Assessing Race Performance: The After Action Review

Group of D3 athletes with their finishers medals
July 19, 2023

Dave Sheanin


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If I had a nickel for everyone who has told me while hanging out after a race that they had a good swim and bike and then blew up on the run, I’d have bags and bags of nickels!  But in most cases, what these people think happened is probably not what actually happened.  It’s easy to get caught up in the emotions associated with the outputs on race day.  If you want to improve, it’s critical that you engage in thoughtful reflection on what actually caused what happened.

An important part of performance improvement is learning from your training and racing.  This article focuses on race review, but you can use this model for assessing more than just races (and more than just triathlon).

The after action review (AAR) was originally developed and implemented by the U.S. Army and is now used throughout the military and increasingly into the business sector.  There are many variations of the AAR, but they all come down to an analysis of what happened, what should have happened, and what needs to change for next time.  Note that AARs should be employed consistently–not just after bad performances.

My recommendation for using the AAR to assess your triathlon performance follows these steps.

  1. Make a list of what went well during your race.  This should include the training cycle leading up to the race and anything that impacted your performance leading up to race day, in addition to the race itself.
  2. Make a list of what didn’t go well during your race.  (The same notes apply as in item 1.)
  3. Make a list of other observations.  These are items that are neither good nor bad outcomes–simply things that you noticed that don’t fall into either category 1 or 2 above.

In general, I think athletes are pretty good at making these kinds of lists, at least mentally, if not on paper.  (Some athletes are really good at the item 2 list…)  Here’s where you take this exercise from a list of things to actionable steps.

  1. Take your list of what went well and for each item, write down what you learned.  For example, if your what-went-well item was that you were able to swim a great line during the race, did you add a weekly open water swim to your training during which you practiced sighting and drafting?  Did you use new or appropriately tinted goggles?  Did you allow pre-race time for a solid swim warm-up?  
  1. What will you do on an ongoing basis to increase the chances of getting the same good result again?  The key result you’re looking for is specific takeaways and actions that you can systematize (make a normal part of your training/prep/racing) in the future.
  1. Repeat step 4 for your what-didn’t-go-well items.  Of course for this assessment, you are looking for learnings and actionable steps that will decrease the chances of getting the same poor result again.
  2. In some cases, you will be able to find “why” answers to your observation list as well.
  3. I like to take the additional step of ranking my learnings at the end of the process.  My ranked list will include a mix of learning from both positive and negative outcomes.  If you use a pre-race checklist (you should), be sure to add any learnings.

Note that in some cases, some time may need to pass between your race and your ability to dispassionately complete your AAR.  In general, the days following a race are the best time to sit down and complete this exercise.  Immediately following the race (e.g., that afternoon) is often clouded by emotion/fatigue/exhaustion–not your best time for thinking.  But waiting a week or more after a race will allow memories to fade and the actuality of what happened to become clouded or even rewritten.

My wife likes to say “make new mistakes”.  Even after 35 years in the sport, I’m still doing that!  Implementing the AAR process keeps me from making the same mistake again.

Coach Dave Sheanin is an advocate for aligning triathletes with their race goals. He believes that becoming “triathlon literate” is key to meeting your goals. Triathlon is indeed a lifestyle and like the other important areas of your life, knowledge is power. He encourages you to explore the nuances of the sport, be open to new ideas and ask questions – of yourself, of fellow swimmers, cyclists and runners, and of your coach.  

Coach Dave is a USA Triathlon and Training Peaks Certified Coach.  Coach Dave was honored by USA Triathlon with the Community Impact Award.

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