— by Kevin Heinz
Long distance triathletes face challenges that athletes in many other sports don’t encounter. The first challenge is the extra money needed to participate in triathlon compared to a single sport, such as swimming. In addition to financial expenses, there is the time required to get good at all three disciplines. Even if you hap- pen to be genetically gifted in one segment of the sport, it still takes hours upon hours on the track, trainer or in the pool to become profi- cient in the others. Then there is the racing itself. Once confident in our abilities, we will, of course want to compete. Our plethora of choices is both a blessing and a curse.
Related: Balancing life, work and training
In spite of the mental and physical benefits to racing, there’s a point when racing too often can be detrimental to your performance.
First things first: choose your A race(s) and commit
Triathletes tend to be overachievers. If we weren’t, we’d be glued to YouTube watching cat videos. We are often thinking and doing, and, in some cases, over-doing. Many triathletes, especially those new to the sport, race too frequently. To avoid this trap, when planning your race schedule, start with races most meaningful to you. These are called A races. The criteria for your A race is highly personal. Maybe it means returning to an event where you have had success, or perhaps never have had success, but you have a score to settle with either the course or with a competitor.
Whatever your criteria, put the A races into your schedule first. If you are true to yourself and your training, you will likely only have one or two per year. Peak performances at A races require both preparation and discipline. This is especially true if you race long-distance triathlons. A weekend spent travelling to, racing in and recovering from a standard- or sprint-distance triathlon is likely less effective in your preparation for an Ironman race than just staying at home and putting in the miles. There are, however, instances when a well-timed race before an A race can be beneficial. Many coaches will have their athletes do a race shorter than their A race as part of a taper. For example, doing a standard-distance race a week or two prior to a half-distance can be beneficial.
Have an “A” race but also have an “X” race
Racing long-distance triathlon can be like a double-edged sword. One side features deep satisfaction from attempting and achieving an epic goal, whether that is to simply finish the event, achieve a personal best or place well. On the other side is the risk of a major letdown if the race goes poorly and, in a race like an Ironman, there are many things beyond your control that can make that happen. You can suffer a punch in the head in the swim, a mechanical issue on the bike or mystery cramps on the run. There are also aspects of your race that are within your control, but go wrong anyway. Perhaps you bike too hard and your gazelle-like stride deteriorates to a trot, or you deviate from your nutrition plan and get tummy troubles. Regardless of whether your catastrophe is from bad luck or bad execution, having a negative race experience can impact you psychologically.
Often, to avoid such a letdown we race too conservatively in order just to finish. We never really experience what it means to “race” a full- distance race. That is where the X race comes in. It is a race you only minimally “invest” in. You don’t specifically train for it, nor are you concerned with even finishing. The purpose of the X race is to perform your best, based on your current level of fitness. It’s a throwaway race, in the sense that you have not invested a substantial amount of money or training time into it, but, at the same time, since there is not a lot to lose, you can jettison the “race to finish” approach and race to win or do your absolute best. Chances are, by racing like this, you may discover more about yourself and the effectiveness of your training than if you hold back just to make sure you complete the event.
Try to not tri
Many of us were runners, cyclists or swimmers before becoming triathletes, and while many of us now see ourselves first as triathletes, that doesn’t mean you should just do triathlon races. There are benefits to dedicating a portion of a year to training specifically for a non-triathlon event.
Emphasizing one specific discipline for a shorter period of time and having a race to focus that training on can help you realize your potential. Furthermore, by de-emphasizing those two other disciplines, you can give those sport-specific muscles – and your mind – a welcome break.
As triathletes, we are presented with many opportunities to race. By choosing wisely and balancing your racing, training and real-life responsibilities, you can enjoy a successful season that will have you performing to your potential for your A races, plus give you opportunities to improve in the single-sport disciplines during the off-season.
Mission B.C.’s Kevin Heinz is a coach for Tri-Joy The Spirit of Multisport and the Abbotsford Triathlon Club. He is also the host of the Fitspeek podcast; fitspeek.com.