Learning lessons from races

This week I competed in 2 races, the first for 3-4 months and including my 1st triathlon for 2 years. It has certainly been a barren period of racing for a Triathlon coach. However it has been very satisfying for me to finally get some racing under my belt, and these races reminded me of the importance of specific race preparation, and also the lessons you can learn from your races. The first of my races was a local 5k running race over mixed terrain, the 2nd an inter-club challenge triathlon over an 800m swim/8miles bike/4miles run.

Lessons learnt from the two races.

I'd managed a 3 week period of unbroken training covering 12 hours on week one, 13 hours on week two and 14 hours on week three. This was spread over swimming, cycling, running and a small amount of general conditioning work. This training followed a 5 week period of diminishing fitness where I'd averaged only 6 hours per week. With the 3 weeks in the bag I felt it was time to try to salvage something from the season and try a few races.

The 5k running race.

I did a 10 minute jog before the start and lined up in the front row. After the whistle I was quickly overtaken by about 9 people. I then worked my way past 5 of them over the next kilometre. By the 2k mark I'd passed another 2 and a group of 3 of us (me, Paul and Tom) then ran together to within 800m of the finish. I then raised the pace and dropped Paul, although I didn't know this at the time. Two loose dogs then held me and Tom up, letting Paul rejoin us. I then raised the pace with 180m to go. This consisted of 100m to a gate exiting the wood, and then a 80m dash to the line. This pace change eliminated Tom, but not Paul, who was able to overhaul me between the gate and finish as we sprinted for the line. So 2nd position over a hilly 5k mixed terrain course in 18:39. Was this a good performance for me and what could I learn from it?

The Start.

For me the time was within expectations. The effort had been hard initially and then had felt easier over the last section. In this race, starting as I did was OK, as I was not held up by other runners. This is not always the case, and in cross-country races where narrow paths often feature it can be a major problem. My inability to go faster at the start reminds me of the tactical importance of being able to start faster in some races. I particularly don't like coping with fast starts, and although my steady starts often lead to better overall performances there are times when a faster start would help improve my overall performance. My take home lessons from the start are:

  1. Work on fast running starts in training and racing.
  2. Warm up for races with faster pace running, short bursts and some sustained efforts to expand the lungs.

The Middle.

As the race continued I found myself in the tactical position of being in a group of 3 and being offered to take the lead. Bearing in mind there were other runners behind I did not want to let them catch up and be in contention at the finish, so I took the offer. I was then able to control the pace and kept it at a level I was comfortable with. It is at times like this that you have options such as raising the pace, repeatedly changing the pace or slowing down and letting someone else take over. Each decision has potential consequences, and must be taken in the light of your current capabilities. The great unknown is how the others will respond. I felt I was below my limit, but not ready to risk upping the pace and then slowing down in the last 1-2k, so I continued at a good pace which my companions were happy to follow. With about 2k to go I slowed slightly let Paul take the lead for 2 reasons. Firstly there was a small hill to get up, and secondly we were about to face the wind after climbing the hill. Paul was happy to lead, and so this worked well for me. As we approached 1k to go Paul's pace slowed as we climbed another longer incline so I took the lead, and got the inside line around a turn at the top of the incline. Frankly this section in the middle of the race had gone well. My take home lessons from the middle section are:

  • 1-Don't go into the red if you can avoid it. I didn't and this was effective.
  • 2-Get wind shelter and shortest possible line wherever possible. Again I managed this and it worked well.

The End.

There is no doubt luck plays an important role in racing also, but being able to cope with the unexpected is what successful racing is all about. As we entered the last wood and got onto a wood chip surface I felt the pace was quite comfortable. I raised the pace a bit, dropping Paul, while Tom kept up. We then got held up by 2 dogs. Now it is possible to sprint past dogs if they don't attack you, and in retrospect I think this may have been possible, although I was conscious of offending the dog owners. My final burst to the gate out of the wood after passing the dogs was a good tactical move, using the downhill slope to gain momentum, and ensured I got to the finishing straight first. Unfortunately my sprint was not good enough to prevent Paul from passing me and winning by 1 second. My take home lessons from the end section are:

  • 1-Take your chances. I will sprint past all but the most fearsome of dogs in future when racing. Perhaps I was short on a bit of extra testosterone!
  • 2-Always assume your nearest rival is about to push you to the very limit. My sprint was there, but I do feel I could have gone a tiny bit faster.

There was actually another approach that may have won me the race. That would have been to kick from 600m to go, shortly after we entered the wood. The reason I didn't was fear that the other competitors would cover it, and then leave me for dead over the last 200m. It is never possible to know for sure if this would work, but it is a tactic I should try in the future at some stage. The decision should be based on whether my short sprints or sustained bursts have been more impressive in my training.

The inter-club Triathlon

Race day it was raining hard, so I shelved a plan to cycle to the race venue and instead drove. I set up my transition area, registered and proceeded to warm up on land with only a few minutes to go. I missed part of the briefing about the swim, but found out the route by asking another competitor. The 800m wetsuited swim in the lake started badly and I spent the last 2/3rds overtaking people, finishing possibly around 11th position. I went through transition one pretty swiftly, passing 5 people, and mounted my time-trial bike, only to lose time as I struggled to get into my shoes. Two teammates, Phil and Max passed me while I was still getting into the shoes. I then produced a mediocre cycling performance, passing one other competitor, but losing time to both Phil and Max. The transition to the run was poor as I misjudged the amount of road I had to take my feet from my cycling shoes. I ended up at a dead halt and running into transition two with one bare foot and one in my cycling shoe. I then started the run, which consolidated my position as 6th as those ahead moved convincingly away from me while I extended my gap on those behind. I ended up in 6th position in a time of 56:14. How had I done and what lessons can be learnt from this, my first Triathlon for 2 years?

