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Setting Your Race Schedule for the Season

Whether you’re an experienced racer or new to racing and considering doing your very first race, choosing the right events and making a sensible race schedule is important.  To some extent our hands are tied when it comes to when we’re going to race.  We can only race when there’s events being held.  However, there are usually enough events to choose from, especially if you’re willing to travel, so that it’s possible to be somewhat selective in the events you choose.  So, let’s take a look at some of the things you should consider when selecting your events and building a race schedule for the season.

Set your goals and know your objectives

When determining what races you want to participate in, it’s really helpful to know exactly what you hope to get out of your participation in them.  You should have some goals for the season and these goals should help you determine what races you’re going to do.  

Your goals may be associated with particular races, or they may be directed more at performance over a particular distance.  Either way, knowing your goals and what you hope to achieve by racing should help you make better sense of the race schedule when you look at it.  You’ll want to choose races that provide you with the best opportunities to achieve your goals.  These races should be the ones that you identify as having higher priority.  Races that are unrelated to your goals are ones that you can immediately identify as having lower priority.  You may still choose to do a few of them, but they aren’t going to be your most important events.

Those that are experienced racers should have no problem setting some pretty clear and well-defined goals.  This can make the process of selecting races for the season a lot easier.  Those new to racing should look first for events that give them the best introduction possible to SUP racing and match their ability level as much as possible.  For those new to racing, things to consider are:

  • Race conditions.  Flat water races are going to be your best option.  Ocean, downwind or surf races are probably events that you should consider once you have a bit more experience.
  • Race distance.  You probably want to keep your racing time in the 30-minute to 1-hour range if you’re new to racing.  That means you’re looking at shorter races in the 3 km to 8 km range. 
  • Is there a “novice” race?  It’s always nice to race against your peers.  A great idea for your first race is to choose a novice race.  You’ll be competing against paddlers of a similar skill level, similar experience, and on similar equipment.  A lot of high-level races also host novice events.  Check the schedule to get some idea whether or not you’ll be competing against your peers.
  • Is there a clinic associated with the event?  Many races have clinics associated with them and information about them is often included in the race’s promotional package. It’s great when you can mix a race with a clinic, especially when you’re new to racing and still have a lot to learn.
  • Do you have friends doing the event?  Doing your first race is a great example of risk-taking.  It’s always more fun to take risks by doing new things when you’re doing it with your friends.   

Plan ahead

One of the best things you can do is take a look at the schedule of available races in your area as early in the season as possible.  Usually race dates are set months, or in some cases a full year, before the actual event. This leaves you with lots of time to be proactive in examining the race schedule and selecting the events that are the best fit for you and your goals. 

Planning your race schedule well ahead of the actual dates of the events allows you time to properly plan your training for them.  On the other hand, if you’re deciding at the last moment to do races, it’s hard to be properly or specifically prepared for them and the things that may make them unique.  While you may, in fact, be well prepared for a race you’ve decided to do at the last moment, it is going to be because your training is on point by coincidence, not by design, and it is highly unlikely that you’re going to be “peaked” for any event that you are deciding to do at the last minute.  

Beyond making it difficult to properly plan your training program, choosing to do races at the last moment can present logistical challenges and increased expenses.  For example, if you need to travel to the event, if could mean you may have difficulty booking hotels or flights and that you may find they end up being more expensive than if you had booked them well in advance.  

Spontaneity can be a good thing in life, and there’s lots reasons why it can be worth deciding to do a race at the last minute.  However, as a rule, you’d prefer to have most of your personal race schedule set well in advance of the actual events for both training and logistical reasons.

Prioritize your races and periodize your training for them

When you’re looking at the race schedule and selecting potential races, it’s worth considering which races are most important and which are less.  I’d suggest that your most important races should be the ones most closely associated with your paddling goals.  Other reasons that might make an event a high priority race are:

  • The biggest event in terms of participation
  • The most competitive field of racers
  • The type of race i.e. distance, sprint or technical
  • The location i.e. is this a race in a location that you’ve always wanted to paddle in, or, is it a big event on your home waters?

The important point is that you can’t have a race schedule spread over many months featuring multiple events where each is of equal importance.  It’s unrealistic to expect to be optimally prepared for all of them.  To ensure success in the races which matter to you most, you’ve got to structure your training so that it is geared towards optimizing performance in those events.  You may have to race being less than optimally prepared in some other events of lesser importance in order to be optimally prepared for races of the greatest importance. 

Generally, it’s easier to be most optimally prepared for races that are later in the season, especially if you were unable to paddle much during the winter.  You’ll have more time to train comprehensively for these events.  Picking a meaningful race later in the season as a priority event makes a lot of sense.  That said, it’s possible to try to optimize performance for early season events as well, though expectations for these events should be tempered by the amount of on-water preparation time that has been available to you.  

