Routines Enable Consistent Endurance-Sport Performance

Routines are one of the most important aspects of endurance sports that you can develop to improve your training and racing performances. Routines benefit all of your efforts in several ways:

  • Routines ensure total preparation in your efforts.
  • They enable you to be physically, technically, tactically, and mentally ready to perform your best.
  • Routines ingrain effective skills and habits that make it easier to transition from training to racing.
  • They train your mind and body to react the same way regardless of the importance or conditions of the race.

I don’t know a world-class or professional athlete in any sport who doesn’t use routines in some part of their training efforts and race preparations. And, because endurance sports is such a complex sport, routines are absolutely essential to your efforts, performance, and enjoyment in our sport.

There are a lot of things in endurance sports that you can’t control such as the water, terrain, road or trail surface, weather conditions, and your competitors. Ultimately, the only thing you can control is yourself. Routines can increase control over your performances by enabling you to directly prepare every area that impacts your endurance-sport efforts. Those areas you can control include your equipment (is your gear in optimal condition?), your body (are you physically warmed up and relaxed?), and your mind (are you motivated, confident, calm, and focused?).

Routines allow you to make your preparations more familiar and predictable and, as a result, more comfortable by knowing that you are systematically covering every area that will influence your performances. Routines can also help you expect the unexpected. In other words, as part of your routine, you can plan for every eventuality that could arise during a race. If you can reduce the things that can go wrong and be prepared for those things that do, you’ll be better able to stay focused and “in the moment” before and during a race.

Training Routine

For you to get the most out of your training efforts, you should develop a brief training routine that will ensure that you’re totally prepared for every drill, exercise, and workout in whatever sport you participate in. Your training routine should only take a short amount of time—one-to-three minutes—but will completely prepare you to get the most out of your workout efforts. It will also lay the foundation for using a routine before races. For your training routine to become effective, you must use it consistently. Your training routine should consist of the following:

  • Identify goals for the workout.
  • Review the specifics of the workout.
  • Physical warm-up before each part of your workout.
  • Mental warm-up (e.g., self-talk, mental imagery, focus keywords, breathing).

Race Routine

The next step in developing effective endurance-sport routines is to create a race routine that is an extended version of your training routines. The goal is the same, to be totally prepared to perform your best. The difference is that a race routine is usually much more detailed and thorough, may have a few more components, and usually takes longer to complete.

There is no one ideal routine for everyone. Race routines are individual. For every great endurance-sport athlete, you’ll see a different routine, but all will have common elements. You have to decide what exactly to put into your routine and how to structure it. Developing an effective race routine is a progressive process that will take time before you have one that really works for you.

Focus and intensity are two areas that you must consider most in developing your race routine. You should start by figuring out whether you have an internal or external focus style and what level of intensity at which you perform best. With that in mind, you want to plan your race routine so that when you begin a race, you are motivated, confident, focused and at an ideal intensity.

Focus style. An internal focus style means that you need to keep your focus narrow and on yourself to get prepared for a race. The goal in your race routine if you have an internal focus style is to put yourself in a place where there are few external distractions and where you can limit your focus to getting yourself ready to compete. To maintain that narrow focus, you want to go through your race routine away from other people that could distract you.

An external focus style means that you need to keep your focus wide during your preparations so you can keep your mind off the upcoming race and away from thinking too much. The goal in your race routine, if you have an external focus style, is to put yourself in a place where your focus is drawn outward and you’re unable to become focused internally and think too much about the race. Your race routine should be done where there is enough activity to draw your focus away from inside your head. To widen your focus, you want to go through your race routine around teammates, other competitors, and activities that can draw your focus outward. This external focus will prevent you from overthinking, going negative, and getting nervous.

Intensity needs. You’ll also want to build your race routine around your intensity needs. The intensity component of your race routine involves knowing how you want to feel physiologically, ranging from very relaxed to very fired up. I should note that, as a general rule, endurance sports require a relatively low level of intensity because increased intensity, as expressed with higher heart rate, more rapid breathing, and the release of adrenaline, burns fuel that is best saved for the race. Your race routine should include checking your intensity periodically as the race approaches and using psych-up or psych-down tools to adjust it as needed. You’ll need to set aside time in your routine when you can use these tools. As you approach the race, you’ll want to move closer to your ideal intensity. The short period just before the race should be devoted to a final check and adjustment of your intensity.

If you perform best at a lower level of intensity, you want your race routine to be done at an easy pace and have plenty of opportunities to take a break to slow down and relax. You’ll want to be around people who are relaxed and low-key as well. If you’re around anxious people, they’ll make you nervous too.

If you perform best at a higher level of intensity, you want your race routine to be done at a faster pace with more energy put into the components of your routine, particularly your physical warm-up. You will want to make sure that you are constantly moving. There should be little time during which you are just standing around and waiting. You’ll also want to be around people who are energetic and outgoing.

