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“Calories cannot create fitness.” That’s what I heard as I was passing by the office of Carmichael Training Systems premier coach Jason Koop. Later in the day I asked him what he meant, and he replied that one of his athletes had jumped into a half-Ironman on a whim, well before he was prepared for the distance. Predictably, the athlete struggled, but afterward he was still perplexed by the relatively poor performance. He told Koop that he didn’t understand why the race was so hard, because, as he said, “I kept eating and eating, but it just didn’t seem to help.”
What Koop told his athlete was dead-on: Calories cannot create fitness where it doesn’t exist in the first place. The athlete was on the way to building 70.3 triathlon fitness, but he jumped the gun and entered a race far earlier than planned. His race-day response, though, was as predictable as his subpar performance; as coaches we regularly see athletes who attempt to overcome a lack of preparation with an overload of calories. Essentially they are mistaking the feeling of exhaustion for the feeling of bonking (running low on blood-sugar). The common solution for bonking is to rapidly get carbohydrates, fluids and electrolytes into your system, and if you recognize the signs (fatigue, trouble focusing, nausea) early, you can often bring yourself back from the brink. But if you entered an event inadequately prepared, you can’t make up for a lack of training by eating more and hoping the added fuel will give you greater endurance, power or speed.
We all try to be optimally prepared for race days, but sometimes athletes, especially time-crunched ones, get derailed and lose valuable training time because the kids get sick, work gets out of control and life otherwise gets in the way. Or athletes choose to jump into races before they’re prepared. Two questions arise from these scenarios: Should you bother entering a race if you’re not ready for it? And what should you do if you’re in a race and it’s clear your fitness isn’t where you wanted it to be?
Race or stay home?
For the most part, there’s value to competing even if you’re not 100 percent ready. Racing when you’re not at your strongest can help develop the resilience endurance athletes need to get through rough patches during long, difficult races or miserable conditions. There’s always something you can focus on and learn during a competition, and shifting your mentality from a results-based valuation to a learning-based valuation can make the event productive irrespective of your final finishing time. However, you have to consider your preparedness in relation to the race distance.
If you’re reasonably fit but not on top of your game going into a sprint or Olympic-distance triathlon, you’ll be slower than normal but you’ll get to the finish injury-free. I think you can safely enter these competitions if you’re at about 70 percent of your expected fitness, meaning you have the endurance to cover the distance and maintain proper form/technique, but you’re not going to be very fast. At the half- and full-Ironman distances it’s more important to be at a higher percentage of your expected fitness (at least 85 percent) before competing because the increased duration means your form/technique is much more likely to break down well before the finish. That doesn’t mean you’ve completed 70 or 85 percent of your scheduled workouts, but rather that your sustainable power output on the bike and sustainable pace in the water and on the run have reached at least 70 or 85 percent of your goal output or pace.
Racing with limited fitness
The best way to handle racing with less fitness is to reframe the competition as a training experience. Go into the event with the goal of using it as a great workout and an opportunity to focus on particular aspects of competition. For instance, this may be a good time to experiment with a different transition setup or a new starting strategy for the swim. Flipping your expectations from “a great race today” to “a great training opportunity for tomorrow” can be liberating. The fitness you have is all you’re going to get for today’s race, and beating yourself up about it won’t accomplish anything. Allow this mental shift to alleviate the pressure you put on yourself and the guilt about not being completely race-ready.
And as Koop explained to his athlete, don’t resort to stuffing yourself with food. Instead of providing the energy you’re looking for, dumping food on the problem is like piling too much wood on a barely lit fire; you’ll smother the performance you’re trying to ignite. When it’s your fitness level, stick to your original race-day nutrition plan, settle into a pace you can sustain with good form, keep moving forward and focus on the process of racing instead of your position in the race.
Chris Carmichael is the author of The Time-Crunched Triathlete and founder and CEO of Carmichael Training Systems, the official coaching and camps partner of Ironman. Visit Trainright.com.