Originally published November 8, 2018. Updated and republished November 21, 2019.
Daylight hours are shortening, leaves are falling, and temps are dropping… You’ve set your goals for next season (previous post: Goal Setting), and even resumed some base training. The next step in the planning process is race selection and choosing your events for next season. Sifting through the potentially large amount of events in which you are interested is the second step in the planning process.
Planning your race season around a target event(s) is crucial to setting up an effective training program.
As part of the race selection process, you must first know the “what” & “when” you plan to race your best. From there you can work out your specific training program that will get you there with the fitness you desire. You don’t need to know every single start line you plan to roll up to next year. You do however need to know what your top targets are before you begin more detailed planning. The first step of the race selection process is sitting down and creating a list of events that interest you. Have fun with this. Don’t filter your thought process just yet. Once you have your list of events, long or short, it is then time to narrow things down.
Most endurance athletes will compete in multiple events within a season. Why would you train so consistently for a long time to race only one or two times per season? Also, racing can be some of the best “training” you can do. On the flip-side, you cannot race every weekend all season long (or even every-other week for that matter). Racing takes a toll and interferes with an overall training progression. Racing too frequently degrades your fitness over time and does not allow for an adequate build of training load. Fitness gets lost in these situations and the results you desire are hard to find.
The ABCs of Race Selection
When you do choose to race, you want to race hard and give it your best effort on the day. That said, you cannot be in “top form” for every race you enter. For some races you enter you may recognize that you won’t be at your best, but the benefits of racing are still present. Your fitness and “race-readiness” ebbs and flows with your training phases and your lifestyle demands. Therefore, different events must take on different levels of priority. This allows you to reach higher levels of fitness for specific events (peaking). It is a well known practice when laying out your next racing season to assign priority levels to your events as: A, B and C. The following is a breakdown of this concept that will help you in your season-planning process:
These are your top priority events. You get one per training build, perhaps two per season; and in very rare circumstances maybe three in a year. You are building your entire training and racing season around these events. Your A Race(s) is what you build your fitness up towards over many months of training before tapering and peaking for a top performance.
As desired, a second A Race may then be trained for in a shorter build up. Following the first A Race build you already have residual fitness from the first A Race. Therefore the second build to an A race can be much shorter in duration. In most cases, it is best to have an 8-12 week gap of time between your first and second A Race. This allows enough time to recover, rebuild fitness, taper and peak for the second event. In these events, you can often experience an even higher level of performance compared to the first. This is due to a higher overall training load often being achieved within the second build (although it is not guaranteed).
Lastly, be sure to consider your strengths & weaknesses as an athlete when selecting your A Race. Set yourself up for the highest chance of success by targeting events that suit your strengths. Same goes for enjoyment. Your A events should be events you enjoy training for.
These are the events that are of moderately high importance to you; should help you prepare for your A Race; but not interfere with the training progression of your A Race. B Races can also follow an A Race as “back up race” in the event of your A Race not going as well as planned. They can also act as a “bonus” race to enjoy the residual fitness coming off of your recently completed A Race.
Most athletes do well with two to four B Races within their A Race build leading up to the higher priority event. Event duration and timing plays a factor in this decision. B Races typically include a very minor interruption to the training program. Including only a small taper of 1-3 days allows for a solid performance; and followed by a few days of recovery before returning to regular training. To not interfere with your overall A Race build, these mini “taper-race-recovery” blocks that include B Races should be planned for within your overall training program.
These are the events that are of minimal importance to you in terms of result and/or performance; should be used to help in preparation for your B and A Races; and only contribute to your overall training progression towards your A Race. C Races are often your local events that you enjoy. They are often early in the season and act as a “fitness check”, and/or are events that are not similar to your primary racing targets (ie. a mountain bike racer doing a road race). There should be no interruption to your training program as these events are often in replace of a workout or training session. It is not uncommon to race C Races fatigued and under prepared as part of your training progression. Including 1-3 C Races within an A Race build is fairly common.
C Races are great for challenging yourself with events that target your weaknesses. It’s okay to “not be good” at the lower priority events you choose to include in your program. You’ll be taking them less seriously, with no pressure to perform, and you may even find them to aide in improving a weakness or at least putting you outside your comfort zone.
