Training for triathlon is a lot of fun, but racing is what brings the sport to life. It’s an opportunity to test your fitness level, your training, and your grit – and to explore your physical and athletic limits. If you’re like me, that also makes racing an irresistible opportunity—and the reason I keep coming back to triathlon year after year. But while it’s fun to pick races at random or follow the lead of training buddies, putting a bit more thought into your race calendar can pay off in greater athletic performance and better odds of competitive success.
Step 1: Determine Your Strengths (and Weaknesses)
The first step in planning your season is to determine the kinds of courses and conditions in which you perform best. Do you like courses with hilly bike sections, or do you prefer flatter, time trial-like terrain? Are you happy swimming in the ocean or do you prefer a lake? Can you race well in high heat and humidity? Can you ride well in windy conditions? Do you enjoy running on trails? Are you happy to fly to a race or do you want to stick to races closer to home? Race to your strengths in important events, but don’t be afraid to test your weaknesses in less important ones.
Also consider seasonal differences between where you train and where you plan to race. If you’re training through the winter in Chicago, racing in Florida in May might be a bit of a shock, for example. When I was a rookie pro I flew from the UK to race Ironman 70.3 Orlando and was absolutely wiped out by the heat and humidity after months of training in 30 to 40-degree Fahrenheit temperatures.
Step 2: Get Some Races on the Books
Once you’ve established the kind of courses and conditions that work best for you, choose several events that embody them. These will be your ‘A’ races, and the rest of your racing and training schedule will be structured to help you crush them.
Event distance, fitness level, experience, goals, and budget are a few of the factors that will determine how often you should race. Some age groupers (i.e., amateur racers) will enter six to eight Ironman 70.3 races throughout the season while others might prefer to tackle three or four. With Ironman, it’s wise to focus on one or two unless you’re very experienced. Keep in mind that many races are sold out up to a year in advance, so your racing calendar might already be determined to a certain extent.
When it comes to shorter races, it’s not uncommon to race every three or four weeks. After every race – regardless of distance – it’s important to take time to recover sufficiently, only racing again once you feel that your body has bounced back. That might be just a few for a sprint or Olympic distance race, but after a 70.3 or Ironman, it might be two or three weeks – or more!
Step 3: Make a Plan B (and C)
Once you’ve selected your “A” races, pinpoint several ‘B’ and ‘C’ races—events in which you’ll compete not to achieve a new PR, but rather to obtain valuable feedback about your fitness level and racing skills. If you’re racing Ironman Lake Placid at the end of July as an “A” race, sign up for an Ironman 70.3 at the beginning of the month as a “B” race, for example. In addition to testing your fitness, nutrition, and equipment, you’ll get a solid fitness boost that will help you bring your A-game to your “A” race a few weeks later.
“C” races are those that are short, easy, and close to where you live – a local time trial, 5K, or 10K, for example. You can use them as opportunities to go full throttle, and to test your fitness and skills with minimal hassle, expense, and tapering. They are hugely worthwhile, and can be scheduled every month or so.
Step 4: Keep Racing
In the northern hemisphere, race season typically runs from May through October, but that doesn’t mean you should stop racing once November rolls around. Indeed, smart coaches often encourage athletes to “race themselves fit” during other times of the year as well.
The year can be broken up into several phases—base, build, race, and post season—and scheduling races strategically within each phase can have a beneficial impact on your fitness level, not to mention your racing skillset. I’ve already described how to structure your race phase. Here’s how to approach racing during the other three.
The majority of your training during this phase will focus on building aerobic endurance and developing your athletic skillset—and your racing should reflect those goals. You might, for example, enter some 5Ks or 10Ks to experiment with pacing, or enter a local cycling time trial to test your bike fitness. Don’t expect to see huge gains at this stage, but do use the feedback to get from racing to hammer out your weaknesses and develop your strengths during training.
The focus is still on building strength and endurance, but there will likely be more race pace and race-specific work in your training. Once again, your racing should reflect your phase-specific goals. If you’re doing a lot of hill repeats—a favorite workout of mine, as it helps build strength and endurance while introducing some speed work—you might sign up for a race with an aggressive, hilly course to test your stamina and pain tolerance. If all goes well, you’ll begin your race season with the confidence, experience, and fitness level required to crush your “A” races.
If you’re still feeling energized and motivated to compete once the race season ends, then do what I do: Head to sunnier climes for a relaxed race that becomes a vacation the moment you cross the finish line. In short, take a “race-cation.” My favorite is Ironman 70.3 Cozumel. Take your spouse, family, or friends, and make the most of a perfect opportunity to race in a beautiful place with surrounded by the people who’ve supported you all season long. Your goal: To get your racing fix, and then switch off your competitor mode, so you can rest, relax, and recharge in preparation for an even better racing season to come.