In this blog I want to explain how to perfectly pace an Olympic distance triathlon, also known as an International or Standard distance triathlon. Getting your pacing right will help you race at your full potential, time after time.
If you’re not racing this kind of event, it’s still worth reading because the same principle applies across all types of endurance events.
Pacing is a subject I’m really passionate about, because I know from experience that it makes a massive difference to the outcome of your race. I’m so passionate about it that I’ve already written two other blogs on this subject, regarding pacing strategies for Ironman and Ironman 70.3 distance events.
Learning From Mistakes
I’ve been a triathlete for over 20 years and I spent the first 14-years getting my pacing wrong.
In every triathlon I would try to drop everyone on the bike by riding as hard as I could, without thinking about what impact it might have on the rest of my race. I was super fit back then, but my race results were very inconsistent. I’d do well in Sprint distance triathlons, but my results in the longer events were erratic at best.
It was only once I started using a power meter that I realised why my performances were so inconsistent. You don’t have to have a power meter to pace yourself accurately, although mine clearly showed that I was riding too hard from the start and then getting too fatigued. This meant I was too tired to run properly off the bike.
So from that point onwards I started calculating my pacing strategy beforehand, based on power output, heart rate and perceived exertion.
Once I made this change my results improved drastically. I became “Mr Consistent” and rarely had bad races.
Some of my best ever results came in my late thirties and early forties, even though I wasn’t as fit as I had been in my mid-twenties. It was because I had learned to pace myself accurately. I only wish I’d learned sooner.
In this blog I’ll show you how to pace yourself properly so you avoid making the mistakes I made...
How To Pace Your Swim
It’s hard to gauge your swim pace in a triathlon because you’ve got nothing to go on. It’s not like you can keep looking at your watch when you’re surrounded by hundreds of other swimmers. So the best thing you can do is go by feel.
Therefore, you should aim to swim the first couple of minutes at an intensity that feels like an 8 or 8.5 out of 10 (where 10 is a sprint). It’s actually difficult to go any slower when you're adrenaline is so high.
After a couple of minutes, ease down into a steady 7.5 or 8 out of 10 for a few minutes. Then drift down to 7 out of 10 for the remainder of the swim.
Feel free to accelerate occasionally if it helps you to get on someones feet. Remember that drafting behind other swimmers will save you around 10% of your effort for a given speed.
How To Pace The Bike
The bike section of an Olympic triathlon involves a 25 mile or 40km cycle time trial, but that doesn’t mean you should ride it like one. It is a triathlon after all. Think of it more like a 50 mile or 80km time trial and you’ll be in the right ball park in terms of pace judgement. Let’s be a little more specific about the numbers here:
Power Output: Ride at 86 to 92% of your Functional Threshold Power (FTP)
Heart Rate: Ride at 86 to 92% of your Heart Rate Maximum (HRM)
Rate of Perceived Exertion: Ride at 6 to 7 out of 10. Where 10 is an all-out sprint.
If you’re not sure what your Heart Rate Max or your Functional Threshold Power is, I’ll show you how to test for them below.
To pace yourself on the bike you can use any one (or all three) of Power Output, Heart Rate or Perceived Exertion to help pace your race. If possible, use all three in this order of importance: 1. Power Output, 2. Heart Rate, Perceived Exertion.
Your exact pacing strategy depends on the time you expect to finish in. The faster you are, the higher the percentage you should aim for within the ranges given above. For example, if you’re aiming for a 2-hour finish time you should aim for 92% of your FTP or HRM. Whereas if you’re aiming for a 3-hour finish time, you should aim for 86% of your FTP or HRM.
How To Pace Your Run
Given that an Olympic triathlon is a two or three hour race, don’t expect to set any personal bests for the 10km run. Realistically you can expect to be 90 seconds to four minutes slower than you would be in a standalone 10km run race. If you pace the swim and bike properly, you will be closer to 90-seconds than four minutes. Imagine you’re doing a standalone half-marathon, rather than a 10km, and you’ll be nearer the mark in terms of pacing.
Pace: Run at 93 to 96% of your Threshold Running Pace (your 45-60 minute race pace)
Heart Rate: Run at 87 to 93% of your Heart Rate Maximum (HRM)
Rate of Perceived Exertion: Run at 6 to 7 out of 10. Where 10 is an all-out sprint.
If you’re not sure what your Threshold Running Pace or Heart Rate Max is, I’ll explain how to test for them below.
Again, your exact pacing strategy will depend on your speed and fitness. If you’re aiming for a 2-hour finish time, race at the upper end of the ranges given above. Whereas if you’re aiming for a 3-hour finish time, race at the lower end of the ranges given above.
How To Test Your Power, Pace and Heart Rate
It's really important to do some field testing before you create your pacing strategy. Doing this means you can base your race pace on accurate, recent data, rather than plucking it from thin air. Inaccurate field data = inaccurate pacing on race day.
The links below will show you how to test your fitness.
Once you've done that you can create an accurate pacing plan for your next Olympic distance triathlon (also known as International triathlon or Standard distance triathlon) using the guidelines in this blog.
That’s all for this month, good luck with your training.
Interested in doing an Olympic distance triathlon? You can preview my FREE Olympic distance triathlon training plan here, designed in Training Peaks (free).
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Phil Mosley is a triathlon coach and writer.