Advice for first-timers doing athletic races and events!

Hi everyone! So this weekend I’m doing a new sort of travelling. Nothing particularly exotic or international, but more of a practical, close-to-home kind of trip. My dad is competing (for lord alone knows what reason) in yet another half ironman triathlon race on Sunday, and I’m coming along for the ride. To keep an eye on his things, park the car, shout encouraging remarks and fetch him once the race is done. Just a few small things so that he can focus on doing an insane amount of cardio all in one go. Also, I think he just likes the company. This town is full of these lean, mean endurance types this weekend…

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So, because the race is on the other side of South Africa (in East London to be specific, and we live in Johannesburg), we spent the better part of yesterday driving and what better to do on a long drive than to get my blog post ready? And, because I had my dad for company, I decided to do a different sort of blog post, sort of an interview/feature post. My dad usually has excellent advice to share, but because one purpose of our trip was for him to do an athletic event, I thought I’d use that as inspiration. Today, straight from the mouth of Dr Charl (aka my dad), I’m going to be sharing advice and tips for first-timers doing athletic races. Now this is pretty good advice for any person wanting to do an athletic event but is more geared towards people doing it for the first time. Anywho, I hope you enjoy today’s post, just please be aware that it will contain some potentially terrifying content (like marathon races and extreme amounts of training and exercise), but if that doesn’t scare you, then please enjoy.

What is the first thing to do when thinking about doing an athletic event/race?

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“Essentially, you need to answer three essential questions. What, why and where? First up, you have to decide what event you want to do. Is it going to be running, biking, swimming, extreme snowboarding or something else. You’ve got to pick something that you’ve always wanted to do, but that you could be physically capable of doing. If you’re not a particularly strong swimmer, doing the English channel may not be the best choice to start with, so you may want to be slightly realistic with the discipline you pick. You’ve also got to decide whether or not you want to do a race/event or if you simply want to do the sport. Wanting to learn to play or do a sport is more straightforward as you can simply get a coach to learn the discipline and then you can join a club. A sporting event, however, is something where you have an end goal in mind, something that you can train towards and then once you get to it and realise it was more doable than you initially thought, you can sign up for another one. The advantage of an event is you tend to get a ‘keep up with the herd mentality’, which can propel you through the event. Let’s face it – no one wants to do an event and come last. So even though you can say you’re just doing it to participate, you still want to do it properly. You want to finish tired, sure, but not paralysed with exhaustion or in such a state that you need to call an ambulance.

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“Now you need to think about why. Why on God’s green earth would you want to do whatever you are setting yourself up to do? You’ve got to have a reason or some type of motivation. You gotta wanna.”

Quite frankly, I don’t think I could ever muster the kind of motivation my dad has to do a half ironman. The mere idea of the distance is enough to make me exhausted enough to need a nap. I mean it is a 1.9km open sea swim, followed by a 90km cycle and then a 21km (that’s a half-marathon) run. I’d have drowned before I even got to my bike. However, he does make a good point in that you can’t really do any type of event if you don’t have enough motivation. If you don’t have a good enough reason to do all that hard work then you’re going to fall through and give up, so have a good, long think about why you want to do this event before you sign up.

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“Right. Now that we’ve talked about what and why we need to discuss the where. Where is part of the motivation because some things you can’t do where you live so you might need to travel to get there and that can be part of the fun and adventure. Long-distance triathlons and marathons are all over the world, so part of the adventure is going to the place to do the event.”

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When you’re answering these questions, how realistic do you have to be before you decide what event you’re doing?

“The little bit of realism is just to eliminate obvious anatomical or physical impossibilities, but try not to put too many limits on it. If you want to do cross-country skiing you can still learn how to do that, it just may take you longer. You simply need to be practical, so if you aren’t a particularly sporty person, you might not be able to do a full ironman in six months. There are very few individual sporting events (traditional sporting activities) that people can’t do. Anyone can run whereas snowboarding, which is non-traditional, most people can’t do. So unless you have some sort of injury or disability that prevents you from running, you could run a marathon. You just have to train enough.”

