3 Ways You Can Be Faster This Weekend
Perhaps the most common question I get is, "Hey Kurt, what workout should I do so I can be faster by my next race?" The answer depends on how long you have until that race, but most people ask this a couple of weeks out from an event in which they want to do well.
Unfortunately, when you're a few weeks out, there's no magic workout you're going to be able to do to get a lot faster. That never stops people from trying!
There are about a million things you can do that can slow you down by your next race, and more often than not, most amateurs make tons of mistakes in the lead-up to key events. A lot of them are things they're doing that they THINK will make them faster, but in reality, it's doing the exact opposite.
So here are three things I've learned that you can change TODAY that will make you faster for your next race:
1. Get more sleep starting tonight
Sleep is critical to recovery, and the most important thing you can do in the days before an important race is to try to be as fresh as possible without losing too much fitness and sharpness. One of the two most critical components of recovery is sleep (the other is your nutrition).
Recommendations vary, but the general consensus is that the average human needs a minimum of 7 hours of sleep each night to be as productive as possible.
Endurance athletes aren't average humans. We need more. We need more sleep. We need more high-quality food.
You will see a major change in your ability to train and race well by improving your sleeping habits.
Step 1: Start by going to bed earlier.
I recommend aiming to be in bed for 9 hours, as generally, that will help you get closer to 8 quality hours of sleep. If you're one of those "I get by on 6 hours of sleep and 6 cups of coffee" people (hello, active-duty Navy people!), I guarantee you will see a massive improvement if you can make sleep a priority.
But it's not good enough to sleep a bunch on Saturday night for a Sunday race. In fact, if you're not used to it, that's likely to leave you groggy... and let's be honest, many people don't sleep well the night before an event, especially if there's an alarm and an early start time involved.
So start today.
The sleep you get early in the week is far more important than the sleep you get the night before. It's your sleep on Thursday night that will determine how rested you feel come the weekend.
When I was a young triathlete in South Carolina, I would go out with friends on Thursday nights before races on Sundays. I didn't think it was a big deal - I'd stay in Friday and Saturday, take extra naps, and be good to go, right?
My worst race as a triathlete came on a Sunday morning after a particularly long night out on Thursday followed by about five hours of sleep inhibited by over-consumption of alcohol. I almost quit. I walked multiple times on the 5K run leg in a one-hour race. Normally a top-10 finisher and age-group winner in those races, that was an important lesson learned early in my adult racing career: I didn't drink a drop Friday or Saturday, and I made sure to get extra sleep those nights... didn't matter - the damage was done three nights before the race.
Here are a few ways you can improve your sleep starting tonight:
Have consistent bedtimes and wake-up times - establish a rhythm.
Avoid screen time for at least 30 minutes before bed.
Limit caffeine intake, particularly after 12 pm.
Limit alcohol intake (or just abstain altogether!).
Eat your last major meal at least 3 hours before bedtime.
Try to avoid hard training late in the day if your schedule permits.
2. Reduce the volume and intensity of your training
Most endurance athletes can remember a time when they thought hard training right up until race day was the best way to make sure they were as fast as possible. Perhaps you're still of this mindset.
Athletes improve their performance by repeating the following cycle consistently over many months and years:
Train hard enough and/or long enough to elicit a stimulus on the body
Recover from that training
Adapt to the stimulus
Depending on the improvements you're seeking, that cycle takes several months (or years!) to see substantial gains, and only in very limited instances does training done that week cause an improvement in days. Usually, that type of improvement is neurological (your brain learns how to do something a little bit better) and not physiological.
Aerobic adaptations and improvements generally take consistent aerobic stimulus over the course of several months. Doing that century ride on Monday isn't going to make you faster by the weekend, no matter how well you do it and how much zone 2 time you spend. It's just going to make you tired.
Anaerobic adaptations generally appear after focused work over the course of several weeks. Often 6-8 workouts are enough to maximize the stimulus, but then you have to recover from them to get the (relatively small) gains. Simply put, smashing out 1-minute intervals or chasing Strava KOMs all week isn't going to make you faster by the weekend. It's just going to make you tired.
Sprint work can be improved in a short time, but that is less about your body getting stronger and more about your brain learning how to sprint a little bit better each time you practice.
BUT sprint work comes with a cost - it can be very taxing, especially if you're not used to it.
