How to win races.
Written by Jez Cox, 2015
This is an article for cyclists, runners and du/triathletes who care about being better (even if they wouldn't admit it to others) and it's particularly aimed at those who start races (and may have done for years) without ever considering the concept of winning.
Okay. So maybe not everyone can and will win a race and it's critical to say that maybe not everyone wants to win a race but one thing I'm absolutely set on is that everyone should try to win a race.
Do bear in mind that 'winning a race' could mean being the first in your age category or race category. Categories are there to give you a level to aim at so take aim and here's how to move closer to winning:
1) Find your niche.
"Only dead fish go with the flow"
If I ask any one of the cyclists, triathletes and duathletes I work with why they compete in the sport at the distance they do they often struggle to tell me and then, upon digging deeper I tend to find that they started because friends had or they knew someone that encouraged them to. This is never more common than with triathlon since it's boom between 2000 and 2010 and then likewise road cycling in its current 'sportive' explosion. Very often, the reason for ending up doing what they are doing is along the lines of 'Well, everyone was getting into it and so I thought I'd see what it's all about'. Now that's a massive generalisation and of course the fact that so many who have recently 'converted' have actually transitioned from quite a sedentary lifestyle is something that should be celebrated. I certainly do just that. It's kept me in a job these past few years for one thing!
My point is, having got started, bought all the gear, done your first event and become 'one of us' it's then very easy to drift and simply either stick doing the same thing or just do the same as everyone else. As I say, only dead fish go with the flow.
Now, for some, doing just that will be fine, for others, they may actually have stumbled upon their niche straight away and started doing really well, winning events maybe but even then, how would they know?
I'm always quick to rubbish talk of, for example, Roger Federer being the 'greatest tennis player that ever lived'. He's awesome, don't get me wrong, but if you'll indulge my thinking still further, the greatest tennis player that ever lived almost certainly never held a tennis racquet. You just don't know. And in a way, stumbling into a particular sport and finding that you love it is as much half chance as having the genes that oddly enough make you potentially, (physiologically) the greatest tiddly winks player that ever lived.
Yes. It could be you.
Of course, not everyone wants to win.
Not everyone even wants to find out how good they could be and that's fine too. Sport and recreation can offer so much more beyond just winning but it's quite possible you're different to the masses. You're reading an article which I have deliberately titled in a very specific way. Chances are you're curious about your potential and I want to help you think about how to exploit that.
It starts with being prepared to be selfish and do things for yourself which may actually grow you away from where you started. It often involves having to go back to being bad at something again and when done correctly it should involve plenty of failing because failing is how winning is done. It's the only way you learn. Eventually, through a process of elimination and reckless experimentation you should start to find your niche and then you can start to think about winning.
"Far greater it is to dare mighty things to win glorious triumphs even though chequered by failure than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much for they live in a grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat"
One of the greatest strengths of Great Britain's recent surge to the top of world cycling has been the insistence from the coaches on their young academy riders riding as many different disciplines of cycle sport as possible and indeed mixing them up. Until recently in fact, academy riders under the age of 18 were not allowed to specialise in one discipline. Experimentation and 'being bad at something' (relatively) was therefore something to be celebrated and in fact there were a whole string of academy riders who found their way into unexpected modes of cycle sport through this very approach of what I'd like to call 'niche mining'. It's a terrible term, I know, but go with me.
If you consider yourself a road cyclist, try mountain biking, if you're a track cyclist, try BMX, if you're a triathlete, try cycle speedway (yes, cycle speedway).
Play, experiment, fail. (Repeat). Learn.
Stop being such an adult and get back to being far more childlike. Attack what you are trying as new and fun and embrace being bad at it at first. Only afterwards when you've tried it should you analyse your performance.
Watch young children trying new games and sports for the first time and you'll usually find them living completely in the moment, focusing on what they are doing rather than on how they are doing. 'Present restrospectivism', as I'd like to coin it is a disease of adulthood and should really be fought if you're to find your niche. The best vaccine I've found thus far is that age old elixir called 'fun'.
