Coach Tip Tuesday: Setting Up Your Season for Success: Race Priorities
When you participate in a race, the entire point of the race is to attempt to get your best and/or fastest performance ever, right?
The answer to this question is actually more nuanced and complex than it appears at face value, but the short answer is “no”. Races actually serve a broad variety of purposes, thus the goal of a race may not always be to get one’s best-ever and/or fastest performance. In addition, how frequently an athlete races contributes massively to what can be expected performance-wise or results-wise in a given race.
Over the years, I’ve seen so many athletes be disappointed at the end of a race with the time-result or how they felt during the race. (This generally has stemmed from athletes thinking that if it’s a “race” that they need to perform very well.) Many times, how they performed or how they felt wasn’t surprising to me, because I saw elements in their training and racing calendar that essentially paved the way for that particular performance and/or result.
To help unwrap the mystery of all of this, I’m going to lay out different categories of races and how you can use these categories to wisely plan out a racing season.
Know Your Goals
I’ve talked a lot in the past about how it’s important to know your goals, but this is never more important than when you are planning out your race season in its entirety. When looking forward over the full arc of a training season (essentially a full year), you should know what things are most important to you to try to accomplish. Some common examples:
Setting a personal best time in a given sport or distance
Completing a particular distance in a given sport
Qualifying for another race (i.e. the Boston Marathon, the IRONMAN World Championship, Leadville 100, the USA Triathlon Age-Group National Championships, etc.)
Trying a sport for the first time
The most important races to you in a given season or year are what I call A-Races. A-Races are your top priority and what you care most about. Most (if not all) of what you do in a given season (or over the course of many consecutive seasons) is preparing you to be successful at your A-Race(s).
Since these races are what are most important to you, they will be races that you taper for and be in peak shape for. As such, you can set big and/or aggressive goals for these races. These are the races where performance/time-based goals have the highest probability of happening.
A-Races are significant in many, many ways. They require a lot of time and energy to train and prepare for as well as a decent amount of time to recover from. As such, athletes can only include A-Races in their racing calendars a maximum of 2-3 times per year. Additionally, those actual race dates need to be spaced apart from each other appropriately. How far apart from each other they need to be varies based on the type of event, duration/distance of the event, and what the athlete’s readiness is, but generally speaking, A-Races need to be at least 2-3 months apart from each other.
Using elite athletes as an example: There is a reason why professional runners who race marathons only race a maximum of two marathons per year (and generally about 5-6 months apart from each other at that). Similarly, in long course triathlon, most athletes focus on 2-3 long-course events as A-Races; any other races in their calendars are B-Races.
Professional athletes racing shorter distance events do have multiple key/A-Races per year, but how they accommodate that in their schedules is important to note. They are usually following a non-linear periodization plan, which is often not an appropriate choice for age-group athletes due to the risk of overtraining, burnout, and injury.
In my experience, most age-group athletes do best following a linear periodization plan, and it’s the coaching strategy I deploy most often for my Performance Coaching and Custom-Built Training Plan clients. Most Pre-Built Training Plans are linear periodization schedules; non-linear periodization requires a lot of knowledge, expertise, and oversight to manage effectively, so it’s not an appropriate choice for a lot of self-coached athletes or athletes following a Pre-Built Training Plan.
B-Races are events that are important to you, but are not your top priority. You might decrease your volume and intensity slightly before a B-Race as a “mini taper”, but these are not events that you will (or should) be in peak shape for.
B-Races are great opportunities to test out tactics, gear, techniques, and nutrition that you are planning/wanting to use in an A-Race. (Some common examples include running a half marathon as part of marathon training or doing a shorter triathlon before a long-course triathlon.) This being said, these events do not need to be a specific preparation/test for an A-Race. B-Races can be races that you want to do “just because” and can have goals that are separate from A-Races.
Athletes can include B-Races in their racing calendars 4-6 times per year, but again, timing is important. B-Races should be separated temporally from other races by at least a month.
