How To Pace a Sprint Triathlon

Sprint triathlon start

Learn how to pace your next Sprint Triathlon and race faster than ever…

 

Sprint triathlons are relatively short compared to other kinds of triathlons, but the word “sprint” is misleading. These events usually comprise a 750m swim, 20km bike and 5km run, and will typically take 60 to 90 minutes – or more. That’s hardly a sprint, so you’ll need to pace yourself sensibly on race day otherwise you’ll fade badly towards the end. 

Most people get carried away in the excitement of race-day and go as hard as they can. As the race progresses their pace gradually gets slower and slower, and it feels tougher and tougher. To some extent you can get away with this “do or die” strategy in sprint triathlons, but it’s certainly not the most optimal way to race.

If you want to race your best ever Sprint triathlon, you need to plan your pacing strategy in advance. Even pacing has been shown to be more effective than going off too hard and fading. Not only will you race faster, but you’ll enjoy the event more too. You’ll be the one who overtakes people in the second half, rather than the one being overtaken.

Essentially, the idea is to race at an even pace (with a few exceptions) throughout the 750m swim, 20km ride and 5km run. To do this, you need to identify the best consistent pace you can hold for 60 to 90 minutes.

Avoid the trap of viewing a Sprint triathlon as being like three separate races. Don’t try and set personal bests in each discipline, because it won’t work. A sprint triathlon is one continuous race of 60-90+ minutes, rather than three separate events. And that’s how you need to treat it when it comes to pacing.

Here’s how to approach each discipline and pace it smartly.

How To Pace a Sprint Triathlon Swim (750m)

It’s hard to gauge your swim pace in a race because you’ve got nothing to judge it by. You can’t 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. Here’s how.

The first few minutes of the swim:  Swim at an intensity that feels like an 8.5 or 9 out of 10 (where 10 is a sprint). You’ll be high on adrenaline at this point.

After the first few minutes of the swim: Ease down to a steady 8 out of 10 for a few minutes. Swim on someones feet, and let your intensity drift down to 7.5 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 make it at least 10% easier for a given speed. Swim smarter, rather than just swimming harder.

How To Pace a Sprint Triathlon Bike (20km)

The bike section of a Sprint triathlon typically involves 20km (12.4 mile) cycle time trial. Think of it more like a 25 to 30 mile cycle 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:

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.

Bike Power Output:  Ride at 90 to 100% of your Functional Threshold Power (FTP)

Bike Heart Rate:  Ride at 87 to 93% of your Heart Rate Maximum (HRM)

Bike Rate of Perceived Exertion:  Ride at 7 to 8 (out of 10). Where 10 is the hardest you can ride.

The faster a triathlete you are, the higher the percentage you should aim for within the ranges given above.  For example, if you’re aiming for a 1-hour finish time you should aim for 100% of your FTP. Whereas if you’re aiming for a 90 minute finish time, you should aim for more like 92% of your FTP.

If possible, use all three intensity measures in this order of importance: 1. Power Output, 2. Heart Rate, Perceived Exertion.

How To Pace a Sprint Triathlon Run (5km)

You’ll be pretty tired by the time you even begin the run. Realistically you can expect to run one to three minutes slower than you would be in a standalone 5km run race. If you pace the swim and bike properly, you increase your chances of running well. Imagine you’re doing a standalone 10km or 10 mile running race and you’ll be nearer the mark in terms of pacing.

Run Pace:  Run at 95 to 100% of your Threshold Running Pace (Threshold Running Pace is similar to your 60 minute race pace)

Run Heart Rate:  Run at 88 to 95% of your Heart Rate Maximum (HRM)

Run Rate of Perceived Exertion:  Run at 7.5 to 8 out of 10 (where 10 is the hardest you can run).

Again, your exact pacing strategy will depend on your current aims and fitness. If you’re aiming for a 1-hour finish time, race at the sharper end of the ranges given above. Whereas if you’re aiming for a 90-minute or two hour finish time, race at the mid or lower end of the ranges given above.

If you’re not sure what your Threshold Running Pace or Heart Rate Max is, you can find out below.

Fitness Tests

In this blog we’ve talked about using measures like Threshold Running Pace, Max Heart Rate and FTP. What if you don’t know yours? Well, you can do a few basic tests to find out. They are simply measures of fitness that can help you create a pacing strategy:

  1. Test Your Bike Functional Threshold Power (via My Pro Coach Blog)
  2. Test Your Heart Rate Max (via My Pro Coach Athlete Help Center)
  3. Test Your Threshold Running Pace (via My Pro Coach Blog)

Conclusion

You can’t expect to race your best sprint triathlon, without thinking about your pace strategy in advance. Invest the time to test your fitness, so you can get a good idea of your best pacing strategy. Then you can execute great races, time after time.

Good luck at your next event,

Coach Phil Mosley.

P.S: For more detailed help (including pace guidance and fitness tests) check out our Sprint Triathlon Training Plans with Coach Email Support

Connect with us on Instagramfor regular mini-features about training and racing by Phil Mosley.

Share on facebook
Share
Share on linkedin
Share
Share on twitter
Share
Share on print
Print
Phil Mosley (Coach & Founder)
Phil Mosley (Coach & Founder)

Phil is a recognised expert in the field, having featured on many endurance sports publications. He founded MyProCoach in 2010 to sell premium training plans complete with email coach support for triathlons, duathlons, running & cycling.

Recent Posts

Get Phil's Training Tips Via Email!

Kickstart Your Training Today

  1. Choose your premium 4-48 week training plan
  2. Activate your FREE TrainingPeaks™️ account
  3. Get your online plan (with email support!) and start training!