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How Much Racing Is Too Much

During my career I watched my toughest competitors pick their races each year. I’d track how they did in each and weigh their performances in my mind.

My quest was to figure out how much racing was needed to race well at the big events. But more importantly I was also trying to make a mental tally of when there was a crossover and the number of races someone did started hurting their performance. I tracked the other guys, and I especially tracked my own racing. Here’s what I discovered.

Two Time IRONMAN World Champion Scott Tinley

The equation ended up being extremely complex.

You had a guy like Dave Scott who would barely race some years and then come to Kona and crush. There were others like Scott Tinley who seemed to race an endless string of races without any drawback. He too had success at the IRONMAN in Hawaii. It didn’t make sense.

So I went to my experiment of one…me. And to understand my unofficial survey you have to also understand how I raced. In pretty much ever race of my career I gave it an all out effort. Of course “All Out” had varying degrees, but I never went into a race thinking I was just doing it as a training race.

That was not exactly how a lot of my other competitors operated. If they got in a position in the race where they were not going to hit a target they had for the event, they would stop digging. I, either fortunately or unfortunately, did not have that lever to pull. I went just as hard with no hope of winning or hitting a particular time as I did when it all looked like it was going to turn out rosy and in my favor.

The first half of my career I raced about ten races a season.

That was a general mix of one IRONMAN, two to three IRONMAN 70.3 races, one or two Long Distance races (swim 4 km [2.5 mi], bike 120 km [75 mi], run 30 km [19 mi]) and the rest Olympic distance races. For me that was too much. I could tell I was always just a bit off of my game in at least half of them.

From 1989 onward I cut things back to averaging about seven races per season. And the way I split the races up, my total racing miles for the year with those seven races was about 450 miles. If you translated that into doing just IRONMAN distance, that would have been three per year with no other races. If you were to cover that many miles on the race course in Olympic distance events, it would take doing about fifteen races a season. As a point of reference, the ITU World Triathlon Series generally has about ten races a year in it. Or to a point of recent efforts, Terenzo Bozzone raced almost 550 miles in total in six races this past year starting in mid-September and finishing the first weekend of December. Those races were:

Sept 14: 70.3 Cozumel–1st
Oct 14: IRONMAN World Championship, Hawaii–6th
Nov 12: 70.3 Los Cabos–1st
Nov 17-18: Island House–2nd
Nov 25: 70.3 Bahrain–2nd
Dec 3: IRONMAN Western Australia–1st
I learned to treat each year on it’s own scale. No two were exactly the same and the decisions about how to train and what to race also had to change.

That formula worked extremely well for me. I had many of the best years of my career on that more abbreviated race schedule from 1989-1993. But it only worked for those five years, and then I fell off the cliff.

In 1994 I was exhausted. My body didn’t respond to training and my racing was meager. I only did a handful of races that year, and even by 1995 when I came back to try for win number six in Kona, I was still battling residual fatigue.

So the equation once again became complex. Five years on one plan worked like a charm. But even that was too much to sustain any longer. I’d won five IRONMAN World Championships during those years. I’d completed my unbeaten streak in Nice winning my final five of ten titles there. I posted a winning streak over a two-year period in the early part of those years going undefeated in twenty-one straight races at all distances. But now I was paying the price.

In 1994 I only did one long race. It was IRONMAN Germany. I was too tired to push and had my poorest showing in any IRONMAN of my career. Three days after the race I was back home in Boulder, CO recovering. But I actually wasn’t that sore. I went for a short run and felt like I’d just done maybe an Olympic distance race three days earlier, not an IRONMAN! It finally hit me. The recovery and the toll was dependent on how deep I dug and not just the miles I raced. Normally three days post-IRONMAN I could barely walk and the last thing on my mind was to go for a run!

This has been a long-winded way of saying there is a balance of racing that works that depends on how hard you go in each race over time.

Did you dig deep and go to the well or was it just a fun effort? It also depends on the number of times you choose to dig deep over the years. Those types of efforts take a much greater amount of time to bounce back from than ones where you raced but stayed well within your bounds. Doing a number of lifetime efforts in a short period of time adds up even quicker.

As I went into each season I tried to approach it with the wisdom of the past but also gauge it with the knowledge of where my body was right then and not on how I felt starting the previous season. That combination enabled me to weather fifteen years of racing at a world-class level and still today have a body that is thankfully intact, able to train and has no injuries or lingering limitations from racing.

I’ve always thought the best goal from sports is to go to the limit, but to also respect the limits. And with that will come incredible moments at the races as well as a life well lived.

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