Backwards Racing

How do many athletes race backwards? By first looking to the future, to an event they want to participate in, and then by signing up for that event and then go about planning the training to survive the event, is to backwards race.

Backwards racing leads to backwards training, or as I prefer to call it: cramming, no different than the cramming we all did at some point at school.

Backwards racing results in what you typically see at the finish line long after the pros and top age groupers have completed the event: athletes who are walking, crawling, hobbling towards the finish line in hopes that they will make the cut off time, that they will make it to the finish line, that they will survive to tell the tale of yet another near death experience. Its athletes who have bitten off more than they can chew, yet so sold on the meaning of the finish line that they refuse to acknowledge their lack of training, their lack of preparedness, their lack of real health. Their hope is that the finish line will prove their fears wrong, their hopes right: that they are indeed healthy and fit enough, to show up and complete any race they select.

[A study performed at Ironman Brazil revealed that 2/3rds of all triathletes took NSAIDs the day prior to the event, and 1/3rd took NSAIDs on the day of the event. If triathletes are so healthy, why the need to pre-medicate? If you have trained properly for the event, there should be no need for prophylactic medication. That is of course unless your standard of health has been reduced to the point that relying on medication implies nothing about your lack of health.]

Time after time, I hear of athletes who compete in marathons and triathlons, and despite months passing, still have not fully recovered, still are dealing with physical and mental repercussions of the effort put into completing the competition. Suffering from anxiety, depression, pain, immune system, sleep, digestion, and/or muscle and joint dysfunction, they refuse to acknowledge that their body malfunctioning is connected in anyway to the fact that they were not healthy enough, not fit enough, not sufficiently prepared to take on the challenge of competing in whatever event they signed up, yet proceeded to torture themselves through it anyhow.

Backwards racing is comparable to going to a loan shark for money: its using the threat of broken knee caps, swimmin’ with the fishes, or wearing concrete shoes to serve as a kick in the arse to force yourself to put in the necessary effort to payback the loan. There is no difference between a loan shark and backwards racing: (a) the piper always comes to collect, and (b) the piper will always collect even when you have nothing to offer… your health is always up for grabs.

What I do not comprehend is why do athletes, time after time, gamble with their health in this manner?  Why do they put health up as collateral, simply for a finish line medal or photo? Is that medal really worth more than your well being? What does a medal or finish time prove if in the process you hurt yourself, inflict pain, harm yourself with injury arising from overextending yourself attempting to accomplish in weeks what needs months or years of training.

Racing is supposed to be about testing the progress you have made to date in training. It has to be an honest test for it to have honest meaning. Backwards racing is not a test of anything, its a form of gambling: spin the wheel, pick an event, place a wager (by registering) and then hope that you can pull off the training that at best will allow you to finish the race standing, and at worst puts you into a med-tent or an ambulance.

Backwards racing sets the athlete up to lose, and continued losing. Albeit for the delusional athlete, over-reaching for an event that you have no business attempting, and then surviving in some strange way may serve as a win (especially when the agony of recovering for weeks or months is denied as being related).

If you are not improving as an athlete, then my bet is that you are backwards racing, and training backwards, aka cramming. In fact, you are probably not only failing to improve, I would bet also that you are regressing in some way… in flexibility and mobility, in fitness, in health, as cramming causes athletes to become more prone to injury, to illness, and susceptible to the systemic diseases of prolonged over-training, and over-racing.

In the moment, hyped up, delusional images of grandeur that arise by seeing yourself at a competition – hoping that you can pull it off with weeks or months of training – is just as it sounds… a setup for failure, where pain and injury are the likely outcomes, and health is the account into which you will dip to pay the piper.

If you need a race in order to get training, in order to get motivated, then you are not training, you are threatening, guilting, fearing, scaring yourself into doing what you say you should do, but are clearly not inspired or motivated to do without some sort of doomsday scenario playing out in front of you.

Do you honestly think that health, true health, can be based on emotionally manipulating yourself into training for an event?

Why do this to yourself? Why subject yourself to the pressure, the negative motivation, to the endless reverse psychology of overextending yourself and then hoping that you can cram in enough to pull yourself out of the trap you set for yourself?

Why not take the time to do it right? Start from scratch, learn how to train, learn how to plan to train, learn how to plan to race, and learn how to race so that you can make it a lifelong journey of enjoyment and exploration. Otherwise, you can continue with the hokey-pokey in and out of being active, suffering through training and a race one year, then waiting until you regain some mild level of interest to put myself through the torture of training and racing yet again.


OK… so some triathletes, some athletes race backwards… big deal. No, its not some, its the majority. How do I know? Two sources:

  1. Race Directors – just ask how many register, then how many actually show up to events, especially triathlons.  XTerra Race Director James Kowalewski shared in one post that triathlons – across the industry – have a 25% no show rate. Think about that… athletes shell out anywhere from $100 to almost a thousand dollars when entering iron-distance triathlons, and 25% of them don’t even show. Why? Because they booked their epic event first, and then second tried to figure out how to train to survive the event = racing backwards.
  2. DNFs – review iron distance triathlon results and you will be as shocked as I was at the staggering number of athletes who never make it past T1, past T2, across the finish line. In some age groups I have seen as many as 25% of all the athletes DNF!

So 25% don’t show, another 25% don’t finish… so approximately 50% never complete what they set out to do and then there is a significant number who crawl, stumble across the finish line either after the cut off time or perhaps before but finish their event in the medical tent because they overextended themselves well beyond their capacity. Why? Because racing backwards is the norm, and healthy training and racing is the outlier.

Final story… last year an athlete who went with a local triathlon club to Arizona for a spring training camp returned to share this story. While out on a ride, there was a crash, a serious crash with one athlete in particular suffering a severe concussion. Instead of focusing on the athlete’s well-being, the coach who was also riding in the pack (but did not crash) came to the injured athlete and immediately started to promise that he would get the athlete to their event (which was coming up in a number of weeks). Seriously! A severe concussion and instead of placing health as the priority, encouraging the athlete to recover fully, reminding the athlete that there are many many races available this year and in following years… hell no! Like Monty Python’s Dark Knight… “tis only a flesh wound [Dark Knight is missing both arms, and a leg], come back here, I can still fight you!”

Where does the backwards (cart before the horse) mindset arise from? Coaches who should not be coaching because they have no clue… about what is truly important in life. Find yourself a coach who values health – and your life – over their own ego. The above coach being so obsessed with their own ego could only see themselves as a failure if the injured athlete failed to compete; meanwhile the fact that an incomplete recovery and that a second concussion poses a threat of sudden death doesn’t cross the mind of the coach. Clueless!