At Vision Quest, one of the most important points we emphasize to our athletes is having a goal. Some would say that without a goal, you’re not training, you are just working out. Although this may be an extreme example, the point is that training should be aimed at moving you along the athletic performance spectrum, while “working out” has no such agenda.
For any athlete with a competitive goal, the competition is, in part, what validates the training endeavors. Few athletes truly enjoy the sacrifices they make for their sports: early hours or late nights of training, foregoing decadent desserts or pushing their bodies to new thresholds of pain in pursuit of that extra edge.
Racing on the other hand, is--or at least should be--fun! The opportunity to test yourself against your fellow competitors and push yourself to be better or faster than they are is the interest you earn on the investments you have made in your fitness and athletic skills. The mistake that many athletes encounter is that they have not determined the proper balance of training and racing. A crowded race calendar, especially one in which every event is an A-priority goal, hampers athletic development because the athlete spends so much time resting in order to race well, giving up valuable training time. Alternatively, racing infrequently doesn’t allow the full development of X-factor skills that can only truly be trained at race speed and in competitive situations.
The following recommendations are intended specifically for those athletes in their first couple seasons of competition, but should also serve as valuable reminders to veteran athletes.
- During any given season, athletes should not have more than two or three A-priority events or periods. These are events for which their training has specifically prepared them and they arrive at the start line both appropriately trained and appropriately rested so that the chances of success are high.
- The next step down is B-priority races, of which there may be four or five events in a season. B-priority events are ones in which the athlete would like to perform well and may give up some training in favor of resting for the event, but not to the same extent as for an A-race.
- Finally, C-priority races are training races, those that are trained right through and used to gain experience for the A- and B-priority events. The notion of a training race is fairly prevalent in endurance sports; however a thorough understanding of this concept is noticeably absent.
The common denominator in any definition of training races is that the outcome is less important than the process. Or phrased differently, the goal of a training race is the planned implementation of a strategy or set of skills without regard for the outcome of the race.
Very often, successful implementation of strategy or skills will result in a favorable placement as well, but this should never be the central focus of a training race. When designing your race calendar and training plan, take into account your rate-limiting factors and the time you have available. If your rate-limiters are energy system-related, such as lack of endurance, little sustained power, getting dropped following surges or struggling on short, steep hills, you will benefit from spending time training the appropriate systems rather than traveling to a race.
However, if your rate-limiters are related to race-specific skills, training races can offer valuable experience so that you are completely ready to perform in your A-priority events. Examples of these types of factors are energy conservation, positioning within the field, aerodynamics, nutrition and hydration, pacing strategy and transition routine. Training races also offer a low-pressure situation to experiment with new strategies. As you lay out your season, give training a prominent enough place that you can develop the required fitness, but by the same token, don’t let that keep you from racing all the time. Most importantly, if you plan to use a race for training, be sure to give yourself specific objectives to accomplish and let those be your focus, rather than the end result.