How to Plan a Season of Uncertainty: Thrive in 2021
Ed. Note—the March edition of "Ask an Endurance Coach" is back, with the coaches from CBCG answering your questions and distributing Wattie Ink. gift cards. This month's winner? Judi C., who asks "How should we train now and progress our training when we don’t know if/when races will be held?"
First of all, congratulations and condolences. If you’re reading this, you’ve survived the last twelve months on Earth, so congrats are in order. On the other hand, we’ve all lost something or someone in the past year, and the toll in terms of human life and wealth and dreams and production is, well, literally breathtaking. We’re sorry for your losses, but are happy you’re still here with us, which should set the tone for what we’re talking about today. It would be the rare endurance athlete who isn’t worried about losing another event in 2021, but we all have to take a chance at some point and sign up for a new event. How should you prepare for those races, knowing that they could be taken away at any moment?
Know your “Why?”
Most of you have done this work at some point, probably, but now is a good time to revisit this question. If you haven’t gone through this exercise, then we’re glad you’re here. Figuring out why you pursue endurance sports in the first place (rather than collecting stamps, playing board games, or birdwatching) lays the foundation of every activity taken while executing your sport. Your why is the compass by which you steer your endurance ship, essentially. We hope that it’s something different than competition and accruing victories, placings, medals, and trophies, because even the most successful athletes in the world (Olympians and world champions) tend to find their motivation elsewhere. We would guess that those who were solely motivated by these extrinsic rewards faded from the sport when events disappeared. Will they return? Certainly. But finding some kind of why that’s bigger than the strokes of ego can really help if and when some of your 2021 races go away, too. Talk with your coach about why you do the sport in the first place: do you like seeing your performance numbers (times, wattages, paces, efficiency factors) improve? Does being around others pursuing the same sport make you happy? Do you love the feeling of being able to do anything physical that sport proficiency lends you for a time? Grab your journal and jot down some thoughts, and then come back tomorrow and see if they still feel true.
Build Towards “Blocks” Rather than Races
OK, here’s a fun part. Go and grab a big year at a glance calendar (or just use a virtual one, but there’s something about those giant paper calendars!) and cross-reference it with the events you’ve signed up for in 2021. Don’t write in the events, but highlight two months this year where you’d like to achieve peak fitness. You can’t pick more than two, and they have to have at least one month in between them (better if you can fit two or three months between them). For example, maybe you’ve got Ironman Coeur d’Alene on the calendar, but you’re also curious about this gravel stuff you’ve been hearing about, and there’s a race in Northern California you’ve been eyeing that takes place mid-September. You’ve identified two “competitive blocks,” where you’d like to be able to display the best fitness you’ll have all year. Now all you have to do is take the time remaining from now until the first one (let’s say you want to reach peak fitness by June 15th) and divide that period into two blocks: general preparation and specific preparation. It’s about 14 weeks from now until June 15th, so let’s plan for eight weeks of general preparation and then six weeks of specific preparation. During the general preparation phase, you simply try and get as fit as possible. Going into the details of that would require a very long blog post (like, hundreds of books long), which is outside of what we’re trying to do today. During the specific period, your goal is to work on the specific intensities of your event. So if you’ve been using the general preparation period to build endurance, raise your FTP, improve your run economy, and work on swim technique, the specific period will see you spending most of your time at the paces and intensities of your actual event. If it’s an Ironman, that means a good amount of tempo rides, long steady runs, and sub-threshold swims. Now take the time available between your first competitive block and second, and do the same calculation. In our example, there are about 12 weeks between the two. Give yourself a couple of weeks of recovery and transition, and then there are ten weeks to go. Try six weeks of general preparation and four weeks of specific. Look at that! We just planned your season until mid-September!
Photo courtesy of Jake Orness
Focus on Performance Goals, Rather than Event Goals
Sure, we all like the trappings that come from races (the finish line, the medal, the swag, the atmosphere) but ideally your “why” (see part one!) focuses more on intrinsic (internal) rewards, rather than those extrinsic ones. In order to have a successful event, you (or your coach) would build you towards greater and greater abilities. If the two of you accomplish that goal, the race is simply an expression of the fitness and speed you’ve accrued over the course of your preparation. In order to not feel gut-punched when your race gets cancelled (again), focus on these particular performance goals, find a way to track them, and then watch them improve as you perform workout after workout. Try not to look for development in every session (that would lead to all sorts of unhelpful bean-countery behavior), but build some test sets or sessions into your training that show you whether or not you’re headed in the direction of your goal. At CBCG, the coaching company I co-run with my business partner Molly Balfe, we assess athletes every six to eight weeks or so, on a rotating basis, so we (and our athletes) can see if we’re moving in the right direction. Want some of those sessions? Here you go:
Photo courtesy of Wattie Ink.
10x400, 300, or 200 (depending on goal race distance) with limited rest (like, 20 seconds) at race pace or effort. Over the course of the season, the total time of this session should come down OR the effort should get easier.
Photo courtesy of Professional Triathletes Organization
#1: 4x1600 with 90 seconds rest in between. As with the swim set, the total time for this set should improve over the course of the year.
#2: 30’ @ threshold heart rate or 7-8/10 effort (“hard to very hard”). If your fitness is improving, you should go farther as you repeat this test.
Photo courtesy of Professional Triathletes Organization
#1: if you’re using a power meter, set some goals for 5”, 1’, 5’, 20’, and 60’ peak power numbers over the course of the year. Focus your training on improving the power at those time ranges (hint: if you do a lot of moderate intensity riding, you’ll see improvements at ALL of those, even your sprinting!) and record your results. You’ll see your numbers go up throughout the year and you’ll find that motivating.
#2: similar to the run test, ride at your threshold heart rate or power for as long as possible. This approach yields two markers of success: either going farther over the same amount of time, or being able to hold your threshold heart rate for longer! Don’t use heart rate or power? Simply ride at 7-8/10 for as long as possible, record your distance, and then see if you can improve that as your competitive period approaches.
So that’s it! Remember that confidence comes from being in control, but there is so much out of our control this year. You can only control so much, but your preparation and your attitude are very much under your control. Prepare as if you’re going to race, but keep that attitude positive: you know it’s possible your race may get cancelled, but if it does, you can be happy that your fitness and your abilities have improved regardless of any race. Now get out there and build a better you!