Cycling Arsenal

5 Step Guide to Your Best Ever Race or Event

5 Step Guide to Your Best Race or Event Ever

There are 5 main areas that you need to maximize in order to have your best race possible. In this guide, we’re going to run right through all of them.

Step One: Proper Race/Event Selection

In order to maximize your overall result, choosing a race that suits your strengths and hides your weaknesses is of utmost importance. This is where you need to think about what type of racer you are. (For your first time racing, it may take a few different races to figure out where you are strongest/weakest, so don’t stress too much about this.)

  • Do you do best on long, steady, gradual hills?
  • What about short or long hills that have steeper climbs?
  • Do you struggle going up hills but do just fine on the flats?
  • What about rolling hills?
  • Can you recover quickly and put out short bursts of energy?

If you found that you are more explosive and can put out a lot of short, repeated, hard efforts, then a criterium would likely suit you best. Or possibly a road race that has shorter, punchier hills.  Are you 140 pounds dripping wet and love every hill you see? I think you get the idea, a road race with a lot of climbing is likely going to be best. Remember, the goal is to train your weaknesses but race your strengths!

Step Two: Course Preview

With the race selected, it is now time to find out as much about the course as possible. Assuming you live near the race, try and include the race course into regular training. If it is a shorter course, hit it a few times a week. Break a longer course into segments and try to include a section or two per week into your program. Knowing the course and the effort that can be sustained at different parts of the course can be a huge advantage. Racers will often improve race times from one race to another over the same course just due to knowledge of the course alone.

A course may look perfectly flat when looking at a race profile online, but actually being on the course may tell a totally different story. Effort regulation for a 6 mile flat race loop is going to be a lot different than a 6 mile race that is 5 miles flat and 1 mile uphill. Total distance is the same, but the difficulty and time to complete the race is going to increase on the course with the climb. Knowing there is a climb at the end will play into your strategy and tactics during the race.

For racers that are only able to preview the course the day of or the day before, do your best to preview the “key” features of the course prior to the race. Some things that you should be looking for:

  1. Is the course going to be shaded or will it be exposed to the sun – this could make a big difference in equipment, clothing, and nutrition selection.
  2. Are there certain areas of the course where wind may be a factor – this will be important from a positioning (if it’s not a time trial) and effort regulation standpoint.
  3. How long and hard are the hills/climbs of the course – this will again impact effort regulation and race strategy.
  4. Are certain sections more technical than others? You will want to try and be very near but not on the front before you get to these key sections.

If the course is not marked with distance markers, make note of any features that will provide a reference of distance/time remaining. In order to really pace your effort accordingly, knowing the amount of time you have left is extremely important.

Step Three: Equipment Selection

Take a look at the course, the distance, and the temperatures when selecting your equipment. The hotter it is, the less clothing you will want. That super aero helmet that doesn’t allow a hint of wind through it? Maybe swap that for something that is going to breathe a little better.

Here are some general rules:

  1. The greater the wind resistance on the body and equipment, the more important aerodynamic equipment selections will become.
  2. The greater the resistance from gravity against forward motion, the more important decreasing the weight of equipment will become.

Without getting too involved with the science behind it, it is okay to sacrifice weight if the course is going to cause a high amount of wind that is resisting forward movement (either from your body traveling fast or the wind blowing really hard). Tight fitting clothing is always going to be preferred over the baggy, loose fitting options. The purchasing of “aero” equipment (which can be very pricey) is one way to improve your speed without having to improve your strength and fitness. Aerodynamics should be looked at when the “wind speed” is 15 mph or more. If you get above 22 mph combined then aerodynamics should play a very important role.

Example on “aerodynamic drag.” If you are riding at 20 mph into a 20 mph head wind, effective wind speed is calculated by adding 20 mph to 20 mph, which results in 40 mph wind speed. Aero equipment is HUGE in this situation. Now if you turn around and are traveling at 20 mph with a 20 mph tailwind, aerodynamics are far less important.

When the biggest challenge on the course is not wind speed, but instead gravity, total weight becomes a big factor. The more weight you have to cart up a hill, the more energy it’s going to take to travel a given speed. Losing a few pounds, either off the body and/or equipment, will help save precious seconds.

It is far cheaper to shed pounds off your body than it is to shed pounds off your equipment, so make sure you pay attention to your nutrition. That said, big money is spent each year on shaving weight off your equipment. Just make sure it is able to handle your weight.

Naturally, the “best of both worlds” would be having equipment that is light AND aerodynamic. Next time an athlete goes to purchase equipment, discuss with the sale’s person about the trade-offs between weight and aerodynamics. All equipment is NOT created equal. Sometimes stiffness is sacrificed for weight – not good for a sprinter in a bike race.

