Even when conditions are ideal, XTERRA racing still might seem intimidating to some. But if you are properly trained and sufficiently prepared for what's out there, it can also be the best part of your entire racing season. Being able to adjust your expectations and strategies on the fly is a critical part of racing successfully; it’s a hallmark of the experienced triathlete. So how do you become comfortable and even confident when race day throws you a curveball or even a knuckle sandwich?
You race how you train
A key part of training is preparing yourself for possible race-day conditions. While every triathlete hopes race day will be sunny, calm and 70 degrees, there’s no guarantee that will happen. If you’re training outdoors on nice days but hitting the treadmill or exercise bike in bad weather, you’re not fully preparing yourself. If you’re only training indoors, your problem is even worse. Running on a treadmill, pedaling on an exercise bike, or doing laps in the pool will get you in shape, but it won’t prepare you for the conditions you could encounter during your race.
Outdoors, you are faced with mud, fallen trees, rain, wind, changing temps, currents, waves, and other obstacles that you won’t find indoors. Several years ago, one season brought rain and wind to every single one of my XTERRA races. It was a given that on race morning it would be chilly and raining. But I was prepared! I had spent many training sessions riding my bike and running on slick, muddy trails under drizzling skies and swimming in Lake Michigan with heavy chop. It wasn't always fun, but it gave me the confidence to swim, ride and run through anything.
Training and preparing in challenging weather creates a huge mental advantage because it allows you to focus on race tactics, trail and water conditions and pre-race visualizations, instead of becoming distracted and stressed by the howling wind or searing heat. Confidence is an important mental component of racing and there were situations where I smiled in the transition amid the pouring rain, while my opponents showed distress. I already had an edge.
Control what you can
Aside from doing the proper outdoor training, it also helps to keep an eye on the weather forecast in the days before the race. Even though we can't control the weather, we can control how we respond to it.
If there’s even a slight chance of rain, pack a rain jacket to keep you dry and comfortable while setting up transition. If conditions will be hot and humid, bring extra fluids and nutrition. And your wetsuit? Pack it! Always pack it! Wetsuits were allowed the past several years down in Alabama at XTERRA Oak Mountain. You might be thinking, Alabama in mid-May? Are you kidding me? It's always like 85 degrees! However, back in 2015 it was 48 degrees and raining the morning of the race. I almost left my wetsuit in Michigan. What a huge mistake that would've been. Instead of getting out of the water numb and zapped of energy, I exited the swim warm and ready to hop on my bike.
If it rains the night before the race, both the run and bike trails will obviously be affected. It helps to check them out the morning of the race and adjust accordingly. For example, if the bike course has become muddy and slippery, you'll probably want to take some air out of your tires for better traction. You also might consider practicing taking in nutrition on the "new" trails. What was once a perfect spot to grab your water bottle might have turned into mucky mess.
How to deal with mud
There are all sorts of tricks you can use to make riding in slippery conditions either easier or faster, but the absolute best piece of advice has more to do with mindset and riding style than changing any single piece of equipment on either your bike or yourself.
Relax your body and let the bike move beneath you more than you might be used to. This is an approach that is certainly one of the harder skills to learn, as it can feel counterintuitive to how you are used to reacting when your bike loses traction. However, riding in really slick conditions often means that your bike never really has proper traction to begin with, so fighting to find it will cause you to be constantly trying to correct slides. That's a surefire way to hit the deck, which will only exacerbate your problems. Instead, use a lighter grip on the handlebar and, for lack of a better way to put it, think about letting your bike dance underneath you. It does no good to panic!
You will also have to make adjustments for running on slick trails. Keep an eye out for wet rocks, bridges and slippery downhills. Look at the "new" course as a challenge that you can and will overcome. This is what makes XTERRA different, and what makes it awesome!
The bottom line? Know the course, come up with a plan, and rehearse it in your mind a day or two before so you're prepared for race day. But, be ready to adapt and go to your contingency plan if you wake up to wind and rain or a heat wave that rolled into town.
The mental process of coming up with several plans allows you to go over many different scenarios that could occur before and during the race so that when race morning isn't a day in the breezy tropics like you'd hoped, you'll be much more equipped to handle it. In fact, you might just embrace it! Your mind can be your biggest asset or your greatest enemy. You have the power to train your mindset as you train your muscles, so try not to stress. Remember you trained for all sorts of weather conditions during your training sessions, and every other athlete towing the starting line with you is facing the exact same conditions.
The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by SheriAnne Little, Jeffrey Kline, and four-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of PRS Fit. Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA. Read past training articles from PRS Fit at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/couch-to-trail and learn more about their coaching programs at prsfit.com.