Several times per season, I get notes from athletes inquiring, "How often should I race?"
It's a great question and the answer depends on several factors. As you start planning your race season, let's look at a few things you should consider.
Some people love to race. They enjoy racing and don't mind using races for training as well as performance. Though they would like to do well and place high at every race, they understand that peak conditioning occurs only a few times each year. These athletes travel well and are energized by the entire process of attending a race from beginning to end.
On the other end of the spectrum are athletes that don't like to race unless they feel they can be at peak or near peak performance. They enjoy racing only a few times per year and really prefer training to racing.
Even if you love to race, everyone has a tipping point where you go from just the right amount of races to overdoing it. You will know you've overdone it when performance and attitude decline. You might also feel nagging injuries that hang on week after week. If you find these things happening, it's time to take a break from racing.
Taking a break from racing and taking time to recover may save you from weeks of downtime due to a major illness or injury. Obviously, you want to back off on racing to recover long before you find yourself in a forced downtime situation. In the best case, you want to predict or plan for downtime before it's forced.
Predicting the time it takes to recover from a race depends on several things including sport (triathlon, running or cycling), race distance, your level of conditioning, race day weather and the workouts you did in the week leading up to the race to name a few.
To look at a specific example, it typically takes around four weeks to fully recover from a marathon or Ironman. Some athletes may take five or six weeks. During that time you're not inactive, but at the same time you can't crack off three or four high intensity or long workouts per week. If you don't cut back on the training after one of these races, your recovery will be compromised.
I ask athletes to put races into three categories. The first category is races you want to do very well at, you want to be in peak condition. Call them "A races" if you please. There should only be three or four races in this category and your training is built around performing at your very best at these events.
The second category includes important races where you want to do well. You can call them B races. For these races you will reduce volume a few days before the events, but you won't have a significant taper in training volume. The final category is races used for training, fun or to practice something that is important to your top events for the season. Training doesn't change much, if at all, for these C races. You will still race as fast as you can, but you may be carrying training fatigue into these events.
The combination of race goals and race recovery is important when you're deciding which races you should do and which ones you should skip.
Example 1: Your "A" race is a half or full Ironman
Your training should be built around this big race. If there is an Olympic-distance event that is two or three weeks before your long-distance race, the Olympic-distance race can probably fit into your plan as a tune-up race. Though your training focus won't be optimizing performance at the Olympic distance, there's a good chance you can have a B-race performance at the event when it's placed before the long-distance event. If you turn the tables and put that Olympic-distance race two weeks after your long distance event, the likelihood of a B-race performance is small. More than likely you will feel tired, unmotivated and slow. You can expect a C-race performance at best.
Example 2: Your "A" race is an Olympic-distance triathlon
If we plan a sprint-distance event two weeks before the key race, the likelihood you'll have a good sprint race (B- and possibly A-race performance) is fairly high. Put that sprint race two weeks after an A-category Olympic race and with the right recovery plan, there is still a good chance that you will have a good (B- and possibly A-race performance) sprint race with this strategy.
Example 3: Your "A" race is a series of same-distance races
Race planning strategy changes again when you plan to race a series of "A"-level events. You don't have to be on the podium every time, but consistent, high performance at a high number of the races is your goal. Of course athletes racing long-distance events will race fewer events than sprint- or Olympic-distance athletes aiming for a high series ranking.
How often should I race?
Race distances, goals, performance expectations, recovery rates and individual preferences all play roles in answering the question, "How often should I race?" As you plan which races to enter this season, keep these things in mind. Racing should be enjoyable and contribute to your goals.
Gale Bernhardt was the USA Triathlon team coach at the 2003 Pan American Games and 2004 Athens Olympics. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Games in Sydney. She currently serves as one of the World Cup coaches for the International Triathlon Union's Sport Development Team. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow cycling and triathlon training plans. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.