Designing a race routine. The first step in designing a race routine is to make a list of everything you need to do before a race to be prepared. Some of the common elements you should include are meals, review of race tactics, physical warm-up, equipment check, nutrition, hydration, and mental preparation. Other more personal things that might go into a race routine include going to the bathroom, changing into your race clothing, and using mental imagery.

Then, decide in what order you want to do the components of your list as you approach the start of the race. I generally recommend that you create the following order when you arrive at the race site:

  • Transition area set-up (if you’re a multisport endurance athletes).
  • Fueling.
  • Physical warm-up.
  • Review of race plan.
  • More fueling if needed.
  • Final preparations.
  • Mental preparation (e.g., mental imagery, positive self-talk, breathing).

Next, specify where each step of your routine can best be completed. For instance, if you’re an Xterra athlete, a place where you can do your physical warm-up, ride your bike, and go for a short swim before the race can influence when you accomplish different parts of your race routine.

Finally, establish a time frame and a schedule for completing your routine. In other words, how much time do you need to get totally prepared? Some endurance-sport athletes like to arrive at the race venue a short time before the gun or horn goes off. Others like to arrive hours before. All of these decisions are personal; you need to find out what works best for you.

Once your race routine is organized, try it out at races. Some things may work, and others may not. In time, you’ll be able to fine-tune your routine until you find the one that’s most comfortable and best prepares you to race. Lastly, remember that race routines only have value if you use them consistently. If you use your routine before every race, in a short time, you won’t even have to think about doing it. Your race routine will simply be what you do, and it will ensure that you are totally prepared to perform your best and achieve your endurance-sport goals.

Transition Routine

For multisport endurance-sport athletes, for example, triathletes, aqua-bikers, duathletes, and aquathloners, routines play a central role in transitions. Transitions are the most neglected part of endurance-sports racing, yet the time you spend in T1 and T2 can either catapult you into the next leg of a race or be a source of frustration and discouragement that can hurt your efforts as you move to the next leg of a race. I recommend that you put time into developing an effective transition routine and practicing it in both real life and in mental imagery.

I use what I call the “3 Rs” to summarize what you want to do physically and mentally in the two transitions:

  • Rest: Allow your body to recover from the swim and relax before the bike.
  • Regroup: Let go of any thoughts or emotions about the swim.
  • Refocus: Shift your attention from the swim to the upcoming bike.

T1 routine. Here is a basic T1 routine that you can follow. I would encourage you, though, to tweak it in a way that is most comfortable and efficient for you (key advice: be methodical and don’t rush):

  • Within 50 yards of the swim exit, review your T1 transition routine.
  • Goggles up and sleeves off as you leave the water.
  • Deep breaths and relax body as you run/walk from water to T1.
  • Review your T1 routine as you approach T1.
  • Arrive at your transition area (while continuing to breathe deeply through T1).
  • Strip wetsuit.
  • Bike shoes on (skip this step if your shoes are in your pedals already).
  • Helmet and glasses on.
  • Grab bike.
  • Go!

T2 routine. T2 is usually simpler and easier than T1 because you’re not wet and don’t have to strip off your wetsuit (which can be difficult, frustrating, and energy sapping):

  • Within 100 yards of the bike exit, review your T2 transition routine. 
  • Dismount (safely).
  • Deep breaths and relax body as you run/walk from bike dismount to T2.
  • Rack bike.
  • Remove bike shoes (if you didn’t before your dismount).
  • Helmet off, hat on (if you wear a hat).
  • Running shoes on.
  • Number belt on.
  • Grab gel.
  • Go!

Every serious multisport athlete (including pros) will tell you how they screwed up a transition and lost valuable time (not to mention getting flustered and distracted) because their transition routines weren’t deeply ingrained. I encourage you to write out your transition routines and practice them in the weeks leading up to your races. And then rehearse your routines on the morning of a race with mental imagery.

When you establish structured routines in your training, races, and transitions, you will feel more confident, relaxed, and focused, all which will increase your chances of swimming, biking, running, skiing, or what-have-you fast from start to finish. And, regardless of the result, you’ll feel good about your effort because all you can do is be as prepared as you can be. Of course, the alternative is to just pray to the almighty endurance-sport gods and hope they look kindly on you on race day. The choice is yours.

Dr. Jim Taylor
Dr. Jim Taylor

Professionally, Jim is an internationally recognized authority on the psychology of sport. He’s the author of 18 books, his blog posts have been read by more than ten-million people, is the host of the Train Your Mind for Athletic Success podcast, and has been invited to speak to athletes and coaches in many sports all over the world. To learn more about him , please visit my website.

Athletically, Jim was a world-ranked alpine ski racer in his youth and earned a second-degree black belt in karate before transitioning into endurance sports. After achieving his goal of a sub-3-hour marathon, he became a committed triathlete in which he has completed two Ironmans, many half-Ironmans, and is now focused on competing internationally in Olympic and sprint triathlons.

Visit Jim’s website below to read and listen to more.

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