There Are No Bad Races

There is no such thing as a bad race.

Say it with me: There is no such thing as a bad race.

Think about it for a second. If you've managed to successfully negotiate your way through all the potholes and pitfalls of your everyday life and find the energy and wherewithal to toe the line come Saturday or Sunday morning, you've got something going on. You've done something right. You may not be in the kind of shape you wanted to be, and you may not have the peak performance you were hoping for, but let's put it into perspective: You're not fighting for your life in some trench in Afghanistan either, are you? You have the luxury of participating in an extracurricular sporting activity in a great location. Remember that anytime you're feeling bad. You'll feel better.

So you've paid your entry fee, traveled to the race destination, and are ready to go. Maybe you've had a great month and will decimate the course. But maybe you just worked three seventy-hour weeks and only managed a total of eight workouts. Whatever. It's race day! It's time to put a smile on and have some fun in the sun.

Over the past few years I've discovered that there are really only five types of racing experiences a person might have on any given day. In this article I'm going to describe each type and will give you a few pointers that will hopefully help you get to the finish line a bit faster than normal, or barring that, with a smile and a healthy perspective.

Type I - A Breakthrough Performance

This is the type of race performance we all strive for. Everything just comes together. You feel energized, mentally tough, and from the gun you race intelligently and at the very edge of your physical limits. Your breathing is easy, your body is quick and limber, and your strength is beyond anything previously experienced. In fact, a race like this may almost feel too easy. You will cross the finish line in a higher position and with a faster time than ever before, and then think about doing the course again as a cool down!

These races are terrific experiences, yet also few and far between for most of us mere mortals. In fact, you're doing great if you can race like this just two or three times per year. Things to remember on these wonderful days: 1) Stay relaxed. 2) Stay focused. 3) Race your pace. You can be poised for a peak performance, but then push too far into your anaerobic zone trying to chase Steve Larsen on the bike and blow up! Don't do that. Remember your training pace, all your planning, and race your race - not somebody else's. Find that perfect balance between exertion and relaxation, and then just go with the flow, baby.

Type I probable causes: You are an animal! Grrrr!

Type II - An Agreeable Sunday

This is the kind of race that leaves you with a satisfied feeling, yet yearning for more. You know you have another gear in one or two of the disciplines, but were unable to find it on this day. However, you still did pretty darn good in one or two disciplines as well, and might have come home with some hardware or bragging rights. Your significant other is proud of you and your competition is scared, even though they may have beat you. Don't sweat it - you'll get them next time.

In a regular season of training, odds are that many of your races will fall into this category. You may rest only one or two days and show up at the starting line a bit fatigued, a bit sore, or a bit mentally drained. On these types of days I focus on staying competitive within the race. Don't give anybody anything. Stay with that faster runner as long as possible. Push your limits. Practice a more relaxed and powerful swim stroke, a higher cadence on the bike, or some surging (15-20 second accelerations) on the run. The work you do in this stage of racing lays the foundation for your breakthrough performances on other days.

Type II probable causes - no taper; heavy training volume; lack of sleep immediately prior to the race; inadequate pre-race fueling

Type III - Stuck in the Middle

During this race things just feel flat. You may be unable to it crank up to your normal race pace, yet you don't feel particularly bad, either. Just one level below what you were expecting. In a sprint triathlon, a flat race can leave you a few minutes short of your ideal race time, and will probably make you wonder what you're doing wrong.

The short answer - you probably didn't sleep or eat enough! Look at the week or two prior to this race and see if you can work it out. But let's talk about the race itself. The gun goes off and, despite really working hard, nothing much is happening. If that happens, remember this: You can still have a great workout and a pleasant day on the course. Work on your technique, your breathing, and on holding a solid tempo. Do not get frustrated, but if you do, don't stay frustrated! Frustration and negative thinking create a vicious feedback loop that may ultimately ruin your day or even cause you to drop out. Focus on the positive. You are in the race, and if you keep it together, may come home with an outside award! Encourage your competitors and smile. Life could be a lot worse.

Type III possible causes - insufficient or inconsistent training; heavy training volume; overtraining; inadequate rest and recovery; inadequate diet; insufficient sleep

Type IV - An Off Day

Well, here you are. The race started and after a few minutes of doing OK, your performance decided to head south for vacation. You've got energy but no turnover, or no energy and no turnover. Your arms feel heavy or weak, your breathing is uncomfortable, your lungs and chest may be tight, and your legs are achy, heavy, and/or slow. There's not a whole lot of positive in the air at this race!

Guess what? It's gonna happen. Maybe the work or school week just took too much out of you. Perhaps it wasn't such a smart idea to do that hard brick on Thursday evening. Or maybe you think you did everything right, but there's nothing in the tank and nowhere to dig. Hey, don't sweat it. On this type of day my strategy is to focus on encouraging others. I yell for people. I slap hands. I smile and wave. By doing so I take my mind off of my current limitations. That's just me. You should remain competitive, do what you can to stay relaxed, and use any and all of the tips I've outlined for the first three types of racing, but be realistic. If you're not feeling great, you're not going to go stride for stride with the Greyhounds - or swim with me. That's just how it is. Remember: You did pay for this event. Get your money's worth and have a little fun! It's not like it's the end of the world.

Type IV possible causes - insufficient or inconsistent training; overtraining; heavy training volume, stress; inadequate diet; insufficient rest and recovery time; insufficient sleep

Type V - The End of the World

OK, you new it was coming! The bottom has dropped out and it's an all-systems failure. Dive! Dive! Run for the hills! Agghhh!! Panic!!

Wait a second. Let's keep it real. It's race day. You've rested. You've trained. You've slept. You've kept a healthy diet. You gave up sugar, booze, caffeine, nicotine, fatty foods, your job, your spouse, your house, your kids, everything you had, in order to be Number One.

And you still stink! Oh boy, do you ever!

Hopefully the paragraphs above are a wild exaggeration of your situation. But some of it may be true. Athletes in general, and triathletes in particular, make a lot of sacrifices in our quest for identity, self-fulfillment, and performance. And the truth is, the more you give up, the more time you put into something, the bigger and better you will become.

And the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Race day arrives and you stink. You've got nothin'. You feel like an embarrassment to your loved ones, yourself, and your sport. It takes all your energy just to keep going forward. Dropping out is high on your mind.

Listen to me: Don't quit. The only acceptable reason to drop out is if you are injured, or if you continue you are in imminent danger of injury. If you get severe cramps twenty miles into a 100-mile bike ride, maybe you very well should cut your losses and go home. Otherwise, stick it out. We all have these races sometimes.

There are three disciplines in this sport, and while you may bomb the first two, you could crank the third. Let me also remind you that even a 'short' sprint triathlon is a long event by any athletic standard. Your body and mind could come around and deliver a respectable performance before the end of the day. Finally, realize that sometimes the best-laid plans do not come to fruition. All the preparation in the world cannot account for every tiny factor. Pace it out. Relax a bit. Walk or do some easy riding if you have to. Encourage those around you, and smile and say, "Thanks," when they encourage you.

Remember, there is somebody at the finish line waiting to congratulate you, someone who will be proud of you no matter what. It might be a spouse, parent, child, competitor, or friend. They don't care if you were unable to hold Z4 HR at sub-LT pace. They just want you to smile!

Type V possible causes - any of the causes above, or just a random act of the Universe. Try and fuhgedabouddit.

And that pretty much sums it up. I could tell you more, but then I wouldn't be able to get my long ride in! Have a great spring and I'll see you at the races.

Marty Gaal - April 2002