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How to Train For a Race You’re Not Sure Will Happen

With races finally on the calendar (maybe?), some of us are faced with the challenge of preparing for a race we didn't realize was really going to happen.

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Yay or oh no?! That race you thought was going to get canceled looks like it’s actually going to happen—and now it’s just a few weeks away. Should you do it? Can you do it? And how do you prepare at this point? It’s a surprisingly common situation in this weird season as so many of our plans got canceled earlier this year, and now many of us are facing some races on the horizon that we might actually get to do—maybe? Here are some things to consider when faced with a race you’re not sure will happen.

Recognize where you are at.

Have you been consistently training over the past couple of months? Or have things been a little touch-and-go? Have you been out doing hikes, rock climbing and getting in adventure rides, or are sleeping in and going to brunch more than you normally would? Either is fine, but you need to honestly recognize where you’re at. Through this year, we’ve all dealt with a much different world and set of stress factors. That might mean that just jumping right back into training plan you were on before your extended “break” isn’t a good idea. You need to recognize where you are now—not compare yourself to your past performances.

Be realistic with your goals.

Take the time to evaluate what a finish line will look like to you at this time. It might be enough to just get to the finish, given everything else, or you might be really fit and ready to rock. Set other micro-goals along the way that aren’t performance goals: crush your transition, dial in your nutrition plan, or stay in aero more than you normally would. More simply, have fun with it and appreciate the chance to do a race again. Soak up the sights, talk to other racers, or take the time for a dance party in the middle of the run.

Most importantly: It’s OK to not race.

A large percentage of triathletes are Type A, high-achievers, and for many of us it’s difficult to say ‘no.’ But there are a lot of things to consider here. What are the benefits/drawbacks of going to this last-minute race? Are you putting yourself or others at risk? What are the safety protocols that have been put in place by the race director? Are you comfortable participating? And are you healthy enough to participate? In the short-term, this may be a hard decision. In the long-term, there will be other finish lines to crush and you might have longer term goals. There is no right or wrong decision, but evaluate for yourself.

For those who have recognized where they are, made some realistic goals, and worked out a plan of action, now you just have one thing left: last-minute training. Here is a four-week guide, with some key workouts for last-minute “panic” training.

4 Weeks Out: “Peak” Training Week

Weekly Tip: In a normal training build, this would be your peak training week. However, in panic training mode, you don’t want to injure yourself just when it looks like you’re finally going to see a start line! It’s not going to be perfect, but this will get you to the finish line in (mostly) one piece.

For a Sprint Distance
Swim: Have you done an open water swim before? Well, it’s now or never! Find a body of water you can get in and practice. Loop another friend into coming with you, preferably one with some triathlon experience so you won’t drown alone. If you only have access to a pool, practice sighting. A lot. If all else fails, look it up on the almighty YouTube.
Bike: If you haven’t been on your bike in a while, get it tuned up now so it will be ready to go for race week. A working bike is a faster bike.
Run: Do you know what a brick is or has it been so long that you don’t even remember? Do a short ride and then run for 5-10 minutes immediately off the bike. Remember that heavy brick feeling in your legs.

For an Olympic Distance
Swim: Do a swim time trial. Don’t groan. Either 3 x 500y, 2 x 750y or a 1,500y straight so you can get used to the time in the water.
Bike: For your main ride, do 18-20 miles and practice a couple of 3- to 5-minutes intervals at your goal effort by heartrate, power, or rate of perceived exertion. Don’t overdo it. We still have four weeks before the race.
Run: Go for a 3- to 5-mile run and do some 30-second to 1-minute bursts to “race pace.” Notice that is in quotes, meaning your realistic race pace.

For Long Course
Swim: Don’t neglect the swim! Do 2 x 1,000y or swim straight for 30 minutes and see how far you can get.
Bike: Do a 56-60 mile ride OR ride by time—however long you think it will take you to finish the bike split in the race.
Run: Don’t run a full 13.1 miles unless run all the time like a pro. Do 8-10 miles or 90% of the time you think it will take you to complete your run on race day.

3 Weeks Out: Gradual Build Down

Weekly Tip: Keep your training volume up to 80% this week. Yes, that says 80%.

For a Sprint Distance
Swim: Do the full distance of your swim split up or in one go. This will build your confidence!
Bike: Practice turning, changing gears, and mounting your bike. Find an empty parking lot to practice, so you don’t have to worry about anyone seeing if you fall.
Run: Do another brick off the bike and let your legs get used to that heavy feeling. It will wear off eventually. Usually.

For an Olympic Distance
Swim: Practice your turns, whether you have open water access or just in a pool. If you are in the pool, practice turning around without touching the walls. It’s OK if you look like a weirdo.
Bike: Do half the bike distance or 2 x 3-mile efforts at your perceived race effort.
Run: Run 2-3 x 1-mile at your dream 10K race effort.

For Long Course
Swim: Practice sighting. Do it now so you don’t swim off course during the real thing.
Bike: Do another 50- to 56-mile ride or about 15-20 minutes less than you think it will take you for your bike split.
Run: Run another 7-9 miles or about 80% of the total time you think it will take you to complete the run in your race. Make sure you look good in the last mile because that finish photo is what really counts!

2 Weeks Out: Tune-Up Week

Weekly Tip: It’s not taper time yet. There is still work to be done. Do about 2/3 of the race distance across all three sports! If you haven’t been training yet, now really is the time to get a move on it.

For a Sprint Distance
Do a 200y to 400y swim, a 4- to 6-mile ride, and run 1-2 miles.
For an Olympic Distance
That’s right: It’s a 500y swim, 16-mile ride, 4-mile run
For Long Course
Math is hard but that’s a 1,500y swim, 40-mile bike, and 6- to 8-mile run.

1 Week to Race Day: Don’t Overdo It

Weekly Tip: Make sure you have everything you need for the race. Pro tip: Don’t wait until the night before the race to do this—stores with triathlon gear close at 7 p.m. because triathletes need a lot of sleep. It’s science.

For a Sprint Distance
Do 5-10 minutes of at least two sports the day before the race. Make sure you know your race day plan, practice setting up your transition, and, most importantly, practice your party dance for when you cross the finish line.
For an Olympic Distance
Do 10 minutes of each sport, with a few race effort pickups.
For Long Course
The day before the race, do 15-20 minutes of each sport with a couple of short race efforts. Practice turning your grimace into a smile for the cameras and at the finish.

Take some time to also plan out what you are going to do if your race does gets canceled at the last minute. Is there a place you can still DIY the race on your own and rope a couple of friends into joining you? Is there an adventure that you have been putting off but have always wanted to do? Is it time to call it a year because 2020 sucks? Don’t throw in the towel just yet. Do something epic whether you have an official race or not. You’ve got this.

Barbara Perkins is the head triathlon coach for the University of Denver.