Dear Coach: How Do I Stay Focused Without Races?

We are living in unprecedented times, and without races to focus on, it can be hard to stay on track.

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As we are now five months deep into pandemic training with no real races on the horizon, it is understandably hard to stay focused and I am seeing different athletes respond and cope in very different ways. Some athletes are getting incredibly fit and their motivation continues to impress me. Others are clearly feeling “cagey” and wanting to test new limits or might just be down and feeling depressed at the lack of racing opportunities or their lost “mojo.” These are unprecedented times and it is understandable that we will all react differently. With new levels of pent up energy (and perhaps frustration), it’s tempting to want to test your fitness in ways you might not normally consider—but be careful!

Avoid taking risks that might lead to illness, injury, or accidents. In “normal” circumstances, we would usually undertake a block of training, (hopefully) reach an all-time new level of fitness, rest/taper, compete, recover, and begin the process all over again. But without these normal outlets (races), there is a risk and it’s important to recognize it.

So how do we minimize this risk—and how do we stay focused? Every 12 weeks, it’s a good idea to change your focus. For example, if you’ve been working on endurance, perhaps change your focus to a speed block, or if you’ve been working on building strength it might be time to drop the weights and focus on miles. Changing up the energy systems you are training will help you stay fresh and focused. If you’ve been on a run-focused block, it might be time to switch to an open-water swim block now that summer is here, or a cycling block. There are a myriad of virtual challenges out there too, which are a great way to stay motivated and keep your training fun and sociable. 

In a typical season, these changes would normally be built in with the ebb and flow of preparing for races, recovering, and building back up. These changes are usually built into our year through races, travel, and changes of season. Without these, it can be tempting to keep hammering the same thing for months and months. Eventually, you’ll see it’s time to switch things up to avoid stagnation, injury, and burnout. And rather than let that happen and then have to cope with it or dig yourself out of a black hole, it is far wiser and safer to plan to avoid that in the first instance.

My advice is to plan your focus in eight to 12 weeks blocks for now. Incorporate recovery and some kind of race or test set at the end of each block. This will help you keep a short-term focus throughout the year, help you monitor progress, reduce the risk of injury, burnout, or drifting away as the months go on. It will also help you settle down when you feel the temptation to take a risk you otherwise wouldn’t in training. Have fun, see what you can do, and bring that new level of performance into stronger years to come.


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