The sport of triathlon is full of people with different goals and aspirations. One thing that seems to be a constant for endurance athletes, especially in climates with seasonal changes, is that people generally build their schedule toward a culminating event. After months of training and numerous races, the race that you have been waiting and planning for all season is finally (or already) here. Have you done what you needed to meet your goals? In truth, it takes a reason bigger than just a workout to see where your fitness is. Most likely only a race against other competition will tell you that. It is your test, your final exam of the season.
Whether you are new to the sport or a veteran, racing is the best way to measure your improvement from the beginning of the season to the end and from year to year, especially if you do a number of the same courses. Most training plans take into consideration that the spring time is for building a base of miles as the weather gets better from a less active winter. As a new triathlete way back in 1986, I followed the lead of others and after a few years of training and racing developed my own plan that added specific races to provide a measuring stick for where my fitness level was leading up to toward my most challenging event. Usually this means an event that is longer in distance but it also could be an event that has the best competition. For some of the best in the sport, the end of their season has involved travel to a far off tropical island. Although the pinnacle event of the triathlon world has taken place annually in Hawaii since 1978, any race can be "Your World Championship”.
As I have stated a number of times before, my theory of endurance training for a healthy athlete wanting to be successful in the sport of triathlon is to plan a schedule around three workouts in each sport during a seven day block of training. More specifically, the week would consist of a short (intense), medium (tempo) and long (sustained) effort in each sport. In the Base and Build phases you would want to ideally have four workouts per sport to focus on expanding your endurance but three is what makes up the foundation of the plan.
In 1990, I competed in my first of nine Hawaii Ironman World Championships. For the better part of four years I went from an athlete that competed in high school and college team sports (football, basketball and baseball) to doing running races and eventually shorter distances triathlons. After a few years I progressed to a number of half Ironman events and eventually set my sites on Ironman. This progression is not unlike most triathletes. Not only does it mimic our progression in the sport, it also is the suggested way to plan your season. Start small and go faster/longer as your fitness grows. Leading up to my first Hawaii Ironman I planned both a summer marathon and a full Ironman event to be ready for what Hawaii would be. I figure that if I was going to be riding 112 miles and running a marathon then I should see if I could do them individually beforehand. The six months of specific training with long rides and runs were invaluable to be ready for nine plus hours of racing. I developed my 3x3 Method of Training over this time because with a family, job (and second job) I had limited time to devote to training but knew that I had to cover the basics to be ready for October. Living in southern California I heard about the famous Tuesday runs and Wednesday rides that many of the area professionals took part in. Following their lead, my weeks were built around a full day of training on Wednesdays to ride with a large group along Pacific Coast Highway and followed that with a 90 minute to two hour run. I took a vacation day most Wednesdays from the end of May through September and trained like a pro. Surprisingly it was easy to do with work not missing me for a day and all my training was done by the time I would have normally arrived home from work so as not to interfere with my family. I left when our children went to school with the goal to be home before they arrived back. Training with athletes better (much better) was really helpful and my abilities grew tenfold over my first summer of this type of training. I sublimated my midweek training with a middle distance (50-75 miles) Saturday ride and long Sunday morning run. My long run which was coincidently 20 miles home after church, was the key to a break through marathon of 2:34 on only my second attempt. I guess not knowing better than “hitting the wall” for 12 consecutive weeks would have such big results.
Sometimes being ignorant of the event’s true requirements and over-planning (without getting injured) can be a benefit come race day. Like all training plans, I was walking a thin line of overstressing my body to a point just before breaking. As the summer passed, the marathon provided a stepping stone to my first Ironman (the inaugural Vineman) and as grueling as the day was, I was very close to my predicted times in each event and went 9:43. For me, a systematic approach to training worked. At least for my first go around. I found out with numerous additional attempts (17 total Ironmans) that training methodically for the race was not the issue for me. Executing on race day was. With initial success I was set on improving from my first taste of the Ironman distance. That first year put me a spiral of doing races to qualify for Hawaii as well as competing at USAT National Championships, Military Championships and ITU World Championships as an age group athlete. Each year my training schedule would revolve around developing a base in the spring, racing shorter races during the summer and then building for another attempt and the perfect race (from me) in Hawaii. All that Periodization Training for more than a decade with a culminating October event made me better, but at the cost of often not being rested enough to perform at my best for many other races during each season.
In retrospect, my single focus with the goal of qualifying for and then racing in Hawaii was short sighted. It wasn’t that I didn’t race other races, in fact I raced a lot with 15-20 triathlons of varying distances each year. It’s just that I didn’t specifically train for events and only tapered for a few days here and there. Can you say “Cumulative fatigue”? It meant that when other big races came throughout the year I was not sharp. Although the results often looked like success, (winning 2 age group National Championships and 4 Military Championships) they were not at the level they possibly could have been with proper rest. At the professional level, this is one of the reasons the sport of triathlon has become so specialized. ITU, non-drafting, Xterra, and Ironman/70.3 all have their specific athlete followers and rarely do they cross over. A notable exception occurred over the past two weeks with the IM 70.3 World Championships and the ITU Grand Finale when Javier Gomez and Ben Kanute went one-two at the IM 70.3 in Chattanooga and one week later raced in Copenhagen at the Olympic Distance World Series Championship. Gomez represented himself with a top 5 overall finish but lacked the speed to compete down the final stretch of the 10k. Of course his effort one week earlier that included a 1:10 half marathon to win the World Championships as well as the travel back to Europe took its toll and could be the explanation for not winning in Copenhagen. Over-training and over-racing will most often lead to a less than desired finish, but sometimes the experience (whether you’re a pro or age group athlete) is worth more than the race result.
All this is to say that each person should seek out their own “Championship Race” in order to have an event to focus their season on. It doesn’t have to be a World Championship, National Championship or even a highly recognized race. It just need to be “Your Championship Race”. Sometimes it’s more enjoyable and affordable to be the “big fish” in your community race than just another Kona Qualified athlete in Hawaii. Even if you are fortunate enough to go to Regional, National and World Championship races, don’t miss out on your local event because you had to do a long bike ride or run. Show support for the event and the athletes participating by being there to compete. The people doing their first race will have questions about how to do things and the veterans will be enjoying going head to head with an accomplished athlete. It may be the only triathlon that some people will do and they return year after year. That alone makes it their “Championship race” and although it make not rank highest on your season schedule, it’s a “Championship Race” whether you think it is or not so you better be ready—or your neighbor will have beaten a top athlete just “training through it.”
TIPS FOR HAVING YOUR BEST CHAMPIONSHIP RACE:
- When life stress takes over and it seems there is not enough time to train, remember that you must have a good balance to be successful so get things in order across the board and your training will fall into its rightful place depending on where it is on your “real” priority list.
- Take time to allow your body to heal from any injuries before they impact your entire season. A short rest can also help you extend your racing schedule from early spring to late fall. By rest I mean doing a session that doesn’t cause additional impact or injury. Rotating your sessions should allow adequate rest of a few days or so in order to take care of any nagging issues.
- Sleep more. If that means doing workouts later in the day on a weekend then do it. This doesn’t mean skip workouts (NO DOUGHNUTS). Just ensure that you have adequate sleep to perform your training at a high level. During this time, use a few hours that would have been devoted to training to ice, massage, and heal your soreness.
- Realize that you cannot race your best at every race, but your effort and attitude on race day can be the best you have for the day.
- Support your local and regional events. You don’t have to only chase the National Branded events to be a triathlete. Often times you can do two or three events for the price of one and racing more often will make you a better triathlete. Experience can be gained from event to event and carry over to “Your Championship Race”.