\"Training\" in Training Races
There's always a catch, and here the catch is that many riders forget the "training" part of "training race." The excitement can often be too much, ego takes over, and people race themselves into the ground before the season even starts. If you participate in training races this winter and spring, it's imperative to lay down some rules for yourself based on your training needs and follow them to the letter, however difficult it may be to hold back when the attacks are going up the road.
One situation that often arises is that short days and bad weather can limit your training time, right up to the point the training races start. This leaves many riders going from 0 to 60 in an incredibly short time, and leads directly to an early exit to the season. Too much supra-threshold work too soon, without the aerobic foundation to handle and recover from it, will always put you on the first bus home. Don't start the training races unless you have at least one 4-6 week cycle of aerobic base training done, including extended intervals in the Light (81-90% of threshold) and Middle (91-100% of threshold) zones. You don't need to be fit enough to win, only fit enough to participate and not set yourself back from having done so. (See other Cycle-Smart training articles for more explanation of power and heart-rate based training zones.)
In most cases, racing to win these early season training races won't be your goal, and it's crucial to remind yourself of that. No one gets a pro contract from training race wins. If you plan on participating, make the races fit your target. If you're focusing on a mid-season goal like the Fitchburg stage race, then you should be limiting your anaerobic work in March and sitting in. If you need to be ready for Athens Twilight in April, then you might take a more pro-active approach, be active in the race, and try to raise the total number of minutes you can spend at and around your threshold, as well as your capacity for riding above it.
Either way, don't race above your fitness level. If you bury yourself on a Sunday in March when you're still trying to improve your form, you run the risk of losing training days during the week. If Tuesday comes around and you're not recovered enough to train because you went beyond yourself on Sunday, you either lose a training day, or end up over-training because you needed the recovery but trained regardless. In both cases, you stunt the development of your form, and the racing is counter-productive.
This doesn't mean you can't win early season training races even when you're holding back, contradictory though it may sound. If you know, for instance you've only been able to finish 30 minutes of intervals near threshold in your training but find that you're fit enough to sit in comfortably during the training race, you might allow yourself the last 30 minutes of the race to be more active. Still, you should do your best to avoid extended period above threshold or going with absolutely every attack. Even if you find that just sitting in is challenging enough for you to get the intensity work you need for the day, you can always allow yourself the freedom to take part in the sprint for whatever places are remaining. In this case, the total amount of time you'll be in the red zone is limited to one final effort, so you can only do so much damage.
Often you'll find that you'll actually be sprinting for the win, which is an excellent lesson in itself. Sitting in during these early season events is an prime time to actually watch and study a race while being a part of it as it unfolds. If you're sitting in, don't do so mindlessly. Ride close enough to the front to watch the race as it goes on. Mark every attack, and who goes with it. See who's fit, and who might be someone to follow when the real races start. See how moves you might have gone with otherwise play out. By doing this, you can start to get a sense of the ebb and flow of the race without having to make tactical decisions while you're at your limit and can't think straight.
The lessons you learn in this approach to training races will hopefully stay with you when you find yourself in an important event, and help you with your patience and choice of tactical moves to make or go with. And in the end, if it does come down to a field sprint, you'll find yourself fresh and ready to make a full-strength go at it. In general, holding back now will let you continue to build your form but still get the benefit of racing, allowing you to be in ideal form when the events that matter come around, and the racing is finally more important than the training.