Race Season - How to race for success

It is the end of the triathlon season and the majority of athletes are either resting or maybe just about starting to creep out of cake induced hibernation. However, there is no off season when you're a coach and our coaches have recently been working hard at the Training Peaks University, the fact that this university was in Hawaii is by the by! (it's a hard life being a coach!)

This course was very enjoyable, informative and it was great to meet one of the GodFathers of the sport in Joe Friel, author of the famous Triathletes Training Bible. Meeting Joe gave us the opportunity to directly share coaching experiences with him and pick the brains of one of the best coaches around. 

The topics covered at Training Peaks University were wide and varied: from the very detailed WKO4 software, through to the day-to-day efficient use and functions of Training Peaks and moving onto the latest technology in the sport, Running with Power. Yes you read that correctly: running with a power meter. We were very privileged to be the first ever coaches to receive a presentation on this subject. More on Running with Power will follow in subsequent blogs, but for now here is a blog that was inspired by one of the presentations from BestBikeSplit.com and Training Peaks. We will tie what we learnt from this presentation with some of our direct coaching experience from the 2015 season and hopefully leave you with some food for thought over this off season. 

Triathlon is a sport based around economical and efficient use of energy. We have all experienced that helpless feeling when we know we haven't paced things correctly, that feeling as the race you wanted to have goes from being possible to being completely unattainable. For many athletes out there this is an approach they repeat over and over again. This means that they have never felt the joys of nailing the last quarter of the run, pushing past fellow competitors and finishing strong and consequently in a better place mentally. It also means that many athletes will never fulfill their potential if they do not learn how to pace their races properly. 

Simply put: energy is limited. If you use up your limited energy reserves too quickly, you will race slower than you potentially could. Your slow race will also almost always be put down to a bad run.

Does the phrase:



Poor run (or maybe even walk)

Ring any bells?

Shiny bike splits may look nice but this is a Triathlon - OVERALL TIME IS THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS.

So the question you need to ask yourself in order to truly perform and race with success is how do I swim, bike and run to achieve the fastest overall time possible? The answer is consistent and smooth pacing across swim, T1, bike, T2 and run. i.e. from when the stopwatch starts, until the moment you cross the finish line. Notice the vital inclusion of transitions here; running barefoot through transition is an opportunity to go deep into the red that all too many athletes seize.

The Swim

It is accepted that at the beginning of the swim you will take 20 - 30 strokes at above race pace when accelerating from a standing start. This is generally accepted on the basis that this expenditure of energy is worth it in order to gain good positioning in the pack and a useful pair of feet to draft. However, once this incredibly short period of 30 seconds or so is over what many athletes struggle to do is then settle down to their own race pace and hit that pace the whole way through the swim. The use of a tempo trainer in the pool (or over a known open water course) is a great way to practice what your race pace should feel like.

The key thing to remember during the swim is that the race day adrenaline you are currently experiencing won't last the whole race and you need to actually reign yourself in after the first 30 seconds to a pace that is your predetermined race-pace. And stick to it.

The Bike

As for the Bike it is far easier, especially with the increasing affordability of power meters, to execute a good pacing strategy. They key to this is becoming the master of low variability. For those unfamiliar with the jargon; Variability Index is the ratio of normalised power and average power.

Average Power is the most simple power measurement, being exactly what it says: the average power produced during your ride. However, what is normalised power? Normalised power, simply put, is the power numbers from your ride fed through a mathematical equation. Without going into the details, what the equation does is give more weighting to those time periods when you are pedaling than when you are not pedaling. By doing this, the power output is smoothed over the ride. This subsequently reveals what you could have ridden if you had ridden at 200W for the whole ride without any variation at all.

To understand why variability is an important concept to understand when it comes to pacing, let's compare the two example rides below and their metabolic, or energy cost. 