The Start.

My short warm up for the 800m swim proved disastrous. As the race started I was trying to zero my watch before deciding it didn't matter. My lack of race practice meant I'd forgotten to get myself in the optimal position, with my legs kicking at the surface to give me the fastest possible start. About 15-20 seconds after setting off I was still about 4th from the back. Not a clever position for the club swim coach and supposed "fast" swimmer. I then worked on for about 150m and then got a mild panic attack and stopped twice for about 8 seconds a time, each time doing some breaststroke. After this my mind settled down and I managed to swim consistently gradually accelerating until with just 200m left I reached a reasonable for me pace, which I maintained until the swim exit. Cue a few comments about "did I get lost" from some spectators who knew me as I ran into T1. I'd clearly not made the best use of my ability on this first leg. My take home lessons for the swim are:

  • 1-In future I'll ensure my watch is zeroed and decide whether or not I'm going to start it. I'll also start it about 15 secs before the start so I don't get held up at all.
  • 2-Start with feet at water surface already kicking while sculling back to maintain a stationary position.
  • 3-Have a plan of action for panic attacks*. I'll try for a long slow catch-up crawl if it happens again.
  • 4-Practice fast starts in training swimming on to 300m both after a 200m water based warm up and after a 10 minute jog to the pool or lake.

My swim training has not been great, but I've had 3 consistent weeks of 8-9k per week. The problems I had were due to lack of mental preparation and in particular my lack of warm up. I know full well that my initial swim pace during most of my sessions starts at 7:00minute for 400m pace and after about 1k I'm able to swim at 6:00minute for 400m pace. Most people are able to start faster and then reach a lower top speed. In fact, most start fast and then slow down both in training and racing. I'm unusual in my pattern of pacing and in racing this has proved a handicap for me.

The Middle.

The transition T1 to the bike had been swift with wetsuit removal and helmet putting on going smoothly. I mounted the bike OK and then took time putting on my shoes on the narrow country lane while still at a slow pace. My 2 teammates passed me and then after a sharp turn into a main road I finished off getting my shoes in and settled down to a rhythm. I closed on Max over the next mile before the first roundabout. This was a bad decision as I ended up feeling guilty I was taking Max's racing line, forcing him round the outside of the roundabout. In consequence I had to brake as I'd raised the pace too far to cope with the bend needed ot stay out of Max's way coming off the roundabout. At this point I found my front brake block was open from when I'd put the wheel back on after travelling down. Luckily my braking didn't lead to a fall, but I lost 25m to Max and then settled back into a rhythm. From this point Max moved slowly away. I lost more ground at the far roundabout as I knew my brakes were dodgy. The return went smoothly until the entrance back into the narrow lane near transition. I misjudged when to remove my feet from my shoes and ended up at a dead stop with only one foot released, the other in my cycling shoe on the bike. Now, normally the bike is my strongest discipline, but lack of training this year has left it weaker than normal however I'd certainly been slowed down by a few errors. My take home lessons from the bike are:

  • 1-I'll check my bike brakes every time in transition.
  • 2-I'll plan how and where I'll get my shoes on. I should have pedalled on the shoes until the main road, and then got up to speed before putting feet into shoes.
  • 3-I won't overtake coming up to obstacles unless I'm confident of my exit from the obstacle at speed.
  • 4-I'm now ready for more power training, and so this is what I'll do to improve my cycling pace.
  • 5-I'll plan how and where I'll remove my shoes. I should have removed them on the main road before the narrow lane.

The End.

Once at the transition rack in T2 I performed smoothly and set out at a medium hard pace, established a rhythm and continued to the finish, feeling stronger towards the end. I started out with people close behind, but my pace moved me away from them, while the 5 competitors ahead were either too far ahead or just too fast for me to contemplate catching. My pacing proved successful, and though I could have gone a little faster I could not have made any impact on the results sheet. My only take home point is:

  • 1-Introduce more speed endurance session to up my race pace.

Advice on planning and reviewing your races.

Review: Hopefully the above analysis will give you some idea about how to review your races. You'll find that your worst races give you the most material. Be brutally honest with yourself and look for improvements everywhere you can. Sometimes it will boil down to a need for fitness, but there is always one aspect that can be focused on. It may be that you need to put in more hours of training or it could be that specific training sets can prepare you physically and mentally for parts of your race. For instance the most obvious mistake I see as a Triathlon coach is  triathletes who train for hours on swim, bike and run, but don't practice their transitions. There is easy time to be made up in transitions. Why do more 30 minutes more biking in a week when that time spent on transition training could save you 30 seconds in a race?


After your race review however, don't forget other important parts of the preparation though. Each race has its own special consideration and your next race may trip you up in ways that you couldn't have anticipated from your previous race experience. Just give each race a bit of thought before you get down there and mentally rehearse what you are going to do, especially at transitions or in special situations such as finding unexpected people competing closely with you or non-ideal weather conditions. Your preparation will give you a clear advantage over most of your competitors who won't do it.