Navigating the Return to Multisport Racing

Navigating the Return to Multisport Racing

We still may not know what the 2021 racing season will look like, but, as triathlon coach Carrie McCusker reminds us, staying flexible is the key to success.

Spring traditionally signals the beginning of a new multisport racing season. This year, contemplating a return to normal — when training culminates in a race — might feel both exciting and somewhat anxiety-provoking. Uncertainty about how racing will look and feel in the post-pandemic transition period is natural as variables continue to develop and change. After an unsettling year where events were broadly canceled, the desire for consistency and race opportunity is high.

Consequently, now is the right time to tap motivation and set specific goals. Like in years past, preparation involves acquiring necessary gear, developing a training plan, implementing consistent training habits, and fine-tuning nutrition and fueling strategies. Added to traditional preparation is coming to terms with the new normal of best practices to manage a dangerous virus — a learning experience for everyone.

To combat the ambiguity of the new race normal, you can take steps to both mentally and physically prepare for a rewarding race season. These include understanding the current landscape of racing, accepting a degree of uncertainty, and then committing to race goals despite potential changes. 

What’s Happening Now

One constant in 2020 was uncertainty. Now, many athletes want to compete but have some reluctance to commit without assurance. The question that comes up a lot is whether or not races will happen. Further, if they do, what will they look like?

Kurt Perham, a USAT Level 3 Coach in Portland, Maine, said he’s telling his athletes to be ready to race by July 4. The trend he’s observing includes increased vaccinations and decreased infections which indicates the passage of time might bring more certainty. “I think at first we’re going to see smaller race fields; wave starts and less pre-and post-race in-person gathering,” Perham notes. Having been in the business for decades, he projects a return to smaller, less impactful races first. “You might find things like trail racing, gravel and mountain bike rides, and other off-road events happening,” he says.

USA Triathlon backs up some of Perham’s thoughts. On April 7, the national governing body for triathletes hosted a live roundtable event about navigating the Safe Return to Multisport. USAT administrators reiterated their plan to get people safely racing again. Main points from the discussion included the push to get athletes racing in “their own backyard” and to embrace the new normal of potentially limited spectators and in-person gathering pre- and post-race. USAT also released a 53-page document called “Safe Return to Multisport” that details everything from phased-in racing (in agreement with CDC guidelines) to options and suggestions for managing details, from packet pick up and aid stations to transition areas and finish lines. 

The race-day checklist suggests athletes understand Covid-19 and expect to see physical distancing, symptom screenings, and limited support on course. It also recommends bringing multiple face coverings, hand sanitizer, a cycling repair kit, and fluid plus nutrition replacement. While some of these are newcomers to a traditional race-day checklist, the adage of being prepared still applies here; it is simply expanded to include adaptation to the virus.

USAT recently published their race calendar including a full slate of national events covering each distance of triathlon and duathlon. Registration is underway indicating the organization’s confidence in both their process and the timeline.

IRONMAN released their own Safe Return to Racing Guidelines. Notably, the organization asserts that the “implementation of the guidelines can reduce total touchpoints and interactions by as much as 90% compared to 2019 racing standards.” Their Athlete Smart Program details how the athlete can be self-reliant and prepared to ensure a safe and successful race experience. As with every business that organizes and offers race experiences, IRONMAN notes they abide by national and state CDC guidelines to ensure safety protocol is met. IRONMAN races are filled for the 2021 season, another indicator that thoughtful deliberations and eager athletes are driving the charge forward.

Based on these changes, choosing a local race might be the best way to reduce variables and allow competition with less stress and more focus.

Commit and Remain Flexible

At its root, racing is a performance where an individual gets to test the quality of training and the strength of mental fortitude. For many, a finisher’s medal is a lot more than the completed race — it is a testament to weeks of adherence to chasing a goal. If you’re looking for a bit of guidance in how to train, here’s a beginner/intermediate level 12-week Sprint training plan that you can use for free with code crushyourgoals2021.

While it appears that races are moving forward and expecting some return to more traditional formats, commitment to a goal shouldn’t end if a race is canceled, reduced, or switched to a virtual event.

The growth of virtual racing, both through online platforms and in the form of on-your-own style races, where athletes do the distance on a course of their choosing, grew exponentially during the pandemic. During the USAT roundtable, Sherri McMillan, owner of Why Racing Events, emphasized the importance of virtual racing for both the sustainability of races and the opportunity for athlete participation. One example of a 2020 virtual event — the historic Boston Marathon — offered a full virtual experience which 16,183 runners took advantage of. The event hub was a detailed app that included: printable finish banners, cheering crowds with an announcer, and streamlined data uploads post-race. The Boston Athletic Association is already offering the virtual experience to runners for their 2021 event despite current plans for the simultaneous in-person race. It might be that virtual experiences are going to be an option that outlasts the pandemic. USAT is referring to this trend as a “virtual explosion” and expects it to continue for the foreseeable future.

Either way, entering into the season with some degree of flexibility, but with a full commitment to goals means accepting uncertainty and rolling with change. As Carrie Cheadle states in her book On Top of Your Game, “When you understand the elements involved in setting effective goals you can create a goal path that feeds your confidence and motivation versus feeding your anxiety, doubt, and fear.” In our emergence from pandemic living, this means expanded preparation, flexibility with race changes, and focusing on variables that are in your control.

With a solid slate of goals, a mindset of flexibility with a willingness to commit, multisport athletes are primed for emergence into a new season of racing. Don’t let anxiety and ambiguity prevent you from taking initial early season steps that will contribute to a fun, appropriately demanding, rewarding 2021 triathlon season.

Carrie McCusker

Carrie McCusker is a level 2 TrainingPeaks coach and a lifelong athlete who enjoys bringing individual attention to every level of athlete. You can find her on Strava and Instagram or check out her coach profile at TrainingPeaks.
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