As the race season gets into full swing, we are constantly seeing race results with top performances, and others that leave something to be desired. As a coach that has trained many athletes for these style of races, I am starting to see a troubling trend that needs to be addressed. We are treating these events as sure things that we will crush vs races of attrition that we must sustain. I hope that through this blog, you will start to see that while you may be physically prepared for the demands, the right mental approach will help you reach the best results on any given day.
Sports of Attrition: Cycling/Running/Swimming and Triathlon
One of the biggest issues currently in the sport is not giving it enough time. With endurance sports, it takes time to build the aerobic engine needed. What's neat regarding the aerobic engine is that it peaks around the age of 20-22, but it doesn’t necessarily decline at a fast rate until you reach your 50’s. This means, that as you age, you will generally get faster if you continue training (up until your 50’s).
Let's look at top races such at Ironman Triathlons or races such as Paris Roubaix for cycling. How old are most of the winners or top performers? Generally speaking, they all are in their 30’s and have done races of this magnitude many times in the past. What you will rarely if ever see is someone coming into the sport and winning in their first try. To be honest, most Ironman Pro’s have done roughly 20-40 Ironman triathlons in their career. Yet we have individuals who have done 1-4 of them and expect top performances. They are races of attrition, you must learn how to handle the demands of the day. Another great example is cyclists that race 5-8 times a year. While this is better than 1-3x a year, you’ll quickly find that the more you race, the better your chances of getting top results. This isn’t a fitness thing, its a learning how to read a race and execution thing.
The Actual Race
You have a coach, you should be fit and prepared. But what you can’t control or game plan for is the actual events that will happen on that one single day. Training is a closed environment that is controlled. Racing is an open environment with many new factors being thrown into the mix. The only way to mimic being around other people is to constantly put yourself in that position through racing.
What I fear we have done in the industry is put the focus on instant gratification vs being steady over the course of a race. There is nothing exciting about being slow and steady and having a great result. Everyone wants that “wow” factor that gets “likes” or “kudos”. While it's great to have an amazing discipline, we must remember that the end goal is the finish time or placing at the end of a race. While it may be boring and require patience, in my time as a coach, I have found that those that can control their emotions often have the best results.
These races are long and many things can go wrong. By keeping yourself grounded and well within your fitness parameters, you are much more likely to handle adverse conditions with control. As soon as you go beyond your limits and something negative happens, self doubt instantly creeps in and can derail your entire race/event.
By The Numbers
In a lot of these races, slow is steady and steady is fast. Let's look at Ironman, Long Distance Running, and Cycling races by the numbers.
Ironman: The attrition component of ironman comes in during the last 20 miles of the bike and run section of the race. How many times have you seen someone limp home off the bike and then start the run portion much slower than they have anticipated. Is this a question of fitness? Possibly. But more likely is that they either pushed too hard early or missed something (such as nutrition) that is going to cause a drop off in performance.
The ideal Ironman performance has the athlete running the last portion of the marathon. If you can pace yourself easy enough to reach the last 13 miles running, you are going to be in for a great day! This seems so easy when you are starting the day or going through planning, but without a doubt something will pop up throughout the day or you will push too hard early. Whats amazing is that most Ironman competitions start with 2500+ competitors, but I would guess that only 100 of them are running those last 13 miles to their potential. It's a game of attrition. Can you make it to those last 13 miles running? If you can, you’re setting yourself up for an amazing day.
Example of numbers:
Pushing it with lackluster run
4:40 run (capable of running a 3:30)
Total time with 10 minutes of transitions: 10:50
Relaxing with strong run
Total time with 10 minutes of transitions: 10:00
Long Distance Running: Just like the Ironman example above, the amount of people that start a marathon vs the amount of people still running to their potential at mile 20 is like night and day. If you have a coach, the fitness shouldn’t be an issue. Rather its properly managing those first 20 miles in a sustainable pace with a focus on keeping everything in check. Same thing can be said for the first 20 miles. Athletes are running too fast chasing some number, or they are neglecting nutrition or other factors. The goal to a fast marathon is a strong last 6 miles. No matter how fast you ran the first 20 miles, if you start walking at mile 21 then you aren’t going to be hitting your goals.
