competition · fitness · racing

Getting better through caring about getting faster: Skill development and reasons to race

I like racing and I like being part of sports communities where racing is part of what goes on, even if I’m not actively racing myself. I like watching races and marshalling. I like being part of a racing community. Part of the reason is that I’m a bit of snob, not about speed, but about skills, and the two things are connected.

Now it’s true I also like racing for its own sake. I’m often in the position of trying to persuade other people to give it a try. See Six reasons not to race and why they might be mistaken. Racing or not is an ongoing conversation at Fit is a Feminist Issue. We’ve written a lot about competition and racing here on the blog. Regular readers know that Kim has mixed feelings about racing. Tracy has written about racing anyway even though she knows she won’t win. I’ve recently written about why I love racing on Zwift.

In this post though I’m going to talk about one thing I like about racing. But to be clear I’m not arguing for it in the sense of giving reasons that others need to accept. If you don’t like it, that’s just fine too.

My suspicion is that lots of women might like it but don’t think it’s for them. See my post Where are the women?

When some people talk about the benefits of racing, they focus on the value of testing yourself and developing your potential as an athlete, but the benefit I want to talk about is about is community and skill development.

I’ve been part of recreational racing teams as a road cyclist, a track cyclist, a dinghy sailor, and briefly as a rower.

I like it best when teams race regularly, recreationally, against one another. You get to know people and learn a lot from one another. We don’t think about that as part of competition but it’s very much the case for recreational racing.

In communities where everyone who has a road bike starts out racing, you find that people are pretty skilled riders. Racing teaches you to ride around corners and to ride closely with others, to descend at speed and to climb efficiently. It’s true you can learn these things without racing but racing communities tend to focus on skill development. You get an awful lot of practice even if you only race for a little while.

An aside: I also like it when club social rides and races are clearly separate things. You can tell the guy (why is it always a guy?) who keeps pushing the pace and riding off the front, to cool his jets and come back on race night if he wants to race. You can say, decisively, this is the team social ride. There is a time and place for racing and this isn’t it.

Back to skill development. This is even more true when it comes to dinghy sailing. You learn to sail by learning to race. Once people can do the basics then you go out to club races once a week and follow along, watching what other people do, accepting friendly suggestions from other racers, and competing against other novice crews at the back of the fleet. Racing means you get good at maneuvering near other boats and good at getting the boat in and out of the water in all sorts of conditions. If you’re not racing there is no reason to tack cleanly and quickly. These skills are useful for all kinds of sailing but it’s racing that encourages their development.

This also all true for rowing. There may be recreational sailors and rowers who’ve only ever recreationally raced or sailed but I suspect there aren’t very many.

You might only want to ride a bike, row, or sail for fun but for most people, you learn the foundational skills to do these things well, through racing.

Sam and Sarah snipe racing. It’s a light wind day and no one is going anywhere very fast.

4 thoughts on “Getting better through caring about getting faster: Skill development and reasons to race

  1. Great post. I think that the same principles regarding community and skill development would apply to sports that do not include races.

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  2. I raced as a swimmer a lifetime ago (as in >50 years). Pretty much all of my co-workers who run also race. I’ve been riding with the same people for 20-40 years. None of us race. On our group recreational rides, we tend to stay away from the racers, who seem to be the most dangerous folks out there, riding as though the road were closed and no car could be approaching over that hill while they are riding in the oncoming traffic lane. I know racers aren’t universally dangerous but, as I tell my kids, “I know old riders, I know stupid riders, but I don’t know any old stupid riders.”

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