Avoid the Training Race Trap

Have goals and specific objectives at each training race that are above and beyond simply winning
As we enter another season, many of us are already planning to tackle some of our most coveted races. For most, it is hardly a conscious decision as much as it is a mob mentality; we simply feel compelled by the local guru or some long-held tradition of racing on Tuesday nights.

Unfortunately, the local training race -- most training races being competitive group rides -- can be your greatest enemy, trapping you in an endless cycle of suffering and recovery with no long-term improvement. However, by planning the season properly and using training races appropriately, you can avoid the Training Race Trap.

Do we train to race or race to train?

Growing up in a small town in New York, I often relied on my own motivation and a couple good training partners to produce some stellar training rides. However, when went to college, I entered an area with a tradition of brutal Tuesday night "races," in which only the strongest survived. Because it was tradition, you were expected to make some regular appearances or face the wrath of the local guru.

For years I struggled to integrate those races into my training and racing schedule, often neglecting my weakest areas to do so and forcing me into a series of recovery rides later in the week.

Fortunately, when I moved to South Carolina for gradate school I began training with my first guru and left behind those brutal Tuesday Races for Fast Tuesday Sprints. It was then I realized that not all gurus are created equal, nor do they all have your best interest at heart. I also began training to race: Specifically planning my training to meet my racing needs.

If you ask riders why they consistently go to the local training race, you'll get several answers, but I'll wager the most common one is: Racing is the best training you can do. Other answers might include:

  • Everyone does it, so I should too.
  • I was tired and didn't ride for two days.
  • I can't push myself in training like I can in a race.
  • The training race is blast and beats training.
  • It's more convenient to go to the race than train by myself.
  • I like to crush the new riders in their race.
  • I wasn't able to race this past weekend, but needed to get more races in before my next goal.

Of all the above reasons, only the last holds any water. The fact is that racing IS NOT the best training, just like training threshold or any other training intensity isn't the best. If racing isn't the best training, then doing it simply because everyone else does doesn't make sense.

Similarly, if you're tired or unmotivated to train, you should consider changing your training rather than add more racing. If, on the other hand, you simply want to have fun or beat up on lesser riders, then your goals lie elsewhere.

Training race or Weekly World Championship?

Ultimately, the major problem with training races is that riders often forget that the real purpose is for training, not race results. We often lose sight in our competitiveness, becoming focused on the result. Other problems with training races are timing and structure. Many training races fall on either Tuesday or Thursday, a less-than-optimal day if you're racing on the weekends. The ideal day would be Wednesday, but even then, we still need to have individual objectives that serve a greater performance goal.

Escaping the trap

Training races can be a highly effective training tool and a good substitute for motor pacing. The key to training races is perspective. A good yearly plan with specific goals can help you structure your training to meet your specific race needs. The following suggestions will help you use, rather than getting used by the training race:

  • Race only for a purpose. Racing for racing's sake does little to help your development as a rider. Similarly, going to training races simply to sit in and wait is also a waste. Why not drop off the back and chase back on?
  • Have goals and specific objectives at each training race -- as a team or individual -- that are above and beyond simply winning. Plan a whole training session around that race and stick to the plan.
  • Leave your ego at home. The races that count are on the weekends.
  • Race your weaknesses. Training races offer a unique opportunity to try things that we would otherwise avoid in major races. If you're a climber, attack often in the local crit trying to form a break, or wait until the sprint. If you're a sprinter, attack on the climb. Try something new.
  • Use training races to complement goal preparation. Training races offer an excellent way to prepare for any major race, particularly stage races. If your major goal is a long road race, but all the prior races are shorter, ride to and from the training race to add miles. Alternatively, if you have a big stage race coming up, race Saturday and Sunday, do a long ride Monday and then race Tuesday.
  • Case study

    In 2004, Mark McCormack was preparing for the World Road Race Championships held in late October. This was no easy task, considering his last major race was the San Francisco GP held in early September; all that remained were a handful of road events and regional cyclocross races. However, McCormack made the most of the weekly cyclocross races in New England, often riding to and from the races. While not ideal, this strategy is a good example of how to effectively and appropriately utilize training races to optimize training.

    Chris Harnish, M.S., is an exercise physiologist and coach living and working in Cape Cod. In addition to his coaching work with the Peaks Coaching Group, Harnish runs Tradewind Sports, which offers a variety of services including performance testing, training products and international racing opportunities. In 2004, Harnish ran New England's top Junior Team, which included the top ranked New England Junior and qualified a rider for Junior Worlds. He is a Category 1 road cyclist with Colavita Racing and competed in the FBD Insurance Rs in May.

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