It wasn’t long ago that doing one Ironman, Challenge or long distance event in a season was the norm. Usually athletes would do one half Ironman/70.3 a month or two out from their key long distance event and that would be it for long distance racing in the year. The Ironman event usually capped off the end of a season and the finish line signaled the start of a significant recovery phase.
But this was by no means the extent of an athletes racing season. In fact, it was the last of many races on a calendar, the bulk of which were never longer than an Olympic or Standard distance event. Seasons were far more robust when it came to toeing the line. It was not uncommon to see ten or more start lines over the course of a few months leading into an Ironman event.
Athletes have become so focused on the Ironman branded events, which consist mainly of half and full Ironman distances, that they forget there is an entire world of short course racing to be had.
Triathlon is already a very training heavy sport. Meaning the percentage of time that athletes compete is very low when compared to the time they spend training. This can lead to a lack of competitive grit and a lack of mental strength when race days roll around. Race days become very unfamiliar territory for most recreational triathletes.
Racing more and racing short have huge benefits. Short races are easy to bounce back from. The recovery time for a sprint distance triathlon is usually less than a week meaning you can back up another race the following weekend. Short, fast races offer a tremendous opportunity to refine the little things that make triathlon such a unique sport. Transitions, for example, are a very dynamic part of short course racing. There is no better place to practice efficient transitions than in short, fast triathlon events. Short races offer an opportunity to see how hard you can go. Athletes have become so dependent and often governed by their smart watches and data that they’ve lost touch with what is actually possible when they are in a competition. Races are an opportunity to exceed expectations and to really reach farther than you may otherwise in training. Short races carry little real consequence in this regard. You can truly experiment with how hard you can go. The best way to become mentally tough on race day is to race. If you only have a few start lines in a season, every start line is magnified mentally. Every start line is unfamiliar territory and the nerves that go with them can be debilitating.
It’s no surprise that athletes who move from Olympic distance racing at a high level usually do very well in half Ironman and Ironman events. A big part of this is obviously physiological- they have a strong engine and the necessary proficiency in the three sports to be successful. With some specific long distance work they can be very successful very quickly. However, physiology aside, another big reason is that they simply have more experience on start lines. Their approach to a competition is more refined, more dynamic and often more gritty. Start lines are more familiar territory and they are easier to handle mentally. Quite simply, and perhaps quite obviously, those who compete more are usually better competitors.
For most athletes doing an Ironman, Challenge or long distance event is the pinnacle of their triathlon season and often the pinnacle of their triathlon journey. But this end goal should not come at the expense of racing frequently and racing short. Toeing the line regularly will make you a more dynamic, refined, gritty and mentally tough athlete.