Success in sport goes beyond training hard. Often, it is the attention to detail and doing the little things that can be the difference between a personal best and personal anguish. Massage, proper nutrition, getting enough rest, a smart training plan, and making sure your equipment fits and is in working order are all things that are commonly known to benefit performance.
But here I’m going to focus on three lesser known little things that can make a big difference in your training, racing, and ultimately reaching your athletic potential.
1. Choosing the right races based on your main goal
Flat. Hilly. Short. Long. Trail. Road. Summer. Winter. Spring. Fall. Running. Cycling. Triathlon. Swimming. This is just a short list of your racing options and the permutations of these 14 suggestions are endless, which means you have almost limitless choices to make when creating your race schedule.
You may be wondering how to make the right selection. The short answer is that your decision should be predicated on your main goal for the season (you should have one, but that is a topic for another day), and your other races should help you reach that goal.
Let’s say you are aiming for a Boston Marathon qualifying time. Your qualifier race should be on a course suited to your specific skill set. A hard course like the Twin Cities Marathon, which has numerous ill-placed hills over the last 10K, probably isn’t the best choice if you are on the qualifying cusp or if you are weak on the hills. Downhill races, such as one in the Revel series or the St. George Marathon, are excellent options if you are an expert downhill runner. A nice flat course like the Arizona Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon will work for those who like a steady pace throughout the entire race.
When I was racing triathlons, I knew my forte lay with the harder races, especially those that were hot, hilly and humid. It was no surprise then that I excelled at the IRONMAN 70.3 St. Croix triathlon, which is known for its hills, but had less success at the flatter IRONMAN Arizona.
This does not mean that all of your races need to follow some type of formula. In fact, mixing it up will enable you to practice your weaknesses and perhaps even turn them into strengths. Races of shorter distances are excellent preparation for longer races just as the occasional trail race will make a road race feel easier.
You may decide to add a “bucket list” or destination race to your schedule, such the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon or the Imogene Pass trail run. Many destination-type races don’t have a qualification process, and their unique courses will challenge any athlete. Should you choose a race that has known difficulties, such as the sand ladder at the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon or the rough terrain and mountainous setting at Imogene Pass, try to practice these technicalities in any way that you can under the restrictions of your personal training environment.
2. Paying attention to technique
At the gym the other day I overheard two women talking about swimming. The first woman was explaining that she was taking an adult swim technique class because she has lots of endurance but no speed. Her friend was awed by the notion of working on technique rather than just hammering out hard sets — a method she was using to no avail — because (she explained) her swimming progress stagnated years ago.
A more general review across many sports, including endurance sports, suggested that world records are lowered in part due to improved technique over time.
The first woman certainly had it right: improving her swim technique will pay off, and indeed, improving technique in any sport is beneficial to performance. A recent study in elite cross-country skiers found that the differences in time-trial performance could mostly be explained by variations in technique.
A more general review across many sports, including endurance sports, suggested that world records are lowered in part due to improved technique over time, which creates more athletic efficiency and improvement in energy output — some pretty nice benefits of working on your technique.
Proper mechanics serve a bigger purpose than sheer speed though. For most of us, going fast is the obvious goal, but injury prevention should also be a key objective, as poor technique will accelerate injury in repetitive sports like swimming, running and cycling.
I see athletes with poor technique all the time: Fledgling swimmers yanking themselves through the water in whatever way possible, neglecting to recruit the proper muscles; or runners flailing, over-striding and running with a cadence that is much too low. I see cyclists making form errors all the time, riding with their knees out or in, heels dropped, or with unstable hips.
The best way to understand your technique is to find an expert to analyze your mechanics. It is never easy to see ourselves on tape doing the sports we love in a way that is incongruent with our perception of how we look. But, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and when it comes to technique, there is no better way to make improvements than seeing yourself in action, faults and all.
Once you’ve identified your strengths and weakness, make a concerted effort to practice proper form on a regular basis. It takes time to reprogram the neuromuscular connections — from eight to 20 weeks — so be patient! Your patience should pay off though, as studies have found that neuromuscular retraining can prevent injuries and improve performance.
3. Keeping a log
As a triathlete, I never kept track of my training; I just couldn’t be bothered after years of being required to meticulously write down every swim session for my various coaches. It was too much time and effort and I really didn’t see the value.
Then along came Strava, the social media site where you can upload your workouts. I tentatively joined Strava in 2011 after I ran the California International Marathon so I could see my mile splits and analyze my performance. At first, I only uploaded long runs and interval sessions.
After a few months, I started uploading every run and every walk because I understood the value of being able to see my weekly mileage totals, how each interval session panned out, and how I paced my long runs.
I have been beset with rib injuries from a bike accident that have required six surgeries over the years. Logging my runs (and walks) helped me understand the best approach to my recovery from each surgery and how to adjust my training during painful flare-ups.
What I now understand is that I have a terrible memory and I can barely recall a workout from last week, let alone a workout from several years ago. My Strava “log” has allowed me to go back and check my training prior to my good races and poor races, thus enabling me to predict how I will perform in an upcoming race.
Keeping a log of some sort, whether through an online platform or a regular ol’ notebook, will enable you to chart your progress over time. Additionally, a log can alert you to a pending disaster; if you see too many “bad” days in a row, for example, you know it is time for a rest.
The human body can only withstand so much training. Luckily, there are other ways to further your chances of success without battering yourself by slogging through more futile hours of training: choose races suited to your talents, work on your technique, and keep a training log.
 Sandbakk, Ø., Losnegard, T., Skattebo, Ø., Hegge, A. M., Tønnessen, E., & Kocbach, J. (2016). Analysis of classical time-trial performance and technique-specific physiological determinants in elite female cross-country skiers. Age (year), 24, 3-9.
 Li, L. (2012). How Can Sport Biomechanics Contribute to the Advance of World Record and Best Athletic Performance?. Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science, 16(3), 194-202.
 Noyes, F. R., & Barber-Westin, S. D. (2015). Neuromuscular Retraining in Female Adolescent Athletes: Effect on Athletic Performance Indices and Noncontact Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury Rates. Sports, 3(2), 56-76.
Joanna Zeiger, MS, PhD, raced as a professional triathlete from 1998-2010. She placed fourth in the triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and won the 2008 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships. She is a seven-time Olympic trials qualifier in three sports — marathon, triathlon and swimming. Joanna still pursues her passion for sports as a top Masters runner. Through her company, Race Ready Coaching, Joanna trains endurance athletes to reach their personal best and instills in them the importance of having fun even when they are training hard. When she is not coaching or training for running events, Joanna works as a consultant in the field of biostatistics. Joanna’s book The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness will be published in February 2017 by St. Martin’s Press.