Controlling variables at XTERRA

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Control the things you can and don’t worry about those you can’t.

Controlling variables at XTERRA

By Melanie McQuaid

June 9, 2007 — The beauty of the XTERRA triathlon is that each race presents a different challenge. On the road, the race courses tend to be pretty standard, so the variables include who’s racing, the weather and the water conditions. In XTERRA, a much greater number of variables can determine how you do on race day. The swim is always two laps and you never know how long the beach run will be. The bike-course length is semi-standardized, meaning course designers want it to take the fastest athletes “x” amount of time. The run is often more than one loop and will range between 9 and 11 km – although it will be the longest 11km you have ever run.

You may find that some courses suit your strengths better than others. All of us come to XTERRA having trained as well as we can for that race, but inevitably, there are still the last minute decisions that you need to make that can affect the outcome of the race. Things like weather, competition and the waves are uncontrollable. Below is a list of some things you can control:

1. To ride, or not to ride, that is the question.

It seems like a no-brainer, to take the time to ride the race course. I will always try to ride the course, but I also have the ultimate freedom on when to arrive to the race in order to facilitate some practice time. Some of the XTERRA bike courses are very, very long loops. It can take all of two hours to ride the US Championships course in Lake Tahoe and it’s very difficult as you ride through deep sand the whole way. I believe that knowing the downhill sections is very important, but you need to ask yourself: “How much training do I want to do immediately before the race?”
Once you answer this question, you can make your decision on when to arrive. In XTERRA, often a home course advantage will really exist, as the opportunity to train on a certain type of terrain is an asset on race day. Giving yourself some time to recover from your pre-race ride is a good idea since mountain biking is never easy (or at least it shouldn’t be). If you come in late, just try to look at the downhill sections. For Maui, this is a non-issue, as no one is allowed to ride the trails ahead of time.

2. What tires are you running? What pressure are they at?

This is easier to answer if you manage a pre-ride. Asking some questions about the terrain ahead of time will help you to determine what will work best on the course. Once you are there, experimenting with air pressure while pre-riding will help you get the optimal set-up. Weather needs to be considered, as rain will often change the tire choice you make. Last year in Milwaukee, the weather changed drastically 30 minutes before the race start. Athletes without mud tires were frantically changing in transition and those that came prepared ended up on top of the podium.

3. Racing flats or trail shoes?

XTERRA is one of the few triathlons where you actually will have to make a decision on shoes. I often opt for a lightweight trainer rather than a racing flat. I find that a bit more shoe around my ankle means a little less dirt in there by the end of the race. I don’t think your shoe choice is going to make or break your race, but it may affect how comfortable you are in the race. In general, racing flats may not have enough cushioning for rocky terrain and can be unstable because of their low profile. My first race this season (Temecula) is an example of a race where you need a trail shoe. The course runs the gamut in terms of topography. This is also why XTERRA is for everyone. Maybe you are a better strength runner, maybe you’re fast on the flats, or maybe you enjoy sketchy downhills. Each XTERRA venue offers a different challenge, so you can never say “I don’t run well”. We’ll find something for you. You just need to decide on what shoe to wear.

4. What about nutrition?

This is similar to road triathlon in that you generally want to carry easy to digest, liquid carbohydrates and electrolytes. The tricky part is deciding when to replenish. I would advise either setting a timer on your watch or, if you have ridden the course, choosing specific sections to eat or drink. Sometimes the course can be so rough that it is difficult to eat or drink on any kind of schedule, so grabbing what you can, when you can, will be the only option. Choosing to ride with a hydration pack can take some of the guesswork out of it. Not eating is not an option. XTERRA races are 20-50% longer than an Olympic distance race, so your nutrition plan should be similar to that in a half-Ironman. It may take some practice to figure out what the right strategy is for you.

5. Training for race day.

I think you need to have a strong overall training plan to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. Some races present an obvious race strategy to employ that you may need to prepare for. Case in point: Ogden. The Ogden XTERRA starts at 4,500 ft and climbs up to 7,700 ft. It is essentially all uphill on the bike. I would say that to do well at that race you need to climb well at altitude. So, in order to get ready for this race, it would be wise to at least look at doing some longer climbs on your bike beforehand. The bonus is that this training will also help you at Tahoe and Maui, as those courses are somewhat similar. I think that Ogden, Tahoe and Maui are the essential trifecta of success. Each race gets successively longer, harder and more competitive. As a result, you get stronger, fitter and more prepared.

Versatility is the keyword for the XTERRA athlete. In addition to making numerous decisions before your race, you also have to be prepared for anything. Controlling those variables that you can is the starting point. Then you must roll with the variables that you can’t.


Based in Victoria, Canada, Melanie McQuaid is a three-time defending XTERRA world champion. For more information about McQuaid, please visit

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