Whilst I was pondering about things one evening, as I often do, I started thinking about why I got into running and cycling. I realised that although I like to train hard and do the best I can, there are many reasons that make entering and taking part in races or formal events worthwhile.
Here are my top 11:
Races provide a focus and a goal
One of the first things I do when I start planning a training schedule or working with a new athlete is spend some time defining goals. Both large and small goals can be important and races can form both large and small goals. Prioritising events into A, B and C races defines their importance and helps you understand how to approach the respective events. C races are fitted into training to meet certain fitness goals, practice skills in a race environment and fulfil many of the other benefits that I will talk about later.
Your A races are the most exciting and most challenging, the things that you will be building your fitness towards and looking forward to. Your B and C races form stepping stones and markers on the way to your A race. If your A race is longer or more difficult than you are used to, you can look for B and C races that are shorter than your goal but build up towards your goal. If you can comfortably complete the distance of your A race but you are looking to get faster, you can choose B and C races to work on different aspects of your fitness and provide milestones of fitness. B and C races are perfect opportunities to practice your routines and mental skills in a way that it is difficult to do in training.
Races take you on adventures
This is perhaps the most exciting thing for me. Ever since I started competing I loved to find events in places I hadn’t been to before, or in places that I loved to go. At first I travelled to places near my home in Yorkshire, England, then to new countries, Wales and Scotland, before travelling overseas to Europe. I trained really hard and was sometimes lucky enough to win prizes for my efforts but I am sure it was the adventures that were and are the most important to me.
Even now, a little unfit and somewhat older, the events are more of a challenge to finish than to do fast but I still eagerly search race calendars to look for new challenges that will bring new adventures. These events provide a focus and goals as described above but also the opportunity to visit and enjoy new cultures, learn how others live.
Races are motivating
Once you have signed up for your goal event you have made a commitment that will motivate you to train that bit harder and get out for a session that you may not be looking forward to. It puts things in place and you know what you are working towards when you have to drag yourself out in the cold and wet, or put in that last effort in a hard training session. Visualising your success as a ‘Winning Image’ can be motivating and get you through the most difficult of sessions. You can learn more about visualisation and mental skills in our article Self-Hypnosis and Mental Skills for Cyclists, Runners and Triathletes.
The road to fitness is never smooth and having a goal in mind helps overcome obstacles along the way, set priorities and as you see your fitness develop, tracking progress adds extra motivation.
Races bring you closer to your friends
One of the things I have always enjoyed about participating in sport is the friendships that develop. My closest friends are the ones I have met through running and cycling.
If you aren’t so good at meeting people and don’t like small talk, the focus of travelling to an event with clubmates or friends, who are taking part or spectating brings people together in a shared goal. Sharing the anticipation, nervousness and tension before the event, followed by successes, failures, euphoria and disappointment of each others’ experiences cuts straight through the small talk and quickly forms bonds that can last lifetimes.
Going to races is a step beyond just being a member of a club or group, brining many added dimensions that enhance the enjoyment of your sport.
Completing a race gives a sense of achievement
Working towards your goal event over weeks, months or in some cases, years and then achieving that goal brings a tremendous sense of satisfaction that you can enjoy for many years to come and often for the rest of your life.
The experience of finishing your first race is impossible to describe because it is different for everyone but it is a good feeling and usually the start of a new chapter in life. If it has been a tough experience, you may say ‘never again’ but for most people this feeling doesn’t last and it isn’t long before you are looking for new challenges. In fact, the harder it has been, the greater the acheivement and the stronger the feelings that come with it.
Completing a race is a reason for celebration
Once you have finished, it is time to celebrate either with friends or alone as you reflect on your achievement.
I have enjoyed both celebrations with friends and club mates as well as quiet time on my own but I think that sharing my success with others is what I like best. If you have travelled to an event you will probably go to the prize giving ceremony or perhaps a cafe afterwards where you can chat and enjoy each others’ experiences. You may be very tired but gradually the fatigue wears off and you start to enjoy the celebrations.
