11/2/14

Race smart in unfavorable conditions: IMFL



As athletes, we try to do our very best to be as mentally prepared as possible for race day. Typically we think about how to be strong when our body is aching, how to stay positive when obstacles arise and how to stay tough when the going gets hard. 
When it comes to being mentally tough on race day, I am reminded of a quote that reads "When you are 90% done, you are only half way there."
As athletes we do a lot of mental training throughout training, on race week and even in the hours before the race start. I often speak about controlling the controllables and not wasting energy on things out of our control and this all comes down to the mental component of being an athlete. We can’t control the weather, but we can control our gear/clothing for race day. We can also control our pacing, attitude and nutrition. We can’t control who shows up on race day, the course, how many volunteers and spectators are out on the course or the exact start time of the race.
Although a large part of preparing for a race involves the physical training that is involved, there is a large mental component that is required to feel “ready” for race day. Often you will hear that endurance racing is more mental than physical. Although a large amount of fitness is required to prepare the human body for a specific distance, a fit body can’t perform without a strong mind. It should be assumed that a fit body will not reach its full potential unless the mind is in a good place.

I do not know an endurance athlete who is not mentally strong. I really don’t believe that you can train for an endurance event without being mentally strong. There is no such thing as an easy training plan or a perfect season of training because life doesn't stop just because you are training for a race. I also don’t believe that an endurance athlete (regardless of the fitness level) would even want an easy training plan because the entire reason for choosing to train for an endurance event is the challenge and allure of pushing the body to higher limits. Ultimately, we train our bodies so that one day (on race day) we can look back and be wowed at where we are now and where we were when we started training for an event.

While supporting our nine Trimarni athletes at IMFL, we experienced a variety of normal emotions before the race. Emotions that are expected on the day before a 140.6 mile event. However, come race day morning, just 30 minutes before the race start, the emotions shifted and our coach duties were put to the ultimate test as we had 9 athletes that were now mentally preparing for a cancelled swim and a cold, windy day on the bike which would start their 138.2 mile journey.

Because a cancelled race/sport doesn't happen a lot, we don’t believe that athletes need to go into every race being mentally prepared that the race will be cancelled. However, in the case of an all-day event, like the Ironman, there is a lot that can happen throughout the day that may be out of our control and it is possible to race smart even in the most unfavorable conditions.

Karel and I learned a lot as coaches, after the 2.4 mile swim was cancelled around 6:40am at IMFL due to dangerous rip currents. The race turned into a 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run with a time-trial bike start. After a 1-hour delay, athletes lined up in the transition area, in order of bib numbers, bundled up in bike gear (it was in the low 40’s and very windy) and in rows of 2,3 or 4, athletes walked their bikes across the mount line, a few seconds apart, to start their timing chip and then the race started. All time cut-offs remained the same (as far as I know of) and the last athlete was off around 10am.

In the case that you are put into a triathlon race day scenario like IMFL, we want to offer our tips so that you can be mentally prepared for unfavorable race day conditions:

The race still goes on – At the end of the day, your body is still fit and trained regardless if the race is shortened or if weather conditions are not ideal. In the case of IMFL, there were still paychecks to be given to the pros, awards given to top five finishers in each age group and Kona slots given to athletes who earned their spot for the 2015 Ironman World Championships. As an athlete, you will find success on race day if you can adjust to any and all situations presented to you but let it be known that not always will you like the situations that you are presented with and not always will it be easy to control your emotions.  It is incredibly hard to not be emotional when situations are not ideal so I recommend to use your months of training wisely and every now and then, put yourself into situations that are unfavorable and perhaps a bit uncomfortable. Certainly, your health should never be compromised but if you train smart, you race smart. By reducing the excuses in training, you will provide yourself with more opportunities on race day.  Recognize how to race smart in unfavorable circumstances (like forgetting goal times and focusing on pacing yourself) will allow you to be the athlete who knows how to turn a negative situation into a positive.

