Triathlete’s Guide on How to Manage Back-to-Back Races
Races are finally happening - and athletes are suddenly finding themselves faced with packed, ambitious race calendars. Our complete, comprehensive guide has expert knowledge on everything from workouts to travel tips to mental strategies.
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At the height of the COVID pandemic, races were canceled and postponed with the promise that they’d return when it was safe to do so. Now we’ve reached that point, and races are back – all the races. Every weekend, in every corner of the globe, races are occurring in rapid succession from April to December. Athletes are suddenly finding themselves faced with an abundance of options – and packed, ambitious race calendars.
For pro triathletes, racing back-to-back is simply a part of the job. They’re used to the demands of the race itself as well as the associated recovery, travel, and logistics. But what about age-group triathletes, who usually have to return to a typical 9-to-5 job between race weekends? Many are scrambling to figure out how to manage multiple races in rapid succession. But racing back-to-back (-to-back-to-back) involves more than just training less between weekends. Strategies are multifactorial, with prioritization, recovery, training, logistics, and the mental approach all being key components.Section divider
Prioritization and Tapering
Know your “A” race – and taper accordingly
Every race should have a taper period, where training volume decreases as a way to allow the body to absorb all the training and gear up for the intense racing ahead. The longer the race, the longer the taper should be. But what if you’ve got multiple races spaced too close together for a sufficient taper?
RELATED: Triathlete’s Expert Guide on How to Taper
Nailing a taper is equal parts art and science, and optimal strategies vary between athletes. Figuring out a taper is tough enough when one event is in the cards, but for multiple events, it can feel almost impossible. This is where prioritization comes into play. Athletes aiming to peak at their first race in a series should opt to execute a relatively normal taper for that event, with the understanding that performance at subsequent races may be compromised to some degree. If the second (or subsequent) race is more important to the athlete, then maintaining close to normal volume and intensity heading into the first race is preferable, with the caveat that at least a couple of lighter days heading into the first race should be taken in order to avoid digging too deep of a hole.Section divider
When attempting a quick turnaround between races, recovery reigns supreme. Though triathletes are notorious for seeking out the latest gadgets for recovery, the best recovery tools are also the simplest: nutrition and sleep.
Pick a post-race beverage
The recovery clock starts ticking as soon as the first finish line is crossed, with the top priority being replenishing the body’s glycogen stores with carbohydrates and promoting muscle repair with protein. Beth Peterson, a former pro triathlete and current Registered Dietitian with The Core Diet suggests kick-starting recovery by consuming a recovery beverage with a 3:1 or 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio (like chocolate milk, a smoothie, or a sport recovery mix) immediately upon race completion.
For a full day following the race, coach Tim Snow has only one instruction for athletes: “Eat a ton and hydrate like a fish.” That’s because skeletal muscle remodeling is increased while glycogen stores remain decreased, so continued protein and carbohydrate consumption is critical for full recovery. But this isn’t a free pass to go to town on cheeseburgers and ice cream just yet – save that for after your final race of the season. Between races, Peterson suggests focusing on foods high in antioxidants with anti-inflammatory benefits to help fight the oxidative stress caused by strenuous racing. In other words, eat your fruits and vegetables. Your body will thank you.
RELATED: What Endurance Athletes Should Know About Antioxidants
Supplement as needed
For an added recovery boost, Peterson recommends supplementing with 2 grams per day of EPA/DHA (found in Omega-3 fatty acids), and 8-10 ounces of tart cherry juice in the days leading into and out of races.
Sleep as much as you’re able
Adequate sleep helps to counteract the increases in the stress hormone cortisol and decreases in testosterone caused by intense endurance exercise, and is associated with improvements in endurance performance. With frequent racing and associated travel, athletes often find themselves at increased susceptibility to illness or injury – both risks that can be mitigated with 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. However you look at it, sleep remains one of the best tools to pull off multiple races in a row, and should be a priority when possible.Section divider
Workouts Between Races
Move early and often
While some athletes might be tempted to create a divot in the couch, and others might feel compelled to get right back at training and nail some huge sessions, the best approach likely lies in between those extremes. Move early and often, but not too hard, Eventually, build in some activation sets to get the body primed again. Light sessions help promote blood flow, clear waste products, and promote soft tissue mobility, without causing undue stress on the healing body.
