Whether you call it a “rust-buster,” a “test race,” or a “tune-up,” doing an early season race has numerous physical and psychological benefits. With the start of tri season right around the corner, most athletes could use an opportunity right now to shake off the cobwebs, dust off the kit, and practice getting back on a start line.
During this winter off-season, most triathletes probably focused on non-triathlon activities (for good reason!) or used the down time to cross-train and develop base fitness. Plus, with COVID cancellations the last couple of years, many triathletes may have had a long break without formal races. Racing is a skill, though, and it’s one that deteriorates without practice.
Not only is it important to get back in the saddle to remember how to navigate the logistics of a racecourse and a transition area, it’s also an opportunity to practice other race skills: setting up a transition area, sighting for buoys, dealing with crowds and race starts, dialing in nutrition, practicing pacing, and trying out new gear. It’s also important just to remember what it’s like to manage that pre-race nervous energy and how to push yourself to the finish line.
Undoubtedly, the first race back might feel a little rusty, so it’s better to work out the kinks now rather than waiting until your “A” race rolls around.
“There are great benefits to doing an early season race in the spring to experience the race setting and go through the motions,” said Elliot Bach, a professional triathlete and head coach of NexGen Coaching. “I encourage it, as this is an excellent time to practice transitions, nutrition, and remind the body what it feels like to have some high intensity in all three sports.”
Whether you’ve spent some time building a base the last few months or took some time off from training, your benchmarks and training zones from last year probably don’t represent your current fitness level. While a time trial or FTP test is helpful for determining training zones, there’s nothing quite like a real race to make you dig deep and see where you’re really at.
“Even if you’re doing intensity in your early season training, by getting in a race setting, it will really get you out of your comfort zone and remind you what it feels like to race at a high intensity,” Bach said. “It’s easy to take an off-season and do a lot of base building in the winter, so there’s nothing like a short rust-buster to really get the lungs working! Regardless of what training you’re doing, when put in a race setting, most people are going to push even harder.”
An early-season race can provide a shock to the system, which helps acclimate your body to more intensity than you’ve probably seen in a while. Athletes have all kinds of phrases for this particular feeling: breaking the seal, shaking off the rust, priming the pump—all ways to say that you need a race to remember what it’s like to race!
For those who need a bit of motivation to get back into a consistent training regime, getting a taste of the race day atmosphere is sometimes all it takes to create renewed vigor and purpose. And for those athletes who have a tendency to self-sabotage by over-racing throughout the year, this also allows the opportunity to indulge your competitive side, while protecting yourself from making bad decisions closer to your key race by getting it out of the way early.
When to Do a Rust-Buster
The perfect time to do a rust-buster race is at the point when you begin to transition from base training into specific training for a big event. Although you might not be at peak fitness just yet, the importance should be placed on execution not on the specific result. If you’re using it for testing fitness or zones too, then you want to do one earlier than later (and re-test later in the year, too).
An early season rust-buster might also be slightly different in terms of timing than a simple tune-up race where you just want to practice your gear and nutrition. For a tune-up race right before your big “A” event, your goals aren’t so much to get the system going, but rather to test some specific pacing or nutrition or skills—so you’d want a tune-up race to be closer to your actual event.
What that means for each athlete is different. For example, if you have a 70.3 scheduled for May, then March or April might be a good time for a tune-up race. However, if you don’t plan to race an Ironman until October, then there’s a bit more leeway with the timing.
“When an athlete wants to do a tune-up race, I suggest scheduling it two to three weeks out,” Bach said. “For an athlete that has a race like Galveston 70.3, in early April, I would suggest that we find a local sprint or Olympic two weeks out to go through the motions and practice everything they will need to do for the key race. Whatever race suit, nutrition, wheels, helmet, etc. that will be used during the key race, we use those in the tune-up race. This greatly helps to minimize any surprises.”
How to Select a Race
It’s important to select a race with simple logistics, perhaps one that’s close to home, to eliminate any unnecessary stress. Make it fun. Pick a race that’s a favorite because of its amazing awards, unique course, or fantastic post-race meal, or one that all your friends are doing.
“Convenience is a huge thing, so a local race that’s within driving distance of your house is a good choice,” Bach said. “After all, this isn’t a big key race, so there’s no need to travel for this if you can help it.”
There really isn’t a certain distance that’s best for a tune-up race. Bach bases the decision more upon an athlete’s skill level and experience in the sport. “For most beginners, or those relatively new to the sport, I would suggest a sprint distance, if they’re planning to do a 70.3 or longer. For the more advanced age-group athlete, an Olympic would be great before doing a 70.3 or longer.”
If there aren’t many early season triathlons in your part of the country, you can receive many of the same benefits by doing a running race instead. You won’t get transition practice, but you will get practice with pacing, nutrition, race logistics, and managing emotions and expectations.
“We typically target a half-marathon, as the distance and duration are great benchmarks,” said Endurance Nation head coach Patrick McCrann. “It allows us to capture the work done through the winter and also provides a solid indicator of what’s possible moving forward.”
Don’t Make This Mistake
There is, however, a right way and a wrong way to do a rust-buster. Placing too high of expectations on an early season race is a recipe for disaster, because a less than satisfactory result can damage an athlete’s self-confidence, which is the opposite effect of what you’re going for. The whole point is to set the stage for a more important race down the road.
“Race day is about execution, not fitness,” McCrann said. “It’s a time to connect the dots, which is important to do after a long winter of not racing.”
Bach agrees and cautions his athletes about going into an early season race with big goals. “The number one thing I caution all of my athletes about with an early season, tune-up race is not to have too high of expectations. I’ve seen it time and time again, when an athlete wants to do an early season race. They say they have no expectations and just want to race hard and see where their fitness is. But, like most athletes, we always want to be better. After the race, they question their training and aren’t always happy with the results.”
Focus on fun, not setting high expectations, and keep it stress-free. “If things go wrong, that’s OK. That’s why we do this one—to work out the kinks for the next race,” Bach said. “Try to enjoy yourself while you’re out there on the course and appreciate that you’re able to show up on the day and do what you love, which is swim, bike, and run.”
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- Pick a race that keeps logistics and travel low-key
- Pick a race that lets you get your objectives in—whether a tune-up a few weeks before your key race or a earlier season event for a fitness benchmark test
- Practice all your nutrition, gear, pacing, and timeline that you’ll use for your key “A” races
- Keep your expectations in check
- Go hard
- Have fun!
- Don’t get hung on your results
- Don’t make it stressful or logistically complicated
- Don’t sabotage your key races by over-racing during the season