What’s important is that there is enough time between priority events so that you can properly train for each.  To really ensure optimal performance in each, it is useful to have them at least 8 weeks apart.  This allows you to do a complete training block in preparation for each.  Alternatively, it’s also possible to have your priority events one or, perhaps, even two weeks apart.  In this case you can be “peaked” for one event and pretty effectively hold your peak for the second.  What becomes really hard is to properly prepare for priority events that are 3 to 6 weeks apart.  In this case, the events are too far apart to hold a physical peak from one to the next, and they are too close together to allow for proper training for the second of the two events through a second training block.  I strongly suggest taking this into account when selecting your highest priority events.  

So, once you’ve looked at the schedule of available races and selected one to perhaps three high priority events, it’s time to consider races of lesser importance and lower priority.  Doing lower priority races in addition to your highest priority events is very important.  They are the lab in which you can experiment and learn in preparation for your highest priority events.  As well, some of these can be fairly important for the same reasons as those listed above for priority events.  If your priority events can be called “A-level races”, I frequently refer to these next level races as “B-level races”.  

Make no mistake.  Your program should not be geared towards optimizing performance in these “B” races.  It’s just not possible to truly optimize performance more than two to three times a season.  However, while the training program may not be geared to optimize performance these events, it can be modified for the day or two before these races to at least let you race somewhat “rested” in them.  Typically, for a Saturday race, the Friday workout can usually be dropped or shortened and the Thursday session may be modified as well.  

Finally, you may identify other races in the published race schedule that look like they might be fun, might be useful learning or training opportunities, or that your friends are doing but are much lower in priority when you consider your goals.  I frequently refer to these as “C- level races”.  These are events that you literally “train through”.  You make only minimal to no adjustments to your training program for these events and really aren’t competing in them for the result.  Instead, the idea is to use them as competitive training sessions and learning opportunities, since you always learn a little more in a race than in a regular training session.  

Once you have your races selected and prioritized, you can then go about periodizing your training in order to optimize performance in your priority events.  There’s lots of information available on this site about periodizing your training, so I won’t go into the details of exactly how to periodize your work here.  

When the published race schedule just doesn’t mesh with your goals

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we’re forced to choose high priority races that don’t really lend themselves to properly periodizing the training program to maximize our performance in them.  In these cases, the races that best address your goals are inconveniently scheduled from the perspective of your training.   For example, you may have three, four, or even five events in an eight-week period that all fit the criteria of “high priority” races.  How should you handle this situation?  It’s impossible to be properly peaked for all of them.  Should you opt to miss races in order to perform better in one or, perhaps, two of them?

While skipping some races altogether can help you better focus on and prepare for a race that matters most, I don’t believe that it’s always necessary to totally miss one or more of the races in this case.  That said, I strongly suggest you take a hard look at the schedule, the nature of each race, the expected level of the competitive field in each, and their locations.  Pick one or, if two of the races are close enough together, two of the races that are your highest priority.  Gear your preparation for these races by periodizing your program so that you are peaked and ready to perform at the highest possible level for the first of them.  You’ll be able to hold your peak for the second.  

The other races, unfortunately, are going to be ones that you’re going to have to race in with less than optimal form.  It’s impossible to be properly peaked, having done all the requisite work for them and still be peaked for the races you’ve identified as being the highest priority.  If these races are before your priority events you’re going to be racing in these events before you’ve done all the requisite work.   If these races are after your priority events, you’ve already peaked and are going to start to feel comparatively flat within a few weeks.  

Does this mean that you shouldn’t do them?  Of course not.  Races are the best learning experiences you can find and can be used as really incredible, high intensity, training sessions. And, who knows?  You may still be able to do really well in them even if the timing of these races isn’t ideal for you.  You just need to temper your expectations for these races a little bit and be ready to race a little less than “ideally” prepared.  

It’s worth remembering why we race

Getting overly stressed about setting your race schedule is something you should try to avoid.  I strongly suggest picking a couple of priority events, well spread out in the paddling season, and setting your program to peak for them.  Then add in your “B” and “C” level races.  Once you’ve set your schedule, be at peace with it.  Fretting over your race choices, or changing your priorities once you’ve started to train for them, isn’t going to help you be the best you can be.  

At the end of the day, it’s worth remembering why we race and, beyond that, why we paddle in the first place.  It’s supposed to be fun, right?  We’re supposed to be doing it because we enjoy it, we appreciate what it does for our health and fitness, and we enjoy the camaraderie of those we see at races and race against.  The SUP community is a great one and seeing everyone at races is a big part of what it’s all about.  Whether you’re at a “B” or “C” level event or your priority one, take time to enjoy the whole experience.  There’s always more to being there than just the race itself.

I’ve raced in paddle sports at a variety of levels for 49 years.  What I learned is that whether I was racing in a local regatta as a 13-year-old kid, or the Olympics, if I remembered it was all about having fun I always raced better.  Somehow that mindset took just a bit of the pressure off and made it easier to relax just enough so that I could focus better.  The point it is, make the most of every race opportunity you have, not in terms of the results, but in terms of the experience.  You’ll very likely find, if you’re well prepared, the results will take care of themselves.  

Have a great season on the water and, if you’re new to racing, welcome to this aspect of SUP.  Enjoy the experience of racing and the people you meet.  It’s one of the really great things about paddling.  


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