a course more. In the simplest terms, can separate out the segments requiring skill (e.g., single track) vs those requiring power (e.g., climbs or road sections)? This is where a power meter is invaluable.

I began doing this back in July, after posting some poor bike splits at the XTERRA EX2. With bike GPS data going back to 2011, and power data from 2014 and 2015, I was able to piece together some of the global reasons for why my bike time this year was 2 min slower than 2014, and 4 min slower than 2015. Weather conditions were similarly warm. In simplest terms, I was faster in the technical sections, but slower on the climbs. Closer inspection of flat road sections from this race and others, however, indicated that my power output was slightly lower. However, power data was about 10% lower on the climbs.

Start compiling segments to analyze. Power segments give you performance data, technical segments give you skill data.

Start compiling segments to analyze. Power segments give you performance data, technical segments give you skill data.

Analysis of my run times and run pace was a bit more difficult because I was missing 2013 and 2014 GPS data. However, my time this year was also a bit slower from 2014 and more so 2015. What I do know about 2013, though, is that both my body weight and body fat would lower; nearly a kilo for weight. Finally, as I had mentioned in an earlier post, I noted that my swim data indicated a very low swim cadence (stroke rate), giving me a piece to my swim puzzle.

Based on just this very small analysis, I concluded that I had lost power on the bike, and also had been racing about a kilo heavier. That extra kilo would also easily account for my slower run times. Yet, I was slightly faster on the bike. Obviously, with more time and effort I could have dug even deeper into the data. However, based on the available data, I believe I have plenty to work on over the next 6 months. Remember, you can only work on a few key components, so find the ones you believe will yield the most return for the training time you have available.

One last point I want to stress is the notion that road triathletes are somehow superior athletes to XTerra athletes. On the surface, many people who race XTerra appear to be less successful in road events; case in point, I definitely lack the run speed that many roadies have. However, many roadies who come into XTerra receive a rude wake-up call when they hit the MTB and find that their upper body cannot [literally] handle the bike. Moreover, fast runners often find their legs completely sapped of strength in the run, nullifying their speed. As the sport develops, we will see greater demand for specialization between the sports. In my next article, I’ll delve into some specific training recommendations every XTerra Triathlete needs to consider.

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