Get back to trying new things and remember, when you do,
And go back for more fun.
2) So I've found my niche. How do I win!?
I was blessed in that I stumbled across the sport of cycling by accident at the age of 12 when my parent's next door neighbour, my good friend Tilman Marsh, bought a mountain bike and allowed me to try it. It was about 1992 and the mountain bike boom was just catching light. It was a rigid steel Scott with Deore DX and Onza ski bar ends. I loved it.
Once I had ridden a permanent figure of eight track into his lawn I was immediately hooked and cycling, through mountain biking, cyclocross and then road racing became my sporting obsession and then by way of hard work and blessings, my career.
- BUT - It took me a full 6 years to win a race despite racing lots. In retrospect, I now see that long wait as a big part of the reason why I'm still involved with the sport and why I carried on racing and then went on to win so much.
When I think back to my earliest racing experiences in my first races in the London Cyclo Cross league in the winter of 1992, I was being beaten soundly in every race by a good number of other youth riders. Of course, as so often happens with these things it was the same people every time and picking a winner was pretty predictable. 4 years later, only one of those regulars was still racing. And his name was Roger Hammond.
At the time, I could never have imaged that of these incredible riders who were seemingly destined for greatness and were without doubt light years better than me, hardly any of them were still racing (let alone winning) by the time they were 20.
I'm a firm believer that you need to learn to win but you'll learn nothing from winning.
Every time you don't win there's always something to learn.
I'm lucky in that, once I found my niche (Duathlon) I won 81 races but that wasn't the lucky bit. The lucky bit is that I came 2nd 50 times and those 50 times were why I won 81 races.
I learnt so much from those that beat me. Guys, if you're reading this, (You know who you are!), thank you for the lessons.
I now have friends who have children that have started racing, a couple of whom have started winning and winning lots and it's a great thing but because they've started winning so early it means that they haven't actually learnt much yet. All they're learning is that they're good (what ever that means). The ones that they are beating week in week out who have the perseverance to hang in there will learn lots and eventually that bank of knowledge will pay out in those that work for it.
The problem is that if you don't have that bank of experience in being beaten, when it does happen and the young regular winner suddenly doesn't win, there's very little to fall back on. That's the stage when so many drop out.
So; got a talented youngster? Find a way to keep them coming 2nd, 3rd and 4th (or lower) and you'll be paying into their longevity bank all the time. It can be tricky though if you have an early developer but there's usually a way.
Having said all that, and moving on from childhood now, you need to be ready to win. That's key. As you approach a point where you feel capable of winning I would strongly advise taking some time out to visualise it and see it from your 'mind's eye' with all its visceral quality and feel.
Conceive (in the imagined)
Believe (in your subconscious)
Achieve (between the start and finish lines)
It's important groundwork to make sure you're ready.
Once I'd worked my way through a few years of my lovely Mum driving me to cyclocross and mountain bike races in order for me to take a good roasting I was lucky enough to have generous enough parents to encourage me to try yet another discipline and so I had a wobble around on my first road bike, a Graham Weigh in Columbus Thron with Campag Mirage. Yes, those that know me well, my first road bike did indeed have Campagnolo. I'm sorry.
I was lucky in that I started road racing in my late teens at the time when West London converted from using a road encircling Pinewood Studios as the go to 'cycle circuit' to the now massively popular Hillingdon Cycle Circuit. Sure enough, I lined up there for my first in a long series of kickings but crucially this time I started to see that I was finding my niche. All of a sudden, my deficit in technical skill and recklessness as an off-roader didn't hold me back. Generally, fitness and hard training started to pay greater dividends and as it did, my mountain bike began collecting dust.
Of course, on the road, I still learnt lots by being beaten lots but somehow, in my distracted teenage life I had the forethought to do turbo training sessions in front of endless of recordings of the 30 minute channel 4 Tour de France coverage.