Step Four: Race/Event Preparation

The three factors that will be discussed in this category are:

  1. Pre-race meal timing
  2. Proper pre-race warm-up
  3. Race fueling

Number 1: Pre-Race/Event Meal Timing

Note: The ideal pre-race meal timing is going to vary from racer to racer. This will serve as a great starting point, but may need to be adapted based on how quickly an individual is able to break down and process a pre-race meal.

General Rule: The higher the intensity of the event, the greater the time between pre-race meal and race start time.

For a shorter race (under 1 hour) that is going to be completed at high intensity, a racer needs to allow plenty of time for the food to be broken down and turned into usable energy. Racers should allow for AT LEAST 2.5 hours between eating the meal and starting the race. Most racers have made the mistake of eating too close to the start of the race, leaving partially digested food in their stomach when toeing the start line. Not good. During high intensity efforts the body is forced to push blood to working muscles, thus shutting off the digestive system. The result? A lot of gastro-intestinal discomfort and likely a decrease in overall race performance.

For races that are going to be performed below “threshold,” eating closer to race start might not be a problem for most racers. Some will still need to abide by that minimum of 2.5 hours rule. For racers who get the “pre-race jitters,” it is recommended to stick to the 2.5 hour rule. Nerves will have a way of making the stomach unsettled. A partially digested meal and high amount of nerves can have a performance inhibiting effect as well.

The best way to figure out what works is to experiment with it during training. Prior to a race level effort training day, eat 2 hours before the training session. Note how the training session went. Write down how the stomach felt and what the energy levels were. If everything felt great, then stick with that for race/event day. If stomach was upset during the training session then push that pre-race meal out to 2.5 hours.

Number 2: Pre-Race Warm-Up

A warm-up is meant to prime the body for the effort that is going to be undertaken. The harder that effort is going to be, the greater the need to make sure the muscles, ligaments, and tendons are properly prepped.

General Rule to Follow: the shorter and more intense the effort, the longer and harder the warm-up should be. It is not uncommon to see endurance athletes perform an hour or more warm-up for events that are only going to last 5-10 minutes. The purpose for this warm-up is to bring fresh oxygen and blood to working muscles, begin the lactic acid buffering process (which is done by completing hard enough efforts to “get a good burn going”), and prepare the body for the hard effort that is going to be undertaken.

Number 3: Race Fueling

There have been entire books written about this category (as well as the others that have been addressed in this guide), so this is going to be kept general and highlight the most important aspects of race fueling. Race fueling, just like the pre-race meal, is going to involve personal experimentation. The following should get 95% of all racers in the ball-park of where they should be nutrition wise.

First, some basics on nutrition:

During athletic activity, the body utilizes fat and carbohydrates for fuel. The higher the intensity, the greater the body relies on carbohydrates for fuel instead of stored fats. This fuel can come in the form of stored muscle glycogen in the muscles and liver, and/or glucose in the blood stream from that sugary drink you just drank.

Although the number varies based on size and physical makeup of the individual, most athletes will have no more than around 2000 calories of stored carbohydrates (in the form of muscle/liver glycogen). So if an athlete is burning 1200 calories an hour during very intense exercise, and if 1000 of those calories come from carbohydrate stores and 200 is coming from fat stores, that athlete will run out of fuel stores after 2 hours. This is what is know as “the bonk” or “hitting the wall.” Knowing this, an athlete should be able to delay this depletion by incorporating carbohydrates into their system in the form of food or liquid. This is where all of those sports drinks, energy bars, and gels come into play. Athletes also supply their energy needs with more natural foods like potatoes and bananas. Whatever an athlete chooses, test it out in during a hard training session prior to using it in a race.

Lower intensity efforts are going to require a lower percentage of fuel coming from carbohydrates. If prepping for an ultramarathon, you’ll be best served consuming complex carbs, fats, and proteins as opposed to eating gel upon gel. As stated before, each person is going to require different fueling plans, so experiment prior to the race.

Races that are under 1 hour in duration and held under moderate race conditions will MOST LIKELY not REQUIRE the need to fuel. Some athletes can get by just fine without any food or water intake for this length of an event. Other racers may go through 1 or more water bottles full of fluid to perform at their optimal level. At most however, an athlete should consume no more than around 240-300 calories of fuel during a one hour period since most people are not capable of digesting and processing more than that amount. Again, this will vary, based on each individual, but this will provide a range to work with.

