How much racing is too much racing
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How Much Racing Is Too Much Racing?

By: Jim Rutberg  June 01, 2022

Have you prioritized your racing calendar? If not, this one is for you.

Cyclists have a wide variety of events and competitions to choose from, particularly now that more riders participate in multiple disciplines. It’s tempting to sign up for everything, but you have finite amounts of time and energy to devote to training and recovery. The best racers plan their seasons around building to peak fitness before a small number of high-priority events, knowing this means skipping or training through other events. Here’s how you can set yourself up for a successful season, without overdoing it.

The Risks of Racing Too Much

The biggest risk from stacking your season with too many races is that your performances will suffer across the board. Instead of reaching new heights, over-racing results in lackluster fitness and performance outcomes. Here’s why:

Over-racing Risk: Insufficient focus on targeted intensities

Structured training improves fitness by accumulating time at target intensities. For instance, to improve maximum sustainable power for long climbs, a cyclist could schedule a block of training focused on increasing Functional Threshold Power (FTP), which is the highest average power a cyclist can sustain for an hour. These training blocks sometimes include 2-3 interval workouts per week over a period of a few weeks to concentrate training stress on a specific area of physiology.

On the other hand, racing is a stochastic activity, meaning the bouts of intensity are unpredictable. This is what makes racing spontaneous and exciting! However, there’s a downside of all that variability. It can take away from your ability to target specific intensities, for adequate amounts of time, to create the training stress needed to stimulate positive adaptations.

Over-racing Risk: Erosion of aerobic base fitness

When it comes to fitness, racing is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s nearly impossible to replicate the intensities and dynamics of racing in training. As discussed below, this is why cyclists should incorporate training races into their annual plan. On the other end of the spectrum, racing too frequently creates a cycle of “race, recover, race, recover, etc.” that doesn’t leave any time for productive training.

Ironically, over-racing can erode aerobic base fitness. Even though you’re spending significant hours on the bike, the distribution of intensity levels gets skewed. During training, the majority of ride time (up to about 80%) is spent at lower intensities (i.e. Zone 2 or a conversational pace), with the remainder targeted to training goals. With a heavy racing schedule, this distribution shifts to favor either very high intensity during races, or very low intensity recovery rides or rest days between them.

Your base of aerobic fitness supports all the training and racing intensities above it. When it erodes, your high-end race fitness declines, too.

How to Avoid Over-Racing

Athletes who work with USA Cycling Coaches, use available resources to coach themselves, or use static plans may be familiar with annual periodization plans. These plans segment the year into periods of several weeks to several months, each focused on specific training objectives. A comprehensive guide to periodization is beyond the scope of this article. However, categorizing races by priority is a component of periodization that is important in a discussion about over-racing.

Categorize races and events by priority

Designating A-, B-, and C-races is the most common method for categorizing races and events by priority. Here’s how it works:

  • A-races: The 1-3 events you want to be optimally prepared for this year, or the relatively short period (1-3 weeks) during which you want to perform at your best. These events are what your training, B-races, and C-races build to. Your goal doesn’t need to be a victory, or even involve a competition. What’s more important is that your goal has significant personal value to you.

    Peaking for A-races involves a period of event-specific training, followed by structured rest or a taper to reduce fatigue and maximize your ability to perform. A-races are typically followed by rest periods that can last from 1-4 weeks, based on where you are in your season and how many A-races you have in your plan.

  • B-races: 6-12 events per year where you want to perform well, but where results are not as personally valuable as in A-races. The biggest difference between A- and B-races is the amount of rest you take beforehand. Prior to A-races you might back off training volume for 1-2 weeks, whereas you might rest up for 2-3 days before B-races.

    B-races play an important role in your preparation for A-races. They are hard training sessions by themselves, and opportunities to practice your pre-event routines, test nutrition strategies, and evaluate strengths and weaknesses you can address in your training plan.

  • C-races: These are the events you train through and treat as workouts and opportunities to learn handling skills and racing tactics. Your local “Tuesday Night World Championship” training races or fast group rides are good examples. E-sports competitions can be A-, B-, or C-races, and many cyclists use them as C-races in place of high-intensity structured workouts. There’s no set limit to the number of C-races you can do, but overscheduling C-races is where many cyclists get into trouble. These events most often displace structured training within a rider’s training plan.

Signs That You’re Overscheduled

Some riders can successfully peak for multiple A-races spread across a calendar year. Others do best when they focus on peaking for one race a season, on a particular day or week. Still others are best served by peaking for a 2- to 3-week period that includes a block of several important races – like a stage race or month-long race series. Optimal event schedules and frequencies vary significantly from athlete to athlete. As you try to figure out what works best for you, watch out for these signs of over-racing or overscheduling.

  • Lack of Enthusiasm: Racing is exciting and fun, or at least it should be. If racing or weekend events start to feel like drudgery, you may be overscheduled.
  • Silly mistakes: When cyclists are physically and mentally fatigued from too many events, they often start making uncharacteristic mistakes. Highly skilled racers start crossing wheels, taking bad lines, or crashing. Riders who are normally well organized forget their cycling shoes or leave their helmet at home. This is significant because events usually cause heightened focus on these details.
  • Diminishing performance: Anyone can have an isolated bad day. For overscheduled riders, bad days get more frequent and progressively worse. This can be a sign of significant fatigue and inadequate recovery time between events. It can also be a sign the focus on racing or events has displaced so much focused training that basic aerobic fitness is declining.

Saving Your Season

If you’re suffering from the effects of racing too much, act quickly and adjust your plans. This is particularly important if you’ve overscheduled the first part of the season and your big A-races are still months away. If performance is diminishing, back off on racing and group rides and refocus on building your aerobic base and maximum sustainable power. If you’re just not motivated or excited about events, try a period of unstructured riding – no interval workouts, no events, no data analysis. Just go ride until you remember why you love doing it. And always remember: annual plans are never set in stone and with endurance training there are always multiple paths to achieve high performance.