The above title is the key question that must be asked before starting to train for a specific A-priority race. Many don’t and simply train randomly. That’s works alright in the first year or so after becoming an athlete, but it is of increasingly limited value thereafter.
So what is important to your success? The answer has to do with your strengths and limiters. I’ve written about limiters in all of my books because they really are the key to success. A limiter is a race-specific weakness. In order to determine your limiters you have to first know what the characteristics of the race are and compare them with your strengths and weaknesses. What you would like to see happen is that the race’s characteristics would overlap completely with your strengths. That means you are going to be very well prepared for the race. Where the race’s characteristics are the opposite of your weaknesses then you have a limiter which must be improved.
In the Base ("accumulation" in block periodization) period your training is usually best focused on developing basic-ability limiters. These are aerobic endurance, muscular force, speed skills and muscular endurance. There are exceptions which I won’t go into here. Race-specific limiters should be addressed in the Build ("transmutation") period.
Every race has unique characteristics that define it:
Duration. This is related to the race’s distance, but isn’t exactly the same thing. An elite runner who covers 10km in 30 minutes is not really doing the same race as someone who takes 60 minutes of very hard work to run that 10km course. So they shouldn’t train the same way. You don’t train to distance; you train to duration. You must train to the duration of your race. This has to do with the intensity of your training. It must increasingly become like what is expected of you in the race given its duration.
Steady vs. variably paced. If you are training for a race that will be done at a very steady intensity then much of your training must be done the same way. Variably paced races such as bicycle criteriums and road races must include a great deal of variably paced training. Doing hard group rides in the last 12 weeks prior to the race is very helpful for this.
Race-course layout. Courses can include flat sections; hilly portions with long, steady climbs; hills with short, steep sections; off-road or very rough surfaces; smoothly paved roads; lots of corners; straight point-to-point or out-and-back layouts; corners that are off-camber, flat or banked corners; and more. Swims can be calm or choppy, have a current or be dead still. The water can be murky or clear. The layout of the course you will race on should be considered when it comes to designing race-like workouts. Mimicking the course in your training, especially in the last 12 weeks, is often critical to success.
Weather. Will the race be cold, hot, rainy, dry, windy, or humid? If you only train in dry and calm conditions but end up racing in a driving rainstorm then your chances of doing well are greatly diminished. Athletes who train in all types of weather and become comfortable with nasty days feel like they have an advantage at the start line when the weather is challenging on race day.
Altitude. This is one that is difficult to prepare for short of going to the altitude at which the race is held and living there for some period of time. Going to a higher altitude for the race is more demanding than going down. Training for this is difficult if not impossible for most amateur athletes. If you will be racing at above about 5,000 feet (1500 meters) but can’t spend at least a couple of weeks living (especially sleeping) at such an altitude then your only option is to become as aerobically fit as possible for the race.
Competition. For the competitive athlete, other athletes who are likely to be on the start line on race day has a lot to do with training. This is especially true for bicycle road racing but also applies to triathlon, running and other steady-state sports. Race-day strategy and tactics will greatly depend on who you are racing. Training must reflect this in the last 12 weeks.
Key episodes. During your race there may be key episodes that will determine the outcome. This could be due, for example, to a certain hill, or a windy section of the course, or a point where other athletes are known to have made key moves in the past. It could even be related to race-day nutrition. For longer duration races getting in adequate calories often determines how well you finish. Whatever the key episode is you must prepare for it in training in the last 12 weeks.
One way of preparing is to make a list of your limiters for your most important race of the season. The areas of concern described above can help you do that. Then determine how you will know if you are making progress toward correcting your limiters. This can be the hard part. In my Training Bible books I refer to these short-term measures of progress as “objectives.” Check there if you are unsure what objectives are and how to come up with them.
Dealing with limiters can be made a moot point by careful selection of your races. The old saying, “horses for courses,” applies here. If you want to improve your odds of having a good race then select a race which suits your strengths—not one which demands that you completely remodel your weaknesses.