Back in 2002, I set my sights on getting to the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. I raced well at the only qualifying event in the UK but missed out on the solitary slot available in my category by about a minute in a 4-hour race.

The result and ensuing 12 months would change how I approached racing - and specifically how I planned for racing - completely...

From “winging it” to jumping “on the treadmill”

It was a miserable drive home from that 2002 event.

In the months that followed, the near-miss fired me up like nothing had before and I got into fantastic shape for a chance to qualify the next year.

As the day of redemption day drew closer, I was so utterly convinced that I was ‘ready’ I started to get paranoid about doing something stupid that could undermine the result I knew was possible; something catastrophic like getting the start time wrong and showing up late or forgetting to leave my run shoes in my T2 bag.

Initially, as a tactic to manage my growing anxiety around f%$king it up I did something I’d never done before and wrote a list of “mission-critical” jobs to complete and items to pack in the days leading up to the race.

For good measure, I also sketched a timeline of all the key events in the last 48 hours (e.g. race briefing, transition open/close times and so on).

This was highly unusual behaviour for me as prior to that moment I was typically very happy to ‘wing it’ in most areas of life!  However, I found the process had an immediate effect when it came to calming my nerves. It allowed me to “get on the treadmill” for the last 48 hours without stressing about what I needed to do.

I just followed the timeline and trusted the list.

By following the plan I showed up to the event very well prepared in every respect within my control and executed one of the best races of my entire life. I turned a one-minute deficit from 2002 into something like a 12-minute cushion over the same athlete who had previously beaten me, and stamped my ticket to Kona. Job well and truly done.

The mood on the drive home that evening was vastly different to that of the prior year.

The power of the checklist

Whilst my performance clearly had a lot to do with the training I’d put in, the checklist offered a tangible level of protection against catastrophic failure on the day due to something avoidable going wrong. It became part of my process for almost all big races from then onwards.

Recently, I had a conversation with pro-triathlete Kat Matthews and she brought up the fact that she also uses a pre-race checklist herself. Our chat was the catalyst for writing this article to elaborate on what I think might be a useful concept for many athletes to consider when preparing for an important upcoming event.

Why checklists are so useful

In 2009, surgeon Atul Gwande published a brilliant book called ‘The Checklist Manifesto’. Atul describes how checklists have been implemented with spectacular success in fields such as medicine and aviation in order to dramatically reduce the failure rates of smart people completing complicated or complex tasks.

He points out that when things go wrong in many walks of life it’s just as likely to be the result of ineptitude or a simple mistake being made as it is through a lack of knowledge or understanding of what actually needed to be done.

In other words, in many scenarios we don’t lack knowledge of the appropriate course of action. Instead (quite infuriatingly) we lack in the competent, rigorous execution of a process that should ordinarily lead to success (all other factors being equal).

This is particularly true for processes that we repeat time and time again as we risk going into a form of autopilot which is not always helpful.

The book is well worth a read in full. But one of the key takeaways is the fact that we humans make avoidable mistakes frighteningly often when completing any task with more than a handful of simple steps involved.

We often take shortcuts (deliberately or subconsciously) and are prone to forget or skip critical steps that can leave us vulnerable to things coming unstuck for reasons that ought to be entirely avoidable.

Experienced practitioners are no more immune to this than anyone else either (though, ironically, they may be more likely to think they are) and Gwande’s unambiguous conclusion is that rigorous adherence to following simple checklists is a proven and simple way to combat this tendency. It’s one of the best ways we can insure against a wide range of predictable failures.

Rules for a good checklist

When I did my first checklist for the half-IRONMAN UK in 2003, it was a pretty monstrous document. It covered about 3 sides of A4 paper and went into a lot of detail. This was fine for the first attempt but it would have become too onerous to repeat this all-encompassing list in the long run.

As I did more races I found I was able to cull a lot of unnecessary fluff from my list. I got it down to a one-pager for all of the critical physical kit, equipment and nutrition I needed to pack or prepare, and most of the time I’d add a second side to the list with the key events, locations and timings on it.

My rationale was simple; if I could guarantee that I turned up with all of the right bits of kit, at the right time and in the right place, I was taking care of a lot of small details that could otherwise derail my ability to perform if any one of them got screwed up.

Similarly, Gwande promotes the idea of checklists being focused on ‘the killer items’ (i.e. the things that are most dangerous to forget). He agrees that the list should ideally fit on one side of a piece of paper. He also argues that presentation is very important and that it should be clear to read and free from visual ‘clutter’.

The Golden Rules of a good checklist:

  1. One-pager
  2. Clear and easy to read
  3. Focus on “the killer items”

I never actually produced a template for my checklists, preferring to draw them up by hand for each event. Kat Matthews uses pencil and paper to brainstorm ideas and has helpfully provided a downloadable template for you to use to help prepare for your next event:

Download the Race Planning Checklist Template

Adhering to Gwande’s principles, Kat’s checklist is a one pager and I love the incorporation of a nutrition/hydration timeline along the bottom. It’s a fantastic resource to start with if you’ve not done something like this yourself before.

The 7 P’s of planning

All that being said, I don’t believe that there’s a specifically right or wrong way to draw up a pre-race checklist. What’s important is that the act of filling it out or ticking items off in advance gets you thinking about possible areas where simple errors or omissions could trip you up.

In turn, this should cause you to act ahead of time, pack and plan for these in such a way that the chance of dropping the ball is minimised.

Your list needs to feel genuinely useful; ironically the exact opposite of what most people refer to as a ‘box ticking exercise’! If it does this, it will stimulate you to switch on and engage with the process of completing the steps on it, not just going through the motions.

Of course, there are still numerous ‘Black Swan’ events (i.e. those that you couldn’t possibly have predicted happening) that can upset an otherwise successful race but by definition you can’t see those coming, so planning for them is impossible.

However, overall you dramatically increase your odds of success by ‘controlling the controllables’.

Or to steal one of Kat’s favourite phrases it’s useful to remember the 7 P’s:

Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents P!ss Poor Performance!

Further reading