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Don't Wing it on Race Day: Here's How to Develop a Long Distance Triathlon Race Plan

By Marty Gaal | April 30, 2019, 3:21 p.m. (ET)

long distance training

During your training build up to any long (two-plus hour) event, you should have a specific idea of what you plan to do on race day.

Complete pacing plan - heart rate, power, perceived exertion, pace

While you can get away with just going hard and hanging on in 5ks, a sprint triathlon, or a shortish swim or bike race, this doesn't work for longer events. At the bare minimum, you should have an acceptable range of effort level from the get-go. For example, in a Half-IRONMAN-distance, an intermediate level athlete should target a heart rate range of mid zone two to mid zone three, or 75-80% of FTP on the bike. For an IRONMAN, the same level athlete should target a low-mid zone 2 HR or 65-70% of FTP on the bike, and mid-high zone two HR on the run. The middle of zone two is very steady/moderate. 

Course knowledge and review

I don't like showing up and having zero knowledge of the race course. At a minimum, review the course maps and elevation charts, and drive the bike course.

Strategic racing approach, if applicable 

Advanced athletes may employ some additional tactics involving drafting on the swim, accelerations to drop packs on the bike, or surging at key break points in the run. Effort outputs like this must be rehearsed in training. Surging at mile 15 of a marathon is great if you have the capacity to recover. It is a real piano on your back at mile 23 if not.

Nutrition breakdown by type, time, range of calories — a consult with a nutritionist is good here

Winging it on the nutrition side in long events is not good, for lack of a better description. Way too many things can go wrong here beyond a bonk (glycogen depletion). Not only do you need a calorie per hour target, you need to make sure your body can handle that type of product(s) for five-plus hours. Some people have difficulty absorbing calories in during a run, so they need to front load the bike as well as possible.

Hydration plan

Some amount of dehydration is unavoidable in most events. Minimizing that amount is critical, as performance drops off rapidly as dehydration increases. If it is warm/hot, you need to be ready to ingest more fluid than your cool training days. Making sure you can tolerate the product you are using is key, so some longer training days are necessary just to ensure this part of your plan will work.

Electrolyte plan

You already know that water alone will not suffice in longer races. You also lose electrolytes. Athletes vary in this greatly. If you are a heavy/salty sweater, you'll have to do some serious planning, and then make sure you don't get off track on race day. I recommend a sweat test from a certified nutritionist/lab.

Caffeine plan, if applicable

Caffeine provides a bit of mental stimulation and awareness, and a bit of a performance enhancement. Consider using gels or products with caffeine in them. Rehearse your timing and total intake on long training days.

Mental strategies for adversity

The human mind and body can tolerate a great amount of discomfort. Get comfortable being uncomfortable in training. Use visualization techniques to review both positive outcomes and potential adverse situations like a flat tire, GI issues, competitor psyche-outs, and other things that can crop up. Teach yourself to stay positive and motivated by staying positive and motivated on your challenging training days.

Total gear breakdown

If you got this far, you know there's a million things you need handy. Make a check list and have this all done one to two days before race morning. Don't let a forgotten race belt or pair of sunglasses stress you out on race morning.

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Marty Gaal, CSCS, is the co-owner and head coach for One Step Beyond. He is a certified USA Triathlon coach. He keeps his easy days really easy.

The views expressed in this article are recommended for athletes who are familiar with metabolic efficiency principles. As always, only introduce new fueling strategies in training and adopt only what works for you. The views 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.