Cycling Races: This is a little bit differently because tactics play a larger role. However, I would urge anyone getting into cycling races to look at the size of a peloton at the start of the race, and then after the race. On most courses, the field size will be reduced simply because of attrition. There is more luck involved with cycling due to flat tires and crashes, but you can help reduce those odds by being positioned in the front of a group. If you’re in the front of a group, the ride tends to be smooth and evenly paced. If you are on the back end of the peloton then you have to work much harder due to the yo-yo effect and surging. Simply by positioning yourself in the right section of the peloton, you can help reduce your effort and maximize your odds. Beyond that, you save your energy for the last “key” sections of a race where you need your strengths. In a rolling terrain race of 50 cyclists, I would guess that simply by sitting up front, the field will be reduced down to 30-35 riders by the end. You have instantly upped your odds and you have saved legs by not having to surge as much as those at the back. It's a sport of attrition and all you’re looking to do is keep your legs as fresh as you can for as long as possible.
Mental Side of Attrition
What a world we live in! Within seconds, you can check the ER wait time at a local hospital, order a pizza, find the answer to a question you have been in a heated debate with your friend about or even order see how long it is going to be before the rain falls. All of this, at your finger times gratifying your "need" instantly. When it comes to sports and competition, progress doesn't happen in seconds nor minutes. In this area, we need to become patient. I understand, you want it and you want it NOW just like everything else.
Be impatient, just be impatient about being patient. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither is your fitness level. Those who are patient win out. Remember, you have a coach. Their job is to keep you on track for your goals. What is your job? WORK! and work you must. You are paying your coach to do the back office work on your fitness so let him while you just do what you are prescribed to do.
By minimizing the amount of things you focus on, you will be able to provide more energy to work harder in your training. The more you worry about keeping up with someone else, the less energy you have to train with. Mental strain is as bad, if not worse, that physical strain, on your performance. Be the badass you are by being patient and minimizing your risk to injury and mental strain. It starts with the foundation, focus on the task at hand, stay present and be a beast!
The world of endurance sports rewards those that stick with it longest. By being able to train year after year, you are improving while others around you fall off. You are constantly improving your odds within your age group or category the longer you can stick with the sport. Beyond that, the same things can be said for each athlete within a race. Yes there are key points of a race where you must go for it, but many of these races have high attrition rates that must be managed. Often times it isn’t those that can go fastest, but rather those that can sustain a pace for the longest. While being fast and sustaining a pace often result in the same outcome, the mindset is vastly different and can help you in your endeavors of endurance athletics.
As we begin to inform our athletes of numbers for training and racing purposes, they will eventually fall down the rabbit hole of comparing their numbers to other individuals, or asking if “its good?”. If you want the cliff notes version of this blog, read this next line and then stop. Your numbers are specific to you and the demands of the race you are targeting. By focusing on numbers that are outside of our control or trying to constantly compare ourselves to others, we are taking mental focus away from our day-to-day training and creating un-needed stress. After reading this blog, I hope you can see that numbers begin to get very specific and should only serve one purpose, to get you ready for your race.
Functional Threshold Power (FTP)
I get it, this number is the biggest comparative number in all of cycling. How big is your…. threshold? While threshold does play a large factor in cycling performances, it isn’t the only number and its only specific to a handful of events. Will a 400 watt FTP be stronger than a 300 watt FTP? Yes, in terms of absolute numbers it will be. But if the 400 watt FTP cyclist weighs 180 lbs (81.81 kg… 4.88w/kg) and the 300 watt cyclist weighs 132 lbs (60kg… 5 w/kg) then then 300 watt FTP rider will destroy the higher power rider on any climb of significant distance.
The problem with this is that in todays athletic arena, everyone wants to to be faster, stronger, more athletic than everyone. The 300 watt FTP athlete would become discouraged if they only did flat time trials and compared themselves to the 400 watt FTP rider. However, if both of those athletes were to go ride a mountain, the 300 watt FTP rider would prove better. Instead of focusing on their numbers and how to maximize them, they have become obsessed with comparing themselves to others that are better on a certain type of race course.
Chronic Training Load (CTL)
- A rating of stress on the body which can be used to gauge fitness over time
The birds-eye view of general fitness that gets blown way out of proportion. What is your CTL? How fit are you? The problem I have with CTL is that athletes want to take it as an absolute of how fit you are, but really its only the size of the canvas you have in which you can begin to paint your picture.
The problem with CTL is that if it isn’t specific to your race demands, its only a false reporting of your readiness. For example, if you’re an Ironman athlete and you have a CTL of 110-125, you may feel like that is a great level of fitness. However, if you skewed the number by doing hard 30 second to 1 minute efforts, then your fitness isn’t specific to the demands of your race.
Therefore, whenever anyone starts comparing their CTL to anyone else, I often ask what type of specifics is that person using to get there, and what are the demands of the race that warrant that training. Secondly, are their parameters set correctly to allow for an accurate CTL? There are more pieces to the puzzle than just “how fit are you?”.
