How to Pack a Race Season
by Russ Cox
As I planned the coming season I couldn't resist -- from my first race in May through the last in September, I've lined up four ironmans and a 70.3 for the year ahead. After a lighter season -- admittedly consisting of two ironmans and Long Course Worlds -- I needed to race again. I'm not convinced this is a route to my best performances, but that's not my only motivation; I enjoy racing and I enjoy racing long.
The majority of athletes focus on one or two events per year so naturally most advice on planning seasons does the same. For those of us who want to race more it can be a process of trial and error; here are some of my thoughts from planning race heavy seasons.
Realistically I can't be in peak condition for every race. I need A, B and C events just like any other schedule. The key races should have the most uninterrupted preparation time, so I can arrive in good shape and with minimal fatigue; timing is key. Typically my first race is one of my A races; I'm guaranteed time to build fitness and winter will have allowed me to recover from the previous season. Managing a second peak is more difficult, especially when races aren't well spread apart. My preference is for two months to achieve the best possible preparation; six weeks at a push. Anything less than four weeks? Good luck.
The longer there is to prepare before that first race, the better. Racing heavily interrupts a training schedule -- taper, race, recover -- that's weeks of development lost. By allowing a long build before the season properly begins I can develop the fitness that will carry me through all my races. I've seen the pattern in previous years: peak fitness achieved at the start of the race season and then a controlled decline to the end. Each race has its own little peak, but none match the levels achieved at the start. My first race will be in Lanzarote in late May giving me six months to get into race shape for the year, plenty of time.
The timing of events plays a role. When I'm lucky enough to have a full two months between events I can actually rebuild fitness, anything less and the focus is purely on maintaining that decline. Ideally A races would always have those two months, but it’s rare a packed season falls so neatly.
Next year is far from perfect. I'd like to be in peak shape to race Roth, but it's only six weeks after Lanzarote. I'd also like to be on top form for Ironman Wales and that's only four weeks after Mont-Tremblant. It’s not unusual to train through a B or a C race, but I’ve never managed this with an ironman, the stress is too severe. I may label Mont-Tremblant a B race, but I will need to recover before Wales.
Recovery is vital in a busy season. Whatever my plans I have to allow recovery time, but with the next race imminent I'm motivated to quickly return to training. That means active recovery, massage, good eating habits and lots of rest. Unfortunately my body may not stick to the plan and sometimes I have to accept I need more rest; recovery takes place at its own pace. With 10 weeks to Kona I still took three weeks of recovery after Ironman UK. I was desperate to prepare for the World Champs, but I needed those three weeks to be ready to train. It's why fitness peaks early in the season -- recovery dominates the periods between races so fitness inevitably declines. For my coming season it means if I want to race well in Wales I need to be very fit in May.
The biggest barriers when planning a big racing season are time and money. It's a challenging and enjoyable experience, but requires a lot of commitment to perform well. I should finish by warning you that these are draining seasons and difficult on the body, be prepared to step back if it’s too much and allow for serious downtime if you race this much.
Russ is a full-time triathlete and endurance coach who has raced and trained around the world. His Trains, Travels blog focuses on endurance triathlon training from an athlete's perspective, covering topics such as nutrition, training, psychological preparation and what to do during taper and recovery. In his Endurance Corner column, Russ shares some of the insights he's learned along the way.