Race Planning

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“ … plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Our 34th president said this in regards to planning for battle, but the sentiment applies to many aspects of our lives.  Throughout my career in engineering, product development, and project management, I had first-hand experience with this idea and learned the value of planning.  The plans themselves never pan out the way you expect, but the process of planning itself is invaluable in that it helps you understand a problem or mission, design an approach to solving the problem, and formulating contingencies if everything doesn’t go the way you expect (it never does).  Software projects are notoriously difficult to manage.  For example, the first version of Microsoft Windows was 18 months late.  There are many reasons for this, but the fact that it’s called “soft” and is eminently changeable has a lot do do with it (but that’s a topic for another discussion).

Best practices in project management evolved based on these ideas – resulting in techniques that involve detailed processes based on what you do know and focusing on what you can control, but also creating a list of the top risks of the project and developing mitigation plans for each.  You order the risks based on their likelihood of occurrence and the severity in outcome if it occurs (i.e. does it completely kill the project?).  As the project progresses, you use your plans to guide you, have processes for monitoring your progress, and monitor the highest risks, managing what you can about the risk and making sure you have potential actions in place to minimize the impact of the event.  Planning for a project or problem in this way improves the likelihood of success by helping you understand the issues, focusing your attention on what you can control, and creating proactive plans to address unforeseen events.

In many ways, this is very much like Ironman triathlon in that, with a race time somewhere between 8 and 17 hours, it is a long day and the only thing you can guarantee is that something you didn’t expect will happen.  In my past life, no matter how much the executives “willed” something to happen or wanted the project to go quicker, the laws of physics don’t change and reality was reality.  In a somewhat analogous fashion, with respect to our racing, many of us have emotionally driven time goals for triathlon.  Don’t get me wrong, using your emotional time targets and goals to motivate and drive you can be very powerful.  However, much like a product design project, when it comes to success in Ironman on race day, it is more based on developing your race process, following your race “plan,” and responding in a positive and productive way when things do not go as expected.

A race plan should consider aspects of your race that you can control, such as pacing strategy and nutrition plan, and not on outcomes, such as times, speeds, etc.  Relating back to our project analogy, thinking about developing an ENTIRE software product can be daunting, so the common practice is breaking it down into smaller chunks so they can be tracked and managed more effectively.  In much the same way, thinking about the entirety of Ironman and the fact that you will be running 26.2 miles AFTER swimming and biking for somewhere between 5.5 and 8.5 hours, can be very intimidating.  However, if you compartmentalize the event and break it down into smaller chunks, it becomes much less intimidating.  For example, rather than thinking your bike ride is 112 miles, approach it as 7 or 8 easy 45-minute rides (or adjust accordingly).  After an Ironman build, an easy 45-minute ride is like nothing!  Mentally abstracting the distance out of it and doing “repeats” of easy rides just doesn’t sound as hard as riding 112 miles.  There are an infinite number of ways to break it up, so come up with a plan that fits you and works for you and practice it in training.  You can set your watch to auto-lap or simply monitor your own progress, using the lap function on your watch yourself.  Another benefit of compartmentalizing into sections is that your nutrition plan can be interwoven easily.  For example, if you are using 45-minute “laps” on the bike, set the auto-alarm feature for 15 minutes and take calories in every 15-minutes, or 3 times per “lap.”

The same goes for the run, 8 easy 30-minute runs sounds much less overwhelming than a full 26.2 miles.  Another example is using the aid stations to break up the race and your mental approach is focused on just running from one aid station to the next.  One strategy is to plan in short walk breaks at each aid station, take in your nutrition, “reset” mentally, and then run to the next aid station, repeating the process over and over again.  Make sure to have a specific plan ahead of time, i.e., “I am going to walk 10 steps at every aid station while I take in nutrition, but am going to run after that,” or your walk breaks may stretch out inadvertently.  This may sound “easy” and you might think planning in the walking from the beginning will cause you to “lose time,” but as the day goes on and you get later and later in the marathon, it will get very hard.  Breaking it up like this makes it more manageable, both physically and mentally and can help you avoid long stretches of walking or dramatically slowing down, which will cost you A LOT MORE time.  Analogous to breaking up a large project into more manageable chunks facilitating tracking and monitoring, doing so in an Ironman can also facilitate a mental focus on the process, allowing the athlete to track and monitor their progress through the “project” without focusing on the finish line.

Ironman also has a large mental component, and your race plan should have considerations of your mental approach.  When the race gets hard, what will be your inner monologue?  If it turns into “this hurts really bad and I want to stop,” then you will be more likely to stop running.  However, if you have a mental strategy based on positive self-talk, when the going gets tough, you can use your mantras to bring you back to center, staying in the moment, focusing on what you can control – i.e. your attitude!  Leading up to race day, during your key endurance sessions, practice this mental approach and find a mantra that works for you, one that is focused on the process.  For example, “I feel great and am running strong!”  Research suggests that simply repeating statements like this, whether or not you believe them, can have a positive impact, so find your positive inner monologue and repeat it over and over in your head (or out loud), getting into the zone!

Just like in our project management analogy, your race plan should also consider some possible unexpected events.  For example, what will you do if your goggles get knocked off?  What will you do if you lose all of the nutrition from your bike?  What will you do if you get a flat?  These are just some examples of what can happen.  Check out this video about Chrissie Wellington’s experience in Kona in 2008 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtslGL9Qat8 — about 1:30 in) — even World Champions face adversity and Chrissie discussed the importance of having a mental plan for dealing with it.  She obviously went on to win the race.

Ironman triathlon takes a large investment of mental, emotional, and physical energy, so why not increase your chances of success by planning ahead of time?  If you are a first-timer, having plans will help alleviate some of the pre-race anxiety as you’ll be equipped with a solid race process and some mitigation strategies for the unexpected.  If you are a competitive age-grouper, tweaking your race process as you get more experience will help you to continue to improve your outcomes.  Here’s an outline of a race-planning worksheet to use prior to your next event.  Use it to show up to your key event, ready physically and mentally to tackle the day!


Race Strategy


 1)      Schedule leading up to race day

a.       When will I arrive at the race site?

b.      When will I register?

c.       How will I get my bike and other equipment to the race site?

d.      Will I drive the bike course or pre-ride the run course?

2)      Dinner evening before

3)      Race morning breakfast and everything prior to start


4)      Start position and strategy


5)      Contents of T1 bag

6)      Nutrition?  Is it on the bike?  In bag?


7)      Nutrition plan

8)      Pacing Strategy

a.       How will you guide your effort level? (e.g. power meter, HR, etc.)

b.      How will you break up the bike?

9)      Special needs bag contents


10)  Contents of T2 bag


11)  Pacing Strategy

a.       How will you guide your effort level?

b.      How will you break up the run?

12)  Nutrition Strategy

13)  Special needs bag contents

Mental approach:

14)  Contingency planning

a.       Goggles knocked off

b.      Panic in the water

c.       Lose nutrition off bike

d.      Flat tire

e.       Mechanical issue

f.        Digestive problems on bike

g.       Digestive problems on run

15)  Come up with 5 reasons why you are going to have a great race (keep these to yourself if you like)

16)  Come up with 1 or 2 phrases you can repeat in your head to use as positive self-talk when it gets hard or when you have negative thoughts (keep these to yourself if you like)

17)  When you get long into the marathon, you will want to stop running.  Come up with the ONE reason you do this and why you will keep going (keep this to yourself if you like)

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