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TrainingPeaks Analysis: USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships


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The experts at TrainingPeaks provide power analysis from the USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships. USA Triathlon and TrainingPeaks thank the athletes of the University of Colorado Triathlon Team, 2013 National Champions, and head coach Mike Ricci for providing race data.

Over 1,000 men and women representing more than 100 college clubs competed in the USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships in Tempe, Ariz., on April 12-13, 2013. The athletes were not only challenged by racing against one another, but also had to contend with racing on a new course since the previous year's championships were held in Tuscaloosa, Ala. As the level of competition keeps growing, athletes looking for an edge can benefit from analyzing the course and understanding how to execute a smart race.

The Olympic-distance event on Saturday consisted of a 1.5-kilometer swim in the Tempe Town Lake, the same location used for Ironman Arizona and several other major triathlons. The counterclockwise swim had a unique pontoon start and took the athletes under several bridges, challenging them to site as they went in and out of shadows. The lake was calm and cool enough to allow for the athletes to wear wetsuits, a benefit for the weaker swimmers since the extra buoyancy allows them to stay closer to the stronger swimmers.

In collegiate racing, the first 6 waves (3 men and 3 women) are allocated for the more competitive athletes as determined by each team. By starting these athletes together it was likely to see the fastest overall times come from one of these waves. This also provided athletes the chance to race each other instead of racing someone that started in a different wave. The conditions and selective wave starts lead to several packs exiting the water and starting the bike together.

Once on the bike, the race officials had the difficult task of patrolling the packs as this was a non-drafting race with athletes of similar abilities navigating a technical course. The file below was taken from Tom Alter, a University of Colorado, Boulder athlete who completed the race in 1:55:41 (36/595). In the TrainingPeaks screenshot below of Alter’s race data, the blue line indicates speed. Each dip in speed represents a turn on the course, which illustrates how many turns the athletes had to navigate over the 40k, 2-lap bike course.



See Alter’s full CycleOps Powertap power data within TrainingPeaks:

Although the course was relatively flat, the number of turns forced the athletes to constantly decelerate and accelerate. Similar to driving a car, the stop-and-go pattern is less efficient than a steady effort and required the riders to burn more energy than they would over a straighter, less technical course.

The file shown below is from another University of Colorado athlete, Matt Talpe’s race (1:57:59, 58/595). The pink line indicates Matt’s power output and the VI score on the right-hand column indicates his Variability Index. Variability Index is a statistic that measures how “smooth” an athlete’s power output was over the course of a ride. The closer to a 1 the VI, the “smoother” the ride; the further from 1, the more surges were recorded. If this was a flatter course the pink power line on the graph below would be flatter, with less spikes, and the VI number would be closer to 1.01.



See Talpe’s full CycleOps Powertap power data within TrainingPeaks:

Further understanding on how power output influences Variability Index can be gleaned from the file below, taken from University of Colorado athlete Drew Greaves’s USA Triathlon Draft Legal Collegiate Championship race on Friday, April 12. Drew finished the sprint-distance race in 1:04:50, 22nd out of 44 in his division.



See Greeves’s full CycleOps Powertap power data within TrainingPeaks:

Drew averaged 292 watts for 30 minutes, an impressive effort. More impressive is how he was able to average such a high number despite needing to constantly accelerate and decelerate to maintain contact with the group. His Normalized Power of 326 is also impressive since Normalized Power is an estimate of the power that he could have maintained for the same physiological "cost" if his power had been perfectly constant. His Variability Index of 1.12 is significantly higher than the non drafting Olympic-distance athletes and has more in common with the score of a cyclist in a criterium race. In cycling, stronger athletes can be defeated by weaker athletes over technical courses if they lack skills in cornering and riding through turns. In triathlon, the effect of poor handling, leading to big spikes in effort and higher energy expenditure, is compounded on the run. 

For more information on Variability Index, Normalized Power and other advanced analysis statistics, visit

The run course started and ended with a few turns but mostly consisted of two straight 4k sections along the path that bordered the lake. Straight courses allow athletes behind to see their competition and chase, but the course also had several turnarounds allowing the athletes in front to see the competition behind them.

With the top athletes posting times that would be competitive in pro races it’s becoming more important for athletes to look at improving more than their fitness to be competitive. As this was the first year in Tempe, Ariz., for the USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships, athletes were racing this specific course for the first time and likely learned lessons on how to improve their races in the future.