Race plans: the benefits and how to create one yourself

 June 3, 2016

By  Mikael Eriksson

Triathlon race plan

Would you be interested to hear about a way to shave a lot of time off your next race? And that will make the probability of you finishing the race that much higher? And that requires no extra training?

Then listen up. A solid race plan can do all of that for you.

Yet most triathletes skip this crucial step. Unfortunately, many of these triathletes end up leaving time on the course or even quitting the race because of it.

“Fail to prepare and prepare to fail”

So with that in mind, this post is all about how to create a triathlon race plan. You will learn when to create it, what it should contain and how having one will most definitely help you in you race, whatever your goal.

When to create your race plan

I have to admit it, up until this point in my triathlon career I’ve been really lazy about when I create my race plans. I’ve generally done it just one week or so before the race.

I originally adopted this scheduling from “The Triathlete’s Training Bible” by Joe Friel. This has worked pretty well so far.

However, during my research for this blog post, I realized that creating at least an outline of the race plan way earlier than that makes a ton of sense.

Wendy Mader at t2coaching makes an excellent argument that by having the race plan outlined during the 6-8 weeks leading up to a race, you can implement your plan or parts of it in your training to be even more prepared both physically and mentally, and have your nutrition completely dialed in when race day comes.

My official recommendation, and what I’ll be doing from this point going forward is to do just that. Create an outline of the race plan at least 6 weeks before the event, and then implement it in training, and optimize it and make adjustments as necessary.​

What a good triathlon race plan should include

To make sure you get all the benefits possible from creating a race plan, include at least the following elements in it:

Your race goal

You probably have already decided on your race goal quite some time ago. Take a few moments to analyze your goal - is it still appropriate, or do you need to adjust it in any direction? If you still haven’t decided on a goal, now is high time to do so.

Whatever your goal is, it’s the first and most important thing that goes in your race plan.

Every time you’ll look at your race plan you’ll see your goal in front of you. This will help you stay focused, motivated and fired up about the upcoming race.

You can also use it to your advantage during the race itself keep you on track, especially if you go through a rough patch. Being able to recall a visual image of your goal written down on paper in your race plan can be just what you need to get you through those moments.

Some people suggest setting A, B and C goals in case you end up having a bad race, or something goes wrong. I would strongly advise against having multiple goals.

The reason is that this will make it too easy to back off from a challenging, yet achievable goal. Put simply, it can work against you by providing an easy way out.

Instead of multiple goals, I suggest you have one and only one goal, but you’ll create what-if scenarios instead to be able to counter unexpected events etc. More on this below.


Your race plan should include lists of:

  • All the equipment you will bring with you to your race destination (if you’re traveling away for the race)

  • All the equipment you’ll bring with you to the race venue, categorized as either

    • Equipment you plan to use

    • Equipment you bring just in case, to use if something breaks or if the weather changes unexpectedly.

I like to make checkboxes next to each piece of equipment, and tick the boxes as I’m doing my packing, either for going to a destination or for going to the race venue.


If you travel, include a complete itinerary in your race plan.

This itinerary should include all transfers, important addresses and so forth. Having all this information written down in your race plan will help you avoid last minute stress, such as realizing you’ve forgotten how to get to the race venue from your hotel.

If you travel across multiple time zones, write down how you plan to adjust your circadian rhythm to your destination time zone. For example, you may choose to start going to bed earlier or later than usual the days before leaving to start resetting your internal clock.

Day before the race

Write down what and when you will eat and drink, if and how you will train, what else you will do and what you won’t do.

The more specific the better.

For example, this could be something like:

“I’ll eat just as I usually would, except dinner a couple of hours earlier. I’ll avoid foods with a lot of fat, fibers and lactose and stick to easily-digested foods. I’ll keep a bottle of water with me and hydrate throughout the day, but I won’t drink excessively.

I’ll do a short 15-minute swim, followed by a very easy 30-minute spin on the bike after breakfast but before lunch.

I’ll spend time off my feet, read books and watch TV. If I’m outdoors and it’s warm, I’ll avoid spending too much time in direct sunlight and stay in the shades. I will keep myself and my mind somewhat occupied, and not worry too much or get anxious about the race. I’ll finish all my packing and preparations for race day in the afternoon”

Race morning

Plan your race morning in detail just as you did the day before the race. I suggest doing it as a fairly detailed time schedule. For example:

  • 6:00–6:30. Wake up and have breakfast: instant oatmeal, peanut butter and banana sandwich, orange juice, and water

  • 6:30–7:30. Take the car (packed the day before) to the race venue

  • 7:30–8:00. Have a look at the race venue, transition zones, and set up transition area, go to the bathroom

  • 8:00–8:20. Race briefing

  • 8:20–8:30. Short jog and dynamic stretches

  • 8:30–8:40. Put on wetsuit

  • 8:40–8:50. Warm-up in water

  • 8:50–9:00. Finish warm-up on beach, dynamic stretches, have an energy gel, get ready and fired up.

