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As you head into your first races, people will call out “best of luck!” and “I hope you do well!” You yourself may hope for the best and for a little luck on race day, in the guise of a favorable wind, flat water or a lack of unforeseen mechanical issues. All the luck in the world can’t make up for lack of preparation, which is why your best efforts will come out of a solid race plan that relies on details and tasks.
Racing is an intense environment that, at its best, requires strong focus, an iron will, impeccable confidence in your ability and a chance to “raise the bar” on your sport accomplishment. Racing generally infuses athletes with a strong sense of well-being, as they access personal power and push through discomfort and self-imposed barriers. The mission for most races is simple: to apply all of your training and get the best day possible out of your potential. To do that you have to show up prepared to perform.
Make Your Race Game Plan
Several days out from your race, start to set out your game plan. This is a specific outline of things you will do in the race and includes the optimal emotional state that you see for yourself. To reach your goals you need a list of action items detailing the “how” so nothing it left to chance. I call this the “no hope/all task” approach to racing. Basically you plan out how you see your race going and focus on positive goal oriented tasks. You don’t rely on chance, or luck, but on your own current level of skills and fitness. Here is an example of a task by task race plan. Feel free to add your own course specific tips and cues for a positive mind set.
Your first step is to know the course. Look at a course before your race and get to know it. This can be done in person—if you are on site a day or several days before the race—or online as race courses, elevation maps and even videos are now available for most races. A further search usually yields several good race course reviews and well-written blogs that may be helpful as well.
Your game plan, as you can see below, is also in the first person, present tense positive. “I will swim with a focus on my turnover” is affirmative and more effective than “I will try not to lose the draft this time.” It is also infinitely more specific and helpful than “I hope I do okay” or the most unhelpful game plan of all time, “I hope I don’t suck.”
As you preview the course check to see if there are any landmarks you can use while swimming for direction and for breaking the swim into chunks, and try to know the course before the race (roughly) as that will help once you are down at water level. Once in your race, limit your sighting to every 10 strokes or so, following others’ feet and trusting that you are going straight. Sight well: take small peeks keeping your hips and legs high and your streamline efficient (raising head too high sinks your back end like an anchor), and pay attention to your rhythm and stroke, swimming as well as you do in the pool. Try to find a draft and feeling a sense of forward momentum. Divide the swim up into logical sections (turns, buoys, landmarks all make good segments) that you can focus on completing and remind yourself often of strong cadence and rhythm to avoid the pitfalls of lulls.
Be prepared for the feeling of what it feels like to work a little harder (than base pace) on the bike—and this should feel solid, and like you have to concentrate through the whole ride, making sure you are staying on top of turnover and cadence and pressure on the pedals. Good riders get into the habit of constantly skimming their body from head to toe, checking that all parts are working well and effectively. If you are using heart rate or watts to ride consistently, know what these numbers should be. Be aero and be small on your bike, giving the wind less to push against. Keep on giving yourself checks to make sure you are trying hard enough without going into your reserve tank for the run. Have a game plan for your nutrition and be set up for fueling at regular intervals. Focus on yourself at all times, to resist distraction, but be aware of your competition, drafting rules and draw energy from the athletes around you as well.
This is your chance to finish it off well. Prepare mentally for the feeling of running off the bike so you are not surprised, but ready for the challenge. Think of posture and form and cadence again and being relaxed. Inside, you are a beautiful runner no matter how you feel. Look up the road and try to reel people in, taking small quick steps, not powering yourself too hard. Conserve energy and use that energy to move forwards faster! Break the run into segments and as you near the end have an awareness of how many minutes you have left to run. Most importantly, plan to be good to yourself no matter what happens out on the road.
On the day before the race, or morning of, review transition flow and know where your bike is and where you have to go out and in. Think through these one more time in your head, running over in your mind how to make a smooth, fast transition and where to go. Most importantly, don’t leave any decisions up in the air for the transition zone—set up your transition clothes, food and items and go with it.
More Race Day Tips
On race morning, you are likely going to wake up nervous and full of anticipation. Do a quick check with your nerves. If you are too keyed up, the tension can play against you, so work on trying to find ways to relax.
The main thing on race morning is to do what you always do. Eat the food you are used to and do the warm up you are used to, wear a race outfit or suit you have tested out in training. In other words, don’t change anything from the usual!
- Fuel yourself. About two hours before the event, eat a low-fat, low-fiber breakfast that you have already tested in training sessions. Shoot for a quality carbohydrate that provides a slow to moderate release of glucose, such as old-fashioned oatmeal, cereals that aren’t too high in fiber and low fat yogurt. Toast or bagels with jam is a proven favorite. Also be sure to drink 16 to 24 hours of fluid one to two hours prior to exercise to avoid dehydration and aid indigestion. Do not do anything new on race morning.
- Be early. Plan to arrive at the race site 90 minutes before the start. This will allow time for traffic, parking and registration, and give you time to find a spot in transition, set up your bike and run equipment and memorize flow in and out of the transition zone. This also includes finding the bathroom and changing.
- Warm up. I recommend doing a short run warm up, especially, if it is a cold morning and a cold water swim. The run warm up is a great way to raise your heart rate and muscle temperature slightly, and has the benefit of activating the leg muscles which you will use on the bike and run portions of the race. (Running also seems to promote any last minute emptying of bowels and bladder; always a good thing!).
- Do a 10-minute easy jog about 30 to 40 minutes before the start of the race, and follow it with gentle stretching. About 15 minutes before the start, jump in the water and do some easy swimming, concentrating on relaxing and practicing sighting to the first buoy.
- Back on the beach, visually locate the course buoys as much as possible as you breathe and relax. Look at the first buoy and visualize yourself swimming the first leg and the course. Visualize the start and how it is going to feel. If you start getting nervous: breathe! Breathe and stay relaxed.
- For the last few moments before you start, make sure you are breathing deeply, are relaxed in your upper body and are mentally rehearsing the start of the swim. You are prepared and confident of your ability to compete.
- Pace yourself and enjoy the ride. Athletes who control their thoughts and pace are ones who feel most successful at the end. Feel happy and proud of yourself while you are racing, noticing how strong you feel swimming, biking and running. Focus only on positive aspects related to your pace, your effort and how you are playing the game!
LifeSport coach Lucy Smith is the author of the beginner triathlon book, ‘First Triathlon’ and has helped and inspired hundreds of triathletes and runners through her coaching and public speaking. Lucy has been competing for over 30 years, is a 19 Canadian Champion in running and multisport, a 2 time Silver Medalist at World Duathlon Championships and mother of two.