Below are some general rules of race fueling for a race held under moderate race conditions. Extreme temperature, elevation, and other course conditions may impact fueling requirements:

  1. Keep calorie intake per hour around 200 to 300 calories. Most athletes can only process around 250 calories per hour, so more than that may result in stomach irritability occurring.
  2. The more intense the effort, the greater the need for carbohydrates to be the main fuel source.
  3. The more hot and humid a race, the greater the need to properly hydrate throughout a race. Dehydration can greatly impact human performance.
  4. If a race is going to require fueling, begin fueling at the start line and continue fueling in small amounts every 20-45 minutes throughout the duration of the event. Do not wait until hunger or thirst hits to begin fueling – by then it is too late.
  5. Anything over 1 hour in duration and most athletes should be hydrating (a minimum of 1 x 24 oz bottle per hour). Use your sweat rate calculation to dial this in.
  6. Any event that is going to last more than 1:30 to 2 hours in duration should require fueling to ensure top performance. Outside factors will really impact the amount and type, since a 110 degree day is going to cause more energy consumption than a 50 degree day on the same course.
  7. Electrolyte replacement is going to be an important aspect to proper fueling. Just drinking water for races of extended duration or held in hot climates can have very dangerous effects on an athlete, including hyponatremia – a potentially fatal condition. Feel free to read Coach Sanford’s hyponatremic race report and learn from his mistake.

Step Five: Pacing and Effort Regulation

Pacing and effort regulation is a very important part of racing. Going out too hard and too fast will most definitely result in blowing up before the finish. Go out too slow and an athlete risks not maximizing their potential and leaving some valuable time out on the race course. Ever see the person who sprints the last 100 meters of a time trial? That sprint energy could have been more valuably used throughout the race.

The goal when racing against the clock (time trial) is to finish the race with absolutely nothing left in the tank right when the finish line is crossed. Now it is time to look at how best to accomplish this task.

  1. “Trust Your Training” – Include race simulation efforts in the leadup to your goal event in order to dial in realistic race pacing. This can be done through perceived effort, heart rate, pace/power zones, or a combination of all of these.
  2. Break the race into ¼ segments:
    1. First quarter of the race: this should not only feel the easiest, but it should BE the easiest. Adrenaline is on high and the body is fresh so the tendency is to go out WAY TOO HARD. If you have ever toed the line before, you know exactly what we’re talking about. Stay conservative, relaxed, and focus on holding back the first quarter.
    2. Second quarter of the race: settle into that effort that you know you can sustain for the entire race. Continue to relax, focus on your body, and stay smooth!
    3. Third quarter of the race: mentally, this is the toughest segment. You’ve been pushing long and hard enough that it’s starting to hurt, but mentally there’s still a long ways to go. Do everything you can to maintain or increase effort during this quarter, especially if this is a shorter race. Don’t block out what the body is telling you, instead work to decrease perceived effort while increasing speed! (We discuss this a lot with our athletes – knowing the que’s your body is giving you and adjusting to maximize efficiency and performance). Test this in training.
    4. The fourth and final quarter: it is time to lay it all out there. Mentally, most people get a little boost because the end is near. The body gets to a point where it realizes there is only X distance or time left, and is able to dig deeper. Lay it all out there this last segment of the race.
  3. Pace yourself relative to the conditions of the course. Some common factors:
    1. Wind and heat
    2. Uphills
    3. Downhills
    4. Technical sections of course where speed is impacted
  4. You will gain the most time by pushing slightly harder in the areas of the course where the resistance is greatest (uphill, into the wind). Knowing this, on an out and back course that is a headwind in one direction and a tail wind the other direction, more effort should be expended into the wind than traveling with the wind. Same with uphills – push slightly harder on the hills and “recover” slightly on the downhills once you are back up to speed. This DOES NOT MEAN to go all out one half of the course and expect to be carried effortlessly the other direction. Use downhill, down wind, and down current sections to keep pace high and “recover” just under race effort (not pace).
  5. Stay relaxed and let your body work. Keeping a tight upper body during a race is going to waste energy. So is being tense and white knuckling your bars. Wasted energy is time wasted.
  6. Be efficient in technique and movement. Bouncing all around with your upper body wastes energy. Knees that rotate in and out relative the the frame during each pedal stroke is wasting power and energy. Both of these result in slower times, something every athlete is trying to avoid.

Lastly, you must compete with confidence! Going into a race defeated or with a negative outcome in mind is a sure way to not achieving your goals. At BPC we always recommend each athlete to set lofty but achievable goals and then believe that they can accomplish them. Endurance sports are often more about mental toughness than physical prowess. That is the beauty of the endurance world – it is a race against the course, the competition, and yourself. Now go out there and dominate your next race with confidence!