  • 9:00. Race start!

As you can see, your nutrition plan for race morning should also be included in the time schedule.

Race execution (pacing, course management, nutrition, mindset, and mantras)

At this point, you’ll write down the race execution that will help you accomplish your race goal. Race execution includes pacing and other race tactics, nutrition, course-specific considerations, and mindset. Write down the specifics for each of the following:

  • Swim

  • T1

  • Bike

  • T2

  • Run

Here’s an example for just the bike part of a hypothetical Olympic-distance (40 km bike) race plan:

“After mounting my bike, my focus for the first five minutes will be not to go too hard! I’ll do this by repeatedly telling myself to ‘Stay calm. Don’t mind the other participants’. After this initial period of just holding back, if I’m not yet at my target heart rate of 155, I’ll slowly increase the effort and then keep it constant from the point where I reach my target heart rate.

After 10 k, there’s an uphill segment several miles long. My focus will be to not go too hard up this hill. I’ll do this by telling myself ‘I’ll crush the flats on the other side of the hill instead’.

On the other side, I’ll allow myself to go harder and pick up the effort if I feel good. My heart rate can rise to a bit over 160. My mantra for the rest of the bike course is ‘Strong but controlled’.

My nutrition on the bike will be alternating an energy gel and 200 ml of sports drink every 25 minutes. I’ll be careful to fuel properly since I know I my stomach can’t handle fueling on the run.”

You should read through your race execution plan several times, preferably daily, during the week leading up to the race.

Memorize it and visualize yourself executing the race. You can do visualization anytime, anywhere, but my personal preference is during training sessions and just before going to bed when I’m just relaxing.

When it comes to specific guidelines for how to visualize, I was struggling to put it into words in any good way. Then I stumbled across this article that summarizes it perfectly:

“Keep your visualization positive and don’t let self-doubt enter your mind.”

As a close second to your race goal, your fueling plan may be the most important part of your race plan in longer distance races.

In fact, the only scientific research that exists specifically on race plans concerns having a fueling plan in place or not. Fuel For Endurance wrote a great summary of this study, that concluded that having a fueling plan improved marathon times by 5% in recreational runners.

So make sure you don’t leave fueling to chance!

What-if scenarios

Finally, as I mentioned before, instead of having B- and C-goals, your race plan should contain a few what-if scenarios.

These are things that you may or may not control that could happen in your race. For example:

  • I panic in the open-water swim

  • I go too hard on the bike and start to bonk

  • I crash on the bike and get sore and bruised

  • I get off the bike and feel like I’m already completely wrecked and can’t run a step

  • It is an extremely windy day

For each of these scenarios, briefly describe how you’d handle that particular situation. Here’s a demonstration:

  • I panic in the open-water swim

“I’ll start to swim breaststroke and keep my head above the water. I’ll look around me and realize that I’m surrounded by other swimmers that would notice if something happened to me, and could help me instantly. I’ll look for the rescue boats and kayaks, and see that they are close and could help me if anything should happen.

I’ll take a few deep breaths, count to ten, and then start swimming freestyle again, really slowly at first. I’ll realize that I’ve regained control, and I’ll get on with my race.”

Practical tips

Although this may seem like a lot at the moment, creating your race plan really is a fairly quick and easy process.

A few practical tips will help make it even easier for you to get it done in almost no time.

  • Start creating the plan long before your race. As soon as you set your goal, write it down. As soon as you know your travel schedule, add that to the plan. You get the idea.

  • Reuse everything you can. The truth is, much of what’s in your plan will be very similar or identical in most or all races you do. So reuse those parts. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

  • Use a template. Create a template that suits your exact needs, and use that for every plan you create going forward. Or use my template here. I use this very template myself for all my races.

Planning means nothing without execution

So by now you have a good idea of how to go about creating a race plan. As you can see, it’s not difficult at all.

It just takes a little time up front but has the potential to massively improve your race performance and save you from an unnecessary DNF.

Takeaway messages from this post are to create your plan well in advance of your race and to rehearse it. You need to execute on your plan, or it’s not worth much more than the paper it’s written on.

Also, remember that the plan really should include all of the elements we discussed above - a race plan is not the same as a race strategy. The race plan includes everything that’s going on around your race, like what to do the day before the race and on race morning, what to pack and what equipment to use, etc.

As always, feel free to email me or comment below if you have any further questions or thoughts on the topic.

Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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