Adjust your gear – What you were on race day is extremely important to how you will perform. Cold muscles do not work as good as warm muscles so I recommend to pack clothing for your race to prepare for all situations like cold and rain in the case of inclement weather.  Being prepared for all scenarios (with practice) improves your confidence for race day and reduces worries.  Keep in mind as to the most appropriate gear that you feel most comfortable wearing while racing. Never worry about being overprepared as you can put as much gear as you want in your transition (AND special needs) bags and it is up to you if you want to use it.
A few tips for a race like IMFL which was cold and windy, with a cancelled swim: 
-Avoid the parachute –like baggy jackets (the aero helmet doesn't come in handy if your clothing is baggy and you are sitting up a lot) and NEVER tie a jacket around your waist if you decide to take it off as this can be seriously dangerous if the jacket falls off and catches in your wheel. The best scenario for a race that is 45-50 degrees to start but is expected to get warmer (even if only a few degrees) is to wear a short sleeve jersey with arm warmers and if needed, a vest. You can also use newspaper inside your jersey to shield the wind on your chest. 
-Protect the sensitive areas like your hands (inexpensive winter gloves will do the trick), ears (ear band) and toes (shoe/toe covers).
-Forget going for "the look". Focus on being comfortable on the bike. Not too cold but not too hot. 
-Other – knee warmers, tights and long sleeve jerseys are all acceptable but be sure your clothing is breathable and consider what you will do with your gear if you begin to get warm. 
-Try to warm-up before you start the bike. Standing for 30+ minutes in the cold and then riding your bike can increase the risk for tight muscles and cramping. Stay indoors for as long as possible to stay warm, then around 20 minutes before, go for a jog (with an extra pair of run shoes) and keep yourself warm by doing dynamic warm-ups. 

Proper equipment choice – I talk about this topic often with my sport nutrition posts but your fueling strategy should be simple enough to work in all weather conditions (but tweaked depending on the distance/intensity). In other words, by relying on liquid calories, you will easily meet your electrolyte (yes, even in the cold you need electrolytes), calorie and fluid needs. Be sure your hydration cages are easy to use/reach. 
On a different topic, Karel was very adamant to our athletes that they all use proper wheel choices for the windy conditions, yet flat roads. Sure, a race wheel may prove to be fast in a wind tunnel or may work for a professional or top age grouper who is riding at a speed that a race wheel will come in handy but too deep of a dish in a race wheel can often make for a slower and more exhausting ride in windy conditions. Although race wheel selection depends on your size, experience, fitness (ex. speed)  and race day conditions/terrain, keep in mind that your front wheel takes a lot of energy to control and since this is where you are placing your upper body, it will require a lot of extra energy to control a deep dish wheel in the front, in windy conditions. Karel rarely recommends disc wheels to athletes unless they are fast enough to use them and the conditions/terrain make sense that a disc wheel will come in handy.


