Recently I was browsing through some other triathlon blogs and I saw two posts that peaked my interest. One person was preparing for a race, which he described as a "training race". To him it meant that he should put no focus on the race, and instead he would train beforehand in such a way as to ensure he would be tired the day of the race (something like a long run, or a tempo run the day before, after a hard week of training.). The second person was posing a question, "Should I taper or train right through?" She didn’t literally mean taper in the way I think of the word. To me a full taper is a 14 to 21 day shift in training in which quality increases and quantity of training decreases – dramatically – so that by the end the athlete can perform at absolute peak. You can’t do this very often, so it’s best only to taper fully at the end of the season, and maybe come close at a focus race before a mid-season break. What the second blogger meant is "should I rest for my race?" The answer of course, is yes, which I believe completely. A rest – for the purpose of this article – is a short break in training stress to allow the body to adapt to the training. Even if the race is a "training race" it cannot serve as any benchmark for performance if you show up dragging heels from peak training. There are several reasons I don’t believe in "training races", but first let me give a little history of the subject from my own experience.
In competitive swimming the season goal is always a time. For instance, my goal my freshman year in college was to qualify for US Nationals in at least one event. It didn’t matter which race I made the time at, or how many people I beat (or lost to) during the season. All that mattered was if I was able to swim a 400IM faster than the qualifying time of 3:56.87. My team also had a goal, and that was to place as high as possible in the conference championships. In order to achieve both goals, the team policy at Columbia was to only taper once, at the end of the season. We trained through every dual meet we swam during the season, and the harder our training was, the more we would do before a race. Coming off our winter training trip to Puerto Rico, we showed up at Dartmouth to do a 6k workout early in the morning before our dual meet, then stayed after the meet for an additional 2k "loosen down". My best time in season that year was a 4:01.20, but at the end of the season when I finally tapered, I swam a 3:54.25.
So I know what it’s like to train through races, and I still believe that a true taper (along with shaving your legs) is something special, that should be reserved for the really big focus race.
Resting, on the other hand, is as important (or more) than training. Even when we swam six thousand yards the morning of a dual meet, we didn’t do any test sets, and nothing on the menu had enough spice to really hinder us. We were coming off of averaging 15k a day, so 6 grand was still a rest.
Rest becomes more important for longer races. You never see marathon runners go for a 60 minute tempo run the day before the race. A sprint distance triathlon is no marathon, but it is still more physically taxing than a typical swim meet (unless you do the 1650, 500 and 400IM, in which case your whole weekend was pretty much trashed after a Friday dual meet). A couple days of easy training will not make you slower, but it will allow you to race at your ability on race day.
Aside from the physiological need for rest leading up to an endurance race, there’s also a monetary, social, and logistical need to rest. When we go to a race we pay (more and more each year) for the unique ability to have a controlled course, and other competitors to compare yourself to. After weeks of training by ourselves the majority of the time, the race allows us to socialize with hundreds of other athletes, and to find out if riding the trainer to episodes of ’24’ is really paying off. We get up hours before daylight and travel long distances for this opportunity, and we do it because we want to test ourselves. If you have no intention of performing well then you shouldn’t show up to the race. There is no mathematical formula for converting a tired triathlon to a rested triathlon, and there is definitely no handicap for over training.
Periodization of training is no new concept. We stress, we recover. Where people get stuck is they think the athlete that stresses their body the most is the one that wins, but in reality, it’s the athlete that recovers the best, and is therefore able to add more stress sooner without overtraining (when your body breaks down rather than adapting). You need rest, so why not plan your periodized training so that a couple of days before your race you are in the "back off and allow the body to recover" portion? If you race during the over-stress phase, there’s a good chance you’ll cross that line into overtraining – at which point you will be forced to cut back – and it’s almost certain that you will under-perform to your potential.
I talked to Macca in Florida last month about the team racing he did in Europe. He told me the team sponsors pretty much owned the athletes. He raced over 60 times a season, so often he would race Friday then fly out to a Sunday race. Even with this race schedule, he still rested for races. This was the weekly training Chris told me he did:
Tu: pick it up a bit
We: hard workout
Sixty races a year, and Chris McCormack was still resting a full day for each, plus a rest day. I guarantee Macca is better able to recover than 99.9% of the triathletes out there, so why on earth would a triathlete racing 10-15 times a year think he/she can get away with less than two days rest before a race?
"Training Race" is an absurd term. You train to race. You don’t race to train. Unrested racing is just a losers way of preparing an excuse.