Planning your races for the year may not be as hard as it seems, but I'm bias as a coach and this is one of the main services I offer: The mental approach to training and racing…the thinking before the actual doing. Before you even lay out which workouts you're going to do, you have to know how many weeks or months you have to work with before some meaningful event. Planning the races (and often the specific race distances) in particular months of the year is the first step to ensuring your training plan isn't a hodge-podge of workouts as you attempt to juggle run training, strength training, cross-training, road races at various distances, travel, and life.
Here then are the basic considerations to help you make sense of it all:
1) Weather. First things first, I write this blog to anyone living in the Mid-Atlantic region, who must contend with the different seasons. If you live in San Diego, for example, or somewhere else with 365 perfect days to train, this Blog may not be for you. :) If we accept that we typically only have about a 3-week window for which to be in "peak condition" then you may want that time to coincide with the most optimal weather, the fall. This combination of peak weather and peak workouts creates a powerful combination. And to be totally candid, this is why premiere races in the earlier months of the year put us Mid-Atlantic athletes at a disadvantage. Your most important race can certainly be in July or August, but in terms of being in peak condition during that time, don't count on it, as endurance athletes it's tough to truly maximize the training in the muggy summer weather. Therefore, the best season to hit your own personal peak is in the fall. It doesn't mean you can't be fit and race well (or even win your age-group) in the hot summer months, it just means on an individual basis, you should expect to be in top shape in the fall. Having said that, use late July and August as "training months" (with short-distance racing) and save your peak races for the Sept – Nov.
Also, because the winter weather is not conducive to ideal outdoor training, don't expect to peak (in the truest sense of the word) in April or May. Again, it doesn't mean we can't train hard and become really fit in the winter, but that is also a time typically reserved for more recovery, strength training, and technical correction, which implies that peak training can't be guaranteed.
2) First triathlon? Because most first-timers struggle with either learning how to swim (period) or getting open-water experience prior to their first race, your first triathlon should not be in April or May. Use April and May as a time to get 2 more months of swim practice in the pool, plus its two more months to potentially get out in a lake, pond, or ocean prior to the race. The same rationale holds true for cycling. Use April and May to gain more experience doing long rides outdoors. As much as they kick our butt, spin classes don't offer the same lessons in positioning, pacing, and stress as the real thing. Running takes less of a hit in the winter months, so the rationale here for the first timers is more related to swimming (primarily) and cycling (secondary). I talk many first-timers out of early spring races and they are better off for it.
3) Century rides. Related to #2 above, if you're preparing for your first century ride, give yourself as much time as possible to make this an enjoyable experience and wait until the summer or fall. The summer weather isn't as big of a factor in choosing to do a century ride. There are plenty of rest stops and the ability to cruise at your own pace.
4) Marathons. Once again, this is related to the weather. Can you run an early spring marathon, or even one in the winter? Yes, you can, and you can do quite well. However, if you are looking to run your best marathon, or get a Boston qualifying time, the winter weather in the Mid-Atlantic region poses an obstacle (even if small), where not all of your key workouts can be done without any hiccups from frequent scheduling issues. I convince the athletes I coach to register for a half-marathon in March rather than the full marathon, like the DC Rock-n-Roll Half. You'll have much more peace of mind knowing your training is adequate for 13 miles (which is very manageable in the winter) rather than 26, for which the winter weather can often have the average runner feeling behind the 8-ball during training.
If we follow the rationale in item #1 above that the early fall is a great time to hit your peak for triathlon (races stop around Oct 1st), then a late fall marathon makes perfect sense, in which you would significantly cut down swimming and cycling for 6 – 8 weeks and use the base you have already built all year to ramp up your final approach to a marathon with a run-run-run approach. Of course, this assumes you were doing marathon distance run training throughout the bulk of the year.
5) Road races. This is an easy answer, run them as often as you like, generally without seeing them as a conflict. If you want to run faster then you have to race faster! Without going into an entirely separate blog, all the light bulbs you want to go off about race-day pacing, intensity, stride, breathing, etc will all come as a result of your open road races (2-miler – 10k). Do not use these races as "training runs", rather, race them full tilt! Treat them as a race, no special pacing limitations!
6) Longer means faster! Some endurance athletes have the misconception that training for the longer distances has a negative effect on speed. I strongly disagree. Show me one runner who did not become significantly faster at the short distances after training for a marathon (excluding injury from long-distance training as the problem variable), and I'll pay your next race registration! Everyone gets faster at the shorter distances while training for the longer ones. This would even hold true for most pros, but admittedly, this is where the misconception originates, and there is some truth to it with those special athletes. When you are in the top-1% in the world at whatever you do, specificity of training is at a premium. Diverging from the norm in this regard could hurt your performance, as there is now little room for error as you near perfection in any realm of human performance. For us mortal athletes, we have nowhere to go but up, and we have lots of room for improvement no matter what we do. Hey, we could have a bad week of training and still gain fitness simply because our starting point is relatively low compared to the pros. So, if a pro runner is a specialist in the 5k, then yes, workouts that are too long, too frequently may conflict with the gains they are seeking in power/speed, but let's remember that pro athletes are the exception to the rule. I am yet to meet an age-grouper who did not decimate their old PRs in short distance after they made the jump to the longer races. The physiological adaptations from longer-distance endurance training are incredible!
*Finally, remember that there is an exception to every rule and you can bend the rules of the seasons/distances as they suit your needs. These are just the general guidelines factoring in the human element.
Train hard and race hard!
As you have no doubt sat down to have a conversation with yourself recently and engaged in a little soul searching, here are 3 Tips from me to help you understand the New Year's resolution business in a better way:
1) Don't fret the crowded gyms. Over the years, I notice the trend for drop-off rates at gyms, as I assume yours will be overly crowded in 2 weeks due to sales on membership rates and Resolutions. Research is consistent in that 50% of all people that sign up for a membership at the New Year will drop out before June, but I will go so far as to say most of that will occur before Feb. Convince yousefl that you have a leg up on everyone, in that we you a proper approach to exercise motivation and training, and will still be standing in June. In the meantime, be patient with the masses.
2) Pride. As the year draws to a close, be sure to soak up what you accomplished. Instead of thinking immediately about race results, begin by thinking about your training. I guarantee there were more battles won and obstacles overcome in your training than in your racing. Remind yourself of some milestone(s) you hit this year, incredibly tough conditions brought on by Mother Nature that you overcame, or an inspired run you had when it was the last thing you wanted to do that day. And yes, then think about the moments of elation you felt at certain finish lines. A great way to boost your pride is to know there were certain goals or training accomplishments you achieved this year that maybe nobody else achieved. Sound impossible? Not really. Think hard enough and I bet there are some unique things you did this year that should make you feel proud of yourself. Inspire yourself!
3) Goals. Related to #2, what did you learn last year? What worked well for you month after month that you should make a staple of your routine? What is broken and needs fixing? Write your goals down. Most of these should be process goals...specific, measurable, and with due dates, all of which enable you to say definitively "yes or no, I did/didn't achieve the goal." Goal setting can be as simple or complicated as you want to make it. Either way, you must write your goals down. Looking back at last year's process goals will help you form goals for the new year.