It’s been a while since I wrote the below article, but I thought it might have some importance to share before the season winds completely down and with many athletes getting set to race an Ironman, especially Ironman Wisconsin, the Chicago Triathlon, or a time trial like the 4-Man coming up on September 13. You don’t want to train too much in the off-season and burn out before your season peaks and you don’t want to go overboard while racing and be unable to cross the finish line. Here’s something to consider on knowing your limits when it comes to racing and training.
To ensure your success as an endurance athlete, it is critical that you know your limits. In this sense, “knowing your limits” refers to knowing when you are helping yourself by pushing harder and when you are damaging your body by going over your limits in training or racing. There is often a fine balancing act between these two extremes to maximize the training benefits and racing results.
Determining these limits can be done in one of two ways: in the lab or on the road. The most important limit to know is lactate threshold. A lab test protocol will help you to determine how much power you produce at threshold and what your threshold HR is. Field tests can be very simply worked into normal training and are a suitable substitute for lab testing. The field test protocol is to pick a 10 mile loop or stretch of road with few interruptions and ride it as hard as you can, recording average power and average HR in the last 20 minutes of the effort. Once you have established these limits, you can use them to guide your training by using them as reference points for intervals of various durations. But keep in mind, if you are doing a set of intervals, you will never be able to produce as much power as for a single maximum effort. As your training progresses, these limits should shift and repeating the test protocol again every 6-8 weeks will ensure you are maximizing your potential by using the appropriate reference points.
Realizing your limits is also incredibly valuable in race situations. If you go beyond your limits too long early in a long event, you may never fully recover and suffer for the rest of the event. For Ironman athletes, this can mean losing massive amounts of time when you can’t keep your pace up anymore, or for a century rider it can make the event much less enjoyable because your focus is on your suffering rather than enjoying the experience. Similarly, in shorter events like time-trials, going too hard in the first 10K means you probably won’t have the power left to ramp up in the last 10K and your finish time won’t be what you were hoping for. In mass start events, doing too much work and not maximizing energy conservation can mean getting dropped from the group and your race is over. Alex Zulle had truly mastered this skill in the high mountains of the Tour de France. Many times, he came back on riders who were over there limits trying to stay on the wheel of a stronger rider, but when they blew up he would catch and pass them because he was smart enough to ride within his limits.
However, there are times when it is better to make the sacrifice and push over your limits to make things easier in the long run. Hard sections in races or group rides, like short steep hills or vicious crosswinds, are good examples of this. Even though the pace of the group may be more than you can handle in one of these sections, if you fight to stay on, you will still be there when the pace eases up. If you had followed the outline above and backed off as you approached your limit, you would have to spend more time on the hill or in the crosswind and then spend even more energy chasing to get back into the group when it ended. Mastering this skill of going hard but not too hard is difficult, and comes only with lots of experience.
In short, know your limits! Sometimes you need to push past them to stay with the group, other times you need to respect them for the best result. The most important thing is to know where they are. I will discuss the value of pacing strategy and limits in triathlon racing in another article.