Training Time Per Week
This athlete is training a lot, why can’t I train that much? Or… This athlete hardly ever trains and is faster than I am, are we training correctly? The second question is fair to ask as a coach can be challenged from time to time, but again, understand that your specific race demands matched with your own physiology will create a plan for how to best maximize your odds of success. How athlete X trains may be completely different than how athlete Y trains because of these two factors. Then, even if you are targeting the same race, your training time may be completely different due to having different strengths and weaknesses. Someone that is severely lacking on the run may focus far more on building miles, but a lot of running for 1 week is 6-8 hours where as a lot of cycling for 1 week is 12-16 hours. The differences in time may be drastically different at several points of the year because of the plan to address weaknesses or training for specific demands you must meet for the event.
Mental Focus of Your Own Numbers
As I mentioned above, focusing on uncontrollable or “what everyone else is doing” is detrimental to your training and your overall ability to perform at a high level. High Performance Coach Craig Willard and your very own Jeremy Brown actually do a great job talking about focus, and what it really means, over on Performance on Demand. Check out episode 10 for a deep dive!
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Each athlete has their own specific physiology that will need to be trained to meet specific demands of a race. By focusing on other individuals numbers and constantly chasing them, you could be diverting the focus you need to actually build your own. Beyond that, often times athletes have different strengths and weaknesses that can influence their training and what their numbers look like at any given time. It suits the reader to know that many different factors play a role in preparing for an event/race and by solely looking at any one number, you may find yourself tumbling down a rabbit hole of little significance.
As athletes, we put in all of the training to perform on several days a year. Often times, we spend so much time training that we become obsessed with our training numbers. Sometimes that means hitting “cage bombs” in baseball, setting new lifting records in the weight room, or logging more miles each week while running. While improving training is critical to performance, we must remember that all of the training is only meant to prepare us and maximize our odds on race day. It will require proper execution to maximize your odds when it truly counts.
As a coach, all we can do is maximize your odds as an athlete. Individuals get into this mindset that just because they have a coach, they will win events or shatter records. If this were the case, you’d have a lot of coaches being fired as there can only be 1 world record and 1 winner in any event. As an athlete, you need to understand that 50% of the responsibility for a great day comes back to you. A coach can’t ride your bike or swing a baseball bat for you, its up to you at a certain point to perform. In order to maximize your potential as an athlete on any given day, you must be aware of the parameters, but you still must make the decisions as obstacles present themselves on race/game day
Knowing Your Strengths
Inevitably, there is something you’re better at than others. When we have strengths but we neglect to use them, we are limiting our odds of success. For a cyclist who is a breakaway artist, anytime the race comes down to a sprint, his odds are severely reduced for success. For a lightweight triathlete, anytime you pick a flat course that is windy, your odds of success have fallen a little. For a baseball pitcher that has a 100 mph fastball, throwing a 85 mph change up routinely may minimize your odds of success. By understanding your strengths on race or game day, you will begin to shift the odds in your favor for making up ground or bettering the competition.
Speaking specifically about endurance sports now, we need proper nutrition on race day in order to execute a race properly. Anytime you go over 1 hour in an event, you will need both hydration and calories to sustain effort. As you go longer, nutrition will play a large role in how well your race unfolds. For those athletes that neglect nutrition, they will never live up to their training potential and will become frustrated. Nutrition is the great equalizer in long distance races and without a proper nutrition strategy in place, you will constantly be fighting to keep your odds of success high.
Using Numbers as a Guide
As you head into a race, you will have numbers or a plan that would maximize your odds according to training. What you need to understand is that those numbers aren’t fixed. You may come out with extremely fresh legs and have the ability to push harder, or you may come out and experience lower numbers due to other factors. Whats important to note is that a race plan or strategy is based off of your training, but training is a fixed environment while racing is an open environment. Its critical to know that in a race, factors are changing constantly that you must adjust to. Sticking to numbers all the time could leave you behind and regretting that decision.
While training can prepare us for most of the demands of racing or game day, you will still need to adjust in order to maximize your odds of success. Training is often done in a controlled environment that we are comfortable with. As soon as race day gets here, we must adapt to our environment and aim to hit our potential. By focusing on things such as past training, proper nutrition, and knowing your strengths, you can begin to give yourself an edge over the competition. While all of these factors can help, at the end of the day you are out there on your own and you need to adjust on the fly. Each obstacle you come across is going to either benefit or hurt you. If you can aim to make the right decisions, you will have maximized your odds of success and will be proud of the effort you put in at the end of the day.
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