5 race focus shake-ups for performance breakthroughs

by Lance Watson and Dan Smith, Lifesport Coaching

If you are like many typical athletes, after the initial few seasons of building fitness and experience, it is quite common to slip into in a familiar weekly training routine with little variation. This is not unusual, since a day job generally limits the amount of time available to workout and training opportunities are dictated by the locale. On top of that, season routine may consist of an “A” event and one or two “B” races prior to that event, generally producing less and less improvement year after year.

Most athletes would like to see some performance breakthroughs in race times as well as improvements in their overall competition experience. For those who have been competing for a number of years, this could mean you are ready for a shake up!

Shake up #1: Race your way fit.

I have some of my triathletes regularly enter running and cycling events during their early season. Most of the time these races are shorter distances, from 5K and 10K to half marathon running and  between one hour and two hour-long cycling races. You never train as hard as you race, and these events provide that extra incentive to push the envelope. These events all tend to be at the highest intensity one can maintain for that shorter time, and as such are in line with tempo efforts. Being in competition adds another level of body and exertion awareness. Being in a race also incorporates pacing and using completion as a gauge to see where you are. It also allows you to compete with single sport athletes and learn some of the tricks of the trade. Hit the run leg of your triathlon later this year knowing you have the fine-tuned skills and fitness of a 10K runner.

Shake Up #2: Honing specific elements of your game.

I find many newer athletes approach every triathlon the same way: They race based on how they are feeling in the moment without trying a different strategy or testing different skills. For instance, how do you break through in the swim? Six weeks prior to a “B” race, add an extra swim per week and work on increasing that top-end swim start speed. Start your next race a little farther forward and be more aggressive than usual, looking for faster draft pack, and muster up the determination to stay with that group from 400 yards to the finish. Observe how coming out of the water with those front-of-the-packers affects the rest of the day. Do you have the legs to maintain the position? Does a faster or harder swim negatively or positively impact your bike?

Alternately, you can place more of a bike emphasis in the race, taking a risk for the sake of pushing up bike fitness in a competitive environment, and see how your run legs respond. You may or may not run your best this time, but in the next race you will have a fitness adaptation and a stronger bike will take less out of your legs.

Another possible strategy is to reduce bike effort slightly and attack the first half of the run, teaching your legs to find a faster rhythm off the bike. Overall you may compromise your best possible result in your “B” race, but by pushing the envelope you can clear the way for a higher performance in a future “A” race.

Shake Up #3: Adjust race nutrition.

Rarely do we hear of athletes complain of nutrition disasters during training, it’s only in the heat of a race that these things come to light. Can you carry and ingest your nutrition efficiently with your race set up? Do you often run out of energy toward the second part of the run? Do you suffer from bloating or any kind of digestive problems? Early season races allow you to practice nutrition in a race setting, at race-specific heart rates.

Before making any drastic nutrition changes it is important to see what your baseline goal of calories is for an event. Typically athletes will consume 250 to 300 calories per hour on the bike and 150 to 250 calories per hour on the run. If you are within this range,  a “B” race offers the chance to see whether adding or subtracting calories is effective. Do you have a hard time ingesting all the calories you should during a race? Have you tried to get all calories in a liquid form, either via an energy dense powder or putting all your gels in a bottle and diluting slightly with water?

Shake Up #4: Refine your transitions.

Transitions offer free time, but for many it is an afterthought. To speed up transitions, figure out the quickest way to get out of your wetsuit. Practice running from the beach to your bike rack and stripping the suit to your waist; rather than just walking or settling into the jogging pace of those around you. Low pressure races are a chance to leave cycling shoes attached to pedals. This skill is not as hard as many athletes think, but it does take practice. Begin practicing on a trainer and then commit to trying it every time you get on and off your tri bike.

Early season races are also the time to practice running without socks—it takes time to build up callouses or to get the skin toughened up to resist blisters. Use lots of Vaseline! Simplify what you put in transition bags and what goes on your bike – remove choices of items.  You don’t want to decide on vests, arm warmers and socks in transition. Decide before the race begins. A quick glance through transition shows that many athletes carry significantly more gear than they need. There are necessities like a spare tube, levers and C02 cartridges, but do you really need Allen keys and enough food and drink to last six hours when you can pick up much of your  nutrition out on the course?

Shake Up #5: Try new gear.

Early races are the time to break in new equipment, not at the expo of your “A” race. If you are just buying your first disc wheel, this is the time to test it out. Make sure the brakes are adjusted and the wheel fits the frame. Also practice changing a flat tire. Getting used to a new aero helmet takes time—how easy is it to put on in transition? How does it affect hearing and do your sunglasses remain comfortable?

If you are going to try a new model of shoes, an early race will show any hot spots. Does your race kit chafe at all?  Is your aero position dialed or too aggressive? How do you run off the new bike set up?

Adding a couple of shorter distance triathlons or even single discipline races early in the year can break you out of a rut. On the flip side of the coin, if a later season 70.3 is your “A” event, an early, similar-distance event that has little pressure on performance or time can provide an opportunity to experiment with specific elements of your race, such as pacing, bike position, new equipment, nutrition or technical skills. By shaking things up, you open doors to new possibilities.

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