Pro triathlete Alyssa Godesky, who often races back-to-back weekends, swears by what she calls “little mini workouts.” “I do super-easy 20-minute jogs. I’m talking about super easy, where I probably appear to be walking and just moving my arms in a jogging motion.”
Former pro Doug McLean agrees: “Even if the early sessions after a race are super awful and make me even grumpier than usual, the key is to just keep moving, but at a low intensity, in order to keep everything loose.”
Resist the urge to rack up “just one more long run” or panic train for the next race. It simply won’t help, and running is the discipline that’s most taxing to the body. The focus should be simply on staying active, not forcing yourself to train.Section divider
Get a jump start on your schedule
Travel. Gear. Jobs. Reality. The physical toll of multiple races in a row is enough, but adding in complicated logistics amplifies the challenge. QT2 Systems coach Amy Javens recommends avoiding excessive travel stress on top of race stress whenever possible. “When scheduling multiple races in close succession, try to make sure that one of them does not involve huge travel, like halfway around the world.”
However, if you find yourself with rescheduled races in two different places for two different weekends, try to travel early after the first. “Travel is one of the trickiest parts of back-to-back races,” says Godesky. “It’s not my favorite thing to have to pack my bike the night after I’ve raced that day, but I’ve found that I prefer to get to the next race destination, where I can focus on relaxing and recovering.”
RELATED: How to Travel With a Bike (Without Losing Your Mind)
Pack a go bag
Multiple time Athena national champion and full-time corporate attorney Leslie Battle says that “staying organized is key” to managing multiple races in a row. For her, that means having her gear ready to go: “Have homes for all that gear – transition bags work nicely – so you’re not searching for where the race shoes ended up after the last race,” says Battle. “Make sure to stock up on race nutrition products prior to busy race seasons, have a designated bag of basic bike maintenance equipment, and consider leaving race wheels on your bike to save time.”Section divider
When it comes to managing back-to-back races, the mental game is just as important – if not more important – than the physical effort. Luckily, multiple races provide a major mindset advantage: a recent, built-in memory of how racing feels. When racing after long layoffs, it’s easy to just forget the initial scrum of the swim start, or what the body’s going through at mile 9 of a 70.3 run. When doubling back soon after a race, though, there’s the added benefit of hitting the water or getting late into that run with a mental bank that says Hey, I remember this. I handled it before, and I can handle it now. If anything, that race a couple of weeks ago can serve as a reassurance in those deep, dark times on the course.
But that doesn’t mean that your second race will go exactly like the first (for better or for worse). “You have to approach the second race with zero expectations,” says veteran pro triathlete Linsey Corbin, who has twice backed up wins at Ironman Wisconsin with top-ten finishes at the Ironman World Championships a month later. “Go into the race with an open mind.”Section divider
Even back-to-back races in one’s hometown can create a logistical challenge and a ton of stress. “Managing real life as far as job and family obligations during a busy race season is super hard to do for a lot of age groupers,” says Javens. If you have the ability to cash in a few vacation days at work, or to work remotely for the week between races, it could help make this overwhelming time feel less so.
RELATED: Here’s How Day-to-Day Stress is Impacting Your Performance
But it’s also important to recognize that your triathlon hobby is just that – a hobby. If a busy race schedule is causing stress in other areas of your life, take a moment to examine your priorities. “Forgive your athletic self if adulting takes precedence” says Battle. “Your desk job is what funds your hobby. Plus, if you don‘t treat multisport like it’s your job, you’ll have more fun, and isn’t that what it’s about?”
Remember how much you wanted this
If you’re staring down a packed schedule of deferred/rescheduled/now-finally-happening races, don’t panic! With the right planning, recovery, training, and mental approach, it can be done. Above all, remember how you felt when all the races were canceled and postponed. How lucky are we that we get to do this sport that we love so much? Remember that races are a celebration of all of the training you’ve done over the past few years, and one that pros and age-groupers alike spent too much time missing, Get out there, live it up, and have a great time.
Jennie Hansen is a physical therapist, Ironman champion, and triathlon coach with QT2 systems. Hansen has a background as a collegiate and professional runner, as well as a number of professional triathlon podiums. She has been in the sport for over a decade.