Clever Training Ambassador Nicholas Chase is a Professional Triathlete, USA Triathlon Certified Coach, IRONMAN Certified Coach, ISSA Elite Trainer and Co-Owns TRIBAL Multi-Sport. Working with athletes around the world under the TRIBAL umbrella means exploring all training modalities, including trail running. Nicholas spends his season training and racing around the world while working with athletes hoping to reach world championship races in each race distance.
Athletes who work with TRIBAL Multi-Sport Coaches know that race week isn’t something that springs up from darkness like the boogie monster. In fact, more and more athletes are beginning to embrace race week, rather than fear the dreaded taper. With each taper comes a unique amount of hiccups, and coaches today need to be involved enough with their athletes so proactive measures can be put in place.
Even if you’re not jumping into your “A” race(s) of the season, some measure of rest and preparation needs to be made. Usually there are hotel reservations, bike transport issues or family stressors associated with traveling to a race. Heck, even if you’re knocking out a local sprint, you’ll still have to drive somewhere, deal with traffic and over-loaded porta-potties. My point is this—race week and race day are full off possibly detrimental issues beyond toeing the line. In no particular order, here are the four top mistakes I see athletes make during this demanding time:
#1 They Stalk Their Competition to a Fault
Race week usually means that the bib list is published. Finally, you’ll find out if that same person who always slams your face in the mud will be there yet again....to muddy up your face. This is where many many athletes tend to get a bit obsessed. Or maybe a lot. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen full-on color spreadsheets with names, finish times and race data (I won’t name names, but Excel perpetrators, you know who you are!) I will not argue that one should be aware of their competition on race day, but the extent of this knowledge should stop at, “Oh, so and so is racing - they're fast, but I’m faster.” After that statement, simply move on. Put on your freaking blinders and smile really big when you see them pre-race. Confidence should be based on each individual's capability to execute his/her plan with zero regard to who shows up. No matter how many times you’ve won, someone might show up whom you’ve never heard of and it just so happens that they are honestly faster. After most races, I re-fuel with some humble pie...and it’s usually a little bitter at first, but then it fuels me pretty well for the next block of training.
In basic terms, taper week is meant to de-load remaining stress and fatigue associated with months of preparation. As coaches, we’re breaking the “destroy and rebuild” cycle that you’ve been surviving over many weeks. Coaches ask a lot from their athletes, especially when they are part of a more performance-based collective. This also means added pressure from the group of people you continually train with. So why after all that, would you pile on the pressure of knowing who you need to beat? Regardless of who shows up, your race tactic and mentality should remain the same: Race smart and with a plan, so by the time you hit the finish line you’ve left every ounce of speed out there. If that plan comes to a head, it doesn’t matter who’s there because you’ve done all you can. In other words, transition from a mindset that provides motivation from an unknown outcome into a process that enables you to close off external stimulus that doesn’t directly weigh on your choices. For example, maybe that athlete you’re worried about is having a bad day or gets a flat. Maybe his/her flight gets cancelled or he/she pulled off an aircraft because it’s over-booked. On the other hand, maybe you’ve gotten stronger, faster and more confident and you’re about to have the day you’ve always known you could have, beating them outright.
Knowing your competition is good and should stop at that acknowledgment. Adding stress and being over-analytical about another athlete can be harmful. Race day is 100% unknown—even a simple bolt of lightning can delay the race, throwing everyone off their game. Why spend energy on something you cannot control? We can find tons of small reasons where knowing thy competition is motivational, but I promise at some point, IF you end up hitting some dark patches and don’t hit the race speeds you’ve been dreaming of, you’ll crumble. In other words, if you’re going well, obviously you’ll crush it regardless because you’re doing what you need to do. However, if you’re going like an overloaded mule, it’ll make fighting back even harder because those names you’ve been stressing over might be getting away from you, right? These are all unnecessary thoughts based on emotion and unknown data; not helpful.
#2 -They Drastically Alter What And How Much They Eat
When it comes down to the top percent who manage to win their age group at any event, there is no doubt they put some thought into dietary choices. This doesn’t mean everyone eats “clean” but it does mean there is at least a rough fueling strategy. I’ve seen athletes win their slot to IRONMAN World Championship by drinking only gatorade during the marathon while others work out exact carbohydrate and salt intake per hour. Neither of these examples are red flags as long as they are thought of ahead of time and practiced regularly. Personally, I tend to lean the other way, developing a mega-sweet tooth that I have to work hard to steer clear of.
