Coach Tip Tuesday: Don’t Pick Races First

Posted On:
Tuesday, January 16, 2024
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A recent article by Kashmir Hill in The New York Times made a bold (but truthful!) statement:

“This time of year, everyone asks what you like least about your life, but they phrase it as, ‘What’s your New Year’s resolution?’”

Since endurance sports not only parallels so many other facets of our lives, but embodies them, we often see answers to this question popping up in the endurance sports world in the form of fitness-related New Year’s Resolutions.  In addition to that, we also see a variation of that question - “What do you like least about your athletic life?” - and the answers to both of these questions manifest in a few ways.  The most common ones I see are:

  1. Athletes coming up with and committing to new goals.  For so many athletes, “setting a goal” manifests as signing up for races.
  2. Recommitting to training and/or daily habits that support training.  For so many athletes, this manifests as (yep, you guessed it) signing up for races.

I’ve talked about how research shows that setting New Year’s Resolutions is pretty darn close to pointless, as only 9% of those who set them report achieving them.  I’ve also encouraged athletes to set authentic goals; research shows that the people who reach their goals are different from those who don’t because those who reach their goals are aware of who they truly are and they set goals that are in alignment with that authentic self.  To build on these ideas, in this conversation, I want to propose the following:

Don’t pick races first.

Sequence Matters

I’ve seen it happen so many times: An athlete will tell me that they’ve signed up for a race…and that's it.  I didn’t necessarily know they were going to sign up, and I honestly have no idea why they signed up, because all they told me is that they signed up for a race.  I then respond with, “What goal(s) do you have for this race?”  The response from the athlete often is “I don’t know.”  Sometimes this is a truthful response, other times it’s not because the athlete has a secret goal that they are afraid to put into words, even to me.  

When athletes sign up for a race and cannot (or will not) articulate what goals they have for said race, this tells me something really important.  It tells me that athletes think about what feels best or what they “superficially” want first, without really asking themselves what goals they want to achieve and without honestly evaluating what it is going to take to get what they want.

Thus, after more than a decade of coaching athletes, I firmly believe that the standard “pick (aka register for) a race, then figure out a goal for said race” paradigm that most athletes (consciously or unconsciously) subscribe to is incredibly flawed.  

Decide What You Want

The first reason why this method is flawed is because this sequence is lazy.  Picking a race is relatively fun and easy.  Whether it’s because of the race’s location, the fact that your friends are doing it, or because you’re current bored scrolling mindlessly on your phone at 2:00 a.m. and it sounds like something fun to do, clicking a few buttons, inputting credit card information, and getting a registration confirmation email is E-A-S-Y.  A surge of dopamine follows, and we feel great about it in that moment.  (It feels so great, in fact, that I have observed hundreds of athletes over the years forget later on that they even registered for a race.  I’ve also observed athletes lose track of what they’ve registered for and the timing of their registered events relative to one another.)  

The second reason this method is problematic is that registering for a race makes athletes think the following: “I did it!  I set a goal!”  …But did they?  When you register for a race, do you know exactly what your goal is before you hit that “Confirm Registration” button?  Do you know exactly why you’re registering for that race?  Did you map out what it would take to prepare for that race before you registered for it?  Did you make sure your schedule was clear for the 6-8 weeks prior to race day so you could get in an appropriate Peak Phase of training?  Are you truly aware of what it is going to take to be ready for the specific demands of the race you signed up for?

I say this to the athletes I coach somewhat ad nauseam: A race is not a goal.  A race is the setting where you seek to accomplish your goal(s). 

Just as you should set goals that are in alignment with your authentic self, you should pick races that are in alignment with your authentic goal.  As quirky as it sounds, what you really want to do is pick “authentic races,” in whatever form that manifests as for you.  If you reverse this equation and pick a race before you’ve decided on a goal, you risk decreasing your probability of reaching your goal…because you didn’t set yourself up for success by choosing the most appropriate event for your specific goal.

Map It Out

Trying to keep your goals, your races, and your personal calendar in your head is the equivalent of asking you to memorize The Declaration of Independence.  Sure, a select few individuals can do it, but it’s beyond the abilities of the majority of humans.  It’s really just best to accept this and work with the truth: We need to extend our minds and use other tools to help guide us to what we really want and how we can best achieve what we want.

As you consider races, draft them out on a real (paper) calendar to see where race dates are falling relative to each other.  Then work backwards and see when you need to be scheduling your training phases, and most importantly, when you need to be scheduling Peak Weeks for priority goals.  If you cannot get in quality Peak Phases and Recovery Weeks after a given race, You need to make some changes.  You either need to forgo that particular race or you need to downgrade your goals for that race and/or the races that are temporally close to each other. 

When athletes tell me what races they’ve signed up for, I always map those races out on what I’ve come to call the Grand Master Plan, which is a document I maintain for each athlete I coach.  Among other things, it contains a week-by-week breakdown of the entire year, what they have going on, and how I’m going to plan macrocycles to help them best reach their goals.  It is a visual representation of what it’s going to take for both of us to get to where the athlete wants to go.  It guides my work, which therefore guides the work the athlete needs to be doing in their training.

Once I map out things on the Grand Master Plan, it’s not uncommon for me to point out that some events are too close together to have a high probability of successfully reaching the goals they’ve set for each individual event.  Often, athletes tell me they didn’t realize that the races were so close to each other.  Once again, this tells me that athletes didn’t really think about what their goals were before they signed up for the race(s).  And once an athlete signs up for a race, it becomes a losing proposition (on my end) to try and convince them not to do it because of the sunk cost theory (basically, athletes don’t want to “lose” the money they spent on the race registration by not doing the race, even if the race doesn’t make sense for them to do).  Picking goals then races solves all of these problems, and leads to a higher probability of success.

The Bottom Line

Picking races first is a losing strategy.  Instead, aim to set authentic goals.  Use those authentic goals to guide your race selections, and pick races that are in alignment with your goals.  By following this sequencing paradigm, you will set yourself up for a higher probability of success, both in the short and long-term.

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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