How do you judge the success of any given race day? Is it your time? Is it your performance? Is it something going right that usually goes wrong? Is it simply finishing?
For most of us, race days are our chance to shine. Races give us the opportunity to put together all the hours of training we've done into an outcome that we can be proud of. Coaching a variety of athletes has given me a chance to understand race day expectations. While athletes may have more than one, a specific finish time goal is usually high on the list.
First off, I don't think finish time goals are a bad thing; in fact, I think they can be quite motivating. That said, time goals, specifically missed ones, don't always tell the true tale about the success or failure of an athletes race day. You may have given your all but unplanned issues - nutrition problems, equipment failure, course changes, weather conditions - have cost you precious minutes. You can train to be your best on a race day - you may be at your peak. However, that won't guarantee that things outside your control don't wreak havoc with your race times. The things out of your control gain momentum as races become longer, so they can become quite apparent during the length of a half iron. These will be further exaggerated in a full iron and or longer. The longer the event the more likely it is that you'll be doing a lot of problem solving along the way. Some problem solving will be anticipated, most of it will not.
What goals are best for race days, especially first race days or early in your racing career?
Have a time goal if you choose but also allow for flexibility. Plan on a 6 hour half iron if all variables remain in your favour - a perfect race - but allow that time to shift to 6:30 if a variable slips out of control. It could be windy, your chain could fall off, or you may feel slightly off that day. Start the day with realistic expectations based on the conditions, while allowing for the unknown. A flat will cost you minutes. Choppy water will cost you minutes. Hotter than expected conditions for the run will cost you minutes. As you can see, for each variable that will cost you a number of minutes, several will add up to a significant amount of lost time. Keep your expectations realistic on the day.
What would make for a successful performance day? Would it be sticking to your 10 and 1's on the run? Would it be to make it through the ride without walking up a hill or needing to stop at an aid station? Is it finishing the swim? Making cut off times? You can see that there are many options to choose from when it comes to performance goals. You can set one for each leg of the race, including the transition. Nailing each goal would be a successful outcome for your race day. Stringing together a long series of successful goals on race day is incredibly satisfying.
As courses get longer nutrition becomes more challenging. A great goal is to simply finish a race without nutrition/stomach/gut issues. If you usually have issues then learning to manage them during races is not just a goal but a learning experience you can build on. For some, remembering to eat and drink is a great goal; many athletes simply get on task and forget to swig from their water bottle or follow their gel plan. A successful race could be to finish the race not deviating from your nutrition plan.
Perhaps your race day success is built on your mental strength. You've finished the event without allowing negative thoughts to creep in. You managed self-talk during the day and kept it positive. You talked yourself down when panic crept in during the swim. Rather than grumble about the wind, you adjusted your goals and accepted that everyone was facing the same conditions. You had stomach issues on the run but instead of quitting because your time was not as expected, you walked and finished anyway. There are so many ways in which mental strength can be a great goal, or part of a set of goals.
As athletes, it's easy to define ourselves by standards set by others. Time is an easy expectation to set, as it is the one most often talked about. People who know nothing of triathletes tend to define our race ability by asking us our times. While there is nothing wrong with time goals, there are so many other ways in which we can define race days. Defining our race days differently can actually make us stronger and wiser athletes.
There are many things that can go into a successful race day that have nothing to do with time. It can take years of racing to perfect things like nutrition, mental strength, performance improvements and realizing tighter time goals. You can't rush this process, each race is a learning experience. Your first half iron won't be anything like your 9th or 10th. Even then there is no guarantee you'll be faster, as all the same variables still come into play even as you gain experience. Use time as a guide to motivate you but don't allow time to dictate whether or not your race was a success. Use many smaller goals to help you settle on what worked and what didn't and whether your race was a success or can be improved upon. I know people who've done many races of varying distances and they are still trying to nail down the "perfect" race. The same is true for ultra distance running friends.
The fastest way to improve is to learn from past race days. Pay attention to what worked and what didn't and don't repeat the mistakes. Build into your training things like mental strength - ACTUALLY PRACTICE your mental strength during training. If nutrition is an issue, change what needs to be changed and practice during training for the next race day. Find your weaknesses and work on them over and over. It is easy to work on the things we like but it is the things we don't that require our time and attention. Don't leave race day to chance, success comes from knowledge, practice, being realistic and not making excuses.
Your next race day is a chance to learn something about you, your training and your ability to handle challenging situations. Good luck out there. Any day you learn something new is a successful one. And remember keep your "Great Expectations" realistic and count all the small victories!