Avoid the Training Race Trap!

For those of you who have followed me well before the podcast and the blog, you may remember my article from ACTIVEAvoid the Training Race Trap. Presented here, is an cleaned-up, beefed up article that weaves together the original article related to training races for cyclists, but also the trap that catches runners, swimmers and cyclists, the ubiquitous “C” race, or low priority race.

From the original article

As we enter another season, many of us are already planning to tackle some of our most coveted regional races like Trans-Sylvania Epic, the Killington or Gila Stage races, or any number of road and XTerra triathlons. Likewise, many of you will take part in some type of weekly training race, group hammerfest, or smaller lead-up event. Unfortunately, the local training race – most training races being competitive group rides, as well as numerous little 5k’s and sprint tri’s can be your greatest enemy, trapping you in an endless cycle of suffering and recovery with no long-term improvement. To make matters worse, many athletes feel compelled to make their regular appearance. However, by periodizing your training, and resolving to follow the path, you can make great use of training races, unlocking the door to the Training Race Trap.

Do we train to race or race to train?

Growing up in small town New York, I often relied on my own motivation and a couple good training partners to produce some stellar training rides. However, when I headed off to college I entered an area with a tradition of brutal Tuesday Night “races”, where only the strongest survived. Moreover, you were expected to make some regular appearances or face the wrath of the local guru. For years I struggled to integrate those races into my training and racing schedule, often neglecting my weakest areas to do so and forcing me into a series of recovery rides later in the week. Fortunately, when I moved on to graduate school in South Carolina I began training with someone I consider to be my first great training advisor, learning that not all guru’s are created equal, nor do they all have your best interest at heart. I also began training to race – specifically planning my training to meet my racing needs.

If you ask a group of riders why they go to the local training race week in and week out you will get several answers, but I’ll wager the most popular is racing is the best training you can do. Other answers, in no particular order might include:

  • Everyone does it, so you should too!
  • I was tired and didn’t ride for two days, or I’m just not motivated to train by myself, or I just can’t push myself like I can in a race.
  • The training race is blast, and beats training.
  • It’s just more convenient to go to the race than train by myself.
  • I like to crush the new riders.
  • I wasn’t able to race this past weekend, but need to get some more races in before my next goal. 

The fact is that racing is usually not the best form of training*, just like training at threshold/sweet spot, or any other training intensity for that matter, is not the best training intensity. If racing isn’t the best training, then doing it because everyone else does it is a pretty poor decision. Similarly, if you’re tired or unmotivated to train, then you should probably consider changing your training rather than adding more racing. If, on the other hand, you want to simply have fun or beat up on lesser riders, you may want to reconsider your goals reasons for racing. This leaves the final reason, which is the only valid reason of the list, when used appropriately.

Training Race or Weekly World Championship?

Ultimately, the major problem with training races is that riders often forget that their real purpose is for training, rather than race results. We often become enthralled in our competitiveness, focused only on the result. Other problems with training races are timing and structure. It seems that many training races fall on either Tuesday or Thursday, a less than optimal day if one is racing on the weekends. The ideal day would be Wednesday, but even then each of us needs to have individual objectives that serve a greater performance goal. A periodized training plan, specific to your goals, will allow you to insert training races, or in the case of sports like triathlon or running, preparatory events (i.e., “C” races), which will also be considered training races. Thus, each race has not only a specific purpose, but a specific fit in your training.

Escaping the Trap

Training races can be a highly effective training tool, and a good substitute for motor pacing. The key to training races is PERSPECTIVE. As stated repeatedly, a good periodized plan builds these prep races into the season; here is a great place to hire a coach to help you periodize your season. Specific goals helps each of us structure our training to meet our specific race needs. The following suggestions will help you use the training race, rather than get used by it:

  • RACE ONLY FOR A PURPOSE – Racing for racing’s sake does little to help your athletic development. Similarly, going to training races simply to sit in and wait for the sprint is simply a waste, unless positioning practice is your goal. Why not drop off the back and chase back on, or work on bridging the gap to the break.
  • Each time you do a training race, as a team or individual, HAVE A GOAL AND SPECIFIC OBJECTIVES you want to achieve above and beyond simply winning. Plan a whole training session around that race and STICK TO YOUR PLAN! Likewise, teams can use training races to practice lead-outs and other team tactics.
  • LEAVE YOUR EGO AT HOME. Easier said than done, but if you set, and accept, specific goals you must accept that training races are just that, training. The only races that count are on your goals!
  • RACE YOUR WEAKNESSES. Training races offer us a unique opportunity to try things that we would otherwise avoid in major races. If you’re a climber, attack often in the local crit trying to form a break, or sprint for all the primes! If you’re a sprinter, attack on the climb. Just try something new!
  • USE TRAINING RACES TO COMPLEMENT GOAL PREPARATION. Training races offer an excellent way to prepare for any major race, particularly stage races. If your major goal is a long road race, but all the lead up races are much shorter, ride to the training race and maybe ride home. Alternatively, if you have a big stage race coming up, race Saturday and Sunday, do a long ride Monday and then race Tuesday. In contrast, unless you need to test your recovery and pre-race strategies, it is best to simply train through these races.
  • EVALUATE YOUR FITNESS or ESTIMATE YOUR RACE PACE. For runners, a shorter race can give you needed data to plug into a run calculator to help nail your race pace, while for triathletes, a shorter race a few weeks out provides the ultimate BRICK to prepare your body and mind for the race that counts; you also get some race specific T1 and T2 practice. Another option for triathletes is to combo a swim, bike or run race with training. e.g., a cycling TT followed by a run, or a swim race followed by a bike ride are just two options.
  • TEST NEW EQUIPMENT, NUTRITION, or STRATEGIES. Here is one of the most overlooked advantages of the training race, testing equipment and food. Not sure how those tires or wheels will handle on race day? If you can really get out of that wetsuit fast? Or, want to try that feeding strategy when the GI system is most stressed? Training races are the ideal. Finally, training races are a great way for runners to test new race strategies, including pacing.

Case Study I

In 2004, Mark McCormack was preparing for the World Road Race Championships held in Late October. This one no easy task, considering his last major race was the San Francisco GP held in early September; all that remained were a handful of road events and regional cyclocross races. However, McCormack made the most of the weekly cyclocross races in New England, often riding to and from the races. While not ideal, it is a good example of how to effectively and appropriately utilize training races to optimize race preparation. It should also be noted that pro riders often appear at local training races as PART of their overall training scheme, which is far more comprehensive than most of ours. Most pro’s get to relax and take naps while we work and the stress a training race places on their body is likely much less than it is on ours.

Case Study II

In 2010 I was preparing for Duathlon Off-road Nationals here in Richmond. Still new to running and MTB’ing, and with few races available, I connected a few local running races onto my training rides, often riding to and from the race. I continue to use this strategy occasionally, if I feel like my run in long races is weak.

Final Words

Whether your ultimate goal is National or more local, training races can be a highly effective means of training, but they can also be a trap of stagnating performance. By being true to your goals you to can Avoid the Training Race Trap!

*One need only look to pro cycling to realize that training, specific training, is the best way to prepare for big races. If you cannot produce it in training, then do not expect it to appear on race day.

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