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The art of battle: 6 tactics to slay your competitors

SuuntoRun — 2 May 2019

Locked neck and neck in a race, these battle tactics will give you the edge over your adversaries.

Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Pro triathlete Cody Beals loves a good race battle. He’s been having them since his high school cross-country days. More recently, he fought it out against two athletes at the inaugural Challenge Cancun triathlon, ultimately placing second. Cody thrives on competition, and is not afraid to employ deception to defeat his rivals.

The most dramatic battles, he says, are when you are neck and neck with another athlete. Knowing how to do battle is an important part of triathlon. It’s something that can be trained, and requires a certain degree of cunning. Cody shares his tactics.

6 tactics to overcome your rivals

1. Let them do the work

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Cody advises to sit back and let your rival work for you. He learned this the hard way after many years of trying to be at the front of the pack, especially on the runs. He expended so much energy doing this he got his butt kicked in finishing sprints over and over again. He eventually learned it’s better to sit back, bide his time, allowing his rivals to do the work.

“This offers a strong physiological advantage on the swim and the bike if you're drafting off other athletes, within race rules,” he says. “On the run, it's a small advantage physically, but more psychological.

“It’s a good tactic if you find yourself neck and neck with someone else. It's the Muhammed Ali rope-a-dope thing; acting like you’re weak and sand bagging a little bit.”

2. Play up a perceived weakness or look strong

Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In his own words, Cody says he’s “not the prettiest runner”. This is true when he’s fresh, and even more so at back sections of Ironman courses. In certain situations, when he wants his rivals to believe he’s in worse shape than he really is, Cody accentuates his running style.

“I let my head wobble back and forth, throw my arms even wider, looking worse than in reality, when in fact that's just how I run,” he says. “This can get into another athlete’s head.”

Alternatively, the opposite ruse – looking stronger than you really are – is also advisable in certain situations.

“This is often something you do out in back sections of the run course,” Cody says. “Most triathlons feature sections like this where you can scope out the competition. I like to smile at my rivals, maybe give them a thumbs up. Or to really get inside their head, I might offer a word of encouragement, like a ‘good job’.”

3. Remember they are struggling, too

In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity
― Sun-Tzu, The Art of War

In the heat of a race, when he’s really suffering, Cody likes to remind himself that his rivals are, too.

“I like to tell myself that they are suffering as much or more than I am,” he says. “Often you feel like you are locked in this titanic struggle all on your own. But it bears remembering that everyone else out there is also going through this. Remembering that gives me strength.”

4. Block them out

When the outlook is bright, bring it before their eyes; but tell them nothing when the situation is gloomy.
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

As a last resort, when things get really tough, Cody advises to turn inward.

“The other thing you can do is outright ignore them, pretend other athletes on the course don’t even exist,” he says. “This is a last resort. I think the most useful strategy is to engage the competition, to engage with the pain, to be very present and mindful about what is happening. However, as a last resort, you can detach from everything happening, including the competition, and turn your focus inwards.”

5. Prepare well for battle

Plan for what it is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small.
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Intense competition can rattle even experienced pro athletes like Cody. That’s why he dedicates a significant amount of time to preparing for it.

“In pretty much all my difficult training sessions I will dedicate some time to visualisation, specifically around other athletes,” he explains. “If I know who I’m going to be racing, they will figure into my visualisation. I will practice a key moment involving that athlete and rehearse it again and again mentally. For example, I might go over a certain pass, where I'm going to drop them, or us locked in a finishing sprint. It’s extremely repetitive so when it comes to the actual moment in the race, it’s almost like a dream because I’ve practiced it so many time before.”

6. Make an alliance

If you do not seek out allies and helpers, you will be isolated and weak.
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Once in a while, during a race that isn’t going well, and only in the bike stage, Cody says making an alliance with another athlete can sometimes be helpful.

“It’s always with an athlete who I think I can outrun, but who rides similarly to me,” he says. “If I think I can leverage that, and gain something by being cooperative on the bike by legally working together with the 12 m spacing, that’s worthwhile. It rarely works out in practice, but sometimes you can find yourself with one or two other athletes and it pays to work together.”