As I did, those 30 minute programmes provided me with the chance to 'race' each stage, including, as it's climax, sprinting to the finish line. That meant of course that although my VHS player depicted that Richard Virenque had won the mountains points, Big Mig has won the TT and Abdu had cleaned up in the sprint (and in green again), in fact, they hadn't.
I had won all those stages.
Now that I've gone through my sports psychology training (and studied the works of my guru Dr Dennis Wadeley) I can see that what I was doing was in fact 'positive mental pre-play'. I had lived the moment of winning in my mind over and over again and so when it came, I was ready for it.
C B A
So that same summer I crossed the start line of yet another Hillindon circuit race, the format of which don't happen anymore sadly. These were irregular ones where all the riders used to start together and then after a set number of laps the 4th category (lowest ranked) riders would sprint to finish, then a few laps later the 3rd cats would too, leaving elite and 1/2s to finish off after them.
Something happened that day, I timed my 4th cat sprint perfectly and won by about half a tyre's length. What normally happens then is that the 4th cats drop out but I wanted more. This is not allowed but hey, I was on a roll. I hung in and also sprinted again with the 3rd cats, coming second in that race. I still refused to drop out and at the age of 17 went on to take 5th in the E12.
These were my three best road race results to date and they all came on the same day! Knowing what I now know about rules and so forth, what I did should have probably seen me suspended from racing but the organiser was my mentor and I'm thankful that he understood that I was having one of 'those' days.
Do you know what I mean?
I hope so.
I'd say they happen maybe once a year - if that - and they nearly always fall when they do on a training day or a recovery day but once or twice in an athletes life they'll fall on a day when you just happen to be stuck between two white lines with a bunch of other loons trying to outdo each other and you need to be ready for that. Lots of people aren't and that 'snapping cranks' / ' go harder and it just feels easier' moment passes them by because they'd never seen themselves winning.
So guess what, they didn't.
Of course, following my mentor's guidance, as soon as I'd won I needed to move on and up and keep trying to learn. And learn I did. I didn't win at Hillingdon again for another 5 years while I was abroad and expanding my road racing repertoire but all these years later I am proud of now having won a race there in 5 different disciplines : road race, time trial, duathlon, cyclo-cross and road running. I coach there now as well and get to watch my charges trying to do the same. If you're one of them, don't be hard on me for doing what ever I can to hold you back and stop you winning too soon. In the words of Rocky Balboa,
"It's how winning is done"
3) I've found my niche; I'm right at the sharp end but still can't win.
This is when you need to build your tactical repertoire.
Try to list 5 different ways someone could win your event (or category) and have a plan for how you might execute each one in an average race. Then, as you approach race day, about a week out, choose 3 of them that are most appropriate for that event. An hour before the start, take in the conditions and the competition and decide on 2 of those 3. Settle on one as your plan A and one as your plan B should plan A fail or become impossible.
It sounds formulaic and not much fun doesn't it?
Well, winning is fun, trust me. Or it is in the 10 minute aftermath. I'm yet to meet an athlete who, after those 10 minutes isn't thinking "what's next' and planning ahead.
So, what kind of tactics?
I'll give you an example of 5 based on a runner trying to win their local off-road 5k race.
1) Pick the person who you perceive as most likely to win (based on past performances) and try to run calmly on their shoulder for the entire race, ready to jump them with 50metres to go.
2) Start much harder than usual and do everything to then calm down and maintain position.
3) Surge hard with 1500m to go to get clear and then maintain form and do not look back.
4) Spend the entire race simulating being over tired and unfit to the other racers by breathing hard when close to them. Then apply numbers 1 or 3 to catch others off guard.
5) (Practice this often in training for it to be anywhere near effective) Once settled into a good quality group, try to aid the group in bunching up and running as a pack. With 3000m gone start surging hard and then easing and repeat this as many times as you can until the right selection has been made. This will only work if you have practiced this in training and others haven't. That's the whole point.
Of course, you've got to have the fitness and form to apply the above and get the win but that's the point : everyone trains their body but very few prepare their mind in line with it. Dear old Dr Dennis Wadeley's positive mental pre-play was something that worked for me as I prepared my mind for the expectation of winning and whilst doing so I built a handy toolbox of ways to win.
