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In racing, there is what you want to have happen and what actually happens. These two possibilities are not mutually exclusive but often take a magical day to come together. Most of my races fall somewhere in between. Fortunately, I usually have a plan in mind for anything that can happen during a race to adversely affect my outcome. Having a plan is a great place to start and half the battle. Conversely, having a strategy for all potential scenarios is only effective if you can enact it.
My race strategy starts with the distance of the race: Is it an Olympic, half-iron or an Ironman? Once that is established I look at the conditions of the race. Will it be hot or cold weather? Will it be humid or dry, rainy or windy? Will it be hilly or flat? Then I reflect on my preparation leading up to the race. Am I swimming exceptionally well? Have I been riding the house down or have I been tearing up the trails on my runs? I try to gauge where I will be strong and where I will be weak if the pressure is on during a particular leg of the race. Only after looking into each of the location and training factors do I then look at my competition. Oftentimes, I won’t even consider who is at the race—I only aspire to be fully prepared, no matter who may be there and no matter how the race plays out.
If the race calls for a deviation from the original plan, then sometimes you just have to abort your plan and race. My best race plans have contingencies in them. However, if you have to react to something that happens during a race and your body isn’t prepared for it, then it won’t really matter how many contingencies you have planned for. There is no substitute for hard work no matter how diligently you strategize.
Triathletes often ask me for one key tip before a race. The biggest tip I can offer anyone is about strategy: Don’t overdo the first three to five minutes of each leg. Take the mental approach to build the first three to five minutes of each discipline. Setting up each leg is just as important physically as it is mentally. Once you’ve established your rhythm you can start to dig into the race. If you can build into each leg, you’ll be prepared to react to anything, such as if the wind changes direction or if a competitor starts turning the screws to up the pace. If three to five minutes isn’t long enough to establish a good rhythm for longer distances, extend it to 10 or 15 minutes.
When devising a race plan you need to take an honest look at your strengths and weaknesses. If you have the tendency to flame out or bonk during workouts, use that knowledge to your advantage. Start conservatively and then try to build into each leg so that you have enough energy to complete the race on a high note. If you find that you only get stronger during demanding workouts, a good strategy is to try to start off aggressively and hold on as best as you can. A great place to find your race plan is by objectively looking at your training and assessing where you are in your season.
Another key to devising a successful race strategy is to assess your overall mental approach and your general physical well-being leading up to each race. You’ll obviously need to tweak things if you haven’t had optimal training or were sick leading into a race weekend. If you have been on top of your game, you can choose to be more aggressive. There is nothing wrong with trying a new plan and reviewing the results to see if the plan is worth adopting. However, when you look at the results, take into account all of the circumstances that surround each event.
Rudyard Kipling once penned,
“If you can keep your head when all about you
are losing theirs …
If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run …
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”
It is very difficult to stick to the plan when chaos is happening all around you. Among the other characteristics it takes to adhere to your race strategy are discipline, courage and a firm belief in yourself. Those who have the fortitude to stick to their race plan, maintain a positive mental outlook during the race, and have trained for the event will find success at the end of the line.
I think it is much better to end your race on a high note, flying down the finishing chute, than it is to come limping home. If you can cross the finish line with your hands reaching in the air with the knowledge that you gave it your best, then you know that you have a race strategy that you can continue to use and work toward in your training. A great race strategy has you reaching the finish line exhausted but exhilarated at the same time.
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Triathlete magazine.