Get race ready

Review a race – particularly that first one – in a clinical fashion without dwelling on it too much and over-analysing,
suggests our columnist…

I’m guilty of more than a smidgen of hypocrisy – ignoring my advice that the season’s first race will rarely be your best

And so it begins. Another season has started. This is a nervous time for all athletes, when we hope the blood, sweat and tears shed over the off-season have not been in vain and that we’ll now reap the rewards for our efforts.

The first race looms and we prepare as best we can to shock our body back into action. After all, it’s nigh on impossible to replicate the intensity, atmosphere and feeling of racing in training sessions, and re-acquainting ourselves with the pain is something to both dread and relish. Love-hate you could say. I’m sure many of you know what I mean – there’s nothing quite like pushing your limits and laying everything on the line, but equally… it hurts. A lot.

Given that many of us don’t race for several months in the off-season, our first race is often not our best. Similarly, the second or third are rarely the peak of the season, and if they are better than your later races then, to be quite frank, something hasn’t gone to plan. With that in mind, it’s easy to become too caught up with the first result of the year. Over-analysing is an athlete’s worst sin – be it after a good race or bad – and we’re all guilty of doing it.

After a good hit-out it’s easy to become a bit complacent, to feel that you have everything in order and that you will continue to blitz through the season. This is a dangerous place to be as it can only set you up for a fall. I’ve mentioned before that I feel there is always room to improve and that very few athletes in this world can say they have reached the highest level they ever could, that they have squeezed every last drop of physical prowess from themselves. Sure, take the good results as a confidence booster, enjoy the success, feel proud, but also use the early results as a sign that even better things will follow if you maintain the consistency and commitment.

After a bad result, reflection can be helpful to identify the weaknesses or errors made, but dwelling is never helpful. We’ve all been there – you look forward to racing throughout the long winter months, you take to the start line filled with excitement, but the performance belies the endeavour. The feeling is off, you make rookie technical errors and the finish line represents both physical and mental turmoil, rather than the euphoria it normally resembles. It’s so easy for people to say “forget it, it was a bad day” or “you’re just a bit rusty, the next one will be better”. But it’s infinitely harder to accept those words and believe in their truth.

My first race of last year was a disappointing affair. I didn’t perform badly as such, but just not at the level I had expected. I made a technical mistake (I turned at the wrong buoy in the swim!) that cost me dearly and I finished 13th overall. Not a disaster in a high-quality World Cup field, but if I’m brutally honest, I had set my sights much, much higher. The rustiness I can accept, the struggle to find my legs off the bike I anticipated, but the technical error was harder to swallow. In this respect I can see I’m guilty of more than a smidgen of hypocrisy – guilty of ignoring my own advice to accept that the season’s first race will rarely be your best. I can admit it took me a couple of days to reflect more rationally on my race, but this is fairly common among us athletes. It shows we care and that there’s a great emotional investment in what we do.

But what I recommend to every level of athlete (and even to myself) is to try to shut off the emotion within a few days of the race and review it more clinically. There’s no point dwelling beyond this as there’s no more time to indulge in this negative headspace – there are other races to prepare for. And let’s be honest, our loved ones might get more than a little sick of our sullen and grumpy behaviour!

If you really can’t let it go and still lie awake at night, haunted by the mistakes you’ve made or the worry that you’re far from where you want to be, use that feeling to motivate you, rather than bring you down. Remember: the biggest races are rarely the ones at the beginning of the season and there’s a reason for that.