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Race Day Planning, Part 1: Writing a Plan in 7 Steps

By Will Murray | Jan. 10, 2019, 5:13 p.m. (ET)

Using laptop and notepad to take notes

There is some magic between the hand and the eye, the heart and the mind, when you write something down. In triathlon, one of the most important things you can write down is your race plan. Whether it be your A Race or not, when you have a written plan you are more likely to identify your aims for the race; clearly state them; and have a concrete plan for pursuing them and execute better.

Or you could just wing it and see what happens.

If you’d rather plan it than wing it, here’s how.

Step 1: Assemble your materials.

  • Race course map and profile
  • Weather forecast
  • Pen or pencil and paper

Step 2. Set your goals for the race.

Choose one:

  • My goal is to finish the race.
  • My goal is to achieve a certain time (state that time here).
  • My goal is to place among my age group (state your desired place here).

It’s OK to have a secret goal that you don’t tell anyone about. Write down your secret goal with invisible ink (just kidding). 

Step 3. Map out your plan.

Study the course map and course profile. Identify areas of special interest, including tricky turns on the bike, hilly areas, sharp descents and areas where there are likely to be a lot of spectators. Notice the flow of swim in, bike out, bike in, run out. Check the weather forecast, and plan to have the right clothing and nutrition and hydration on race day.

Step 4.  Write out the steps you will take to execute your race.

Start with where you need to start. For a part of you, it will getting out of bed that morning, for another part arriving at the race venue, for another setting up transition, for another it will be when the gun goes off. Write down the steps you will take to have the kind of swim that supports your goal, then the steps for the transition from swim to bike. Then the kind of bike leg that supports your goal. Then the steps of transition from bike to run. Then the kind of run leg that supports your goal.

Key question: How much detail do you need to include in your written race plan? The answer: it most definitely depends. If you are a detail-oriented person, include as much detail as you find useful. If you are a big-picture person, you may not need a lot of detail. D3 Multisport coach and 2017 Ironman World Age Group Champion Coach Simon Butterworth routinely produces race plans that go four pages, as he likes a lot of detail. Others write their plans on a single page.

Step 5. Identify places on the race course where you will need special help.

You may see a steep climb or technical descent, or a milestone on the race (say mile four of the run in an Olympic-distance race), and realize that you might benefit from a little help right there. Imagine what kind of help you would need in the form of encouragement from others. Then picture whose encouragement right there would really help you. This could be a teammate, coach, family member, friend, or even a fictitious or historical figure. Listen to what this person would say to encourage you to stick with your race plan and execute perfectly right there. Now, in your race plan, write down who this person is and what she would say. You may have more than one or more than a dozen of these special resources stashed along the race course, helping to encourage you on. Once you plan for them to appear in the right places, your mind will find them there on race day.

Step 6. Rehearse your plan.

In your mind’s eye, run a full-color movie of you having the race just as your plan lays it out. Make this imaginary movie in 30 to 45 seconds, even though the race might take an hour or a half day. It’s important to have the movie go perfectly, just as you wish it would go on race day. Run the movie three times:

  • In the first running of your movie, see yourself in the movie as though you are watching the screen with you starring in the movie.
  • In the second running, see the movie from your own eyes, feel your skin and hear the sounds around you (not only your own breathing, but also crowd noise, the swish of the water, even birdsong). Which of the two movie versions did you like better: seeing a movie of yourself over there, or seeing and feeling and hearing it through your own senses? 
  • In the third movie, select whichever one you like better from the first two, and repeat that movie, but this time the whole movie start to finish in five seconds.

Step 7.  Review your race plan.

You may review your race plan and do the rehearsals in Step 5 as often as you like. Whatever you do, review and rehearse the night before your race, just before going to sleep, and the morning of your race.

Here are some excerpts from a race plan:

Swim: Get in a good warmup and get breathing under control before my wave starts. Swim to the inside and toward the front and focus on swimming straight lines. After the last buoy turn, get a good sighting of the finish and swim straight in. With 200 meters to go, do a quick mental rehearsal of transition steps. Finish last 100 meters steady and under control.

T1: Flip up the goggles and leave them and swim cap on head, get wetsuit down to waist. Enter transition, find bike, ditch goggles and cap, step out of wetsuit, don helmet and sunglasses, and head out. Mount the bike, pedal out about 50 meters, then slip into shoes.

Bike: Ride first mile under control, settle in, wait for two miles to sip some from bike bottle. Hit cruising power and enjoy the sights. Keep cadence and stay in control on first climb—no big power spikes—even when other athletes pass. Remember, you will see them all again when you pass them on the run. Keep steady power on the flats and downhills. Drink and eat according to schedule. Thank the aid station volunteers and course marshals. With three miles to go, do a quick mental rehearsal of transition. With a half mile to go, get out of cycling shoes and pedal in on top of the shoes.

T2: Dismount cleanly, run to transition area, rack bike, dump the helmet, slip into running shoes and race belt, grab cap and head out.

Run: Keep cadence and form for first half mile until legs come around. Settle in to the planned effort, smile at the spectators. Grab support as per plan at each aid station. Thank the volunteers. Step up the pace at halfway point of the run. Watch and listen for my fictitious special resource person at the run turnaround. Find somebody fast to hang with and stay there. Encourage other athletes. With two miles to go, step it up again and then plan for the last half mile. Last mile and in! Leave everything on the race course.

You may decide to type out your race plan on a computer. That can work, consider the pen-and-paper method also to see which one sticks better with you.

Writing out a race plan sharpens the focus, forces you to think through your race, and neurologically establishes the race in your mind in all three major modalities (visual, auditory and kinesthetic) even before it happens. Give it a try.

Will Murray is a USAT Level 1 coach with a specialty in mental skills, based in Boulder, CO. He is the mental skills coach for  and co-authored "The Four Pillars of Triathlon: Vital Mental Skills for Endurance Athletes" with Craig Howie.

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.