What does it mean to have a plan when we are talking about bike racing and training?
In the context of training it is usually pretty easy for most riders to wrap their mind around having "a plan". Most everyone is familiar with current training methods and can think in terms of working through the winter following a periodization-based training plan and continuing that plan through the spring and summer to reach form for important events.
But, ask some riders what their plan is for an upcoming weekend race, and after a blank stare for a few seconds you will often get an answer like, "Stay with the main group", or "Hopefully get in the top 10". Unfortunately, these responses are not plans. This is biggest mistake most riders make going into an event. They confuse the plan the desired outcome or goal.
When formulating a plan, you need a few pieces of basic information:
1.) The Desired Outcome
I word it this way because I think it makes it a bit clearer what we are talking about. The desired outcome is how you want things to be at the end of the day. For some that might be hanging in with the main bunch. For others, a top 10 finish. For some, finishing 5 laps on a tough circuit will fit the bill. Whatever your desired outcome, just be sure it is realistic. There is no sense trying to craft a plan that is trying to get you to a place that you are either physically or mentally unable to reach at the current time. I'm all for setting goals that push you. But it is important to keep that in check. Ask yourself, "If everything went my way, and I had my best day ever on a bike could I meet this goal?" Use current training information, recent performances and past performance in similar circumstances as a guide.
2.) Acquire information about the event
Next, you'll want to get as much info about the event. Where are the important difficulties on the course? How far from the finish do they come? Where are the danger points on the course? On race day, pay attention to the weather and how that will play into how the event will be run and how you should ride it. Just a note: One of the most commonly overlooked variables is wind. Knowing how the wind will affect the group certain parts of a course, and riding tactically to stay out of the wind can be a real advantage and can save you precious energy that will be available for you to use at other times during the race. The long and short of it is, the more info you have about the race the better.
3.) Know your competition
Just as you want to have as much info about the race and the course, you want to gather similar info about the other riders in your race. Who are the strong riders? Who are the less fit riders? Who are the dangerous riders you'll want to avoid? Try to learn about the racing styles of the other riders you race with every weekend. You'll want to avoid going with a break full of riders who commonly don't work or work so hard they blow before the finish. By the same token, if it comes down to a sprint finish, you'll want to know the riders that commonly finish high in the standings, and follow them in the final.
4.) Know yourself
Finally, take an honest look at yourself. Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses. If short, hard hills are your weakness, then you'll want to use the flats leading up to a steepy to position yourself well to the fore to avoid getting shot off the back. I'm teetering on a discussion of tactics, which is several articles in itself. But in general be sure to consider what you know about yourself when designing your race plan.
A good race plan answers this question: "Realistically, what needs to happen for me to achieve my desired outcome".
So, what might an example plan look like you ask? Below is the first several entries from a hypothetical race plan. Notice that the plan starts before the racing begins and it can start even earlier than is indicated here. Workouts the day before can be included in your plan as well as meals and other activities. The example below is just to give you an idea of things to consider.
Example Plan: The desired outcome is to finish with the main group.
...the list can go on and on.
Developing a plan is no guarantee that you'll hit your goal, but having one gives you a better chance of doing so. Be sure to write you plan down BEFORE the race in your training diary. Then after the race you can recap what happened during the race to see what worked, what didn't and how you can do things better in future events.
One important thing to remember when you start your race, ready to follow your newly developed plan, be prepared to change it during the event. You have to remember there are 40 or more other guys or gals out there racing with and against you. When you have to break out of the plan, due to an unexpected turn of events, the key is assessing the situation and coming up with a short-term plan to get things back on track.
A question I get from riders often is, "What is racing smart?" We say it all the time, "Ride smart…" My simple answer is, "Smart racing and training are thoughtful." If you put thought into your racing and training you will improve. Designing a thoughtful plan for your next event will put you one step closer to achieving your goals.