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.
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