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  • Writer's pictureHenry Wright

How To Pace Your Triathlon



Pacing for Triathlon

There are number of different ways to approach pacing and how to follow it during training and the race. The most important factor to consider in pacing a triathlon is that each segment will affect the following segment - the swim will affect the bike, the bike will affect the run, and the run is the culmination of the three. Poor pacing often presents itself often as a “bad” run. Here are some of the considerations and my advice for planning your race day pacing.


There is no one pace that is right for everyone - you need to test in training and then apply that to your race. The best way to do this is to do test sets for each discipline, work out how your RPE feels, your Power, and your Heart Rate zones, and then apply that Race Pace training sets. This should give you the feel of what you can expect in the race.


Nutrition advice is not included in this article but will play a huge role in your pace game - if your body does not have the fuel you need there is no way it can hit the paces that you are aiming for. A nutrition plan is essential for every race, and should be done in conjunction with expected energy expenditure at planned paces.

THE SWIM



The swim is by far the shortest part of the race, often setting the tone for the rest of the race. For most triathletes, but not all, it is not worth hitting the swim too hard for a small gain only to lose more on the bike. Quite often an increase in blood lactate in the opening stages of a race will lead to an elevated Heart Rate above your normal levels.


One of the keys for having a good swim is being in the right place. Seed yourself in the group of swimmers who will be swimming at the same pace as you so that you don’t get swept up in chasing others. Position yourself where you are most comfortable as well, i.e. on the sides re the middle if that will help keep your HR lower from the start.


Whilst it’s tempting to gun it at the start, my advice is to build into your pace and use those opening moments to get yourself into a good place within the race. For a Half Ironman you should be looking at 85-90% effort, and for a Full Ironman you are looking at a lower range of 75-85% effort. The swim is probably the most difficult to set a number to as there are a large number of variables including water conditions, and it’s much more off feel as you cannot view real time data as easily. Assigning RPE is most often best as this is towards what you will be relying on on race day.

Simple things to keep in mind on the swim: Drafting is your best friend - it can save you upward of 30% of your energy, and can amount to swimming 4-5 seconds faster at the same energy expenditure. For example you can be travelling at 1:30/100m pace but using the energy of 1:34/100m pace - this is a huge saving. You need to draft someone who is swimming straight to ensure you are not adding distance on. Don’t spend your race trying to find the right person though, if they aren’t helping you just get on with your own swim. Your focus should be on feeling strong, aligned, and confident.

Remember, the swim is your set up for the bike! It’s not about setting a Personal Best swim time.


THE BIKE



As I’ve just said above the Bike, whilst being the largest part of the race in terms of time and volume, is the platform for the run!

For most athletes a % range is the best way to go, rather than one static number to aim for. There are some generalisations that you can apply and then narrow down through testing in training. These will vary somewhat with different coaches or articles, which is why it is best to apply during training and find what is right for you.

You can plan pacing in three main ways, you don’t have to use all three but its best to at least have knowledge and be using two so that you can mix between during race day.

  1. FTP Power

Sprint - 90-98% of FTP

Olympic - 85-95%

70.3 - 70-85%

140.6 - 60-75%


2. Heart Rate

Sprint - 93-100% of Lactate Threshold Heart Rate

Olympic 90-98%

70.3 - 85-95%

140.6 - 80-89%

3. Rate Of Perceived Exertion

Sprint - 9-10 out of 10

Olympic - 8-9

70.3 - 6-7

140.6 - 4-5

Other considerations:

Bike Course - Hills will significantly affect pacing, and for these you should add on approx 10% to the power considerations, and consider how inclines will affect your HR and RPE, as well as recovery on any downhill segments.

Temperature and wind conditions can have a huge affect on the effort needed to hit the above FTP numbers, which is again why you need to have a grip on HR and RPE if you need to move away from focusing on the power.


The more experienced you are with using the numbers the better it will be on race day. More experienced athletes can also aim for the higher end of the above, whilst a newer or less conditioned athlete would be better off sticking more towards the lower end of each.

The best way to test the above is to test the above! I will often get athletes to do 2 or so training rides of race distance using projected targets, planned nutrition, and race gear. After some reflection changes can then be made to suit the athlete better.

THE RUN


My first piece of advice for the run is to build in to it. Similar to the swim, you don’t want to overcook yourself at the start and then struggle midway through. Let the legs settle into coming off the bike and as you find your rhythm then you can start to focus more on hitting your goal pace. Aim to be consistent through the run, or even for a negative split if you can. This is something that again needs to be practiced in training, including with brick (bike to run) sessions.


  1. Functional Threshold Pace

Sprint - 95>%

Olympic - 92-98%

70.3 - 90-95%

140.6 - 75-80%

2. Heart Rate


Sprint - 95-100% of Lactate Threshold Heart Rate

Olympic - 90-98%

70.3 - 85-95%

140.6 - 80-90%

3. RPE


Sprint - 9-10 out of 10

Olympic 8-9

70.3 - 6-7

140.6 - 4-5


These are based upon an ideal run course. Of course similar to the bike you have the considerations of course, nutrition, and weather conditions to factor in as well. Nutrition on the run is just as important as it is on the bike, with more than an hour of work left on the longer distances it is essential that you keep fuelling the body even after you get off the bike.

Racing is a culmination of bringing together small elements, practiced in training, into the most controlled race pace effort possible.


The best ways to succeed to your best ability in a race is controlling as much as possible:

  1. Know your target race course and make sure you are training specifically for it.

  2. Identify your target paces, HR, and RPE for each discipline through testing in training.

  3. Practice a solid nutrition race plan for race day.

  4. Work your mental game just as much as your physical one.

  5. Race strong, with purpose, and most of all enjoy the waves, ride, and run!


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