My race was a disaster, what happened?

You can't control the weather, the performance of others or change your training in the past; but you can control your thoughts.
June is the month when I receive notes from despondent athletes asking some form of, "What happened? I went to (insert your race here: The Tour of Tuna Road Race, The Triathlon Weekend Festival for Fun or The Run for Life, etc...) and had a terrible race experience! I was (pick one: off the back, dropped on the hill, slow compared to the average speed I desired, had a heart rate so high I thought I'd explode, etc...) My season is over. I don't know why I race anyway, I don't belong ..."

Okay, calm down, take a deep breath and get your hand away from the panic button. When I receive these questions, I often find common threads. Let's take a look at three common race-disaster issues and what you can do to salvage the season.

Chub rub?

For some athletes, the first week of warm weather or the first experiment with race clothing brings a realization that winter and spring were plentiful. Donning warm-weather gear, these athletes notice rubbing body parts -- usually inner thighs against each other or arms against the torso -- creating chafing. This attention-clenching phenomenon causes the immediate reduction of calories.

Significantly reducing your calorie intake a few weeks prior to a race almost always brings disastrous results. If you are into race season and you want to drop a few pounds without affecting performance, try reducing your intake by about 200 to 300 calories every day or every other day. Eat smaller meals throughout the day and keep your energy levels high. Assuming you still have races on the calendar, this strategy will have you a few pounds lighter for late summer or fall races.

Was your pace appropriate for the distance and your fitness?

A 40k-time-trial on the bike, a sprint triathlon or a one-hour run for fit athletes is conducted at lactate threshold speed for most of the event. In the late stages of the event, these athletes are pushing the limits with lactate levels above threshold.

What do I mean by fit athletes? Fit athletes are people that have been training for an event for around six months. This is enough time to include a preparation or base-building period and a pre-competition period to get race ready. If training is structured correctly, these athletes can continue to make progress on speed.

Beginning athletes will do the same event as the fit athlete at an aerobic pace because they simply don't have the fitness depth to race at high levels ... yet.

But beginning athletes can make significant gains on speed. Someone who has trained eight to ten weeks to get ready for a race can see big improvements in a second race that is six to twelve weeks after the first one. I've seen performance improvements of 40 percent.

Elite athletes that have been training for years might see performance gains in the one- to two-percent range over the course of an entire year. The average athlete can expect gains in the six- to 10-percent range over the course of six months to a year. These are certainly generalizations, but give you some idea of performance ranges.

For your next race, evaluate what pace is reasonable considering your fitness level. Use training sessions and training races as bench marks. Set yourself up for success by setting realistic goals based on your own performances and pace yourself accordingly.

Did you kill a good race?

In the book Empires of the Mind, Dennis Waitley tells a true story about a railroad worker named Nick. Nick, described as a strong, healthy railroad yardman, who was very reliable and a consistent performer. He knew his job inside and out. On one summer day, the railroad crews were told they could quit an hour early in honor of the foreman's birthday. While other workmen had left, Nick decided to do one last check on the railcars. He was inspecting the inside of an isolated refrigerated boxcar that was in the yard for repairs, and he accidentally locked himself inside.

Inside the car, Nick panicked. He shouted and banged on the car until his voice went hoarse and his fists were bloody. The shouts, if they could be heard by anyone, might have been confused with noises from a nearby playground. Other trains coming in and out of the yard might have muffled his cries for help.

With his knowledge of "the numbers and the facts," he predicted the temperature to be zero degrees. His thoughts were, "If I can't get out, I'll freeze to death." With time ticking away, he found a cardboard box and while shivering uncontrollably, he scribbled a message to his wife and family. In one part of the note he wrote "So cold, body's getting numb. If I could just go to sleep ... These may be my last words."

The next morning, the crews slid open the boxcar's heavy doors and found Nick, dead. An autopsy revealed that every physical sign indicated Nick had frozen to death. Everyone was dumbfounded because the car's refrigeration unit was broken. The actual temperature inside the car was about 60 degrees and there was plenty of fresh air available. Nick's knowledge and his fears had killed him -- literally.

I don't know what percentage negative thoughts can degrade an athlete's performance, but I can tell you that your mind has enough power to kill an otherwise good performance.

As you train for your next event, fill your mind with positive thoughts and mantras. You can't control the weather, the performance of others or change your training in the past; but you can control your thoughts. Work on your mental fitness as much as your physical fitness.


Gale Bernhardt was the 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic Coach. You can find more information, including pre-built base fitness plans, race training plans and training books at http://www.trainingpeaks.com/gale/.

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