Plan Your Pace to Race Your Race

By Mark Turner | July 12, 2016, 12:02 a.m. (ET)

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Achieving their best performances in triathlon requires much more of athletes than simply improving their swim, bike and run. Acquiring the practice and discipline of racing your own race will allow your training to yield optimal results on race day. Beyond the core disciplines of swim, bike and run in the sport of triathlon are several other vital components. Mastering transitions, nutrition and pacing are all key disciplines as well. While both transitions and nutrition require serious consideration during training and racing, dialing in the best possible pacing in each discipline on race day is the ingredient that brings all the other components together for a great performance.

When the new triathlete is introduced to the very idea of pacing, it is mostly reflected in coming to understand the best possible pace for them for a given distance in each of the disciplines that keeps them from “blowing up” in the next leg. Therefore the concept of pacing is approached primarily through minutes per 100 yards, miles per hour, and minutes per mile. However, the athlete who seeks to excel in racing must go beyond the base metrics and acquire pacing wisdom. Pacing wisdom is where the art in the art and science of triathlon emerges. It is acquired through experience combined with metrics. That being said such wisdom does not come automatically with race volume or years in the sport. Participating in races alone, even many races, without intentionality, does not yield pacing wisdom.

One of the key pacing challenges that coaches face with triathletes is getting them to race their own race, i.e., learning to pace themselves during each leg of the race for optimal overall results. And while there are many factors that come into play in mastering this key discipline, learning to shut out or minimize the effects of fellow competitors on your race pace is vital. And that is part of pacing wisdom. Remember, “they” race like “they” drive! What does this mean? It means that many racers act just like the drivers on the freeway who pass you simply because you are in front, only to realize, once they pass you, that they are speeding, so they slow down. Often we don't even notice that they have slowed down, and without thinking about it we slow down ourselves, only to realize after a short time that we are no longer driving at the speed we intend. In other words, we have allowed the speed of the other driver, whether they are driving slower than we prefer or faster than we prefer, to dictate our own speed. Much the same happens in racing. A slower athlete passes you and then slows down, and you find yourself matching their pace instead of monitoring your own metrics. Worse still is when a faster athlete passes you and you find yourself unconsciously matching their pace or speed. That almost always leads to a bad race day!

The key to avoiding this and other pacing pitfalls is to approach race pacing in training and racing with real intentionality. Race and train with a pacing plan that helps you develop more than one gear. Keep track of that progress by also monitoring your rate of perceived exertion for given paces as you improve. And on race day have a plan and stick to that plan. Only by racing your plan and not allowing avoidable external factors, like the pace of fellow athletes, to dictate your pace and alter your plan can you acquire the pacing knowledge that will lead to pacing wisdom. This pacing wisdom is what makes rate of perceived exertion a beneficial tool on race day because it is linked not just to experience but to an experience that is given reflection: before, during and after training sessions and races. It goes beyond data and metrics to a dialed-in knowledge that allows athletes to stay within themselves on race day and to race their own race and not their fellow competitor's race.

Coach Mark Turner is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, IRONMAN Certified Coach and a coach with Team MPI. To learn more about Coach MarkT and Team MPI go to teammpi.com. You can contact him at markt@teammpi.com.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.