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Picking Your Goal Race

By Marty Gaal | Nov. 14, 2022, 7:16 p.m. (ET)

A competitor at the 2022 Age Group National Championships runs.Picking your goal race can be a lot of fun. It can also be stressful. Do you choose a convenient location or a prestigious, competitive event? A hilly, cool race or a flat, hot one? Let’s break it down into a few steps.

If your goal is to have fun and travel to new spots, then your only real consideration is to choose an event that’s not far outside your ability level. If you’re not a good climber and have no intention of becoming a good climber, you shouldn’t choose an event with a ton of climbing. If you suffer in the heat, you’d be wise to avoid known hot events.

If you have a limited budget, a good regional event is a realistic target. That limits the financial impact, and you can parse the choices to find your best fit.

For my competitive athletes, I do my best to help them align their strengths with their goal event. If you’re attempting to qualify for an Ironman or ITU championship, it really makes a difference to target an event that suits your strengths. We can break those down into just a handful of categories: Temperature/humidity, terrain, time of year and travel time.

Temperature and humidity are major considerations. Some athletes have little issue with higher temps or humidity. Others don’t function as well, and longer events only increase the chance of race-ruining issues. If you want to perform your best, this should be the first item to consider. Athletes can do their best to acclimatize with indoor heat training and outdoor workouts during the hottest part of the day, but a predisposition to heat intolerance (or vice-versa) never entirely disappears.

Terrain is the next big one. Races can be hilly, flat or mountainous, and certain swim courses have a higher potential for rough water. Athletes should accurately assess their skills. Poor swimmers should veer away from ocean swims, instead looking at river and lake events as a goal race. Weak climbers should rule out mountainous bike courses as potential competitive choices. Weak runners should stick to flatter run courses.

Time of the year is another issue to consider. Your life outside of sport impacts how well you’re able to train and recover.

Ideally, you’re picking an event that sits at a good time of the year for you in addition to one that suits your strengths.

An obvious example: a teacher who doesn’t work much or at all during the summer. This athlete could train well during the summer and pick a late summer or early fall event as their goal race. However, if that athlete also was heat intolerant, it would change the equation. Perhaps they could train pretty well during the summer and then extend the training cycle into mid-autumn so their event has a higher chance of being cool. Or maybe they prefer to train and race in cooler temps (re: winter/spring) and deal with the time crunch during those seasons. There are lots of variables!

Travel time is another concern. If it takes a full day of travel to get to an event, you’ll need several days to recover from the travel and to adjust to any time change. If you’re unable to build that into your trip, the travel may be too overwhelming to deal with. Can you drive, or do you need to fly? What bike transport options are available? Do you have any support in the form of family and friends nearby?

If your goal race is a USA Triathlon national championship or a world championship you’ve already qualified for, then you don’t have a say in the time or location. Instead, mimic the conditions of the race in your training as much as possible. Train indoors on a smart bike trainer that emulates the course, if possible. You can turn off the fan and turn up the heat over time to acclimatize to heat. Complete key workouts in conditions as close to the expected race conditions. It’s worth a bit of weekend travel if you need access to a particular terrain.

Ultimately, when you choose an event that aligns with your strengths, and you specifically prepare for that event, your odds of having a good to great race day increase wildly.

Marty Gaal

Marty Gaal, CSCS, is a USA Triathlon Coach in Morrisville, North Carolina. You can read all about him and One Step Beyond Coaching at www.osbmultisport.com.