Taking part in any endurance event requires a certain level of commitment; the disappointment if it all falls apart on race day can be extreme, so how do you make sure that you arrive on race day ready and able to maximise your performance?
1. Choose the right race for you
We could spend a long time talking about physiology and how certain people are better disposed to certain distances or types of races. The reality is that most average runners will do just as well at one race or another with the right training provided they are motivated enough to train adequately and consistently for the event.
However, motivation is key; endurance events requires hours of training and an ability to push some of our limits. You are far more likely to stay the course of the training and push harder for an event that has you emotionally engaged. So, choosing an event that excites you in some way gives you a far better chance of staying motivated.
This is highly individual and what draws one person to a particular race may not draw another. For example my first road marathon was the Loch Ness Marathon; I felt deeply attached to the area as it’s where I spent a lot of childhood family holidays and I was excited to run on the road that I had travelled up and down on as a child, I knew it had some great views and at that time it was a relatively small event, which I prefer over large bustling city marathons. These criteria are really personal, not just because of my personal experiences but also my personality – I don’t like big crowds, I prefer the countryside to the city.
So, if you don’t already have that dream race in mind find out what your personal criteria are for enjoying an event/race and look for something that fits those criteria. Look at it on the webpage, watch YouTube Videos of it if there are any, talk to others who have done the event and see how excited you feel about it.
2. Have specific, relevant event goals
“If you don’t know where you are going you usually end up some place else.” this might seem an odd statement for an endurance event with a clear start and finish however, if you have no idea how you want to complete it you have no idea of how to approach the event and training for it. So having some specific and personal goals for your event will help you stay focussed, craft your training and execute a good race plan. It’s usually good to have a mixture of outcome and process goals for an event.
Outcome goals are great as a way to have an objective bar to measure how well you have done, but they can also put you under a lot of pressure; so if you are someone who does not perform well under pressure it’s best to limit these and to keep them more open than ‘pass/fail, win/lose.’ For example, if your goal is to complete an event in a given time, you could have the ‘stretch target’ and a margin of acceptability. So for a bike-packing event your target might be to complete the event in a given number of hours with a buffer and a stretch target which might look something like this: Complete the race in 72 hours, but content with finishing in time for the after party; stretch target of 65 hours.
Process goals are very much in your control and can keep you focussed in a race and in training. So a process goal in a race might be ‘Run all flat sections and descents of the course, walk the ascents’ or ‘Take in 250 Calories per hour’ or having a particular power/pace/heart rate range to stay within. Training process goals might be ‘train 4 times per week every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday’ or ‘Extend endurance run/ride from 2 to 5 hours over the next 16 weeks.’
Make sure your goals are relevant to the event; there’s no point aiming for an average pace on an undulating technical mountain run as this is completely irrelevant – the difference between your climbing and descending pace will be massive; there’s no point aiming to stay at or around your Functional Threshold Pace/Power for the entirety of a 5 hour event.
3. Be realistic about what you can achieve
There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the most ambitious tend to be the most successful. However, success is usually also based on a certain amount of realism about what you are able to achieve. This includes being realistic about how much time it will take, your own physical and psychological capabilities and you ability to commit.
So if you have only 12 weeks to prepare for a mountain bike marathon then your goals would be a bit different from if you had 12 months to prepare. Equally what you can achieve in your 20’s and 30’s might be very different from what you can achieve in your 50’s and 60’s.
If you set your goals too high you are likely to be disappointed with a good performance if it doesn’t meet the lofty criteria you set; you’re also more likely to struggle to stay motivated as you never reach the high expectations you have set.
4. Do some race specific training
Every race has its own particular set of demands and no two courses are the same. You will get far more out of the training you do if you spend time studying the course you are going to do and thinking about training for the specific demands of the course.
So if the course is hilly think about building your climbing strength and working on your descending skills. If the course is undulating practise training on undulating courses. If it’s a cross country mountain bike race getting a good start can be key so practising a sprint start and then following it with some threshold work will help prepare you for the demands of this type of course.
5. Don’t overcook it.
When you are putting in training and start to see the results things get exciting – you feel like you are getting better and better. It’s at this stage that it can be really easy to overdo things under the misguided belief that ‘more is better.’
Getting the right balance between over reaching and recovering and peaking is tricky (that’s one of the reasons people pay for a coaches) but there are some good tools out there which can help, including TrainingPeaks, Garmin and Suunto App, Stryd Power Centre and Final Surge. These will all give you some guidance on whether you are over-reaching or need to rest and recover. But they are not perfect and it’s always good to check in with yourself to make sure you are not over-trained. You can check out my article here on ‘How do I know if I am too Tired to Train?’ for more details.
