Your first loaf of bread is never your best loaf of bread. As you try different combinations of ingredients, knead the dough in different ways, and perfect your baking technique, your loaves improve. Racing is the same; your first race is never your best race. You get better with every race until you are working on the smallest of improvements. You move from completing the race to tasting the most subtle flavors.
Most triathletes don’t race quite enough to improve their “race skill” level. They set a big goal, such as a half (70.3) or full distance IRONMAN, and then aim toward that goal for months or years with lots and lots of training but not much racing. They hit performance plateaus, and since they spend so much time swimming, biking, and running, they aren’t sure what’s missing. Sound like you? Then consider revising your long term “A” race plan to include a number of “C” local races along the way to perfect your racing skills.
A “C” race may be a local 5K, a weekly community trail running series, or even a very fast and challenging weekly group ride. Part of the goal is to automate your race day routines and stressors so when your big race day arrives, you can prepare and race with ease, knowledge, and practiced competence. Lining up at the start line for a local race and your out-of-town big “A” race should actually look pretty similar. They both require prepping the night before, managing race morning jitters, a pre-race breakfast, the nerves at race check in (and all the urgent trips to the port-a-potty). They demand a proper warm up, a race plan, and an execution of that plan along with head-to-head competition. Your local race provides a microcosm of your larger race.
The lessons you learn racing these events will build the foundation for your “A” race racing skills -- both consciously and unconsciously. For example, late in a local 10K run race, you might be tailing an equal or slightly faster runner and you see their shoulders drop just a bit. There’s your moment to make your move! Or you work on pacing and impulse control early in a group ride and finish strong instead of blowing up. Even if your race goes poorly, you will learn something that you can improve upon the next time you line up at the starting line. When you finally toe the line at your “A” race, you know what to do.
Should you race every weekend? No. But work in enough smaller, local races to build up your racing skills and resume. Plan out your local races to support your “A” race goals, to leave plenty of time to recover, and to not interrupt your main “A” race training. In the last 12 weeks before your “A” race, focus on training over racing, but there are still lots of weeks left over to race locally and build race skills -- especially during the off season (which is to say, run the Turkey Trot and the Jingle Bell Jog).
So get baking and racing! Those perfect loaves and races are developed on a deep foundation of practice, knowledge, and skill. -Jim