Professional triathlete Jesse Thomas explains how he tackles the task of planning a triathlon season.
When I sit down at the beginning of each year to plan my schedule, it always feels daunting. There are just so many options—70.3s, Rev3s, Challenges, 5150s, HITS, local tris, The Thomas Family Beer Mile Series, the list goes on and on. Should I race late, early, how far away, how much does it cost, when’s that family reunion again? But just before my eyes go crossed, I calm myself by creating what my wife says I use to solve every single question I face—a gigantic Excel spreadsheet.
While there are probably differences in planning a schedule for a pro season versus an age-group season, I found that the basic methodology I use (and spreadsheet template) was applicable to just about any level of triathlete. So in my desire to help you avoid the mind-bending task of scheduling a season, let me walk you through how I planned mine in the hope it can help you plan yours.
1. Start with your “North Star”
Every season plan should start with your primary goal, or “North Star,” as my coach Matt Dixon puts it. This could be anything from winning your age group at Kona to finishing your first Olympic-distance race. This is the anchor of your season and everything is built from the ground up around that goal. For me, in 2013, that’s the 70.3 world championship in Vegas. So when I started writing my plan, I put Vegas on the plan first and everything else filled in from there.
2. Divide and conquer
For me, an ideal lead-up to my goal race is a 10–14-week solid training block with one to two races to ready the system. If it’s much longer than that, I’ve found that my body simply can’t sustain a peak level of fitness. That means this year I want to start my final build around the end of June/beginning of July. Now, I’m certainly not going to wait to be fit and racing until July, so this is where I divide my season in two, and schedule a mid-season break for the beginning of June (see my September 2012 column about the importance of a mid-season break so you don’t turn into the frozen liquid-metal guy from “Terminator 2” and explode). If you’ve got important family and/or work commitments at one point in the season, it makes sense to try to schedule your mid-season break during these times. As you can see from my schedule, I use my mid-season break to accommodate a little thing I’ve got to deal with in June.
With my mid-season break scheduled, I now have the time frames created for the “first half” of my season (up to the beginning of June) and the second “championship” half of the season (July through September). Each half-season is 12–14 weeks. I will create a similar racing and training pattern for both halves, but for the first half focus on base training and simulation racing, while the second half will be dedicated to sharpening up and preparing myself for my ultimate goal.
3. Goal simulation race
Now that the basic time frames are established for both halves of my season, the first event I add is a “goal simulation race” at the end of the first half. Ideally, this race contains all the important aspects you’d like to simulate for your goal race—competition level, terrain, climate, travel, finishes near a Cheesecake Factory, etc. Looking at the available races, I chose Rev3 Quassy. Like Vegas, it’s hilly, a non-wetsuit swim, and while it’s not nearly as dry, it can still be fairly hot and it attracts a great field. Finally, it’s 14 weeks before Vegas, so it’s perfect timing to take a mid-season break right after it, before a final build into the championship part of my season.
4. Tune-up race
Working backward from my goal race, the next thing I add is a tune-up race. To me, that means a solid race four to six weeks ahead of my goal. Ideally, that’s a good effort race, but with a little less pressure, and it leaves enough time to test, evaluate and make a few adjustments to my training before going into the final stage of the season. Looking at the magic spreadsheet, I plopped 70.3 Boulder in for my championship tune-up. Then, since I want my first half-season to mirror as closely as possible my second half, I plop Wildflower in (four weeks before Quassy) to simulate a similar cycle. Plus, Wildflower has a naked aid station.
5. Rust buster
Every season should start with a rust buster. Ideally, this is a shorter race with relatively easy travel and something you can use as a low-pressure and fun way to open your season. For me, Escape from Alcatraz fits perfectly into this scenario. It takes place much earlier this year (March 3), is Olympic-ish distance, and close to home. It also means a post-race beers-and-burgers reunion with my San Francisco buddies. Checkmate. (Editor’s note: This article was written before Escape from Alcatraz took place. Thomas finished third.)
With those five steps, you have the skeleton of your season. Depending on your experience level, budget and time available, you may or may not fill it out with some more races. Here are some other factors I consider:
Supporting local races
For some of you, the local tri might be your North Star; others might find it difficult to fit into their race schedule. In either case, it’s important to support your local triathlon community. These smaller events are the heart and soul of triathlon, and provide a critical low-cost, low-pressure introduction to the sport. In years past, I’ve used local triathlons as not only rust busters but even training races. When I first decided to try to become a pro triathlete, I raced the Beaver Freezer (yes, that’s actually the name) in Corvallis, Ore., one of the largest pool swim races in the country. I’ve also raced the University of Oregon Triathlon Club’s Duck Bill Thrill outside of Eugene, where my race plan actually involved specific intervals. This is a great way to give your body an excellent workout in a race-type simulation where you can get valuable feedback without the pressure of expectations. Other local events to think about are tune-up single-sport races. Last year, I raced in a local swim meet (and got crushed by a 14-year-old girl, see my June 2012 column), did the swim-only at the Rolf Prima Tri at the Grove, and even did a local cyclo-cross race all as training events to support the local scene and hang out with buddies.
Doing races you like
I have a few other races on my schedule not because they fit perfectly into the plan, but because I love them. Oceanside 70.3 and Rev3 Portland are examples. Oceanside has a wetsuit swim, hilly bike course and generally cool conditions—me likey. Rev3 Portland is, well, in Portland. It’s the only professional prize purse race in Oregon, and I definitely feel a sense of pride (and responsibility) to represent. Plus, the bike is insanely tough, technical and super-duper fun. Other reasons to do a race are because your friends are going, you have family in that area or you like the name (e.g. Poconos 70.3).
Learning from your screw-ups
Something I always think about when planning my season is what I did wrong in previous years, and then I try not to do that again. I know—genius. The mid-season break is the result of a previous mistake. In 2011 I learned after three incredibly unsuccessful attempts that I can’t race two weeks in a row. This year, though it pains me to say it, I’ve removed Rev3 Maine because even though I had a great race there in 2012, I believe that the travel and physical (and emotional) effort contributed to a subpar performance at Vegas. It’s tough to give up something you like, but sometimes those are the sacrifices you have to make in pursuit of a bigger goal.
Remembering that plans aren’t permanent
One thing that’s key to remember is that after you create your perfect plan, take a step back and realize that it’s highly unlikely you’ll stick exactly to it. Plans change. Injuries and illnesses crop up, your little brother has a shotgun wedding on race day—it happens. That doesn’t mean the plan isn’t important. It allows you to understand how a change might impact your goal, and shows you how to best adapt to stay on target. Remember that when life happens, your plan doesn’t dictate what you should do; your plan is one thing to consider when listening to yourself, your body and your wife.
Ultimately a combination of using all these tools will best set you up for a successful pursuit of your North Star. Good luck with your season!