You look at the weather forecast, and you see something other than sunny, 70ºF, and 0% humidity. Maybe you even see rain on the forecast. You look at your training schedule to see what training you have scheduled for that day…and you start an internal dialogue:
“What time of day can I do my workout instead?”
“Maybe I can move this workout to a different day; that will be better.”
“It’s not a big deal; I’ll swap this workout for another one.”
You’ve been there. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. Believe me, I get the reasons why athletes think this way and go through this internal dialogue. However, I’m also here to ask you a very important question:
What would you do on race day?
More specifically: What would you do on race day if this same condition was in play?
For many reasons, most athletes place more value on race day than they do on training days. They feel that there is more “at stake” on race day and that race day is more important. As a result, most athletes will often push through things (a variety of things) that they might not push through in training.
“Nothing new on race day” is a common piece of advice that endurance athletes typically associate with gear. (For instance, most athletes embrace the truth that racing in new running shoes, on a new bicycle, or with new goggles on race day is a risky choice.) However, “nothing new on race day” absolutely applies to more than just gear. Among other things, it applies to weather conditions, nutrition, hydration, tactical strategies, and even mindset.
Precisely because it is so important to athletes, race day is not the time to do something new, no matter what that something is. This means that if you would not withdraw from a race if the same condition is in play, you better be willing to train in it. Thinking about doing it or saying you would do it is not the same thing as actually doing it. If you want to be successful in endurance sports, you can’t just go through the motions; you must actually do the action.
In endurance sports, doing the action means doing the specific skill or training. Training is what builds strength and sets athletes up for success on race day. Quality training increases the probability of desired outcomes and enjoyable experiences. We want race day to be the best experience possible, and for the best chance of that happening, we need to train in all conditions and embrace a variety of experiences so we build our Athlete’s Toolbelt as robustly as possible.
Many times, athletes will avoid uncomfortable or adverse conditions because they don’t feel safe. There are legitimate circumstances that are always going to be unsafe (such as lightning storms), and then there are circumstances that are honestly only unsafe because the athlete lacks the experience of how to handle them so they can be safe. It’s like when you start driving; you’re not the safest or best driver, but as you gain more experience, you become one. Gaining this experience often means doing something outside of one’s comfort zone. Think of this zone as the Growth Zone - the experience you are gaining to grow into a stronger and more capable athlete. Don’t see obstacles; see opportunities.
Believe me, race day with 3,000 terrible bike handlers (like it or not, most triathletes do not practice their bike handling skills enough to be proficient bike handlers) is not the time you want to be experiencing adverse conditions for the first time. You don’t want to be fumbling your way through aid stations on a run course because you didn’t practice how to manage adverse conditions on your own in training. You don’t want to be swallowed up by waves in rough waters on race day because you shied away from practicing in those conditions.
Much to the chagrin of the athletes I work with, as a professional endurance coach I end up asking this question a lot in response to athlete requests for modifications to workouts or changes to their training schedules. The most common element that they’re asking to avoid or modify away from is weather, but there are plenty of other situations where I’ve asked this question over the years.
Believe me, I understand that completing workouts in the rain is likely going to make you feel uncomfortable. I know it’s a lot more work to pay attention and keep your wits about you when there’s lots of water on the road and the sound of the rain impairs your ability to hear cars. I get that going outside when it’s cold out isn’t always pleasant. I understand that being outside when it’s hot can feel like you’re cooking on the surface of the sun.
AND I also know that most athletes (specifically age group athletes) will not withdraw from a race unless they are basically on the verge of death. I’ve watched athletes literally break their bodies in order to try and complete a race. Whether it’s raining, smoggy air, very hot, very cold, snowing, or any other unpleasant condition, athletes will not choose not to start a race or to withdraw if a given adverse condition pops up midrace. They will persevere and find a way through.
What I’m advising all athletes to do is find that same spirit of perseverance and tenacity in their daily training. If you can do that, you will set yourself apart from at least 75% of the other athletes you’ll be racing with on race day. When you find yourself engaging in an internal debate about shifting workouts or optimizing your conditions, ask yourself: “What would I do on race day?”
There may very well be some situations where you answer that question with, “I would withdraw or not start the race if this situation/condition was in play.” If that’s the case, then I think it’s fine to avoid the condition in training and/or find an alternate workout or plan for the day. But if your answer is, “I would keep going”, keep going in your training with a plan and safe parameters in place. Be brave. Embrace the challenge. Know that existing in discomfort will help you grow even stronger.
In training, do what you would do on race day. It’s as simple and as hard as that.
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.