Quiz: Racing is the Best Training (underline the best answer and discuss)

a) Always

b) Sometimes

c) Never

I’m sure you’ve heard or read that racing is the best training. What does that mean? Should you pile on race miles to the exclusion of all else? Is racing really the best training for everyone all the time? The answers to these questions depend on you training status, your talent compared to your competitors, and your goals.

Top professional riders race into shape. Many top pros will enter particular races that help them prepare for particular larger goals, and they will skip a lot of other races. If racing is the best training, why don’t they race year round?

Racing is only sometimes the best training. According to the Law of Specificity, the more closely the training resembles the desired performance, the more effective the training will be. Only in racing do you practice all together the factors that matter in racing besides riding: the bike preparation, the packing, the early wake up, the pre-race meal, the drive, the warm up, the number-pinning, feed arranging, team dynamics and so on. What could be more like racing than racing? Sure you sprint for city limit signs with your buddies, but only in a race can you sprint on the right lap while viewing the world through a haze of competition and adrenalin. You can talk tactics over beer and pizza, but only in a race can you surely distinguish the ridiculous plans from the realistic. Until you master these things, you’re not going to get the race placings that your physical preparation deserves. At some point you have to race as part of preparing to race well.

At the right time, racing is excellent psychological training. At some point in your preparation for racing you have to approach your limits and push them back, to learn to make the maximal effort. You have to ride so hard that you get tunnel vision. You must push so hard that every pedal stroke brings pain and all you want is to stop, and yet you ride through the pain and realize that the pain does not and can not kill you. Unless you have done these things repeatedly, you may be fast on your bike, but you are not really a bike racer. The power meter can’t tell you when you’ve done enough, since you need to simply keep going until you’ve won or your body can’t do it any more. The gadgets don’t know your limit and won’t beep when you get there. You have to discover the limit, and push it back on your own. That takes a very high level of motivation, a level that many riders find easily in competition but not at all otherwise.

Racing is good training because it pushes you just as hard as you need to be pushed and in the way you need to be pushed. If you have a tremendous aerobic capacity, you won’t need much anaerobic depth to race well, and you won’t get much time above your lactate threshold in a race. If you are not so lucky, you’ll need more ability to work at and above your lactate threshold power, and you’ll find that you can’t get through a race without doing a good dose of this effort.

Racing is great training, and fun too. Why don’t generously sponsored riders race every day year round? The obvious answer is that they would then be too tired to do well in their key events, so they have to time their “great” training to get the benefits in time for the big races, but not yet be worn out. Once one has developed an aerobic base with extensive base miles and work up to lactate threshold, it takes only a few weeks to a couple of months to maximize the benefit of very high intensity training, so there’s no reason to start that sort of training more than a couple of months before the important races, and in fact starting sooner is likely to impede rather than support superior performance when it counts.

For the super-fit aerobic monsters, it may be possible to race without ever going into the red zone. Such riders can race many more races in a year than the less fit, who find themselves breathing harder for many minutes in every race. According to the section on bike racing in the International Olympic Committee’s Encyclopedia of Endurance in Sport, excessive training or racing above the lactate threshold causes a decrease in VO2-max and decreased race performance. Very hard riding is necessary to prepare the racer’s body and mind for the rigors of racing, but excessive hard riding reduces aerobic fitness.

Sometimes racing is the best training, but other times it is counterproductive. If you race after developing an aerobic base, after you’ve raised your aerobically sustainable speed as high as that of your competition, you will spend only a little time above your lactate threshold while racing, and racing will sharpen your skills and high-end capacity while not doing much damage. A few years ago one of the major team doctors strapped recording heart rate monitors on his riders during the Grand Tours and discovered that each rider spent an average of only 1/2 hour per day above his anaerobic threshold heart rate. That in part explains why they were able to continue to ride long stages day after day for three weeks. Riders who are less aerobically powerful or heavier don’t make the time cuts in the early hilly stages or else fatigue themselves so badly that they can’t recover to make the time cuts later. If you train aerobically to the point that you can complete your races without going into the red zone for more than a few minutes, you get all the tactical, group and speed practice that everyone else is getting, but without the fatigue and gradual loss of VO2-max. Then you can race and win year round. On the other hand, if you begin racing with less aerobically sustainable speed than your competitors, you suffer more and begin losing fitness while you race. If you are in this boat, and you race frequently, you are going to have a short season as your aerobic capacity eventually drops to the point that you can no longer keep up. If you are fit enough when you start racing, racing makes you stronger and stronger. You get a long season peppered with podium finishes. If you are not fit enough when you start though, racing makes you weaker and weaker. Then you get a short and embarrassing season with no more than occasional glimpses of what could be.

In the heart of your race season, if you have a choice of race categories, choose the hardest race in which you have a chance of a top ten, or the easiest race that you aren’t sure of getting a top ten. Give yourself the opportunity to get some feedback from the race. You only learn tactics from racing if you are strong enough that your tactics make a difference. If you are so strong that you ride away from the group, the fact that you win doesn’t mean that you are a brilliant planner. If you are so weak compared to the competition that all you can do is watch them leave, you similarly don’t get any useful feedback on your tactics. You could do everything right and still lose. If you must race early though, before your fitness is at it’s peak, choose easier races so that you will ride near your lactate threshold a bit, but not much above it for very long.

One of the dangers of racing too soon is that you suffer and lose. You might mistakenly decide that your good tactics are bad, and you might also simply become depressed and mentally burned out from racing and losing again and again. If you make a bad choice of when to start racing for the year, this can happen even if you have the talent to win. Going back to the Law of Specificity, racing when you are not fit enough and losing is not practicing the goal performance. So, when should you start racing? This depends on your goals. If you have to race on a certain day to keep your place on the team, you’ll have to race that day. If you don’t care about placings as much as you just want to get out and race, race when your favorite races occur. If you are lucky enough to control your own racing schedule with no sponsors or managers breathing down your neck, and if you also care about how you finish, race when you are physically, skillfully and emotionally prepared to benefit from racing, and plan to have that happen one to two months before the key races of your season.

You are physically prepared for racing when you’ve done several months or aerobic base and aerobic interval riding and you are no longer getting faster just from that, when you can do 45 minutes or more near your lactate threshold in intervals and still be ready to ride well the next day, and when you can pretty comfortably keep up with your training partners who will race in your category. If you struggle to keep up on training rides, you will struggle to keep up in races where there will be several riders as strong as your strongest buddies.

You are not ready to race if you have physical or skill deficits that are going to force you to work much harder than your competitors. There are many such deficits. Two obvious ones would be being significantly overweight for road racing or being tentative in corners for criterium racing. These and similar problems are best corrected in a controlled situation before you begin racing for the year.

You are emotionally prepared to race when you desperately want to succeed as a bike racer, and will do what it takes, including racing or not racing a given weekend, whichever better gets you to your long-term goals. If you want to race more than you want to succeed as a racer, you are not emotionally prepared for success.

In conclusion, racing is the best way to put the finishing touches on your race preparation. It is not a good substitute for any of the earlier stages of preparation. If you are aerobically fit, comfortable in most riding situations, at race weight and excited to get out there and test yourself, it’s time to race your way into a great season. If not, hold off a bit. You’re resume will be better for it by the end of the season.

(This Article by Scott Saifer, M.S. first appeared in ROAD Magazine in October of 2006.)