How to Get the Most Out of a "Training Race"
It’s getting to about mid summer now, but some athletes’ big races are still ahead. Many cyclists participate in non-priority races or “training races” throughout the summer in preparation for their A priority races. Examples of this might be the local weeknight crit, a weekly short track mountain bike race, or a B or C priority weekend road or MTB event.
There are a few different ideas as to what a training race is and how it should be done. Some people think that it just means you don’t taper and that you “train through it”, giving you a nice excuse for not doing well. If that's your mindset, you're not getting the full benefit of doing these events. In fact, a training race is a prime opportunity to get in some high quality training and important experience, and to test ourselves in the same environment that we are preparing to excel in in the first place.
Here are a three key ways to get the most out of your training races and race simulation workouts.
Remember that it’s still a race
A training race is NOT a time to waste $60 (or whatever) in gas and entry fee to ride around in a circle with a bunch of other spandex-clad freaks for the heck of it! It is an opportunity to really test yourself, in the field and against your peers. With this, aim for a specific, measurable goal for each race. While this training race will not require a 3-week peaking phase you should take the few days before to make sure you are well-rested and ready for a good effort - physically, mentally and with all your equipment working 100%. You have committed the money, time, energy, and sacrifice of getting up at “still-dark-out o’clock” or getting out early after work to meet at some random office park. Make it worthwhile!
Make a goal for each race
If you have been working on your strength all season and are now ready to turn that strength into accelerating power, then make a goal to do a number of BIG accelerations. Attack the short hill, jump on a break forming, or go for the halfway prime. But commit to this goal. If you’re going to work on your jump then do that and only that. Spend your other time sitting in and riding smart. Make the sprinting efforts as strong as possible. Killing it on the front, riding in a break for "X" number of laps, going to the back then to the front and then back again will make your “training race workout” end quickly.
Maybe just getting through the race will be hard enough. Then do that. Ride smart. Is holding your position in the pack hard for you? Make a goal to simply ride in the top 15 riders or so the entire race. (I’ve made this a goal myself). Focus on warming up well, if necessary, and watching the race play out. Identify when it’s “go time” and you must get across that gap to the front group - and when it is a good time to sit in, fuel and relax.
Maybe your endurance is lacking. Do some extra mileage before (ideal) or after the race. If you go this way keep your effort in the race under the hood a bit. This should be a hard workout but we don’t want it to take us a week to recover!
Be decisive. If you’re going to attack, do it! See if it works and then move to the next step. Always have a reason for doing something. Always have a purpose.
Reflect afterwards and gain experience
A training race is a prime opportunity to learn about yourself, about your competition, your preparation, your fueling plan, your equipment, your warm up (or lack thereof). Do you ride well in the wind, on the hills or technical cornering sections? How did you feel afterwards? Like you just parted the seas? Or do you feel recovered after 15 minutes of hanging out with friends and teammates thinking “Man I could have gone way harder?” The list of potential lessons goes on. Come the big race day you can’t afford to be caught off guard by something silly. A crosswind hitting your fancy new disc wheel, your new helmet not fitting right, etc. Gaining as much experience about yourself and how your body works in a race situation will have you better prepared come the big day. This may not have you breaking any records but when the going gets tough, the prepared shine through. Anyone can post a personal best in their ideal conditions on their ideal terrain. You want a personal best in any conditions, on any terrain, on any decided day.
In short, training races are more than just something you do for fun or a hard workout. Take them seriously, set goals, be strategic, and learn as much as you can about yourself. If you do all this, you'll be doing much more than riding around in circles really hard - you'll be laying the groundwork to becoming a smarter and better athlete.