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Race Tips

Should You Start the Race or DNS? Use Our Flowchart to Decide

Training didn't go the way you planned and now you're not as prepared as you'd hope. Should you still race, or is it better to pull the plug? We've got questions (and answers) to guide you.

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It’s three weeks before race day. You’ve finished your last big training block and built up as much fitness as you’re going to before toeing the start line. But things went wrong in the path to getting here—you got sick or or injured or busy, you missed workouts, and you look back at your training calendar and realize that, despite all your best intentions, your fitness is not where you wanted it to be. You’re under-trained.

This happens a lot with triathletes. Sometimes, the best-laid plans are derailed by busy work schedules, life events, or injury. When this happens it’s hard to know if you should still race, or is it better to pull the plug, switch distances, or even postpone your race to a new event altogether. There’s a range of factors that might affect this decision, including your injury status, your actual fitness level, the race distance, and what other options are (or aren’t) available. The following questions will walk you through those factors and guide you toward a go/no go decision.

(Illustration: Alison Freeman, Susan Lacke)

1. Are you under-trained because you are, or were, injured?

If you are—or were—injured, you need to address the injury-specific consequences of racing before evaluating everything else.

⇒ If completing the race puts you at risk of further injury, an increased recovery timeline, or a more significant injury (as in: a stress fracture that becomes an actual broken bone), the smart choice is to change your plan: go to question four to investigate other options.

⇒ If you’re not injured, were injured but are sufficiently healed so that it doesn’t pose a risk, or are still injured but are invested enough in your event that you don’t care about injury-specific consequences (while I don’t advise this, I’ve definitely lived in that headspace), then we move on to the next question.

RELATED: An Injury Guide For Triathletes

2. Can you cover the race distance?

This is simultaneously the most important question and also the hardest one to answer. There is no hard and fast, universal rule along the lines of “if you can do X in training you can do Y on race day.” There are, however, three fairly universal truths:

  1. It is easier to stretch your fitness for a short-course event (sprint- or Olympic-distance) than for a long-course event (70.3 or Ironman-distance).
  2. For long-course events, your overall endurance base (consistency) is equally as important as your longest swim/bike/run.
  3. If you are experienced at racing your event distance, you are the best judge of what your body can accomplish; if you believe you can do it, you are likely right.

Along with those universal truths, there are general guidelines that you can use to evaluate your race-readiness. If you have covered the following distances in training, you are likely able to bridge up to your race distance:

New to Triathlon/Race Distance Experienced at the Race Distance
Sprint Distance 2/3 the distance for each discipline A little bit of anything - even off the couch is a possibility
Olympic Distance 2/3 the distance for each discipline 1/2 the distance for each discipline
Half-Iron 3/4 the distance for each discipline, along with good overall consistency 2/3 the distance for each discipline, along with decent overall consistency
Full-Iron 3/4 the distance for swim and bike, 1/2 the distance for run, along with good overall consistency 2/3 the distance for swim and bike, 1/2 the distance for run, along with decent overall consistency

⇒ If you believe you can cover the distance and are a front-of-the-pack athlete (top third of all finishers), go to question six to continue to wrap your head around your event.

⇒ If you believe you can cover the distance and are a middle- or back-of-the-pack athlete, go to question three for a follow-up question.

⇒ If this question raised a red flag, go to question five to investigate other options.

⇒ If this question raised a red flag BUT for only one of the three disciplines, go to question four to investigate other options.

RELATED: What You Need to Know About Every Triathlon Distance

3. Can you cover the race distance within the time allowed?

If you’re a middle- or back-of-the-pack athlete, this is a question that deserves a few minutes of your time. Most events will publish cut-off times for each discipline on their website and/or include them in their athlete guide. Take your training paces, pad them significantly (15-30 seconds per 100y on the swim, 1-3 mph on the bike, and 1-3 min/mile on the run—the longer the race, the bigger the adjustment), and do the math to ballpark a “that’s a slow race for me” scenario.

⇒ If you’ve run the numbers and believe you can cover the distance in the allotted time, go to question six to continue to wrap your head around your event.

⇒ If this question raised a red flag, go to question five to investigate other options.

⇒ If this question raised a red flag BUT for only one of the three disciplines, go to question four to investigate other options.

RELATED: Understanding Cutoff Times in Triathlon

4. Does the event offer other multisport options (aquabike/aquathlon/duathlon)?

⇒ If your injury, training base, and/or pace in a single discipline is the crux of the problem, switching to a two-sport event could be the perfect solution. Sometimes race directors will allow the switch up to race morning, but be sure to read the event website, inquire at packet pick-up, or reach out to the race director to understand how to make the switch official.

⇒ If a two-sport event is not an option (or is simply not an option that appeals to you), go to question five to investigate other options.

RELATED: A Duathlon is the Perfect Way To (Not) Get Your Tri Toes Wet

5. Does the event offer a shorter-distance option?

⇒ If your injury can tolerate and/or your training base is sufficient for lower mileage,  switching to a shorter distance event could be an easy solution. Sometimes race directors will allow the switch up to race morning, but be sure to read the event website, inquire at packet pick up, or reach out to the race director to understand how to make the switch official.

⇒ If a shorter-distance event is not an option (or is simply not an option that appeals to you) and you are not injured, go to question six.

⇒ If a shorter-distance event is not an option (or is simply not an option that appeals to you) and you are injured, then—sadly—the safest path is to pull out of the race.

6. Are you willing be to be pretty darn uncomfortable during and/or after the race?

While none of us sign up for an event expecting it to be all unicorns and rainbows, racing when under-trained can open up an entirely new level of discomfort during and/or after the event.

⇒ If, for whatever reason, that potential level of discomfort is more than you bargained for, then pulling out of the race may make the most sense.

⇒ If you are undeterred by this warning, go to question seven.

RELATED: Triathletes Are Experts at the Pain Game

7. Are you willing to adjust your expectations?

Here’s the thing about racing: you really can’t perfectly predict your race outcome based on your training. You can have great training and a mediocre race—or exactly the opposite. But your expectations for your day should be in line with your preparation: it’s unwise to expect a peak performance from a far-from-peak fitness level.

Especially when under-trained, you want to approach your race understanding that there is a wide range of possible outcomes. You might surprise yourself with a solid day, you might feel decent for a while but ultimately end up walking a significant portion of the run course, or you might not even reach the finish line. This is a great opportunity for some honest reflection on your feelings toward the full range of possible outcomes.

⇒ If you are open to whatever the day gives you, start packing your transition bag.

⇒ If the potential for a sub-par day is sufficiently unappealing, then pull the plug and set your sights on your next event.

RELATED: How to Estimate Your Triathlon Finishing Time

Alison Freeman is a co-founder of NYX Endurance, a female-owned coaching group based in Boulder, Colorado, and San Diego, California. She is also a USAT Level II-certified and Ironman University-certified coach as well as a multiple iron-distance finisher.