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How To Pace An Olympic Distance Triathlon

Race faster every time, with these unmissable tips for pacing an Olympic Distance Triathlon.

 

If you want to race your best ever Olympic distance triathlon, you need to plan your pacing strategy in advance. It’s not good enough to simply turn up on race day and “go as hard as you can”. Such a strategy might work well for shorter events, but for an event lasting 2-3 hours it won’t do you any favours. You’ll be the one who races well in the first half, and then dies off.

If you pace your Olympic distance triathlon smartly, you’ll feel strong and fast throughout the entire event. 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 1500 swim, 40km ride and 10km run. In other words, you need to identify the best consistent pace you can hold for two or three hours.

Avoid the trap of viewing an Olympic triathlon as being like three separate races, because it isn’t. It’s one big continuous race – and that’s how you need to treat it when it comes to pacing. Forget about setting personal records in the individual disciplines, and simply aim for your best overall result.

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

How To Pace Olympic Triathlon Swim (1500m)

It’s hard to gauge your swim pace in a triathlon 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 or 8.5 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 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 someone’s 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 Olympic Triathlon Bike (40km)

The bike section of an Olympic triathlon involves a 25 mile or 40km cycle time trial. 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:

Bike Power Output:  Ride at 86 to 92% of your Functional Threshold Power (FTP)

Bike Heart Rate:  Ride at 90-94% of your Threshold Heart Rate (THR)

Bike Rate of Perceived Exertion:  Ride at 6.5 to 7.5 (out of 10). Where 10 is the hardest you can ride.

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 94% THR. Whereas if you’re aiming for a 3-hour finish time, you should aim for 86% of your FTP or 90% THR.

If you’re not sure what your Threshold Heart Rate or your Functional Threshold Power is, I’ll show you how to test for them below. If possible, use all three in this order of importance: 1. Power Output, 2. Heart Rate, Perceived Exertion.

How To Pace Olympic Triathlon Run (10km)

 

Given that an Olympic triathlon is a two or three hour race, don’t expect to set any personal bests for the 10km run. You’ll be pretty tired by the time you even begin. Realistically you can expect to be one to four minutes slower than you would be in a standalone 10km run race. If you pace the swim and bike properly, you increase your chances of running well. Imagine you’re doing a standalone half-marathon, rather than a 10km, and you’ll be nearer the mark in terms of pacing.

Run Pace:  Run at 93 to 96% of your Threshold Running Pace (Threshold Running Pace is similar to your 60 minute race pace)

Run Heart Rate:  Run at 94 to 96% of your Threshold Heart Rate (THR)

Run Rate of Perceived Exertion:  Run at 6 to 7 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 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.

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

Fitness Tests

In this blog we’ve talked about using measures like Threshold Running Pace, Threshold 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 and Threshold Heart Rate (via My Pro Athlete Help Center)
  2. Test Your Threshold Running Pace and Threshold Heart Rate (via My Pro Coach Athlete Help Center)

Conclusion

Invest the time to test your fitness, so you can get a good idea of your best pacing strategy. It may sound like a drag, but accurate pace judgement is the gift that keeps giving. It’ll help you avoid that infuriating mix of “good races and bad races”. Once you get it right, they’ll all be good races.

Good luck at your next event,

Coach Phil Mosley.

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

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

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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.

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About Phil Mosley

About Phil Mosley

Phil is a successful coach & athlete, having sold over 10,000 training plans on TrainingPeaks and been featured on countless publications. His focus is on smart training that still leaves quality time for your family, friends & career. You can browse learn more about MyProCoach here or preview your training plan now.

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