Race week means more free time for some. This can also mean more time sitting around stressing, eating potato chips or literally anything laying around in the cupboard. I’ve been there myself...searching behind my wife’s box of cereal looking for a hidden morsel I would never usually eat. Another mistake I’ve made is overeating or really, eating what I would normally eat during 30 hour training weeks. Let’s face it, just because the training calms down, the appetite doesn’t follow suit. Eating food is gratifying, almost to the point that I can’t wait to finish my AM session so I can have a really nice, homemade breakfast. I know I can’t be alone in these cravings. And for some reason, when I’m flying to a race, the airport is almost always where I’ve made mistakes. I suppose it’s why I see people drinking alcohol at all hours of the day.
I’ve heard athletes tell me they eat a whole pizza three days out from a race, despite never allowing cheese into their diet on a regular basis. For some reason, the bloating and joint pain on race day wasn’t enough to identify this misstep. Nothing really changes on race week besides timing and quantity of the (hopefully) healthy foods you already eat. Some athletes need to cut fiber and others need to eat two pounds of sushi in their own crazy ritual. However, if you are crushing it on race day with a certain routine, keep it up. A few genetically blessed athletes I know can eat anything and therefore do...right in front of me. Personally, I know I need to cut back on fats and fiber during race week so I don’t retain any perceived heaviness or bloating.
All that matters is that, as someone who has placed a lot of time and effort into this process, you pay attention to how you feel after you eat and when you train. This can be as easy as changing one aspect at a time or altering portion size and timing. Race week shouldn’t be an endless buffet—you need to be light and strong on your day. Social outings are where you need to be especially careful. Sometimes, teams tend to get together before a race, usually an Italian restaurant. This is where the idea of carb loading has gotten a bit skewed. Endless pasta bowls usually aren’t the way to carb load the day before a race. It’s all about gradual changes rather than huge surges of heavy foods that can end up making you feel gross.
Finally, your pre-race breakfast should also be a tried and true ritual. True, that can be difficult if your hotel room doesn’t have a microwave—and that might be something you consider in your pre-race planning. Rather than heading down to the continental breakfast room and loading up on powdered eggs and magic-meat bacon with a side of biscuits and grey, lumpy liquids, think your usual suspects, like oatmeal, rice, frozen waffles, bananas, etc.—all which can be found at the local grocery store. The best part is, given the vast amount of technology available to you, pre-planning is very easy. I usually scout restaurants and grocery stores using Yelp.com! Why? Because I’m more of a pictures guy and I like to see the food I’m expected to eat before visiting a restaurant or grocery store. Finally, if you’re headed to another country like I just did, bring what you can from home, but do research on what customs will allow beforehand.
#3 - They Stress Over the “Unknown”
The biggest and baddest uncontrollable around is mother nature. She’s also, as proven by millions of incorrect forecasts, completely unpredictable. For example, we had a large group of athletes in Chattanooga for a half ironman and the weather was looking horrible. For days upon days, lightning and thunder would litter the weather forecast. For an athlete who’s been banking on a complete race, meaning swim, bike and run, this is horrible. One strike of lightning can cancel any portion of the event and gale-force winds plus rain make for an additional variable-of-suck. Personally, I think tough race conditions favor tough athletes. This is a given right? But you’d be surprised to know that the top percent of an age group is not just physically strong but mentally fortified as well. While most are driven away from an unknown challenge, few are driven further into new depths of performance.
If you tend to fall into the former category, think about it from this angle: Why stress over something beyond your control? Doesn’t everyone generally deal with the same type of race conditions? Athletes seem to forget a lot about their capabilities when a race plan goes wrong. In order to adequately prepare for this type of stress, resiliency is absolutely the number one key to success. Everyone will get beat down, hit dark patches or feel miserable at some point during a race. Most will doubt their past six months of training. Stress brings out the worst thoughts when they are most likely to cause damage.
All of those athletes who stressed about the weather ruining their day at Chattanooga were given a very mild day. Sure, the swim was cut short for Age Group athletes, but most athletes at that race couldn’t be happier. It’s already a very fast, down-river swim anyway. The myriad of texts about tire pressure, covering the bike with trash bags, running with an umbrella (kidding) and general stress was a waste. I’ve seen races with beautiful weather all week, yet on race morning a sudden thrasher of a storm cancels the swim or delays the race all together.
By this point hopefully you see the trend. You cannot allow yourself to be surprised by anything these days. You must also plan ahead for multiple scenarios. For example, if a race looks like it might be delayed for weather, bring some extra food. Do that anyway because you never know if you’ll be peckish. Get comfortable with uncomfortable scenarios beforehand. Learn to execute de-stressing procedures like meditation or just getting away from the race site and finding some quiet. The weather is unpredictable and so is the start list...so why worry about something beyond your control? Sit in your bubble of influence, pitch your tent and get cozy.
