How to Prepare for Any Race

One of the great things about endurance sports is there is a flavor for everyone. Do you like going long? No problem. Dirty Kanza, Ride Across Wisconsin and Ironman are probably right up your alley. Love slogging away for infinitesimal gains? Time trials and triathlons provide the outlet you’re looking for. Are you an anaerobic anomaly? Look no further than your local criterium or the velodrome.

The wide range of endurance activities (all of these including the bike, of course) might make you think that everyone needs to train in vastly different ways. That might be true for other reasons, like work/family obligations or our own unique physiologies, but taking this view too far is missing the forest for the trees. At the root of it, preparation for every single event follows the same general pattern with only the details being manipulated. Once you understand the pattern, and know what those details should be, planning your training becomes a simpler matter.

General Preparation

Preparing for your next big event starts right after your last big event. This is what you may think of as your off-season, and as for most athletes, it will be largely behind you at this point in the year. Of course, it’s important to take some time after a season of training and racing to reset. Maybe you need a little rest or a change in focus. This is the time when you want to have FUN with your training. You don’t need to be as structured in what you do, but it’s crucial that you DO something. It is very difficult to make season-over-season progress if you spend several months each year without training.

As the off-season progresses, your training should gradually return to a more structured routine. This is not to say that you need to or should be doing race-specific training eight months before your big event. I’m a big believer that the best way to prepare for any event is to start with a balanced energy system profile. This means working on everything regardless of your racing goals. Everyone will have innate strengths and weaknesses, but this is a time to work on minimizing that disparity. Train your weaknesses, even if they are not central to your racing performance. This means Ironman athletes shouldn’t shy away from sprints and VO2 work occasionally, and sprint specialists should get a regular dose of aerobic volume.

Get Specific

The next phase features more detailed training that takes you progressively closer to your race-specific fitness. From the balanced approach of off-season training, you want to gradually work toward targeting the energy systems that are crucial to your race performance. You want that ability to be as strong as possible on race day. Here is a quick summary of what you’ll be looking for:

  • Track racing and criteriums: explosive sprints and short anaerobic intervals
  • Road races: anaerobic intervals and endurance
  • Time trials: threshold power and muscular strength
  • Centuries: aerobic endurance
  • Sprint/Olympic triathlon: longer anaerobic intervals, threshold power and run speed
  • Half-Ironman distance: sustained tempo power
  • Ironman: aerobic endurance and more endurance

In practice, it’s clear that different athletes will be moving in different directions at this time. While the cyclists and triathletes focused on shorter events might be doing less volume than they did during the off-season, they should be doing more intensity and balancing that with rest. Preparing these energy systems happens relatively quickly. It may be possible to prepare for optimum performance in as little as two months.

Those on the endurance side of the spectrum will continue to build their volume as endurance continues to grow. The timeline of improvement here is much more gradual, so they will need a longer specific prep phase, at least four to six months in most cases. While intensity is still an important part of the training routine in this phase, the sheer volume of work being done means intensity cannot be included too often, and it may not be possible to hit the best numbers, especially as fatigue accumulates.

Hone the Edge

During the specific preparation phase, it is a good idea to include some simulations of the target event. These can be other races, events or training designed to feature similar demands to your key event. For the short duration athletes, it’s possible to race or simulate the full event distance regularly. The cost is not that high, and recovery happens quickly. Those on the endurance side likely won’t do a full volume practice session. Accumulated fatigue is a big part of the training plan and helps to develop the fitness to perform according to plan. A good rule of thumb for those in longer events is to have a peak session that features 75-80% of race-day volume.

The last four to six weeks are the most important time in any athlete’s preparation. Of course, the work that has already been done still matters, but early in this window is when you will want to have your most specific training. This might include a block of short races, a long ride or several weeks of high-volume training. This will be the fitness you take into your event. The second half of this phase is where the goal shifts from improving fitness to improving freshness. Fatigue accumulates over the course of the training and, even as the body adapts, it doesn’t have the same edge that it once did. Reducing volume and intensity in the last two to three weeks will allow some of that freshness to return while keeping the overall fitness level high so that you are performing at your absolute best when it matters most.

Where Does Coaching Come In?

So, I’ve just given away the farm. Now you have the formula to prepare for a myriad of events, and you’re off to sketch out a plan of action. It’s true that the planning is a fairly straightforward part of coaching and something that most could easily figure out by spending a little time reading any one of a number of great books on the subject.

The much more technical and challenging part of the equation is determining how each athlete will interact with the formula. What makes this calculus even more challenging is that the variables are constantly changing. Work gets busy, family comes into town, we get sick. Even the course of training results in a change in the formula. Fatigue can be a sneaky enemy and, as athletes, we are seldom in the best position to judge what is in our best interests. Our predilection is often to push through, thinking this will make us better. Yet, to those on the outside (family, friends, coaches) who can take a more objective viewpoint, the signs can be quite clear when rest is what is needed most. While the coach’s role includes planning, the more necessary function is providing feedback and adjustment based on the current situation.

As you start your specific preparation phase this season, keep these ideas in mind along the way. Consider where you are now and where you want to end up. Once you have those two points, how to build the bridge between them becomes more plain. Remember to enjoy your own journey, and avoid getting caught up in what others around you are doing. It may be right or wrong for them, but in either case, they are also on their own paths. Train well!