The Art of the Training Race

by Mike Coughlin

One thing I love about the triathlon lifestyle is the atmosphere and energy of the races. For the reasons outlined in my Race Satisfaction Strategy, participating in challenging, social endurance events is one of my favorite things to do. However I also like performing to my potential at certain events, typically at a rate of one true “A” race per year.

The above begs the question of how to best manage “B” and “C” priority races during a specific training block without avoiding them altogether or enjoying them at the expense of training efficacy. In other words, how do you best execute the so-called “training race”?

I have had a great opportunity to examine this question while getting ready for the upcoming Ultraman World Championships. My specific preparation has involved long and often logistically challenging sessions, which have taxed my physical, mental and emotional resources (otherwise collectively known as “my mojo”). I realized that racing wasn’t just good for pushing me in a competitive environment; it was also good for my mojo! Yet I also knew that I didn’t want to compromise the quality and specificity of my Ultraman training. Here is how I leveraged racing opportunities to meet my needs:

  • Race your weaknesses: Cycling is my strength and therefore I almost always have good mojo on the bike. But for swimming and running, a race environment sometimes helps. So while I didn’t do many triathlons during my build-up, I took part in three open water swim events, a 50k trail race and an uphill marathon, all during loading weeks, to help raise my game.

  • Utilize logistical support and resources only available at races: Triathlons are a great example of this, because for many it is the only chance to access open water, roads without traffic lights and aid stations. For me, open water access was addressed with my swim races, and the aid stations available during my long running events really helped with my nutrition plan.

  • Be creative: There aren’t many events that can simulate an Ultraman triathlon very well, so some creativity was required to utilize my training races effectively. I had a fantastic opportunity to use this principle when I was in town for the Mt. Lemmon Marathon on the same day I had a 33 mile run with a downhill start scheduled. I staged my car part way up the mountain and ran down the hill in the dark to the start line. It took some planning, but it is a fun memory and I was very happy that I didn’t have to run a step past that finish line!

  • Don’t let racing ego get in the way: Obviously when training through a race, performance will be compromised to some extent. When using a race specifically for training, this is even truer. While I did not use it as an excuse (see below), I accepted this fact in advance to ensure there was no subconscious backing off in prior training to protect a training race result.

  • Respect that the event is still a race: The corollary to the above is that the training race is still first and foremost a competitive event, where everyone is expected to be giving their all. While I knew the purpose of these races to my training plan, I gave my best in that context and respected that others were giving theirs as well and that in many cases; this was their “A” race. Also, I knew not to tell everyone in the race that would listen that “this is just a training race for me” — a race (training or otherwise) is no place for excuses.

Well planned and executed training races are a real example of how you can “have your cake and eat it too”. Maybe it isn’t the best cake you have ever had, but it sure beats celery sticks.

See you at the races!

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