This is an excerpt from the new Triathlon 2.0: Data-Driven Performance Training (Human Kinetics, 2016), written by former elite triathlete Jim Vance.
“Process + execution = results” — team slogan for Formula Endurance, the nation’s first USA Triathlon High Performance Team and USA Swimming team
The time has finally arrived, and you’re ready to race! You’ve followed the plan of setting up the training year from general preparation to specific, and you’re dialing in your taper to the proper training stress balance (TSB) to make your race day fitness shine through. Now you just need to make sure you have the proper plan and execute it on race day. You can’t just go into the race hoping it goes well. You’ve worked too hard for that, and as New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani once said, “Hope is not a strategy.”
There are six keys to achieving high-performance goals. Whether you’re an Olympian or a 60-plus age grouper trying to qualify for the World Championships or win them, high performance has six parts. The first three are preparation, preparation and preparation. Get it wrong, and it doesn’t matter how good a racer you are, you will likely not achieve the high goals you have set.
The next three are execution, execution and execution. If your preparation has been perfect, it won’t mean much if you’re making poor pacing, nutrition and equipment decisions on race day. All fitness does is give us a larger margin of error to work with, but the higher the goals, the more fit the competition is, so you either have to be exceptionally fitter than the rest or execute extremely well.
When the event is extremely hot, pacing becomes a huge factor in the performance of athletes. Those who pace intelligently will likely do better than those who don’t if fitness levels are comparable or sometimes without even being comparable. We all know of incredible athletes who have had to walk the marathon of an IRONMAN. Fitness is not a license to be careless on race day.
Perfect preparation means practicing specific execution. When you toe the start line, your preparation should have you confident that the execution plan can and will happen because it has been rehearsed for many weeks.
If your specific preparation has been excellent, meaning you’ve been mimicking race day intensity, pacing and course demands as close as possible, then the prerace preparations will be easy, since you’ve basically been doing them for about 10 to 16 weeks now. This includes training on a similar course, in similar conditions and using the equipment and nutrition items you plan to use on race day. If the race is a local event for you, then you’ve likely been doing all this on the actual race course, which is a huge advantage.
When planning for a race, it’s always good to get your plan in writing, so you can be specific and find the areas that could be miscalculated, underestimated or overestimated or not considered and then review them over and over. Also, a postrace analysis is an incredibly useful tool to go back and review the plan, comparing it directly with what happened. This allows you to see where your planning was spot-on and where you missed in your projections.
Let’s discuss the items to include in your race plan.
Travel to The Event
What day will you leave? When will you arrive? How many time zones will you be changing? How will you try to negate the effects of the travel if it is long and arduous?
Time You Will Get Up on Race Morning
Is this a usual time for you? Have you practiced it? If there is long travel across many time zones, when and how will you begin preparing for this change of sleep patterns?
What will you eat for breakfast? Have you tried this breakfast before? How many calories is the breakfast? What time will you eat breakfast, and how many hours is this before the race start? Any caffeine with breakfast?
What time will you arrive at transition on race day? What will parking at the event be like? How long will it take you to warm up? Based on your wake-up time and travel to the event, will you have plenty of time to complete everything and be on the start line with time to spare and no stress? What can you do to make the time more efficient? What if there is an unexpected situation in the morning, such as a flat tire, loose bolt, ripped race suit, or broken goggles? Do you have the items, tools and skills to take care of these quickly? If not, what do you need to do?
Temperature and Precipitation
What will the temperature be on race day? Will there be precipitation? How will these factors change as the day goes on, from the early morning, in the middle of the race and even postrace? What will you do to prepare for these conditions? Will you bring extra clothes? Where will they be stored and how will you access them?
What will your warm up be? Can you get into the water for warm up? Will you adjust your warm up based on air or water temperatures? How so? If the race is a time trial start, how will you stay warm and loose when you have to stand in line?
Special Needs Bags
If it’s an IRONMAN or similarly longer race with special needs bags, what will you put in them? (Half IRONMAN events do not have special needs bags.) How will these items fair in the heat or cooler temperatures of the day, depending on the race? Have you practiced untying a special needs bag while riding? Or will you stop?
Where will you line up for the start of the race? What is the typical direction of the current at the venue? How will you pace the swim? How many laps is the swim? What color are the turn buoys? Where will the sun be as you swim through the course? Is it a mass start or time trial start? What are the landmarks you will use to site off of?
Transition One (T1)
What is the route you must follow from the exit of the water to your transition spot? Any key landmarks to help guide you? How will you find your bike in the crowd of bikes? If there is a changing tent (full IRONMAN events), what will you do and change into there? Have you practiced this change, such as trying to put on a tri top or bike jersey with a wet body? Or will you not change at all? Is sunscreen something you apply in T1? Will you put your bike shoes on in T1 or once out on the road? Is it safe to run with them on your feet, given the surface and distance you will travel to your bike and to the mount line? Are there other choices or options?
