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How To Create A Winning Race Strategy

"Winning doesn't always mean getting first place; it means getting the best out of yourself."

- Meb Keflezighi, 2004 Olympic Marathon silver medalist, 2009 NYC Marathon winner, 2014 Boston Marathon winner

You've done the work. Race week is approaching and anxiety sets in. Did you spend enough time in the pool? Run enough hills during your long runs? Put enough miles in the saddle? Anxiety builds as you obsessively view the weather report for race day. Stress is high as you prepare your equipment, buy those last minute nutrition products, and pack your suitcase. You reflect on the swim, bike, and run paces that you were dreaming of, several months ago, when you registered for this race and your anxiety reaches a peak.

This would be a good time to start believing in yourself and know that you did everything you could to prepare for this race. This would also be a good time to let go of time goals and come up with a real race strategy. The weeks leading up to your A-race are a time to simplify, not a time to complicate all the thoughts in your head. Obsessing about your race time goals can cloud your judgement and confidence going into a race. Use that pre-race excitement and energy to develop your strategy for race day. Here is a method for developing your winning race strategy.

Don’t compare your old self to your current self

Taking a year off of racing triathlon in 2018 allowed me to wipe the slate clean(ish) in terms of comparing my “old self” in 2018 to my “current self” in 2019. It would be unfair and inaccurate to do so given different life situations including time away from structured training, a new work schedule, two years of aging under my belt, and a different set of stresses on my mind and body. Also remember that your "old self" may not be two years old, but may only be 6 months old. Remember those lofty race pace dreams you had when you registered for your race? Did you execute a training plan that was specifically intended to prepare you to race at these paces? If the answer is No, then readjust your expectations for yourself based on your last 6-8 weeks of actual training, not the vision from 6 months ago.

Set qualitative goals rather than numbers-based goals

My most vivid race victories were those in which I felt that I brushed up against my potential, not necessarily those that I was the fastest; likewise, my most miserably haunting race experiences were those in which I gave up on myself (see my post on the Vancouver Marathon). The Vancouver experience taught me the importance of setting and BELIEVING in qualitative goals, such as: Try my hardest, Don’t give up, Stay in the moment. For more inspiration for setting qualitative goals, read this article I wrote about non-time goals.

Set quantitative guidelines to ensure strong results to the finish

Between race adrenaline, unforeseen events on the race course, positive mantras, and negative self-talk, it is easy to get emotional whiplash during a race. Knowing your personal success metrics (I'm talking about cold, hard numbers) can be a great way to get you grounded and bring you back to reality. The metrics I rely on as guidelines are power, pace, and heart rate. I also set Good/Better/Best measures for each so that, when I inevitably judge myself based on these numbers, I have a range of targets with which to understand my actual potential as it relates to my assumed potential. If you have been keeping a training and log and have access to your data, you can get these numbers by looking at key training sessions in the 6-8 weeks leading up to your A-race. If you are unsure what these targets should be after looking at this data, work with a coach to help you set realistic guidelines.

For example, here were my guidelines for my recent race at Ironman 70.3 Coeur d'Alene:

Use Division Place % instead of time goals (for larger races)

I get it, it's nice to have a time goal. However, it is difficult, if not impossible, to compare times from one course to another, especially for longer course triathlon (70.3 and 140.6). The variables such as course elevation, road conditions, and weather can all drastically change race times. Therefore, the metric that I use to gauge improvements from one race to the next is the percentage of placement in division. To get this number, take your finishing place in your division and divide it by the total number of people in your division plus the number in your division who started the race and did not finish (DNF). It is also worth noting that this metric is only relevant for larger races, like Ironman events. For events with smaller fields, this metric is worthless. For example, a 2nd place finish in a small event with 5 people in your age group means that you placed in the top 40%. But in a large event with 100 people in your age group a 2nd place finish puts you in the top 2%. As you can see, these numbers aren’t remotely related. (I'm sure a statistician would have a formula for normalizing this metric across field size - and if anyone has more info about this, I would love to see it!)

For most of us, the fun of race day is to embrace the challenge, enjoy a day outside doing what we love, and seeing what our potential looks like. By reframing your picture of a successful race, and taking some time to plan a realistic race day strategy using this method, you will have a better chance for getting the most out of yourself on race day. Most importantly, you will be able to reflect on your day with pride.

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