Choosing your goal race

Picking your goal race can be a lot of fun. It can also be stressful. Do you choose a convenient location, or a prestigious competitive event? A hilly, cool race, or a flat, hot one? Let’s break it down into a few steps.

If your goal is to have fun and travel to new spots, then your only real consideration is to choose an event that’s not far outside your ability level. For example, if you’re not a good climber and have no intention of becoming a good climber, you shouldn’t choose an event with a ton of climbing. If you suffer in the heat, then as far as fun and travel goes, you’d be wise to avoid known hot events.

If you’re budget limited, then choosing a good regional event is a realistic target. That limits the financial impact and you can parse the choices to find your best fit.

For my competitive athletes, I do my best to help them align their strengths with their goal event. If you’re attempting to qualify for an Ironman or ITU championship, it really makes a difference to target an event that suits your strengths. We can break those down into just a handful of categories: Temperature/humidity, terrain, time of year, and travel time.

Temperature and humidity are major considerations. Some athletes have little to no issue with higher temps or humidity. Others simply don’t function as well, and the longer the event, the higher the chance of race-ruining issues. If you want to perform your best, this should be the first item to consider. Athletes can do their best to acclimatize with heat training indoors and training in the hot part of the day outside, but there’s an underlying predisposition to heat tolerance or intolerance that never entirely goes away.

Terrain is the next big one. Races can be hilly, flat, mountainous, and have a high potential for rough water. Athletes need to do real self-assessments with their skills. Poor swimmers should veer away from ocean swims and look at river and lake events as a goal race. Weak climbers should rule out mountainous bike courses as potential competitive choices. Weak runners should stick to flatter run courses.

The time of the year is another real issue to consider. Your life outside of this sport has an impact on how well you’re able to train and recover. So ideally, not only are you picking an event that suits your strengths, you’re picking an event that sits at a good time of the year for you. An obvious example would be a teacher who doesn’t work much or at all during the summer. That would allow this athlete to train well during the summer and pick a late summer or early fall event as their goal race. However, if that athlete also was heat intolerant, it would change the equation. Perhaps they could train pretty well during the summer and then extend the training cycle into the mid fall so their event had a higher chance of being cool. Or, through experience maybe they have realized it’s just better to train and race in cooler temps (re: winter/spring) and deal with the time crunch at that time of year. There are lots of variables!

The travel time is another concern. If it takes you a full day of travel to get to an event, you’ll need several days to recover from the travel and to adjust to the time change. If you’re not able to build that into your trip, then the travel may be too overwhelming to deal with. Can you drive or do you need to fly? What bike transport options are available? Do you have any support in the form of family and friends nearby?

If your goal race is a USAT National Championship or a World Champ that you’ve already qualified for, then you don’t have a say in the time or location. In this case, you need to mimic the conditions of the race in your training as much as possible. This is called specific preparation. You can train indoors on a smart bike trainer that emulates the course. You can turn off the fan and turn up the heat over time to acclimatize to heat. Athletes can complete key workouts in conditions as close to the expected race conditions. It is worth a bit of travel on a few weekends if you need access to similar terrain.

In the end, when you choose an event that aligns with your strengths, and you specifically prepare for that event, your odds of having a good to great race day increase quite a bit!

Marty Gaal, CSCS, is a USA Triathlon coach who lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina. Marty has been coaching endurance athletes since 2002. You can read more about OSB coaching services at