C-Races are the “fun” races. In theory, an athlete can include as many C-Races in their racing calendar as they like, without a lot of concern about timing relative to other races. However, there are specific guidelines that apply to C-Races in order to make the aforementioned statement true:
These races must truly be just for fun, without any expectations as far as performance/time-based goals go. Additionally, they may actually have “workout-specific” targets, intervals, structure, etc. that are planned for them. In essence, C-Races are considered supported training days; you will be conducting a workout like you would any other training day that you would complete on your own, but with a C-Race, you’ll complete that training day/workout in a race setting.
Thoughts to Consider
There are many important things to consider when you prioritize the races in your calendar. First and foremost, you need to be extremely honest with yourself about how you behave and act in a race situation.
Are you a person who is very competitive and will feel the pull to push yourself as soon as you're around other people in a race environment?
Are you a person who will always expect a “good” result from a race?
Are you a person who cannot stop yourself from looking at the clock, comparing your current time to past times of the same distance, and who cannot reign in your efforts to execute a plan, not try to achieve a result?
How does your body actually recover from training cycles and race efforts?
If you are a person who cannot exercise restraint in a racing situation, or if you are someone who is always going to want a “good” result, then frequent racing is not compatible with your personality type. Essentially, your personality means that you will treat any race like I described an A-Race; you will treat it as very important and as a top priority. As I mentioned, A-Races can only be included 2-3 times per year because that is all that the body can handle well. Any more than that, and the body (and mind!) will start to go into overtraining, burnout, and fatigue. Performance suffers as a result of all of this, which, of course, is the opposite of what most of us want.
In my experience, most age-group athletes need to learn this lesson the “hard” way; by going through a race season with a lot of races on their schedule, experiencing those adverse effects, and thus seeing for themselves that they are not unique and are not the exception to this. If you’re reading this, it is my great hope that you can (and will!) learn this the easier way by listening to those of us in the industry who have watched athletes suffer through this. :)
Conversely, if you are someone who gets stressed or feels anxious about setting a performance-based goal, your personality type may very well be suited to racing frequently, as you will be able to “let go” and enjoy the racing experience more easily, rather than having the pressure of feeling like you always want to “race” a race.
The longer you remain involved in the endurance sports realm (i.e. the more years you are participating in more than one race per year), the more you need to learn to hone in on these different categories of races. Simply put: The more races you do over the years, the less frequently you can expect to get a top-end result. It becomes a numbers game; it’s impossible to make continued progress at every race you do over time. Read that again: Impossible. I know we love to say that “impossible” is a banned mindset/word in American culture, but certain things just are not possible, and this is one of them. That kind of progress is only seen in athletes who race infrequently and/or for a relatively short (2-3 years or less) amount of time.
The type of race is important, as some goals are not very compatible with each other. For instance, it will be challenging - if not impossible - to achieve a performance-based goal in one sport (such as triathlon) and also achieve a time/performance-based goal in a different sport (such as running). If this (a performance-based result in two different sports) happens (and it’s a big IF), the timing of the races within the racing calendar becomes extremely important. The races where an athlete wants to achieve two performance-based goals in two different sports must be pretty far apart from each other (usually at least six months). The specificity needed in training to achieve a performance-based result is not possible any other way. So, for instance, if an athlete wants to get a personal best time in a long-course triathlon and a personal best time in the marathon distance of running, those two events need to be at least six months apart from each other to give the athlete the highest probability of success.
As you chart out your race season, I encourage you to follow these steps:
Know your goals. No unspoken goals or unspoken expectations here! Write out exactly what your goals are.
Write out the races that you would like to do. Be sure to note what type of race (running race, cycling race, triathlon, etc.) the race is.
Put the races you’d like to do on a calendar and see where they fall relative to each other.
Classify your A-Race(s), and work backward from there. It may be necessary to eliminate other races that you originally wanted to do based on what A-Race(s) you plan for. Ensure that you’re spacing races out appropriately from each other. If you are including C-Races, make sure that you are really going to be able to treat those races like any other workout day.
Build your training around that finalized race calendar.
There’s a lot that goes into properly planning a race season. Properly prioritizing your races is essential to having a successful race season and paves the way for any/all gains to come.
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.