Assessing Your Long Course Race Using the Four Keys Approach

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Trent, Dave and Mike of Team EN meeting up at the Ironman® USA finish line!

Endurance Nation has been promoting its Four Keys of Race Executionfor several years now. Our macro level approach to organizing your expectations and managing your day has proven successful for thousands of Ironman® athletes across the globe. We get e-mails and feedback all the time, and nowhere is the success of the system more apparent than at the finish line. We strive to “catch” all of our athletes and hear their stories right away — the ups, the downs, and more importantly how they handled the challenges to craft their own personal race.  After watching Ironman® USA 2010 of this year I learned yet another powerful application of the Four Keys system: it is also very useful as a race review tool.

A Four Keys Review

First, to recap, let’s talk about what the Four Keys of Execution are.  They are, in order:

  1. Race day is about Execution, Not Fitness.
  2. Nothing matters until the line, which is Mile 18.
  3. We get to the line, and we set the conditions of success by Racing Inside A Box. Everything that goes inside that box is what you can control. Everything outside of that box is what you can’t control.
  4. Your one thing. At the end of the day, when you hit the line, your body will begin to push back when it doesn’t want to continue, and your mind must have that one thing in place that you can pose a very convincing argument and keep moving forward despite that you want to slow down.

So, what does the above mean from a post-race perspective? When you are evaluating your race, the number one piece of data that you have on hand is your finishing time is.  It’s very easy to know whether or not you achieved your goal time. But that information doesn’t give any detailed description of about how your race day played out.

After all, it only takes one mechanical to throw off your finish time — but you could have still had an excellent race. The true measure of your race is not the final time at the finish line, but how you got there.

The Four Keys Evaluation Approach

Here’s how you can use the Four Keys system to effectively review your race:

Step One: Did you race according to principles of execution or did your fitness dictate your day? This is a decision we all have to make at many points during the day when we have to decide if we want to accelerate away from someone on the swim, if we’re going to be aggressive into a hill, or if we’re going to run quickly for the first six miles.

Step Two: Where did you hit your line on race day? It’s going to show up for all of us at some point in time and perhaps it was at Mile 18 or maybe it came earlier. Knowing where it happened gives us further insight as to how you paced your day: did it happen on he run, did it happen on a bike, was it late or early in the day? Where did you find yourself having the great mental versus physical debate that determines your finish.

Step Three: Did you race inside the box, focusing on what you could control? Or did your find yourself outside of the box focusing on external factors?  There are countless opportunities during the course of your Ironman® day where you will be bumping up against elements of friction in the competition that will or will not allow you to operate in a clean, efficient manner. Did you handle them well?  Were you able to do what you needed to do or not?  What was it that forced you outside of your zone and how can you improve upon this next time?

Step Four: Your one thing. The line happens for all of us across an Ironman. When you hit it, you’re going to need that one thing to be ready. How did your one thing work out?  Was it powerful enough? Where you mentally strong enough? How effectively were you able to execute given your condition? All of those questions get at the meat of the issue: were you able to continue your race, and to continue executing, when the chips were down?


The Four Keys is a great starting point for deeper introspection into your race, but it also allows for a very quick assessment of did I or did I not have a good day.  Your ability to hit a specific time or a goal time in a day that is as long as an Ironman® is pretty arbitrary.  There’s so many things that can go wrong, but you can quickly scan through your Four Keys list and decide whether or not you had a well-executed race despite the conditions.

Listening to perfect days and tales of massive PRs is nice, but they aren’t educational. It was very powerful to hear how most of our finishers at Lake Placid were able to process their race in such a way as to understand they still had a fantastic day given the constraints that they faced in terms of the course, the competition, the conditions, etc. You can listen to some of their podcast interviews here.

Seeing them be able to assess their day and emerge from that assessment with an understanding that they still were successful even though they weren’t able to meet their goal time, to me, as a coach is incredibly powerful. It’s a reminder that athletes of all ability levels can not only execute like a professional regardless of how fast they are, but that they can learn from those experiences, incorporate them into their racing schedule and continue to grow as athletes.

I’m confident that the next time these athletes race, they’re really going to crush it out there…and I hope you will too!

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Coach P

All stories by: Coach P

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