With a better understanding of the hierarchy of race selection and the prioritizing necessary for a peak performance, you can begin to narrow down your event options and select the ones that best align with the goals you’ve set for your coming season.
First Choose your A Race…
Most experienced athletes (and anyone whose done their goal setting!) have a good idea of what they want to target for their A race(s) for the next season, and in many cases for several season ahead. The best of the best athletes focus falls on the Olympics (more of a AA race!), World Championships, key events within a World Cup Series or similar. For serious amateurs and pros it might be their National Championships or a specific national or international competition. The recreational crowd often looks towards popular local or regional event that their friends or teammates are doing, or a fun “bucket list” event. Regardless of who you are, or how high a level of racing you participate, your A Race must get you excited! This is what is going to get you out of bed every day eager to train and go to bed at night thinking about (maybe we’re a little too obsessed?).
The “Double Peak” Season
As mentioned previously, you can have multiple A events within a season. To do this effectively you must space them out by at least 8 weeks minimum (10+ weeks is even better). What can work really well for many riders is to select a late Spring A Race, say in May, and a second Summer A Race, in say August or September. Having an early season target keeps you motivated all Winter and Spring, while the later Summer event keeps you motivated through summer, keeping in mind you can still race very well at your B & C events all season long.
Lastly, within double peak seasons, it typically works best if your A Races are similar in format or style of racing.
As a coach I see this all the time… I ask an athlete “What events are you panning for next year?”
The athlete replies, “I want to do Criterium Nationals and Leadville 100… and an XTERRA.”
Can this be done? Sure. Will they be able to train effectively for and perform their best at a variety of events such as this? No.
Do yourself (and your coach) a favor when dialing in your race selection and focus on one style, and preferably one duration, of racing to perform your best for that specific season. Yes you can dabble in a mix of events, but unless you want to be mediocre at best on any race day, you need to specify your training and racing targets within a single season. If a top performance is not of concern to you, then by all means race a variety of events that make you happy; but to perform your best: you must be specific.
If you live for variety, do that from season-to-season, and resist too much variety within a single season.
Then Backfill the Bs & Cs
With your A Races pinned down, you can now filter through your list of B and C races and see what might fit into your plan. If performing your best at the A race is your goal (which should be the case), your B races should be similar, or at least assisting you in your build up to you A race in terms of style, duration and intensity.
Don’t prepare for an XC mountain bike race by racing a bunch of road races; likewise don’t race only crits all Spring and expect to race your best at Dirty Kanza 200. Select B Races which will help you prepare for your A Races. Save the more random, less specific, events for your C Races. These low-priority events can be a little different, further out from your peak form, and a time to have fun while knowing you’re not intended to perform your best.
All said and done, when training for your A Race you will want to compete in at least two build-up C or B Races, and may well include as many as 5 or 6 events on your way to your peak performance. Perhaps you follow that first A Race build with a second one 10 weeks later and you may race 10 or more events across your entire year giving you plenty of chances to enjoy your well-earned fitness.
Get out the Calendar
With your A, B, and C Races getting dialed in, you can finish the race selection process by plotting your events on a calendar. This visual perspective can help you make sure the event timing works to your liking. Some general rules of thumb for the majority of athletes are:
- 1-2 A Races (maybe 3) per racing season
- You need at least 20 weeks before first A event to build your fitness
- 8-12 weeks between A events within a single season
- 1 week recovery following A Race
- 2-3 B Races leading up to A Race, no closer than two weeks before A Race
- 1-3 C Races within the A build, can be as close as weekend before depending on duration
- 1-3 races (B or C) per month in the 3 months prior to A race
- Finally… consider your budget, both time & money, to make sure you’re not straining either
With these race selection guidelines considered, you’re likely on your way to having your next racing season planned out. With goals set and your events on the calendar, you’re now ready to begin planning your training program (or selecting a training plan www.trainingpeaks.com ) to set you up with the best chance of achieving those goals. Before you know it, you’ll be on your way towards reaching top form come your A Race of the year and have plenty of competitive fun along the way!
Written by Cody Waite, professional endurance athlete, endurance sport coach, and founder of Sessions:6 Sport Performance. Looking for help with your endurance sport training? Check out his Stock Training Plans, Custom Training Plans, and Personal Coaching options created to fit your needs and budget.