Training FAQ: How to gauge form before your season-opening race

Chris Case speaks with coaches, researchers, and sport scientists to answer all your training and nutrition questions.

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Dear Chris,
I’m doing the Land Run 100 gravel race this coming weekend. I haven’t raced yet this year, so my form is a bit of an unknown. What are the best metrics to understand how I should race … or at least how to make sure I don’t implode?
— Skip

Dear Skip,
It’s great to hear you’re heading to Oklahoma to take on some of the famous mud and dirt of Land Run. Incidentally, news director Spencer Powlison and I will be taking the start right there beside you.

Trying to predict your form before the season opener can be a nerve-wracking endeavor. You might be asking, “Have I done enough work? Have I done the right type of work?” If you’re relying on feeling, it can become a guessing game. However, in this era of training metrics and number-crunching, data can tell you a lot about what to expect when that first attack comes.

According to Frank Overton, owner of FasCat Coaching, sometimes the best way to approach your season opener, and to understand the form you bring to it, is with a combination of feeling and data. In preparation for the race, it’s likely that you’ve done either interval work or group training rides. Comparing data from those sessions will allow you to gauge progress. Speaking in general terms, depending on the type of race you’re about to do, you might put more emphasis on a particular type of effort, reflective of a particular energy system. For example, your 1-minute and 5-minute power, or your 20-minute or 60-minute power.

Obviously, you want to be seeing those numbers trend upward, but be careful not to overemphasize differences from year to year. If you’re down from previous years, is there a clear reason why? Less volume, a different approach to your overall training approach? Finally, remember that your training from one week to the next shouldn’t be viewed alone but in relation to a greater season plan that should put you on track for different races of higher and lower priority.

“But data is only part of it,” Overton says. “I want to hear from the athlete that they’re feeling better and better. That they’re feeling more powerful. And you obviously want to see a power increase that correlates with those sensations… are they hanging longer on the Saturday group ride, or feeling better after a set of intervals.”

Overton will also use Training Stress Balance (TSB) in TrainingPeaks software to determine an athlete’s form. Form is, in a phrase, race readiness. More specifically, this proprietary metric is the result of subtracting today’s fatigue from today’s fitness. Once the software has done the calculation, the remainder is your form. The higher the number, the better the form.

How should you use this information to inform your race strategy at a race like Land Run? Gravel races are a unique beast. Because all abilities start at once, there is often an hour-plus throwdown that sorts things out. Then it becomes a question of the type of group you end up in after that initial surge dies down. If you’re feeling good, you may find yourself weighing the pros and cons of trying to hang with a stronger group by riding above your limit in order to gain from the draft. Eventually, that group’s pace may subside and you could get sucked along by a cadre of strong riders. On the other hand, if you push too hard, you may blow up five hours into the race. The choice is ultimately yours, and there are other things to consider.

“The first thing I tell my athletes is to be confident in your training,” Overton says. “For the athlete that’s been crushing it and has been hitting big numbers, I’ll tell them to try and hang with the group as long as they can. Don’t worry about blowing up in the third or fourth hour. I’m the glass-half-full coach. It’s good to find out your limit. Everyone finishes a gravel race in ‘death-march territory’ so just see how good of a group you can get in by going deep, just not necessarily throwing caution to the wind.”

Just as in training, both feeling and data can and should inform how you race. Don’t stare at your power meter; don’t ignore it either. Likewise, don’t get caught up in the moment and forget to take note of the sensations your body is sending your way. Take all of that information into account and you’ll have the best race you can on the day. Assuming you don’t get stuck in a mud hole at a race like Land Run.

See you out there, Skip.

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