"What are you training for?"
For a competitive athlete, not having an answer to this question is akin to what an unemployed person feels when asked, "What do you do?" For many triathletes, training toward a seasonal goal is a big part of their lives; it defines a piece (sometimes too large) of their identity and helps maintain the balance and structure in their lives.
With so many race registrations opening up for the year, athletes are rushing to sign up for a season chockfull of races. "Only 200 slots left!" and "Sign up for the whole series at a discounted rate!" are messages that grab our attention and our credit cards. Athletes find themselves signing up for a string of races when they haven't really stopped to consider three important questions:
#1: What's my 'A' goal for the overall season? How about my 'B' and 'C' goals?
The beauty of racing triathlon is that there are so many ways to be successful; so, vary your goals. Consider your time in each event, age-group placement and (although difficult to measure) overall mental outlook (Did you push past the wall? Did you have fun?).
In at least a couple of these categories, give yourself a big but realistic "Holy-cow goal" (A-race), a little less lofty, "I'm-impressed-with-myself" goal (B-race) and an "I'm-satisfied" goal (C-race). Most importantly, write it down. Studies show that people are more likely to reach their goals if they are written down and seen on a daily basis.
#2: Is training for this distance again going to make me any faster?
In some triathlon circles the longer the race completed, the more respect one is due. Longer, however, is not better, it's just different. Do you think anyone laughed at Usain Bolt for training for "just" the 100 meters? Consider training for some shorter races to work on your speed. Maybe you just enjoy the long stuff and getting faster is not of any importance to you. That's fine. But if you are signing up again for the same three half Ironmans, don't whine at the end of the season about hitting a plateau. You can't get faster unless you train faster. Consider training for and racing more sprint- and Olympic-distance races and maybe do one late season half Ironman. You can throw in some 5K's for fun.
Another important consideration is whether or not you can actually train for and complete in all of these races you've been so eager to register for. Be realistic and give yourself adequate rest between races. If you decide to race on back-to-back weekends, be realistic in your goals for each race and pay extra attention to icing and stretching.
#3: Have I looked for something different to train for this year?
Are you doing all the same races you did last year because they are the same ones your neighbor or training partner is doing? If you want to be present for the social aspect, but the race doesn't benefit your overall training goals, put some volunteer karma in the bank. Sometimes a solid training week outweighs the stress, cost and time off to taper for a race.
It's fun to compare race times from year to year, but eventually it's refreshing to take that pressure off and create a new standard by racing something different. Try to make one race each year a distance or course you've never done. It's an automatic PR (personal record).
Think about the money you put toward race registrations each year and be sure you are spending it wisely. Don't be a clueless freshman in college, willy nilly registering for classes. Pick races that build on one another, set multiple goals, and be creative. Most importantly, think of the big picture and take yourself a little less seriously; after all, it's only a triathlon.