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What do you do now that you’ve established these basics?

“You need to know whether you are healthy enough to begin training. So if you haven’t done any exercise before, you haven’t trained for a long time, have some type of chronic disease (like diabetes), are significantly overweight, have had an injury or are taking chronic medication for some particular reason then absolutely go get a medical check-up first. This way you know whether or not you are healthy enough to do it and find out what your medical limits are. That way, you don’t have to worry about pitching up to the gym and having a heart attack.

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“Once that’s cleared up, the best thing to do is to get started. Try not to overthink this part because this is where people get stuck. People get stuck because they have to buy all the gear, maybe it’s the best gear, or the most fashionable gear or the extra gear. In most sporting events there is usually a simple version and an expensive version so to start off, stick to the simple version. Use a decent piece of kit for something that is critical to the event. For example, if you’re going running, then invest in a decent pair of running shoes. Running in bad quality shoes is only going to cause injury. But for something like swimming, as long as it’s appropriate, then you just need to jump in and get going.”

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Okay, that’s good to know. When it comes to buying your event clothes/shoes and equipment unless it is going to have a significant impact (like running shoes in a marathon) then instead go for the simpler option. I’ve seen how expensive some of the event kits can get (like bicycles that cost the same as a small car if you can believe such insanity) so especially for a first-timer, start small. If you find you love it so much and want to keep doing it, that’s when I’d suggest investing in pricier clothes and equipment.

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What’s the right approach to pre-event training? How should I start?
“It depends on how familiar you are to the activity or how simple the activity is. If it is something relatively elementary, like running or swimming, then most people don’t need a coach to get started. If it is an activity that you are learning, then you’re going to need some kind of coach to teach you the technical elements so that you can physically do it.

“Then it’s a question of getting started and finding times of the day and week that are suitable for training. Minimum activity you need to do about 150 minutes of exercise a week anyway so logically training should be way more than that, at least five times a week. You should also train for a minimum time of an hour, because if you’re training for less than an hour, to be effective, it has to be very focused, high-intensity training. Basic gym or cardio workouts should be about an hour though, in order to be effective. Training time and the amount of training you do also varies dramatically depending on what sport you do, but getting those hours in is crucial.”

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Okay, I totally understand that. You can’t be expected to do anything well, especially something so physically demanding if you haven’t put in the hours to prepare for it. However, what do you do if you find training boring? Sure I really want to be able to run a marathon but spending so many hours a week running isn’t exactly the most exciting.

“At the end of the day, training is boring! It doesn’t matter who you are, so you have to find ways to keep your mental interest peaked for training. You either have to be very mature and have the end-goal be your focus and the thing that keeps you going (which is hard!) or you have to distract yourself. You can use music, or use company as a distraction and do it with a friend. Make the distraction something that keeps you going at the activity though, not something that stops you. So if you’re picking a training partner, always try to find someone who has done something that you’re trying to do, or is a little more experienced or fitter than you. Another way to keep your interest up is to try to find one session during the week where you can go big, to add in with your maintenance sessions to mix it up, because variation is the key to keeping it interesting.”

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Right. A friend and some jams. That could definitely make hours of training a week more bearable. While we’re discussing training and how much you need to do for the event, is it possible to over-train?

“Definitely. While it sounds like hard work, you need to make sure you’re not overtraining because overtraining is how you get injuries. Overtraining is quite easy to do if you’re a ‘hacker’ or complete amateur and just dive in and start doing things. So if you’re unsure how fast to go, how far to go, how much to do in a workout, then that’s where you need to get onto google, consult a trainer or ask a friend or colleague who has experience in the event you want to do just so you can get a sense of how much you should be doing.”

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Now that we’ve discussed training. Let’s talk about nutrition. What kind of advice would you give to someone about overall diet leading up to the event and nutrition during the event?

