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Long course racing: Your fitness doesn’t matter

Your plan to succeed.

— By Adam Johnston

When it comes to long course racing, most athletes don’t fully exploit their fitness on race day – only well-prepared athletes (and a few lucky ones) nail it. There are three main reasons why:

1. We get our race day nutrition wrong

2. We get our race day pacing wrong

3. We get our race day headspace wrong

A lot of athletes don’t want to think at all during a race – they just put their head down and simply swim, bike and run. Is this you? Do you feel that anything that causes you to think, react or plan is intruding on your training? To perform well in a long-distance race, it’s imperative that you plan. You also have to practise and be willing to modify your training based on numerous factors, then repeat that entire process again and again.

Here are a few tips that will help you get all these factors right on race day:

1. Nutrition

You need to know how much of each of the following to consume during long training sessions and races: fluids, calories and salt. Here’s a starting point for each:

  • FLUIDS: To find out how much you’ll need to take in when it comes to fluids, weigh yourself pre- and post-workout. Find the difference (converted to grams). Add the amount of fluid you consumed (ml of fluid + g of bodyweight loss = total fluid loss) and divide this number by the workout duration. You’ll be left with an hourly fluid loss (ml per hour). Use this as a starting point for a fluid replacement goal during workouts of 90 minutes and longer.
  • CALORIES: Aim to try and consume one to two calories per pound of body weight per hour.
  • SALT: You should aim to take in 500 to 1,000 mg of salt per hour from all sources combined.

2. Pacing

Get your pacing right. Sounds obvious, right? But pacing is horribly mismanaged by most athletes. You need to know your pace, especially for the bike and run. There are ample technological tools available to assist in pace management: power meters, heart rate monitors, pace-based devices, etc. Proper pacing, for most of us, means that you:

  • Don’t start too hard
  • Don’t surge
  • Keep an even output

3. Headspace

Long course racing is tough. Mental toughness requires knowing how to moderate your thoughts – knowing what to focus on and what not to focus on. Be ready to experience the highs and lows that happen during a long-distance race and how to manage each of those. Mental toughness is the ability to keep your cool, focus and perspective throughout the race.

Combine for success

These three factors aren’t isolated from one another. They’re interrelated. If your pacing is going well, you’ll be in a better headspace. You’ll be more alert and more likely to stay on your nutrition plan. When your nutrition is on, it’s easier to keep your pacing, which reinforces a good headspace. And so on.

Having a race plan will help you stay aware of each factor, while keeping them working together in a positive fashion. A race plan spells out what you’ll do for your nutrition, pacing and headspace on race day. It forces you to continually pay attention to these factors and keeps you focused on the current moment, not the next or the previous. It is the only way to truly race well.

Here’s a sample of a section of a full-distance athlete’s race plan, taken from the bike. This athlete requires 300 calories per hour, 1,000 ml of fluid per hour and has a goal full-distance power output of 200 W.

  • AT 10 MINUTES PAST EVERY HOUR, I take a gel. I feel good.
  • AT 15 MINUTES PAST, I take two swigs from my water bottle. I am in control.
  • AT 20 MINUTES, I check on my power. It’s right where I want, 190 to 210 W. My cadence is in check, at 88 rpm. This is where I want to be.
  • AT 25 MINUTES, I take two swigs of my water bottle. This cools me from the inside out.
  • AT 30 MINUTES, I assess my physical self. I’m working, but I am in control.
  • AT 35 MINUTES, I take two swigs of my water bottle. I am managing my hydration well.
  • AT 40 MINUTES, I take a gel. My energy is even. I don’t feel the highs and lows.

Think of the tortoise and the hare. The tortoise has a race plan and steadfastly sticks to it. The hare goes like gangbusters, then has to stop (to figure out what’s wrong with their nutrition), then goes hard again, then stops (to figure out what’s wrong with their pacing), then hard again, and then stops to ponder what’s wrong with their headspace. And, you know the story, the tortoise wins in the end.

Several long-distance triathletes develop their nutrition, pacing and headspace at WattsUp Cycling in Toronto, a facility and program owned and operated by Adam Johnston.