How to Pace a Long Course Triathlon: 5 Key Principles

How to Pace a Long Course Triathlon: 5 Key Principles

Part I of “How to Pace a Long Course Triathlon” offers helpful tips that will keep you from burning out on race day.

The hay is in the barn and you’re ready to burn it down for race day. Will your pacing strategy ensure a steady burn rather than a magnificent blow-up?

For a long course triathlon — at 70.3 miles or longer — your pacing plan should begin with patience and end with the perseverance to keep your foot on the gas once fatigue and pain set in. Here are five key pacing principles that will keep you from burning out too quickly during your long-distance triathlon.

1. Understand the Course

It’s essential to learn the rhythm of the racecourse so that you can determine appropriate pacing. This includes its elevation, terrain, likely weather conditions, and so on. For example, consider the following two bike elevation charts. Both of the races below — Ironman Tulsa and Ironman Chattanooga — have roughly the same amount of climbing. But a simple glance shows you that the elevation gains are organized differently, which in turn can require different preparation and pacing strategies. 

Other course elements that can impact pacing strategies include: 

  • the number and type of turns (this is especially significant for the bike)
  • how technical the terrain is
  • where the swim will occur (lake, ocean, or down-current swim)
  • whether the roads are open or closed 
  • road conditions (e.g., How well maintained is the pavement?)

Research your racecourse well in advance to understand these conditions. You can then create training sessions that mimic the rhythm of the course, which will help you understand what pace is appropriate and sustainable. 

2. Race as You’ve Trained

Race day should mimic what you’ve practiced in training. Other than an effective taper that may afford you a 2-3% boost, there is no magic on race day that will lead to a substantially faster or stronger effort than what you’ve repeatedly accomplished in training. 

Use key training workouts that mimic your racecourse to develop your race day pacing strategy. For example, I like to assign my athletes progressive pace runs where you start easy and then work into race day effort once you’re feeling fatigued. Then you can assess how realistic those targets are for race day. B or C preparatory races can serve a similar function in identifying target ranges for pace, heart rate, power, and RPE for your key race.

In this manner, when it is time to set race day targets, you don’t have to look any further than your training log to map out your pacing strategy. 

3. Don’t Start Off Too Strong

Race day success in long course triathlon is not about how fast you go at the start — it’s about how even you can keep your effort throughout the race. 

Racing faster at the beginning (aka, banking time) is always a losing strategy. The time you lose on the back half is substantially more than what you can gain in the front half. This time loss is due to excessive lactate accumulation in addition to an early onset of muscular fatigue.

Research consistently finds that endurance athletes have overall better outcomes when they keep a consistent, sustainable effort. Taking this approach requires you to put your ego in your pocket at the start line, as it can be tempting to chase those who start off too hot. Instead, put your focus on finishing strong and you’ll find yourself passing those hotshots soon enough! 

4. Use All Available Metrics

Race day pacing requires dynamic decision-making based on your understanding of all available metrics. During training, tune in to how your body feels at race effort and in race day conditions. Get a sense of your RPE (rate of perceived exertion), HR (heart rate), and pace or power so that when race day comes, you can adjust as needed based on its specific conditions.  

Temperature, humidity, wind, and terrain require us to take stock of how external factors impact output. For example, training and racing in the heat leads to higher RPE and HR in order to maintain pace and power. Wind or rough water may also require a shift in pacing expectations in the swim, bike, and/or run. If you have a handle on all available metrics, you can work with race day conditions rather than wasting your energy fighting against them. Here, adaptation will equate to triumph.

5. Tap Into Your Race Goals

Your race day goals will help with your pacing as well, especially if you separate them into process goals and outcome goals. Process goals are oriented to technique, skill, and mental fortitude (e.g., ride bravely on descents, nail fueling and hydration, etc.), whereas outcome goals are based on the specific outcomes of a race, such as time or placement. While you are in control of how you execute your process goals, the outcome of a race is never up to you. However, how effectively you achieve your process goals will inevitably affect your performance. 

Write down these goals and review them daily. This can help you craft a race plan that prioritizes factors you can control (like skill and mental stamina) over ones you can’t (like placement). Make adjustments as needed and anticipate the unexpected.

In the first two-thirds or three-quarters of a race, focus solely on your process goals. They will guide you to make effective decisions, especially if your targets are off. In the final third or quarter of the race, shift your focus to your outcome goals. These can help you keep your foot on the gas despite the fatigue and suffering that is sure to settle in. For example, if you are close to your time goal, or chasing down or fighting off a competitor, shifting focus to these outcome goals can help you find that extra burst of energy. Selecting A, B, and C outcome goals will allow you to keep your head in the game if external factors arise.

When the Going Gets Tough, Remember Your ‘Why’

At some point, the going will get tough. I always remind my athletes that it’s normal to feel like sh*t at any point during a race — it’s how you handle it that makes the difference! 

When you hit these rough patches, it’s time to recenter yourself and remember why you are out there. Your ‘why’ is the primary motivation for training, racing, and finding the grit to dig deep when every fiber in your body is begging you to stop. Most importantly, find joy and gratitude on race day. We are lucky to be able to race and to live this endurance lifestyle, so get out there and burn that racecourse up!

References: 

Barragán, R. et al. (2019, July). Effects of swimming intensity on triathlon performance. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334588421_Effects_of_swimming_intensity_on_triathlon_performance

Etxebarria, N. et al. (2013, September). Cycling Attributes That Enhance Running Performance After the Cycle Section in Triathlon. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256501349_Cycling_Attributes_That_Enhance_Running_Performance_After_the_Cycle_Section_in_Triathlon 

Lopes, R.F. et al. (2012, May). Heart Rate and Blood Lactate Concentration Response After Each Segment of the Olympic Triathlon Event. Retrieved from https://www.scielo.br/j/rbme/a/Y6tMwmCXy6NZVRZQ4NBMBvN/?format=pdf&lang=en 

Olcina, G. et al. (2019, May 16). Effects of Cycling on Subsequent Running Performance, Stride Length, and Muscle Oxygen Saturation in Triathletes. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6572577/

Peeling, P.D. et al. (2005, December). Effect of swimming intensity on subsequent cycling and overall triathlon performance. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16306507/ 

Pryor, J. L. et al. (2018, November). Pacing Strategy of a Full Ironman Overall Female Winner on a Course With Major Elevation Changes. Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2018/11000/Pacing_Strategy_of_a_Full_Ironman_Overall_Female.10.aspx 

Rothschild, J. & Crocker, G.H. (2019, April 5). Effects of a 2-km Swim on Markers of Cycling Performance in Elite Age-Group Triathletes. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30959840/ 

Maria Simone

A USA Triathlon Level 2 endurance and USA Cycling Level 2 certified coach, Maria Simone is the owner and head coach of No Limits Endurance Coaching (www.nolimitsendurance.com). She enjoys long weekends in the pain cave, races with hills, and hard runs through meandering single track trails with her husband and two dogs. Maria takes a holistic approach to training that considers physical ability, mental strength, and life-work-training balance. Maria works with endurance athletes of all levels, with the common thread of helping her athletes pursue and achieve their big dreams. She blogs about her personal experiences in training and racing at www.runningalife.com