“Getting your nutrition right for the event is vital, so depending on how long the event is you’ll need to take in sustainable fuel during the event. Again, the longer it is the more technical it becomes. At the end of the day it is about taking in quickly available calories. Hydration and calories are the two critical things to focus on. So, hydration will be covered by drinking water, plus some degree of electrolyte replacement for the longer events. In terms of calories, you’ll need enough to simply keep your tank full, because your body will burn through blood glucose quite quickly and in most events, you don’t have time to tap into your body’s protein and fat reserves rapidly enough. So, you will need to keep topping up your blood sugar. You can do this with any of the easily digestible carbohydrate products like energy gels and sweets.

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“Building up to the event, unless you’re taking the event very seriously, for first-timers nutrition isn’t something to put too much focus on but rather listening to what your body needs. Generally speaking, though, most people tend to overeat.”

So you won’t need to make any significant lifestyle changes if you’re a beginner but trying to keep a relatively healthy lifestyle is never a bad idea. So if you’re a little more conscious about what you’re eating and not eating so much junk food, then that’s good, right?

“Exactly. Junk food generally doesn’t process well. You want to keep the quality of your ‘fuel’ as healthy as possible. There is never a good reason to eat junk food, whether you are training or not. Junk food contains chemicals you don’t need, higher salt content that you don’t need, hidden sugars that you don’t need. It’s generally low on fibre, low on nutrition, absorbable minerals and vitamins and it is generally not clean or healthy sources of proteins, fats or carbs. In essence, there is no good reason to eat it. Otherwise, you don’t need to worry too much about nutrition as long as you listen to your body.”

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Getting closer to the race, what sort of things should you be aware of, and what would you recommend doing to avoid stress or problems?

“Prep things that you are going to get anxious about. Check and prepare equipment well before-hand. Pack a gear bag and leave it somewhere, maybe in your car, so that you know that your gear is ready and you won’t need to worry that you’re missing something. Try to do this, and any race-day nutrition shopping, at least one shopping day before you travel so there aren’t any last-minute disasters.

“Make sure to figure out where you’re going and the logistics of the trip, such as accommodation, travel etc. Start times, parking and such can also add unnecessary stress and time that you haven’t factored in so always, when figuring out timing, work backwards from your starting time. Work out how long you’ll need to get from your car, to registration, to the start, how long you need to wait at the start before the race just to avoid running late and adding unnecessary stress.”

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What about training right before the race? Do you stop training some time before your race, or can you keep training up until the day before?

“You can’t force fitness into your body at the last minute because fitness is something you earn over time. At the end of the day, once you’re within a week of your event, you’re essentially out of your window of time to get fitter. If you’re not fit enough a week before, you’re not going to get any fitter. So a week before the race is a good time to ease off your training just to avoid injury. Then lastly, once you’ve done all the hard work, enjoy your race! And sign up for your next one as soon as you cross the finish line.”

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Even for someone who doesn’t really go for athletic events, I found all of this extremely useful and helpful even for just general training and exercise, so I hope that all of you found it helpful too. For all of you prepping for your first athletic event, or for those thinking about signing up for one, I hope that this post provided you with some solid advice and answered any questions you might have had, as well as just giving you some guidance for your first big race. As always, thank you all so much for reading today’s blog post (even though I know it was quite different and quite long), and if you enjoyed it, please hit that little like button, subscribe so you don’t miss other blog posts and share with any of your friends who you know are interested in such events but need a little advice. Maybe send this post to a friend you are thinking of competing with? Anywho, I hope you all have a fantastic weekend with whatever you are doing. I, for one, will be standing along the coast with pom-poms in my hands waiting for my dad to finish this insane event.

Lots of Love
Blondey on a Mission xxx

(P.S. Thanks dad for all of the great advice! It’s great to have you on the blog!)

Author: blondeyonamission

Hey everyone! I'm a lifestyle and travel blogger from South Africa and about to relocate to the UK for university. My blog is all about stories, tips and advice with topics ranging from university, organisation, friends, books, travel and more. Please check it out and I hope you enjoy xxx

2 thoughts

  1. Hi Blondey, enjoyed the blog, wiush I knew all that many many many years back, however, a picture qwth you and the pom pom and your Dad would be nice for your readers.

    Liked by 1 person

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