Training for Best Race
I got a long email from an athlete last week. The bottom line was that he wanted to know what he might be missing in his training. He’s got an important race in the spring and wants to make it his best ever. Of course, there is no way I could tell him exactly what to do. Even when I know an athlete quite well this is a challenge. So I pointed out three things he needs to do in order to be aiming his energy and time in the right directions. Here’s what I told him.
1. Know what your limiters are and train so as to improve them while maintaining your strengths. There are lots of things that could be one’s limiters. This guy is a triathlete so I asked him to consider, first of all, the three sports and how good he is at each. Sometimes age group race results tell you this. A good example of this is a triathlete I coach. It was obvious when I first started working with him that swimming was his weakest sport. So I shot video of him and determined that the greatest weakness here was his catch. So we have been working on that for a month. I just got a new video from him this week and he has improved it considerably. There are still flaws but they are minor. Our focus now shifts to his running. This will be a bigger challenge as we need to improve both his technique and his muscular endurance. We’ve been working on the technique for about a month. It’s also coming along quite well. Now we’re ready to get his ME improved. That will take several weeks.
Of course, there’s a lot more to limiters than this. One has to also determine what the course will be like and compare that with weaknesses. For example, if it’s a hilly course and he is a poor climber then this is a limiter. But if it’s a flat course climbing is not a limiter. Wind, cold, heat and humidity can also be limiters. Water conditions (rough, flat, cold) are also possibilities. There are others to consider such as nutrition and inadequate recovery time.
2. Train consistently which means doing workouts so as to avoid injury, illness, burnout and other breakdowns while controlling lifestyle interruptions. If his training is frequently interrupted for two or more days, for whatever reason, he will not make the necessary progress for a top performance. Consistency is the key to success in endurance sport—not super hard workouts. I seldom have athletes do extremely hard sessions, but they always improve. Why? Because I am conservative when it comes to designing training weeks and workouts. If there is a doubt in my mind about what I have just scheduled I downgrade the workout. It’s better to finish workouts doing less than one could have done, rather than whipping yourself. If you had a million-dollar race horse who was a contender for the Triple Crown you’d never push them to the edge of injury and breakdown. You’d be conservative. Why not do the same for yourself?
A good example of this is a woman I have been coaching for three seasons now. She was new to triathlon when I started with her but had a great background in cycling. I knew our biggest challenge for a couple of years would be avoiding injuries from running. Even being very conservative she still had a few minor injuries. But this winter her legs began to toughen and adapt to the stresses of running. Now she is finally doing the workouts we need to do to help her become a top contender in her age group. She’s actually been quite competitive the last two years, but this will be the year.
3. Train increasingly specific as you get closer to the race. In this regard, roadies are probably the worst of any sport I’ve ever coached. They seem to want to race multiple times each week, 52 weeks a year. Many think that’s what training is all about—just hammering with a group. Most fail to grasp the concept of gradually adapting to training stress which becomes increasingly specific to the demands of the sport. Sometimes the best thing for them, at least in the winter months, is to have so much snow on the roads they can’t get outside. That forces them to actually “train,” albeit indoors.
I was asked the other day in an interview if “reverse periodization” was a good idea. What the interviewer meant by this was doing high intensity in the base period, especially when this occurs in the winter when one can’t do long workouts, and then doing high volume in the build period when springs rolls around. I pointed out that periodization is not defined by intensity and volume. It’s defined by specificity. The closer you get to the race, the more like the race training needs to become. If one makes the training less like the race the closer one gets to it the more likely it is that there will be a poor performance.
Trying to decide how to optimize training in the winter when you can’t get outside is far more complex than simply doing intervals in January and long rides in May. It’s actually the subject of an entire other blog which I will do some other day.