I have many hard conversations with athletes. Contrary to what many might believe, a coach’s job is not to be absolute in telling athletes what they can and cannot do. As a coach, my job is to share all relevant information about a situation with an athlete, which then enables the athlete to make an informed choice about what they want to do. Sharing relevant information means that I need to share all information, whether it’s what they want to hear or not.
One of the most common hard conversations that I have with athletes I work with is about expectations surrounding the goals they’ve set and the races they want to do. There’s an important question that must be asked (and honestly answered) when planning a racing calendar and if we are going to be able to set proper goals and effectively manage the expectations surrounding those goals:
What kind of racer are you?
In my experience, there are two main categories that athletes fall into when answering this question:
Being a “GO!” Racer.
Being a Nuanced Racer.
If being in a race means that you want a performance-based outcome (to include a time-based, an awards-based, and/or a rankings-based outcome), then this means you are a GO! Racer. Basically, a GO! Racer’s thought process is “If it’s a race, I’m pushing myself as hard as I reasonably/possibly can.”
If you can use a race as a supported training day (i.e. taking it easy) in one race and then push yourself in another race on a different day, then this means you are a Nuanced Racer. Basically, this means you can implement different effort levels when you race depending on what is important to you and/or what your overall goals are.
Both types of Racer status/categories are valid and very okay; one is not better or worse than the other. The most important part of this conversation is honestly establishing (and fully accepting) what type of racer you are, as this will enable you to unlock your highest potential. Fight the Racer category that you fall into, and it’s a recipe for disappointment and frustration, not to mention unrealized potential.
Moreso than Nuanced Racers, GO! Racers need to be aware of what their status really means. If an athlete is going to push themselves hard in every race they show up to, there are some very important (and hard!) truths to accept.
Race selection and timing is extremely important for GO! Racers. Because they will push themselves so hard and/or have high expectations of their results, it is in their best interests to reduce the amount of times per year they race so they can peak effectively and at the correct times to increase the probability of achieving their desired outcome. GO! Racers can benefit from following Linear Periodization for this reason. In most cases, (and especially beyond their first season or two as endurance athletes) GO! Racers cannot race more than three times per year with the expectations they have of themselves in racing. Additionally, their races need to be properly spaced from each other so the athlete is sufficiently prepared and ready to be able to GO at their highest fitness and potential.
Since they won’t be giving a hard effort in every race they show up to, Nuanced Racers can safely include more racing in their annual schedules. They can classify races into different levels of priority and go into a race executing a plan with those priorities in mind. For this reason, while they can also follow a training schedule based on Linear Periodization, they can follow a training schedule based on Non-Linear Periodization a bit more effectively than GO! Racers.
Embracing the Truth
If you are a GO! Racer and you want to race a lot, you need to learn to reign in your GO! Status, and not just intellectually or on paper. You need to actually be able to physically reign yourself in at races and not treat each race like it’s GO time. If you cannot do that, you cannot safely race a lot or expect performance-based outcomes at all the races you want to do. Period.
No matter how much you may wish for it or want it to be different, you don’t and won’t get to have both. You can’t want to GO all the time and achieve high-performance results while simultaneously racing frequently throughout a season. Either you race a lot and you (effectively) manage your expectations and executions in races, or you race in full “GO Mode” and do so less frequently.
In my experience, age-group athletes struggle with this more than elite or professional athletes. I think it’s because - at their core - most age-group athletes are participating in endurance sports for recreational purposes. It’s not their full-time job; it’s what they choose to spend their leisure time doing. Participating in races is fun for social reasons as well as personal achievement reasons. Thus, it’s hard to “hold back” from doing something that is being done for fun.
Types of Races
Another important part of this conversation - especially for age-group athletes - is to be mindful about what types of races are being included in a race schedule. Athletes seeking to perform at their highest level in shorter distance races cannot effectively simultaneously train to perform at their highest level in longer distance races. Additionally, mixing sports gets tricky; for instance, if an athlete is training for an A-Goal in running, they generally cannot expect to perform at a high level within multisport or triathlon (and vice versa).
This one is particularly hard for age-group athletes to fully grasp and/or embrace; many athletes make the mistake of thinking there is more cross-pollination and ability in this area than there actually is since multisport contains swimming, biking, and/or running. However, training for multisport is much different than training for a single sport; multisport demands that athletes execute all disciplines well in a single event, not do really great in one discipline and have sub-par performances and/or get by in the others.
Think about the professional level athletes you admire. Do the athletes running the marathon at the Olympics also compete in the 5K Olympic races? Do the athletes racing at IRONMAN distance compete on the Olympic/World Triathlon circuit? Do professional triathletes enter professional running events, and vice versa? Do professional triathletes compete in the Tour de France or other cycling events?
Yes, athletes can include different types of races, to include different disciplines. However, their expectations of these different events must be managed effectively. If you have goals in a single sport, you will not be as good at a different sport (to include multisport) because of the training required to hit your goals well in that single sport. If you want to be a good long-course multisport athlete and/or have performance-based goals in those events, you will not be doing the training that is necessary to perform at a high level in short-distances of multisport.
Basically, if you want to do a race that is not the same as your A-Goal race, you need to modify your expectations of your performance appropriately at the other races. Fail to do this, and you will find out after the fact when you don't achieve what you wanted or expected. Believe me, it's better to address this in advance of a race or season than it is to reflect back with disappointment.
As you plan out your season or future season, it’s really important to ask yourself “What kind of racer am I?” and honestly answer that question. (Remember: No secret goals! Clear and transparent honesty, always and forever!) Doing so will enable you to plan a race calendar and to set goals that are in line with what your true expectations are, which in turn will give you a higher probability of success at reaching the goals that are most important to you.
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.