Trust your plan – Luckily, in cooler temps, GI issues are not as common as compared to warmer temperatures when blood is forced to cool the body and support working muscles as body temperature rises. However, one of the most common issues in cooler temperatures is cramping. It is extremely common for athletes to push harder in cooler temps (especially at the start of a race) because RPE is lower and there is a feeling of wanting to warm up quickly. Also, because muscles are cold, they do not contract/relax properly. Additionally, athletes can experience little drive to drink (unlike warm temps which often cause overhydrating and being spontaneous with nutrition intake as the race continues) which can often lead to dehydration in cooler temps. Although you may not be sweating as much in cooler temps, compared to warmer temps, and may not be losing a lot of electrolytes  in sweat, your body still requires fuel, liquids and electrolytes to support the training stress on the bike and to prepare your body for the run in an Ironman. Do not deviate from what has worked in training and stay consistent/frequent with your liquid nutrition intake every 10-15 minutes.. The only thing that may change in cooler temps is that the gut will tolerate solid food a little easier so in addition to your liquid nutrition, your tummy may want a little solid food as your body may need a bit more calories in cooler temps. 
The second issue is often the biggest problem for athletes who experience a cancelled swim in a triathlon. Can you guess it? Yep, you got it – overbiking! 
Just because you aren't swimming, this doesn't mean you are more fit to bike harder. Because your effort on the bike sets you up for the run, I recommend to keep with your game plan and no matter if you swim or don’t swim before the bike, the only way you will run strong off the bike is if you pace yourself on the bike. We encourage our athletes to break up the race into 20-30 min segments and to only focus on one segment at a time. Because all of our IMFL athletes had power meters, we gave them all specific zones (typically upper Z2) for pacing on the bike to ensure a strong run off the bike (as well as to control GI issues as they all needed to fuel on the bike so pacing is key for proper digestion of sport nutrition). We have them focus on normalized LAP power. In addition to reminding our athletes to not overbike, we also instructed them all to maintain as high of a cadence as possible (that was effective for smooth pedaling) to keep their legs as fresh as possible for the run. 

Coach knows best – If your coach tells you not to race just because conditions are not ideal, I would suggest to re-evaluate your coaches responsibilities. As a coach, my job is more than writing great workouts. Karel and I give a lot of positive energy to our athletes to keep them going. It doesn’t matter how motivated, determined and passionate our athletes are but when faced with an obstacle or a setback, it is our job to keep them focused. When emotions are at their highest (like a cancelled swim before an IM, especially for our two first-time Ironman athletes), it would be absolutely inappropriate for us to tell our athletes to throw in the towel and to not even race because the race "isn't worth it".
I hope I am not alone here but ass a coach, it didn't even cross my mind that athletes would not race at IMFL because of the cancelled swim and unfavorable race day conditions. Certainly, I would never ask an athlete to compromise his/her health just for a race but at IMFL, I saw a lot of athletes giving up before even trying and I contribute this to emotions and feeling alone with thoughts, in the moment.  In this scenario, the only way to get through this situation was to control emotions in order to see what was possible for the day.  And that is exactly what all 9 Trimarni athletes did on race day.
Despite our athletes dealing with a lot of conflicting emotions just like everyone else, Karel and I were able to remind our athletes as to the work they did to prepare for the Ironman and the training was not a waste just for 2.4 miles subtracted in a 140.6 mile event..
In a 8+ hour event, there is still a lot of racing to be done and the day would not be without obstacles to overcome and plenty of lows that would need to be dealt with in 138.2 miles of racing. And that is what the Ironman is all about!
 I am sure that the athletes who started IMFL did so because they had something to prove. The same mental training that was needed to prepare for 140.6 miles of racing was still needed for 138.2 miles. The day was not easy. There was a lot of fighting, suffering and hardships for 138.2 miles but also a lot of passion and even smiles. Correct me if I am wrong but a 138.2 mile duathlon absolutely requires a lot of training so why would an Ironman athlete feel less deserving of this accomplishment compared to 140.6 miles? Sure, it's not the same and I get that but if you can't control the situation, control your attitude.
For the IMFL athlete who refused to give up on a dream that was given 3,6,12+ months of preparing for, I am certain that success was still felt at the finish line and bragging rights were still allowed despite the slightly shortened event.
 Karel and I are a team and we both need each other. We both experience a rollercoaster of emotions with every race and we are lucky to have each other for those necessary pep talks. Regardless if you have a coach or not, be sure to surround yourself with people who give you positive energy and do not steal it away from you. Every athlete needs a teammate because when you can’t think clearly because emotions are high and negativity is filling the air, you need someone who can clear that air and put some positive thoughts in your head. 

Congrats to all IMFL finishers. You are an inspiration to many....including Karel and me!
Your courageous efforts were not ignored and to every athlete who started the race, you are now a smarter, fitter and more experienced athlete. You will remember your IMFL experience forever.