How do you plan a race season to perform at your peak, have fun and avoid burning out or overtraining?
In 25+ years of endurance sports, spanning triathlon, running, cycling and adventure racing, I’ve seen too many athletes get this wrong. It really frustrates me, as coach and friend, because the result is often burning out early and prematurely exiting a sport they once loved.
In this article, I share an important section of the Racing chapter from Flow State Runner. My intention is to help you ask smart questions of yourself when you are setting annual endurance sports goals and planning your personal race calendar. I’d love to know you are setting yourself up for years of fulfillment and health through your pursuits, and not one crazy year that ends in injury and burnout.
Take time now for reflection and self-assessment
Before selecting a race, and especially before planning a whole season or year of races, take a moment to reflect on your driver (what motivates you to race in the first place) and ask some key introspective questions.
Is your driver an external force, such as pressure from a friend or family member? Or rather, is it internal, such as a desire for a transformation or to serve as an opposing force to balance out a hectic work schedule? Are you feeling self-imposed pressure to equal or beat someone? Do you view the experience as outcome-focused or about the journey? Is it simple or complex? Are you chasing a quantitative goal or qualitative experience? If you are chasing a time goal, what is it based on? Is it based on your prior performances or linked to your experience or athletic capacity, or is it plucked from the sky or based on someone else’s experience and capacity?
This self-assessment exercise isn’t about you judging your reflections. It is about asking questions and observing your thoughts. While doing so, keep in mind that it is less important that you have a quick and concise answer to these questions than it is that you ponder them before committing to a race.
Balancing audacious goal-setting with your capacity
Also check in with yourself on your capacity to achieve readiness for the race in the timeline you are considering. I am very much in favor of setting audacious stretch goals. These are the types of goals that change lives. I love the energy and excitement that comes from athletes pursuing big challenges, and I thrive on seeing people accomplish seemingly impossible goals. I believe that audacious goal-setting is a key ingredient to fulfillment in life.
That said, I’ve seen some athletes load their plates so full with audacious goals, responsibilities and high stress activities in sport, work, and life, that their house of cards comes tumbling down in the first gust of wind. The same is true within a set of sports goals. I’ve coached athletes who wished to continue setting marathon personal bests in their 40s, but also wished to travel the world racing hard every couple of weeks and never taking sufficient time to rest and recover. I passionately support the performance goal, but not the conflicting expectations of achieving the goal while pushing the body beyond its ability to recover.
On the flip side, I’ve seen athletes who juggle the seemingly impossible and pull off a phenomenal race experience while working as a corporate executive, managing a household with three children, and volunteering for a charity. It is certainly possible to “do it all, and all at a high level,” but it fits some years and times in life better than others.
Key questions to ask yourself
Ask yourself the following questions. What is happening in my life during this period of time? What is fixed, and what am I able and interested in changing? Is there self-created pressure and stress in other areas of life that I can remove or lessen to make room for this race experience? Am I setting myself up with conflicting goals and priorities?
Consider the total package, including the mix of events within and external to running. Investing a little time up front to explore these questions is a valuable thought exercise. It will help you prevent stress that many athletes create for themselves downstream, that is, months into training for a big challenge, when their lack of effort spent preparing the soil in the metaphoric garden results in wilting sprouts. And preparing the soil doesn’t mean avoiding races — it means taking time at the river’s headwaters to reflect on the big picture and organize how you view your expectations, priorities, and activities to best align with the race decision.
Once you have completed these reflections, it is time to make a selection.
The Menu: types of races, events and adventures
Obstacle course races, cross-country, track & field, 5K and 10K road races, marathons, trail races, ultra marathons, adventure races, duathlons, triathlons, and more — there is no shortage of options for events to consider. Aside from the normal pallet of distance, terrain and format, consider grouping the races you are evaluating into the following categories:
- Moonshot: epic, audacious and extreme challenge, likely once in a lifetime. Worth taking major risks and significantly disrupting other areas of your life, including social and family time, job, hobbies, etc.