What power range will you ride at during the race? For the entire course? Flats and hills? How will the temperatures and conditions affect this decision? This is a big and complex part of the plan, and should be part of what you’ve done to prepare specifically in your training. If there are large packs of riders, you can draft in a race off a pack as long as you stay legal distance behind it. Will you use this to your advantage? To be clear, I don’t condone drafting in a non-drafting event, but there are certain benefits even when riding legal or riding at a legal distance behind a pack of riders who are clearly drafting.
What nutrition will you use on the bike? How soon into the bike until you start taking in nutrition? How many grams of carbohydrate and calories do you need per hour? Table 12.1 offers a simple guideline, based on the English or metric system.
You can exceed or fall below these numbers, but you likely want to be sure you’ve proven it in training. Have you been training with this nutrition on your rides? Have you been training with the same concentrations you will use on race day? Many athletes will suddenly change the concentrations of the drinks they have used in training because they realize it will be a lot harder to carry the drinks with the amount of calories they need. Many times in training, they could stop and buy a new drink or mix another bottle. This isn’t a good plan for race day, so make sure you’ve tested the concentrations.
Will you take on-course nutrition from the aid stations? How many aid stations are there? What items do they offer? You might think that you don’t need to know this information, especially if your plan is to be almost entirely self-supported, except for water. However, it is fairly common for athletes to lose a bottle, drop some nutrition or suddenly find that what they had planned for doesn’t fit with their stomach on race day. If this is the case for you, even if just in case of emergency in the race, where you need nutrition, it is good to know what is available and what the calorie and carbohydrate numbers are. See table 12.1 for guidance on calories. Can you complete the race without having to use the special needs bags, perhaps using them as an insurance policy only? This might save you some time, being able to move past the crowded special needs area.
Realize that the goal of race nutrition is not to stuff as many calories into your body as possible but rather to optimize the calories needed, giving yourself the least amount necessary to achieve your goal. This amount should be practiced in your specific training phase, so you know what your needs are. The more calories you put into the stomach, and the higher the concentration levels of calories, along with the higher the intensity of the bike ride, the more likely the stomach will not be able to handle the calories you give it. You must know the concentrations and caloric counts (carbohydrate grams as well) that you need to accomplish your goal. Going above and beyond those numbers or a range you can handle is flirting with GI disaster.
Many athletes claim a need to eat solid food on the bike because their stomachs give them a hunger craving. This is understandable and can be fine for some athletes, but this should be practiced, especially at race intensity.
The slower the speed or intensity of the bike leg for the athlete, the more food he or she can process in the stomach and the more solid the food can be since the demands on the rest of the body are lower. See tables 12.2 and 12.3 for more guidance on what type of nutrition strategy is best for you based on your speed.
With this information, you are likely ready and prepared to nail your nutrition plan. But remember, no nutrition plan in the world can make up for poor pacing on the bike or run. Execution is just as important as preparation. If you’ve prepared for a certain plan, execute it.
Transition Two (T2)
What is the location of the dismount line? Will someone take your bike for you (typical in full IRONMAN races, not typical in 70.3), or will you need to rack your bike yourself? What landmarks will you use to find your spot? What is the exact path you will follow from dismount to run course start? If there is a changing tent, what will be done in the tent? Clothing change? Will you put on socks? Sunscreen? GPS watch? (I recommend recording the race.)
How will you pace the run? How does this compare with your training paces? What will be your first mile or first 1 to 2K? How will the course profile likely affect pacing? Is it usually windy on the course? How will the temperatures and conditions affect this decision?
What will you use to get your calories and grams of carbohydrate on the run? How many will you consume per hour? What is that per aid station? How many aid stations are there? What will the aid stations be providing? How many calories do these items offer? See tables 12.4 and 12.5 for guidance on calories.
Again, you can go over or under these guidelines, but your chances of success are high if you’re within these ranges. If you go outside these ranges, be sure to prove in your training that it will work well for you.
Finalize The Plan
If you can go through each of these segments of the race and write a plan, chances are you will execute much better. The amount of time and energy invested in training can be wasted if execution is poor, so this exercise can really pay off.
Jim Vance is a former triathlete and currently an international triathlon, running and cycling elite coach with TrainingBible Coaching. He is the founder and head coach of the nonprofit organization Formula Endurance, the nation’s first USA Swimming and USA Triathlon high-performance team.
As the first program to take advantage of the latest science and technology, Triathlon 2.0 examines the sport’s most popular devices, including cycling power meters, GPS trackers, and heart rate monitors. Vance, now an elite coach with TrainingBible Coaching, helps you put the numbers to work, translating data into a comprehensive program based on your performance needs and triathlon goals. Triathlon 2.0: Data-Driven Performance Training is now available in bookstores everywhere, as well as online at HumanKinetics.com.
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The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.