In the last several seasons I have had a slew of top 5 finishes and a number of third place finishes and I am seeing some patterns of why 1st place eluded me and possibly others. Don’t get me wrong I have had several wins as well but not always at the races I wanted the win at.
On a long ride over the weekend I had conversations with my ride mates about the subject of this article and I do feel that there are several areas that need looking at when an athlete is consistently finishing in the top 5 but not winning races.
There are no cut and dry answers to why someone wins and someone has a good showing. Don’t get me wrong winning isn’t everything but it is the most desired outcome oriented goal of a competitive athlete.
So as a coach I look to factors and variables that can help or effect an athlete so I am going to list the most common of these for Mass Start Road, Time Trialing, Multisport, Off Road and Distance Runners. There of course will be all kinds of overlap and by no means will this list be all-encompassing.
This list is aimed at athletes that are well-trained, motivated, invested in their sport and have made their sport a lifestyle. If you are an endurance athlete that has competed for several years and struggles to finish with the pack or find yourself off the back reread the previous sentence. If you are new to your endurance sport and are just now competing and want what was listed and want to have some insurance that your hard earn investment is going to pay off, hire a coach NOW!
Mass Start Road Cyclists
If you are finishing in the top 5 of most of your races but not hitting the podium it’s not likely your fitness. There are exceptions and if you haven’t already started looking at your 1sec, 5sec, 10sec, 30sec and one minute power. You will need to look to see if you are fatiguing or are matching your expected power output for your category. If you are fatiguing and or not close to your expected power for category then get busy and work on the sharp end of your power. With the right plan you could make significant gains in as little as 4-6 weeks. If your numbers are good then most likely it’s timing and field positioning. When are you setting yourself up for the finish? Are you getting gassed at the end or are you getting stuck behind others. DO you keep using the same finishing tactics? Are you following the same wheel? Have you tried to go it alone?
Time Trial Cyclists
Unlike Mass Start Road Cyclists if you are finishing in the top 5 but rarely see a win as a time trialist it is likely your fitness. Unless you are competing at the elite end of the spectrum where the difference between 1st and 5th is often tenths of a second to a few seconds. For elites having this problem its time to look at your bike fit again, visit the wind tunnel and start looking for wattage gains in your drive train. For all other club and local time trialers the difference between 1st and 5th place is often in the one too several minutes range. While the above recommendations for elites holds true for amateurs, amateurs will also need to work on their pacing strategy and continue to work on their Functional Threshold Power (FTP). If you feel that your FTP is as strong as you can make it and mechanically your bike is optimal then you may need to look at power in the 1-10 minute areas. If you find that you quickly fatigue from 1-3 minutes and 3-5 minutes or even 8-10 minutes you may need to fit in some intervals that are 1-3 minutes in length that are 120-130% above FTP for several weeks. How do you know if you are fatiguing at the power levels? A coach can analyze your data and know for sure but a good indicator in the filed is if you keep getting passed at the end of a TT and can’t catch the passer then you know you need to work on these power ranges.
Off Road Cyclists
For those of you competing in MTB, CX and BMX often the key to winning is the whole shot and how well you perform when the race official says go. The only difference I would say is if you have call ups. Then it pays to have an early call up. However if you find that every time the official says go and you feel like you are pedaling through molasses then you need to work on your starting and sprinting. These two areas are by no means are the only thing to work on but if you are happy with your technical skills, anaerobic endurance, pacing and you have done everything you can do to optimize the performance of your bike then its time to work on explosive power! Working on explosive power actually starts in the off-season in the gym by building a strong core and by mitigating muscle imbalances through functional strength training. However there are several things you do on season to improve. You can practice starts over geared, just be mindful of old knee injuries and pay attention and not create any new knee injuries. It is also still possible and recommended to hit the gym in the on season. However on season training should be focused on bike specific training so do not expect quick results during the on season from the gym if you are following a structured functional training program during a race season. You can also interject plyometrics into your program. Just use them sparingly (1-2 times per week for 10-20 minutes) and use movements that mimic the explosive nature of starts and sprinting. Plyometrics can be brutal on joints so make sure you do this training only for 4-6 week block after a several weeks of weight training and only on a firm surface. Stay away from doing plyometrics barefooted or on concrete. Wear NEW trainers or even trail running shoes. Just stay away from minimalist shoes, as there isn’t enough support or padding.
Distance runners who often find they are coming up short in the overall or even the age group fields need to do much of what has already been recommended. Evaluate your performance compared to those finishing ahead of you. Look at pacing strategies. Are you a front-runner or are you a pacer that likes to come up from behind? If you are front-runner you could do very well if you could deny yourself the front to of the pack and surge before the finish throwing off your competitors. If you are a pack follower it’s likely your timing is off when you surge and pick up your pace. Also look at where you are having the most difficulty at your distance? Are you having problems with hills or are you having problems with the finish. Hills mean you need to work on muscle endurance. Finishing problems often show a weakness attributed to poor pacing or poor anaerobic conditioning. Just as with cycling distance runners should learn to embrace core and functional strength training ALL year around. If you have not been doing this and you suffer at distance races that have hills you will quickly see improvements with weight training.
Multi Sport Athletes
For cyclists and runners that compete in Triathlon, Duathlon, Aquabike, Aquathon and Xtera many of the above issues apply to you, However I have found that some of the biggest failings fall to poor pacing, planning and organization. Pacing each and every leg of a multisport race is critical. If you are getting close to your first win you need to look at your competitors and not just their performance in the race they beat you at.
Look over your most common competitors and look at where they are making time on you. Is it the swim, the bike the run, what about transition? I often find that the top 5 finishers in every age group have wildly different transition times. I can tell you now that if your competitors have sub one-minute transition times and you don’t you are not beating them anytime soon. Working on transition skills through out the year once a week as part of brick warm up or as part of a speed workout will pay off huge for your next race. Imagine showing up to transition with everything laid out and ready for you to put on. You get everything put on without even thinking about it and you are out of transition and on to the next leg. No panics, no fumbling just working. In your next brick workout try new pacing strategies. I like what I call lop sided pyramids. So instead of an equal power or speed pacing ascending ladder back off the power and speed in the last third of each leg accept the last leg of the race. This way you go into transition being able to think. Don’t get me wrong I am not asking you t completely recover in the last third but instead perform at 90-95% of peak power or speed.
Final thoughts for all competitors
- If you keep competing in the same races or even the same disciplines it maybe time to try some different races and get away from the top 4 that keep leaving you in the dust.
- Question everything you do but don’t doubt what you are doing. I have found that having the right questions is more valuable to solving problems than a poorly formed answer.
- It takes time no matter how old or how you are but if you race long enough you will win.
- Racing more will expose you to more scenarios and allow you to interact with more competitors and learn how to navigate variables that may or may not help you win.
- Reevaluate your equipment choices and never be afraid to try new equipment just don’t do it on race day.
- Seek professional help. If you are self coached its likely time to hire your own coach. If you have a coach it might be time to look into your nutrition or even the mental side of the game to see where you can make improvements.
- Never, ever, ever get upset with a 5th place finish. I promise you that there are many athletes that are envious of your accomplishments and you should be happy with such great results but not being satisfied is always acceptable.
Until Next Time,
Train Smarter Not Harder,