Monday, September 7, 2009

The Next Step: Race to Train

Last time, I discussed the need to train like you race; the day of an event is not an effective time to try out new ideas.

The other side of that equation is to race the way you train. But if you ask me, the relationship between the two is not exactly reciprocal. For example, let's say you do some tempo runs--that is, runs at race pace. And in these tempo runs, you keep your heart rate at around 165 BPM. But then you go out to a race, and end up averaging 171 for 5k. You don't blow up and you don't feel like you worked that much harder, but your heart rate ends up being outside of your race pace zone. You didn't race the way you trained.

There's nothing wrong with that. Racing presents a different mindset and different conditions and a different environment than you encounter in everyday training. And on some level, you can't train for that.

Which is why, if you want to get faster, at some point you start racing to train.

Think about it. Not every race is top priority for pros; you can't expect them to peak for Timberman the same way they peak for Kona. They have A priority races and B priority races and C priority races . . . they might do some races just for fun, some for the community, some for the money, and some for the fame. And while we age groupers may not be peaking hard core so we can be in top shape to win $200,000, we can take a lesson from this.

Long story short? Race as much as you want to. Race as much as you can afford to. Race as much as you can.

That includes single-sport racing. So you've got a 5-mile tempo run scheduled for Saturday? Why not hit your local 5k, with a mile to warm up and a mile to cool down? It's not that you're trying to set a new 5k PR at Podunkville's Summer Fun Run; it's that it gives you an opportunity to practice the race-day thrill, the competitive environment, and the surge of adrenaline as you toe the starting line.

I've found that the more I've raced, the more comfortable I've become with racing. At a certain point, you (I hope) got over the newbie nerves--not the butterflies in the stomach that flutter as you approach the big day (those are fun), but the feeling that everyone at the race is faster than you, better than you, and knows more about what they're doing. The next step is to perceive yourself as someone who is faster, better, and knows what he/she is doing. That gives you a confidence and a presence that (I think) translates to faster times and more intense races (it has for me, at any rate).

There are a few drawbacks to the race-to-train mentality. For one thing, it's expensive. Let's say you want to race a tri a month (probably $50 minimum for entry fee, not to mention travel, nutrition, and accommodations), then also do a race-to-train 5k ($20-$30, probably) and a local road race or time trial ($20-$30). Congratulations. You've just racked up $100 in one month just on race entry. And that's assuming that your races were pretty cheap and you didn't have to travel.

So how do you get around that? You go with a group, and everyone in the group has the understanding that you're going balls-to-the-wall and racing. It's easy to find a group cycling ride that has that mentality, but don't go there unless you have a road bike (take the damn aero bars off, for God's sake), have decent handling skills, are comfortable riding in a pack, and can hold 18-20 MPH. Not every cyclist-centric group ride is going to have those requirements, but based on my experience with group cycling workouts, if you don't have those things, you're not going to have much fun (and you may end up in a crash or--even worse--causing a crash). 

Alternatives: go out with a group of triathletes for a no-drafting casual "group" race. You won't get to catch up with Steve about how his two kids are doing in cross country, but you'll have raced to train (sort of) without having to drop $20 on a time trial. You can also look for a semi-formal time trial; Wichita has one (every other Tuesday, 6:30 p.m., see for details), so I assume that they have them just about everywhere. They're free, they're timed, and someone will hold your bike for you so you can do a fancy TT start.

Competitive running groups (it seems) are harder to come by. Maybe there's a running or tri club that does regular track workouts you can join; those always end up as races at our track workouts. Same goes for Masters swimming; I know sometimes the atmosphere in a lane can get pretty competitive. Or you could do a "catch me if you can!" set.

These aren't perfect replacements for regular racing, but if money is a concern, it's probably worth it to sacrifice perfect preparation for the hundreds of dollars in entry fees you'll save. 

A fear I had as I got more into racing and became more and more confident in my abilities was that I'd lose the nervous thrill that comes before a race. I remember being completely unable to sleep the night before my first race. I had strange dreams that I was running late and didn't get to start on time. I was nervous in the week leading up to it. And I was so keyed up on race day that I could barely speak.

My experience has been that I don't (usually) get very worked up for the B and C priority races. But when it comes time for the A game, the nerves go into full swing. I don't think that feeling ever really goes away; I hope it doesn't.

When it comes right down to it, nothing is going to prepare you for racing like racing will. So be prepared to fill in your schedule a little, next year. Give yourself the depth of experience to present your best at next season's A race.


  1. There are lots of competative running groups in and around Wichita. If you join the First Gear Racing team (anyone can join no matter how fast or slow you are), they have regular track sessions at Friends University Track every Wednesday evening. You can also go to these track sessions if you are part of the Kansas River Valley Tri Club. Derby running club also has track workouts I believe and a great 10 mile run every Sunday morning.

    See you in a couple of weeks at Redman. Best of luck to you.

  2. Rivals. You forgot about rivals. I've found that having a few well-placed rivals that turn up to a lot of the same training sessions lets me kick it up a notch more than weekly D-priority races, which are just expensive training sessions after awhile. Sure, not everyone is competitive. But if you DO feed on that competitive energy, a good rival whose nose you really want to rub in the sand (with a smile on your face, of course) is worth his/her weight in gold.