I really enjoy travelling to races, with an overnight stay when I can both celebrate and enjoy a new environment as well. This just adds another dimension to the adventure.
The journey to the race builds strength and resilience
I am talking about the personal journey here and not travelling to the race, although if you are travelling a long way to an event it can be quite challenging.
Your journey starts when you have the idea and develops as you look for an event that you will make your goal. This is usually the exciting and easy bit of the journey, although pressing the button to enter an event can be a bit daunting, particularly if it is your first event or something you are a little scared of. Planning your training can also be fun and highten the excitement and anticipation.
After a few weeks, the first rush of enthusiasm may have worn off and you are left with the hard work of preparing for your event. Training for endurance events such as running and cycling is all about being consistent, often doing the same or similar things day after day, week after week and month after month. Sometimes this is easy and sometimes it isn’t but building a routine and getting out to complete at least the majority of your planned sessions builds strength of character that you can take into other areas of your life.
Things very rarely go exactly to plan so dealing with setbacks such as illnesses, injuries or other unpredictable factors builds resilience. Learning how to refocus and replan your training to account for things that go wrong and then acheiving your goal despite these things just heightens the feelings of success but also teaches you about how to deal with other setbacks in your life outside your sport. In many respects, sport can be an analogue to life but with fewer variables, learning to acheive your sporting goals can teach you a lot about how to acheive your life goals.
Training for races and racing builds higher levels of fitness
I first noticed this many years ago, when I went out for a run or bike ride with my friends that took part in events and particularly competitions they were of a similar standard. Obviously, some were faster than me and thankfully, some slower but we were all of a comparable standard. However, when I occasionally went for a run with people who kept themselves fit but didn’t take part in competitions, I found they were much slower than me.
Being one to look for patterns and rules of thumb in life I started to look at this a bit more and noticed that there was a good correlation between the level of fitness of those that took part in races or competitive events and those that did not.
I think this is because it is almost impossible to do a race and not push yourself harder than you would normally do in regular training. A race is a continuous effort where you give your best for a given distance or period of time and this has a very significant and long lasting effect on your fitness. In training, hard efforts are usually broken down into intervals or if you are struggling to hang on to your friends on a longer ride there is still not quite the same incentive to push on to the end.
Many people say that there is no better training than racing, which is a statement that I believe is only partly true because in racing you can only stress certain of your energy systems. However, having races as part of your training makes a huge difference to your level of fitness.
Finishing a race gives you confidence
Finishing a race or challenging event, or in fact completing any goal builds confidence as it reinforces your belief that you can acheive your goals. The harder and more challenging the race goal the more confidence it builds. This confidence gives you the confidence to take on more challenging goals and as you gradually work towards each goal you will feel better about yourself.
An important point that was made by Steve Peters at a coaching meeting when I worked at British Cycling was that it is important to celebrate acheivements. What this means is that it is important to take time out to enjoy and reflect on the acheivement. Taking this time to reflect is enjoyable in itself but has a greater long term impact in that is helps you absorb and reinforce the fact that you have acheived something, improving your overall feeling, strengthening you personally and further building your confidence.
Races help you learn
Races expose strengths and weaknesses that are hard to identify outside the race environment. Knowing these strengths and weaknesses helps you address your weaknesses, both mental and physical, so that you perform better in the next race. Knowing your strengths will also help you perform better, as you know where you can work harder and where you should be careful.
Races help you learn what has worked and what could be improved in your training. This is a strong argument for B and C races that can form stepping stones to your main goal. The feedback you get from your B races is incredibly useful and you can use your C races to try new things, practice skills and see how things are progressing.
Races bring amazing memories
I think I saved the best until last, races bring amazing memories. I am sure that most of my fondest memories are from travelling to and participating in races.
A friend of mine once said memories are all that is worth collecting because they are the only thing that you ever really own….
Make some memories for yourself – good luck and have fun!
Am I fast enough to do a race?
You don’t need to be fast to take part in most races, if you are a beginner, you are unlikely to win but equally, you are unlikely to be last and even if you are last you will get a big cheer and everyone will be impressed with your achievement.