Top 10 ways to prepare for an XTERRA

XTERRA world champion Melanie McQuaid offers her top 10 tips for XTERRA success.

10. Start a swim program

Starting a swim program means enrolling yourself in coached practices. Because swimming is such an incredibly technical sport, hacking out miles and miles with a bad stroke is not as effective as less distance with more efficiency. You need someone to help you improve your stroke mechanics first and foremost, so enlist the experts at your local pool, YMCA or triathlon club.

9. Ride your mountain bike

It is true, Xterras are held on dirt. This means that you cannot do all of your training on a road bike and expect it to transfer effectively to your mountain bike immediately. I do 60-80% of my cycling training on my mountain bike, and about 60% of my total hours on the bike and I have a long history of off-road riding. If you are a beginner, it is a good idea to spend a LOT of time on your mountain bike getting comfortable because you won’t be able to generate the power you have until you are comfortable on the bike. This can take weeks or months but it will improve over time. Doing some mountain bike races locally is also a good idea to learn how to pace correctly and how to ride single track at race pace.

8. Wear the right stuff

You can count on an Xterra event being at least three hours. The importance of comfortable, breathable clothing cannot be stressed enough because you will be spending most of this time sweaty and either muddy or dusty. I would advice tri shorts for the women rather than a swimsuit, and a top that covers most of your midsection. You might want to swim in a tri swim top and tri shorts and then throw a jersey on in transition which will help you carry snacks on the bike. Whatever you choose, give it a try in training so that you know how it will perform. I experienced major wardrobe malfunctions wearing a swimsuit (the horror!) which did not fit well and got all creepy crawly on the bike and run. It is very difficult to focus on racing when you are desperately trying to cover up or squirming in discomfort, so an investment in good technical triathlon clothing is wise. Most people also choose to throw dry socks on in transition, which always makes post race feet shod in Manolos look so much hotter…

7. Bring Enough To Eat

Three hours is a long time at race pace and this is an ambitious finishing time. You will likely be grabbing a few bottles at the feed zones and can go through a number of bars and Gu packets during this time. It is always better to carry more than less, so keep a wide variety of carbohydrate goodies on hand to ensure you reach the finish line. I like to carry two bottles with my choice of drink and I always tape four Gu packets to the down tube of my bike. Always eat your planned race food during training so that there are no unpleasant surprises on race day. If you aren’t a fan of packaged race food, figs, apricots, bananas and dates can fit a cycling jersey (although bananas are tricky to open in the single track…).

6. Have a plan.

Your Xterra race will probably be better if you train for it. Besides your swim program, it is a good idea to have a balanced training program preparing you for all of the challenges offered in an Xterra race. There are a number of good books on training for a triathlon which are a good start in learning how to train for an Xterra so I would advise you to educate yourself on the basics of training, keeping in mind the advice on riding your mountain bike. Once you have a grasp for the basics and have spent some time developing skills, you might choose to enlist a coach. There are a lot of good and bad coaches out there so I would advise asking around. You would like to be another happy and successful customer so word of mouth can be a good way to find a coach or a good training group.

5. Visualize your success

I believe in realistic but lofty goals. This might sound counter-intuitive but it is not. I think you always should imagine incredible success but always see the process that will help you to achieve great things. With Xterra, your first goal should always be to finish. Your second goal should be to finish having put forward your best effort. Then the last piece of the puzzle, once the first two are in place, is to win. With this type of stepwise visualization you can reach consistent success. But without the first two, you will never achieve your goals.

In visualizing finishing, you need to imagine everything you need to do and be prepared for to get yourself to the finish line. What equipment is needed, how to maintain it in a disaster, what to eat and when, where to push yourself and how hard. Have a race plan. Sticking to a race plan will allow you to push your limits. This will achieve step two, a race where you have lay it all on the line. Step three, a win, is when you have worked hard to push your best effort to where it becomes the best effort on the day.

4. Have goals.

You need to set goals that are both short and long term to enable you to maintain focus throughout the season. Break your goals down to short and long term goals. Within the short and long term goals you might separate out your Process Goals and Outcome Goals. Perhaps all of your long term goals might be your Outcome Goals, i.e. what are the results you would like to get (what place in a certain race or what time for a 10km). Your short term goals might be Process oriented, i.e. how you are going to achieve those goals (what skills do you need to develop, injuries to clear up, muscle imbalances to correct, techniques to improve). For example, one of my Outcome goals for 2006 is to defend my world title. In order to do this, I have three Process goals. The first is to lower my race weight, the second is to improve my swim technique and the third is to improve my mid race focus. This way you can be immediately chipping away at your goal list while you work towards your ultimate Outcome Goal.

3. Learn from each experience

If you race well it is easy to pull the positives out of that experience. However, I believe that out of every race you can pull some kind of positive lesson no matter how sideways things may have gone. By ensuring that you can evaluate your performance based solely on your own efforts and not by the result, you can make sure that you will continue to improve. Even races that you have won can be improved upon, so evaluating based on good and bad points very objectively is important. It is also very important not to begin the evaluation until the race is over. No bad thoughts while you are still racing. It is very true that “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over!” Learn as much as you can from each race experience and enjoy it.

2. Schedule recovery

You can train as hard as you like, but if you body does not bounce back from the training you will only be digging yourself a hole from which you cannot climb out. Planning hard training is only half the equation. You must plan solid recovery from that training. Recovery is not just lying on the couch watching tv at night. This includes massage, ice baths, stretching, yoga, and core work. Some of the recovery time can include quiet nights watching Family Guy, but that is only after the stretching is complete!

1. Eat well every day of your life

Food is your fuel, your medicine, you mood enhancer, your performance enhancer, your social time, your reward, everything! It is supposed to be something enjoyable but should always be improving your health, not sacrificing it. They say that you are what you eat and frankly, as an athlete, you cannot afford to eat low quality food. I cannot believe people that choose to put high octane fuel in their cars and then will drive to the drive thru at a fast food place. Not a good choice. Choose minimally processed, organic whole foods, fruits, vegetables and meats for your body. Nature's Path makes excellent products for athletes! Drink pure clean water throughout the day. The only way the scheduled recovery from training is going to work is if you regenerate your tissues effectively and that is where your diet may become the limiter. Nothing feels better than solid nutrition. If you aren’t sure how your diet measures up, ask a naturopath or read some literature on naturopathic diets. It isn’t a “diet” – it is a lifelong commitment to good nutrition.

Originally Published February 2007