Endurance sports and competition require a lot of practice. The amount of time spent preparing for even a single event dwarfs the actual duration of the event. This huge volume of training is necessary, not only to develop the physical reserves to handle the demands of the event, but also to train the body in efficient movement patterns to maximize economy. When it comes to competition, it’s never quite the same as training.
While it’s certainly possible to prepare yourself to complete a century, a triathlon or even a 5k, when you begin to move along the spectrum from completing to competing (for the win, against your age group or even against your own previous performance), a more advanced skill-set needs to be developed. The only way to really do this is through practice. In mass-start bicycle racing--track, criterium, road, cyclocross and mountain bike--there is a lot to keep track of and the mind must be constantly alert. Focus can be narrowed a bit in individual competitions such as time trials, triathlons and running events, but achieving your best still requires a careful balance of many variables. Psychology addresses the four stages of competence:
- Unconscious incompetence (not knowing what you need to do)
- Conscious incompetence (knowing what you need to do, but not being able to do it)
- Conscious competence (knowing what you need to and being able to do it with focus)
- Unconscious competence (knowing how to do what you need to do without thinking about it)
Reaching a state of unconscious competence is the ultimate goal, but this only happens with lots of time and practice. There will be (many) mistakes and frustrations along the way and these are important parts of the process as they are events that need to be learned from and improved upon. With consistency, you may be able to get to a point of immediate and correct reaction.
Upon reflection, it may seem unbelievable that you knew how to make the decision without thinking about it. While it’s not always clear exactly how, masters that are better able to articulate this experience will tell you that it comes down to a long series of correct calculations that have reduced the number of possible responses at a critical time. Anyone can understand that it’s easier to decide between two options than five! Previous experience drives the development of this subconscious calculus. And it’s not just experience, but also exposure to similar, and yet subtly different, experiences. For instance, we’re entering cyclocross season. These events consist of technical, lapped races on an off-road surface with periods both on and off the bike. Think about that description, as well as how open it is to variations. Is the surface firm or soft, tacky or loose, flat or undulating? How much time do you spend off the bike, and where do those sections fall on the course? An athlete that fared well on a flat, open course in good weather can suffer greatly on a similar course with heavy rains. Those with more experience have learned how to adjust to the unique circumstances of different events.
While there may be more factors to monitor in mass-start events due to the very nature of racing in close proximity to others, solo events also have their own unique challenges. Racing on the edge of as fast as possible and blowing up can be hard to manage. Heat, wind or terrain may force you to deviate from your original plan. And although you may not be as fast as you personally hoped to be, these adjustments could help improve your outcome relative to your fellow competitors. One caveat here is that certain events that are especially grueling in nature can be more challenging to prepare for by such means. Some that come to mind are Ironman, Leadville and Lotoja. These events span so much time and have such a great physical cost that repeating them regularly is not practical or realistic. In this case, shorter events need to be used to hone the skills that will be important to the ultimate goal. Longer training sessions should inform the development of your race strategy, even if some of that information needs to be extrapolated. Lest we leave out the non-racing crowd, these same principles can be applied to recreational group rides and long-distance participation events.
Training hard and developing fitness can certainly be done alone and even on the trainer. But there is ultimately no better preparation for the demands of a specific type of event than getting out and actually practicing that event. Knowing what to expect and how to adjust to conditions you will face will allow the training that you do on your own to become even more valuable because it can be more targeted to known demands.
The moral of the story is that if there is something you want to be good at, practice it often and under different circumstances. Each of those experiences will be filed away in your athletic database to be subconsciously retrieved at a time when they will be valuable. The more experience you build and the more subtle the distinctions between those experiences become (a rainy crit on a flat, open course vs. a rainy crit on a technical, hilly course for example), the better and faster you will be able to make those decisions on race day.