- Everest: major challenge, stretch goal, considerable test of mind and body, well out of your comfort zone. Worth sacrificing time from other activities and priorities, and requires significant training and preparation effort
- Apprentice: experience building and training races, progressive distance build-up races (e.g., 10K to Half Marathon, then Marathon), races to test equipment, nutrition and hydration
- Walk in the Park: All about fun and adventure, yin events (like a yin run), running to support someone, guerrilla “invented” races with friends
Build a successful mix
I encourage you to include Walk in the Park and Apprentice events in your program of races in any given year. These are very important in keeping it fun, while fostering your growth and enjoyment of running. They also serve as opportunities for exploration, experimentation and risk-taking in an environment where less emotional connection is at stake.
For example, you may wish to use an Apprentice 5KM race in the off-season to experiment with fast running — knowing that if you fall apart at Kilometer 4 because the pace was too high, you will use the experience to build your knowledge rather than feel gutted at walking the last kilometer. Another example: as an experienced, quick marathoner, you may wish to run alongside a friend in a Walk in the Park run to support them in their first Half Marathon, thus experiencing the fulfillment of friendship and serving others.
Stepping up higher on the ladder
Moving up the ladder of an athlete’s emotional connection to events, Everest races are excellent drivers for transformation, breaking through to new levels of fitness, and spicing up life. In these races, the stakes are high from both physical and emotional perspectives, as it is normal with an Everest event to tie yourself strongly to achieving your goal. A race may earn your Everest label in distance (such as your first ultra marathon), in a time goal (such as a sub 3-hour marathon) or some other measure (such as your first race after giving birth or turning 80). Remember, one athlete’s Everest may be another’s Walk in the Park. What is important isn’t how an event is externally viewed, but rather how YOU see it in the total picture of your life, at this moment in time. Back up and read that last sentence again — it’s important.
At the top of the ladder is the Moonshot. This is saved for extremely special events, perhaps considered only once in your lifetime. Committing to a Moonshot event means you are willing to make major, potentially life-changing decisions and sacrifices to achieve your goal. To reach the moon, you may need to use all of your vacation time to attend training camps and participate in Apprentice races. You may consider moving temporarily to another city or country to train in a more suitable environment. Relationships? You may find yourself putting relationships and friendships on hold, risking their loss. Career? You may be tempted to dial down your career aspirations, miss out on a promotion, or even quit your job. Your Moonshot may also require a significant investment in coaching and equipment.
Costs, risks & stakes may be high
The costs, risks and stakes in Moonshot events can be extremely high, yet so is the passion, excitement and fulfillment. Moonshots aren’t for everyone, but if now is a time it suits you to go big, just be open and clear with yourself and those close to you about the path on which you are embarking and bring your full passion into the journey.
Useful factors when considering races in a given year
- Variation: there is beauty in tradition, but if you are looking to grow and stay engaged over the long haul, don’t keep doing only the same races year after year. Change the variables occasionally and get out of comfort zone with speed, type, terrain, setting, distance, etc.
- Yin and yang: consider at least one yin race per year, where you race to support a slower-paced friend, enter with no time pressure or goal, or simply volunteer to support the race.
- Next race: plan an event after any of your Everest or Moonshot races. This helps with Post-event Blues, which is a common experience after completing major events. In addition, it serves the role of a Plan B, should your summit bid or rocket launch need to be delayed or scratched due to a life circumstance.
Embrace the journey
I’ll close this article by encouraging you to Embrace the Journey. Remember to embrace the journey of preparation, as this is often the experience that will have a more profound long-term effect on you than the event itself. Embrace the lessons you learn along the way. Lean in to the low points, the challenges, failures, brutally hard or miserable training sessions. Feel them in all their struggle, and build strength you’ll use later in knowing that you persevered. Embrace all the micro goals and milestones your reach. Most importantly, embrace the friendships you discover and foster as you go.
— Coach Jeff
Jeff Grant is the author of Flow State Runner: Activate a Powerful Inner Coach’s Voice, Hill Running: Survive & Thrive, Run Faster: Unlock Your Speed in 8 Weeks, Running Heavy, and UltraRunning: Coach’s Handbook. Based in Switzerland, Jeff is a coach and writer who specializes in mental coaching, peak performance, and transformation. Jeff’s popular newsletter is a digest containing inspirational and instructional resources, including his latest content. See recent issues and subscribe for free here. Refer to Jeff’s bio for more information, and please check out Jeff’s Coach & Author page on Facebook.