Assess your fitness and adjust your training.
If you start your racing season, then try to pay attention to where your weak spots are in your fitness. Try to see if you’re lacking in endurance, high-end aerobic power, basic speed, or strength endurance for repeated hard efforts. All of these things can be limiting factors in race day performance, so if you can identify what is relevant to the events you will be doing and the aspects of your fitness that might limit your ability to get the results that you want. Early in the season as you start to do very hard workouts or start to race is the perfect time to re-evaluate your progress and consider whether you want to make adjustments to your training.
Early in the pre-season when you’re probably focused on endurance and general aerobic conditioning, your diet can likely be very balanced without a need for large quantities of additional carbohydrate. As training and racing becomes more intense, there is more to be gained by increasing carbohydrate intake as well as considering extra protein after races and hard workouts.
Also, as your training gets more stressful and your high-end aerobic fitness becomes more important, you should try to make sure that you get enough iron and b-viatmins in your diet. Iron is necessary for the transport of oxygen in your blood and the absorption of oxygen by your working muscles for aerobic metabolism. Many reputable sources and studies on iron intake in endurance athletes provide strong support for the idea of taking supplemental iron during times of heavy training and racing. This can be even more important for female athletes. If you are vegetarian or vegan, iron supplementation is almost certainly a good idea, and B-12 supplementation is necessary. Other B-vitamins are available from plant sources, but B-12 is not, and must be consumed in meat or supplemental form.
If you are supplementing with iron or considering it, then definitely look into getting your blood checked at least once or twice a year. Iron overdose can happen in two forms. Acutely, if you consume too much of it at one time, then you can cause damage to your internal organs, but that’s only likely to happen if you swallow a half-bottle full of iron pills. This is clearly very unlikely to occur, but long term supplementation can lead to excess iron storage in some individuals. In general, with iron and a lot of other nutrients your body will automatically absorb less of nutrients that it has an abundance of, but all the same, if you have a lot of iron in your diet for a long period of time, you can accumulate excessive amounts of it in your blood. This is most likely to occur if you have an uncommon genetic trait that causes excess accumulation of iron, but like many things, what is enough for one person may be not enough or too much for another. Checking all iron related metrics in your blood is the only way to monitor this.
Take a break or take it easy when you need to.
Throughout the pre-season, most athletes are building endurance and strength at a slow and steady pace. They aren’t racing yet and aren’t doing super intense interval sessions yet, nor are they racing. So, with few exceptions, most athletes can construct a slow and steady progression with adequate stress to get fitter but also adequate recovery to keep from burning out mentally or physically. But, as you start to do harder interval sessions, blocks of hard training with multiple hard workouts in a short period, and races, you need to make sure that you recover adequately from those.
Remember, training doesn’t make you stronger or fitter. Neither does racing. Rather, recovering from those stresses is what makes you a stronger, fitter athlete, so just remember to take that into account as you do more races or as you plan a series of weeks with intense intervals. The harder you race or train, the more recovery you need. Recovery can be a reduction in volume, intensity, days training, or all of the above. But, at the same time, you have to take your long term development into account and if you’re doing intense interval sessions, but stop doing longer rides altogether, then your endurance and aerobic efficiency will suffer. If you take a few weeks off after a stretch of hard racing, then you might need to build back up again with some strength and endurance type training before high-intensity training will really benefit you much.
A few red flags and things to keep in mind when you’re training to see if you need to tone it down:
resting HR (chronically elevated)
peak HR during exercise (low)
consistently, significantly lower HR for tempo/threshold efforts
dead-leg feeling when training
need for sleep, quality of sleep
excessive, chronic soreness or achiness
sudden, persistent reduction in performance
sudden, notable, unplanned weight loss
increased adiposity (unexpected, not directly attributable to dietary changes)
significant changes in bloodwork (if you monitor that regularly)
increased irritability, anxiety, depression not directly attributable to outside sources
lack of motivation, desire to train
Whether you have well defined, specific goals for your season, or take a relaxed approach of work when you need to, train when you can, race when it sounds fun… it’s good to have an appropriate level of planning so that no matter your goals, you are building up towards them at a good rate. If you’re getting tired or overtrained, or if you notice that you’re behind where you want to be, then you can make adjustments if it’s 2 or 3 months out from your goal event(s). Even if it’s 4-5 weeks out, you can make a huge difference by making your training harder, easier, or whatever you need to do. But, if you realize that you peaked already and are coming down off of that level of fitness and you have 2 or 3 weeks until your goal event, or if you realize that you haven’t put in the intensity that you need, it’s hard to do a lot with just a few weeks to go.
Likewise, if you have a lot of goal races in April/May and then again in August, for example, then you should consider what kind of break you might want to take after the early season peak. Then you can re-build your foundation and top it off with some races and hard workouts when the time is right in late June and July, for example… Just don’t race every week or two throughout the year with the same intensity and focus and expect to ever get much better. It’s totally fine to do that if you’re just trying to have fun or your baseline fitness is in line with your goals for that kind of racing schedule. But, if you want to try to reach your highest level of fitness a few times throughout the season, then you need to plan for that and adjust your training appropriately rather than just keeping at it and hoping it works out for the best. It usually doesn’t take much to allow yourself a good progression throughout the season, even if it’s not perfect, you can realize good results and set PRs or achieve other goals with just a little foresight.