#4 -They Neglect Their Bikes - A Sad Truth...
This mistake drives me nuts. It’s not a secret that triathletes traditionally have a zero tolerance policy for washing their bikes. Most will spend months pouring sweat, drink mix, snot rockets and dirt all over their bikes and show up to their mechanic the day before the race with an issue. With the large investment of a bike, race wheels, power meters and every other bike accessory, this blows my mind. If you’ve taken your bike to the shop to install race wheels, you’re also guilty. Oh and finally, if you’ve ever taken an UBER home because you can’t change a flat tire, you’re fired.
All scorn aside, your bike is actually a very simple machine to keep in 100% operation. It takes just five minutes of patience after you’ve spent a week destroying it. It doesn’t ask for much. It’ll need a fresh wipe with soapy water, maybe a little degreaser near the drive train. Your bike needs a little chain lube and definitely more after a wet/dirty ride. Aside from that, you need to have it “tuned” up every 3-6 months based on how much you ride. This may cost a little extra but will alleviate race-week blunders. The biggest of them comes from brake rub. How many people do you know claim their bike split was slowed up because “after 25 miles I realized my brakes were rubbing.” After that, they assure you they would have won their Age Group had that “not been the case.”
You don’t need to be a mechanic to take proper care of your bike, but you do need to spend some time getting to know your machine. Here are some things you should learn:
How to adjust your rear derailleur.
During travel, this can be bumped or maybe on race day you’ve changed your cassette to a new gear ratio. Some micro adjustments could be required if you’re hearing a clunky noise while you do your test-ride. There is usually a little barrell adjuster where the cable enters the derailleur. You’ll turn that slightly in either direction based on which way you need to align your chain with the teeth of the cassette.
How to change a flat - quickly.
This speaks for itself, but it’s not a common trait. Set a timer and practice this in your home. For some of the newer carbon wheels, the tire needs to be a bit stretched as well in order to really make this process happen quickly and without destroying your forearm. Also, if you’re racing tubular tires or even clincher (you should know the difference) understand how that canister of sealant (usually Pitt Stop brand) actually works. It’s not a guarantee.
How to un-jam your chain.
If you happen to improperly shift between the big and little chain ring, you can hit a snag. If you happen to drop your chain during a race, the odds it will correct itself by continuous pedaling as it grinds against your carbon frame are quite low. Usually you need to pull over, place yourself on the side of your bike and gently reverse your crank to un-jam the chain. This is possible only if you’ve been smart and stopped pedaling right away. Your hands will be dirty when you get the chain back on but you won’t have to wait for a race mechanic to remove your crank during the the heat of a race. You can avoid this further by teaching yourself how to shift properly between the big/little chain ring as well. The golden rule here is never do this when your chain is in extreme angles. This means if you’re in the big ring up front and the smallest gear in the back….don’t try and get to the small front chain ring as that’s a bad angle.
How to remove and protect your rear derailleur during travel.
This part is easy to take off but the threads are very fine, so upon installation be careful not to cross thread. You will want to remove the rear derailleur from the frame because if anything happens to that hangar (what your derailleur is connected to) your race may not happen. They are unique to each frame and usually hard to keep in stock.
How to Align The Brake Caliper.
This one is very unique to each bike as manufacturers are hiding these things everywhere, meaning many different brands of brakes are utilized in order to maximize function. That being said, it’s quite easy once you figure out how the brake works. On a road bike, adjusting is usually a no brainer. Most road bikes have exposed brakes and once loosened, you can gently pivot the brake left or right to ensure the brakes aren’t rubbing. Most brakes also come with a small lever that can be used to open or close the caliper. Since they are exposed, you can get your hands on them easily for adjustment. Triathlon bikes, on the other hand, are a bit of a mess at times. There will usually be an adjustment on either side of the center-pull brake where a tiny allen wrench can be inserted and turned left or right. This will adjust tension on a spring, shifting the pads in either direction. It’s important that after each adjustment, you squeeze the brake lever to re-center the brake; note that it may take some trial and error. These are basic adjustments and as I said before, it would be smart to have a local mechanic demonstrate this for you before hand.
Whoa, did I just blow your mind here? If so, I have a solid solution. Take your bike to your mechanic and ask them to demonstrate the above adjustments. Then, you’ll make the adjustment while they watch to ensure you’ve executed properly. Boom, now you’re a bike expert, and you can school all of your friends on how they’ve been lazy and spent $500 on a tune up they could have done at home.