The thing most endurance athletes struggle to do is taper enough for an event; they always want to squeeze in that last long endurance session/speed session. Keeping it light on volume in the month to two weeks before your key event with a small amount of speed should be sufficient and help you far more than minimal gains that extra interval session/extra long ride will give you at the latter stage of your training.
6. Get used to racing
Whilst we can aim to emulate the physical demands of a given course in training, racing presents a unique set of circumstances which you can only practise by racing. So by far the best thing to do before your big event is to have some practice races. For longer ultra and multi-day events these would not be the same distance but enough to give you some similar stimulus and provide you with a similar set of circumstances so that you can practise things like:
- Setting off in a pack
- Pre-race routines
- What and how much to eat (which might differ when you are racning from when you are training).
- What and how much to drink
- How you behave psychologically at a race.
- Long back to back days or multi-days
7. Know the terrain
In line with doing some race specific training it’s always a massive advantage if you can practise on some if not all of the race course, practising difficult descents, knowing how a race ends and knowing your way in unmarked races will provide you a greater edge and more confidence on race day.
For longer endurance events, breaking the course down into training chunks that you take on over the course of several weeks can actually help ‘chunk down’ the course on the day.
If it’s impossible to train on the actual course, watching videos, chatting to others who have done the course and scrutinising it on a map are good ways to identify what the course is like; you can then work on finding terrain that is as similar as possible but accessible to you; when I lived in Britain and ran European mountain races I spent a lot of time in the lakes going up Skiddaw as this was the largest consistent and accessible climb to me.
8. Train your brain as well as your body
It’s important to be able to stay psychologically sound throughout the course of a key event. I have worked with athletes who are overcome with nerves at every race, others who waste large amounts of energy over-taking participants at the start of the race only to find themselves completely spent before the race is half over, others still who never reach their full race potential because they prefer to ‘play it safe’ and others still who will sabotage a key event by engaging in a series of unhelpful activities in the build up to the event.
If you want to get the best out of your body on race day you need to be able to harness your own psychological strengths and manage any weaknesses; it is after all both your mind and your body that will be taking part in the event. Whilst there is no ‘one size fits all’ in addition to time spent training your body time spent thinking about your own particular mind and how it works and developing techniques to help it work optimally on race day will help you get the most out of yourself. Things that can work well are:
- Winning images to build self-confidence.
- Identifying helpful mantras to keep you on track to run your own race not anyone else’s
- Mindfulness practice to help you key in to how your body is responding at any given moment and to ensure you are not overwhelmed by the prospect of what is to come.
- Identifying the fun aspect of a race
- Learning to approach the event with an ‘air of curiosity’ rather than putting yourself under too much pressure to perform.
- Identifying some process goals that you can focus on throughout the race
- Identifying a pre-race routine that is tried and tested and works for you.
9. Take time off before your race
If you work full time the stress of work can be significant; taking time off before a big event can make a massive difference to your stress and energy levels on race day. If you are well-rested and relaxed you can take your time getting to the race, getting there a day or so before and making sure the race morning is as stress free as possible.
10. Have a Race Plan
Any endurance event is going to involve some moments of self-doubt and difficulty; having a race plan and being able to stick to it is going to help you get through those difficult moments and help you play to your own strengths. When you are working hard, possibly sleep deprived and using every amount of energy to propel yourself forward your cognitive ability is severely compromised; the only way to counteract this is to have a plan that you know and can fall back on.
Planning the race involves thinking about:
- What time and when you will get to the start so you can warm up, have toilet breaks and generally do what you need to do before the start.
- What you are going to wear depending on the weather
- The type of warm up you are going to do
- The people you want around you before and during the race (including support crew if you have one).
- Where you are going to be on the start line (front/back/mid pack?)
- How hard you want to go in certain sections
- When and what food and drink you are going to take
- How much you are going to carry
- When you are going to sleep (if relevant).
- What you are going to do if you get lost/fall/bonk/get a blister/get saddle sore/feel nauseous etc.
- When you are going to speed up and when you are going to hold back.
- Where you are going to attack/make a break if relevant
Should I ever abandon a race? Abandoning a race either mid-race or before is always a really difficult decision to make and to some extent it is very individual. If you are sick or injured you should never attempt to race as you are likely to just make yourself worse and risk long term damage and health problems. If it’s a case of knowing that you are not going to perform as you would like it really will depend on how able you are to accept that you can complete the event but might not make your dream goal or even your minimum goal. A useful way to approach this is to develop alternative goals for the event that you will be satisfied with.