Triathlon success : Pace your race!
I absolutely love triathlon, 3 awesome disciplines rolled into a single sport, whoever invented it = genius!
Regardless of the distance you compete in and whether you’re a novice or seasoned pro, there’s a fundamental element that’s key to triathlon success, PACING!
For all the great races I’ve had, I can look back and say I absolutely nailed the pacing. This is one of the main reasons to use a GPS watch, heart rate monitor and/or RPE (rate of perceived exertion) but we’ll talk about this in a separate post.
You can’t win a triathlon in the swim, but you can lose it!
With nerves running wild at the start, it’s very easy to get your pacing wrong. One of the biggest mistakes is starting off too hard in the swim. Whilst this could be OK if you’re racing as an experienced and rapid super sprint, sprint or Olympic distance athlete, for those newer to the sport, this is going to make the bike and run tougher than they already are.
Steady on the accelerator
Think of the intensity you race at equivalent to pressure on an accelerator. Pedal-to-the-metal results in MAX SPEEEEED but the consequence is this rapidly fatigues us and empties our internal fuel tank; it’s simply not sustainable.
All too often athletes start off too hard in the Ironman swim, 60 minutes later they exit the water with a swim best (woohoo) but their fuel tank is now only half full (or half empty depending on how you look at it). The bike and run are going to require more than the 50% of the remaining fuel; even with gels galore, this athlete is going have a long, crappy day where the cramp-monster is most-definitely going to make an appearance!
We have around 1.5-2 hours of fuel in our tank, this is why most of us can make it through a super-sprint, sprint and sometimes Olympic distance with little or no external fuel. The key thing is this figure, no matter how much you think you’re an outlier, is not going to be far off. When your race crosses this magic 1.5-2 hour mark, triathlon becomes an event of 4 disciplines; Swim, Bike, Run and Nutrition. Conveniently I’ve also composed a nutrition strategy for different triathlon distances here.
Pacing and Race Intensity
If we take nutrition out of the picture, we need to obey the inverse relationship between intensity and volume:
High Intensity : Low Volume (Super Sprint / Sprint / Olympic)
Medium Intensity : Medium Volume (Olympic / 70.3)
Low Intensity : High Volume (70.3 / Ironman)
Whilst these aren’t absolutes, it’s a good way to think about your pacing strategy.
You aren’t going to be able to sustain your Sprint triathlon pace for an Ironman and to do the best time you can for an Olympic distance triathlon, you need to go faster than your Ironman pace. Actual pace will vary significantly between athletes (e.g. Kilometres per hour) but relative pace (e.g RPE / Relative Perceived Exertion), very little.
World class performers complete Olympic distance triathlons under 2 hours and the record for Ironman was recently broken standing at 07:46:54 (OMG!!!) On the other hand, there are athletes out there who complete Olympic distance triathlon in 5 hours and an Ironman within the cut off time up to 17 hours; in my opinion, these are the real heroes!
A guide to pacing your triathlon
Whilst this is not an absolute, the following table will help you think about how to pace your next triathlon. It uses a target finish time as opposed to triathlon distance.
Target Finish Time : Relative Effort (RPE) : Relative Effort (% Max)
Sub 1 Hour 9-10/10 90-100%
1-2 Hours 8.5-9.5/10 85-95%
2-4 Hours 7.5-8.5/10 75-85%
4-8 Hours 7-8/10 70-80%
8-12 Hours 6-7.5/10 65-75%
12+ Hours 5-7/10 50-70%
Whilst we can use technology to monitor heart rate, pacing, power and gauge the fuel you’ve used pretty accurately, the above table can still be used in conjunction these.
Each time you train, my advice would be to use a rating of perceived exertion it doesn’t matter if this is the Borg Scale of 6-20 or 1-10, try to develop that awareness of how hard you’re working at a given time.
Come race day, the likelihood is your RPE is going to feel lower than expected, this is when you have to be cautious, adrenaline can be your friend and enemy at the same time.
Action Plan - How I roll!
First things first, think about your target race time and the associated RPE that goes with this. This is how I pace a 2 hour Olympic distance event, it’s been a while since I did this but you have to have an aim!
The Swim - This, is SPARTA!
Knowing I’m a strong swimmer, I’ll start around a 9/10 for the first 300-400m to get out of the ‘mosh-pit’ and get my sighting dialled early on. After the initial push, I’ll bring it down to around 8.5 for the remainder of the swim, trying (and generally failing) to swim in as straight a line as possible.
The Bike - Steady as she goes
I need to stay consistent for the whole bike leg, as such I’ll ride at 8.5-9/10 without undertaking any big surges or accelerations. Surges or accelerations above your steady state pace will burn more of your precious fuel and actually increase physiological cost when compared to racing at a steady state pace alone. There’s a reason I absolutely LOVE my powermeter(s), it’s like cheating when it comes to pacing.
The Run - Bringing it home
Having not gone ‘full gas’ on the bike, I actually have something left in my legs and the fuel tank. I like to compete the run as a wind up so out of transition I push around 8/10 for the first 1-1.5Km, generally until my legs feel reasonable and my breathing has steadied. Your heart rate initially surges due to the change in work being done. On the run, you’re now supporting your bodyweight and using different muscles compared to the bike, you’re bodies amazing and will compensate given half a chance.
I always carry a gel with me and think about how the legs feel as I start the run (generally crap). If I’m feeling really flat, that caffeinated gel is consumed at the start of the run so it kicks in around the 5Km (approximately 15 mins later), after which, it’s turbo boost will last around 20-30 mins, gel dependent.
After the initial, ‘patient’ running, I’ll start to dial up the pace for the next 5Km to around 8.5-9. For the last 1-2Km if I’ve paced it well, I can start to ‘push on’ winding it up to 9-9.5/10 ONLY if I think I can sustain this. You want to cross the line as you the reserve light comes on, then you know you’ve nailed your pacing.
It’s so much nicer finishing strong than dying a death from a physical and mental perspective. I’ve raced many times and despite (sort of) knowing what I’m doing, it’s not always gone to plan, even the Pro’s have bad days, just look at Jonny Brownlee during his 2016 ITU Mexico race.
The Take Home
I know this awesome article has now transformed your from pacing novice to pacing pro (you’re welcome) but some key points…
Think about the event - be realistic with your target time and devise an appropriate pacing strategy using the table above as your guide (gives you a solid starting point)
Think about your RPE and what it should be for the discipline you’re on - never feel like slowing down (if you’ve started too fast) is a failure, it’s the opposite, you’ll show wisdom beyond your years!
Always have fun - no matter your level! Encourage fellow athletes whilst racing in the form of support or high 5’s, you never know, they might just be going through a dark spell.
Do the best you can do on the day (< article link) - some days will be good, others will be bad but how can you appreciate the good days without the bad..?
Have a backup plan just in case things start to go South; hopefully you’ll never need to use it but at least you’ll be prepared in this event.
I hope this article serves you well, leave a comment or get in touch if you have any questions or thoughts.
Race classy, planet Earth!