4) I won! What next...?
As I said above, unless the victory is a career defining (or even career ending one) the majority of athletes won't take long for their thoughts to turn to their next race, next challenge or next chance to win. Hence, (as I've been saying all along) why we don't learn much from winning.
Note that I say much and not nothing though.
The most important lesson that you can learn from winning is that you can win and actually, for most people that's quite a revelation.
So the next step is key. Repeating a win in similar conditions and with similar competition is actually something I'd advise trying. You'll learn more from dealing with the pressure of being a past winner and having others watching you more closely and you'll be forced to cook up even more tactics in order to deal with just that.
If you're able to repeat the win (and it might take a long time) then once again it's time for some zoomed out thinking and some honest self talk : Are you ready to kick on and find some even tougher competition (if there is some) or perhaps it's simply your time to dominate and look to rack up even more wins.
Of course, if you're both super talented and a winner you may not have any higher to go.
My advice? Don't be afraid to win and win lots but try to find a way to keep pushing yourself.
In order to do this I'll prescribe what I do to so many triathletes and multisporters in particular:
You train to race, peak to race, try to put everything in place to race well and so I still can't understand why so many triathletes only race 3 times a year. Some less.
The chance of everything going right across all three disciplines, not to mention the painfully long build up is actually quite slim.
"Too expensive" you say?
Then, going back to the start of this article: don't do what everyone else does. Use a definitive 'all races' race calendar online (tri247.com is the most complete) to find the best races that suit you at the best price. If you enter the races that all your mates are doing and that are all over the magazines and web then that's what we call hype.
Hype costs money which someone will have to pay for. So dig deeper and you'll find some real gems and in turn you'll be able to afford to race more.
I came from a background as a road cyclist where as an elite I did two seasons of an incredible 72 and then 75 races in a year so that helped ingrain me in that culture. Without doubt I carried that into my life as a duathlete where I worked my way though short course, long course, drafting, non drafting and then cross and trail duathlons. My regular racing saw me racking up a lot of wins across the 10 years in duathlon.
Don't get me wrong, among them were some races which I won easily but there were bags of others that nearly killed me as well.
Because I raced in a relative minority sport which has two defined seasons a year I employed a simple tactic : race everything I possibly could.
I was lucky that I had the time to and I was also quite clever about usually trying to squeeze a free entry to a subsequent event from most organisers of races I'd won so that way entry fees weren't really a major concern.
Either way, the penultimate take away point on your journey to the winners enclosure is : Race More.
Reading of my successes I can imagine it would be easy to think I am a super talented athlete and it was only a matter of time before I started winning but genuinely, it couldn't be further from the truth.
I don't feel I have any particular physical attributes that make me any better than average and that played out for me early on at school. I'm just determined and insightful. Every single person that was beating me I could learn from and trust me, I was a very very average junior and youth athlete.
And I'm glad I was.
In my roles as a coach and also as a GB team manager I regularly meet athletes over the age of 70 who wish they'd started when they were 15 rather then 65 but I see in them that same dogged determination to become 'world champion'.
World champion of themselves, in this time, with these life constraints and with their body. Even if that just means in their local race.
Some of them have gone on to become actual ITU World Champions while others have smashed PBs, times and race positions beyond what they ever thought possible.
My point is, and to conclude with this, don't be constrained by doing what others do. Be a freak. Dare to be believe in your ability.
Conceive, Believe. And if you are tickled to put what I've said into practice then remember this:
One race will be your last ever. You may not get to chose which one it is.
In fact, it may have already passed.
There's a lot more important things in the world than racing, not least in our current world climate, but when you do next find yourself between those two white lines, believe it is everything.
Don't accept limitations that others or past experience put on you and greet failure and elated success the same because you are part of the 1% of society for whom mediocrity just won't do.
<><><><><><><> Jez Cox 2015 <><><><><><><><>
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