You can safely do one sprint workout early in the week, and maybe a couple of short "opener" type sprints in easy workouts later in the week without doing too much harm, but the improvements there are going to be minimal as well... and the risk of overdoing it is pretty high, and that will - you guessed it - just make you tired.
Bottom line: your training this week probably isn't making you faster by this weekend. It's more likely to make you slower due to fatigue.
You need some race-like intensity during the week to feel sharp on race day, but not a lot. Many athletes have better performances on slightly reduced pre-race volume as well, but everyone is different. You have to get to know what works best for you. (Smashing KOMs all week before a race isn't it.)
So, look at your week's plan; are you riding too much or too hard this week?
You can compare what you're doing this week to what you did last week. The intensity should be in line with what you've been training, but the number of sets or intervals should be reduced. If you're not following structure, this isn't the time to be stacking hard group rides throughout the week. If you care about the results of this weekend's event, skip "Wednesday Night Worlds" this week, and instead do a session with some intensity, but reduce the volume.
Finally, unless you're doing focused interval work, you should keep the rest of your riding in the lower end of zone 2 (or lower). This will help ensure you're not overdoing it and help you feel fresher come race day.
3. Check and clean your bike
You can derail the best training of your life by simply showing up on race day with equipment that doesn't work properly. I'm not talking about having the fastest wheelset, most aero helmet, or lightest frame. I'm just talking about: does your gear work the way it's supposed to?
When was the last time you cleaned your drivetrain? When was the last time you lubricated your chain? There are real watts lost by amateur racers due to friction from greasy, dirty, or unlubricated drivetrains, every weekend! You don't have to wax your chain to get faster (though it does help!), you just need to take care of the simple stuff and clean your $%&#!
If the approaching race is a goal event for you, you should probably be riding a little bit less during the week. That frees up time for you to take care of your bike. Here are a few suggestions for productive things you can do in about an hour (total) that will make you faster this weekend:
Degrease, clean, and then lubricate your drivetrain.
Check your shifting and index your rear derailleur (YouTube) as needed. Clean shifting is faster!
Check out your tire pressures - you might be able to run lower pressure and be faster.*
Remove your saddlebag and any other attachments including bottle cages that you won't need on race day.
Check the chin strap on your helmet and make sure it's snug, not flapping around.
Check your nuts and bolts for tightness. Crashing is slow!
(*) Tire pressure can be a tricky one and opinions vary, but I recommend experimenting with running somewhat lower pressures. At a combined weight of about 185lbs (bike, kit + rider), I run 80psi in front and 85psi rear on my carbon clincher (tubed) race wheels in relatively smooth criteriums. Some people probably run even lower than that, especially on tubeless setups. I run slightly lower pressure when it's wet or on rough courses as well.
Gone are the days of running 100psi (or higher!) in your tires on the road, and for a few reasons. While higher pressures reduce rolling resistance, they also decrease the contact patch of the tire on the road and increase the impedance caused by bouncing over small bumps in the road surface. You may not feel the bouncing happening, but it does, even on relatively smooth roads. If you use exaggeratedly high pressures (120psi or more) in tires capable of such pressures... you're gonna have a bad time. Here's a blog from Flo cycling that talks more about rolling resistance, impedance, and contact patch for road tires.
In addition, running somewhat lower pressure will improve your handling by increasing the size of the contact patch between the tire and the road surface. This will improve grip in all situations, particularly in wet conditions. This can be critical in criterium racing, in particular.
There is a bit of a tradeoff between rolling resistance vs. impedance and handling, so your pressure should change depending on the type of event and course conditions: for a smooth out-and-back time trial, you might run higher pressure to reduce rolling resistance; for a four-corner criterium on a rougher surface, you'll want to run somewhat lower pressure.
There are two prominent tire pressure calculators online, both of which require a little bit of knowledge about your wheelset, in particular. These can give you a pretty good starting point for tire pressures. Over the years, as I've changed setups, I've tended toward the lower recommendations from the Silca calculator below, but I usually end up in between the recommendations:
Note that tire pressure recommendations vary depending on your setup - tubed clincher vs. tubeless (does anyone without a team car run "sew-up" tubular anymore?), so take that into consideration. Spend a minute thinking about tire pressure - it's a simple detail that can make you faster (and potentially safer) on race day. Are you running 100psi? While you're thinking about it, clean that nasty drivetrain...
Got any other last-minute tips on how to get faster by the weekend? Leave yours in the comments!