1) A 1hour steady ride - Average Power 150W - Normalised Power - 155W - Max Power - 165W

2) A 1hour hill repeats ride - Average Power - 150W - Normalised Power - 200W - Max Power - 410W

Which costs more energy? Which has the higher average power? Which has the higher normalised power? Importantly which has the higher variability?

It's time to turn to some real life examples to find answers to these questions!

Race Data 

Lets look at some athlete data from some middle distance races first. Below you can see Training Peaks bike data from two athletes:

Ironman 70.3 Kronborg Bike Leg

Above is an example from Athlete 1 on a flat 70.3 course in Kronborg, Denmark. You can see simply from the chart a very consistent (PINK) wattage line that remains steady from start to finish, resulting in a low variability of 1.03. After this, Athlete 1 ran a 1.34 run split.

Below we can see the power output from Athlete 2 which looks more spikey but is a result of more frequent data points recorded. The figures are a variability of 1.04 with an Average Power of 228W and Normalised Power of 237W. After this, Athlete 2 ran a 1.20 run split.

Athlete 2 Kronborg Bike Leg

Both of these athletes qualified for the 2015 70.3 World Championships in Zell am See at this race. If we fast forward a year to that race and see what happened there, can we determine if anything has been learnt?

Athlete 1 Zell am See Bike Leg

As you can see above ,Athlete 1 rode with a much higher variability than in Kronborg. 1.09 VI, riding with an average power of 228W and a normalised power of 249W. At this race Athlete 1 went on to record 1.50 run split.

Athlete 2 Zell am See Bike Leg

Athlete 2 below rode with a variability of 1.01 which given the course terrain is an impressive ride. This athlete maintained an average power of 248W and a normalised power of 251W for this ride.

It is interesting to note that the normalised power between these two athletes is very similar at 249W and 251W but the difference in average power of 228W and 248W is reflected in the slower bike time of Athlete 1. What is also interesting is that Athlete 2 went on to run a 1.33 split, 17 minutes faster than athlete 1.

Remember the difference in Kronborg (14 minutes)

Athlete 1 - 1.34

Athlete 2 - 1.20

Difference in Zell am See (17minutes)

Athlete 1 - 1.50

Athlete 2 - 1.33

Given that Athlete 2 had some injury concerns coming into this second race, the difference could well have been greater. It also underlines the importance of keeping a sustained effort throughout the bike course, even on the downhills - this means refraining from coasting too much as it would not be possible hit a 1.01 VI if the downhills were all coasted.

Race Data Long Distance

Lets look at another example from full distance Ironman racing. Below are the bike legs of two more athletes:

Athlete 1 Bike Leg 1.05VI 

Athlete 2 Bike Leg 1.08VI 

And below we can compare their pacing throughout their run legs.

Athlete 1 Run Leg

Athlete 2 Run Leg

As you can see Athlete 1 ran much more consistently than Athlete 2. Athlete 1 Ran with a steady rate of fatigue which you would expect in an Ironman. Athlete 2 fatigued more rapidly in the first half of the marathon and ran much slower over the second half of the marathon than the first. Athlete 1 had a much more controlled ride variability of 1.05 versus 1.08 for athlete 2. 

There appears to be a trend occurring.


It is important to bear in mind that this all just data and it is definitely biased and doesn't reflect a lot of other factors at play such as environmental conditions, athlete condition, athlete experience and indeed athletic ability. I have very deliberately used this data to try and convey a point the trick for you as an athlete is take this forward and add it to your knowledge and learn and interpret your own experiences in light of this knowledge.

However, the key point still remains: race your own race. Regardless of how tempting it is, do not try to race the other 200 - 2000 other people in the race you have entered. Every time you decide to race another person on the bike, and indeed in the swim and run, this will impact your pacing and subsequently increase your variability index - causing you to have an overall slower race time. Racing 2000 will lead to you defeating yourself by having high variability. 

You have to reduce the number of people you are racing and simply race yourself. This will lead to low variability, economical efficient racing and eventually success.

If you are an elite then you may well have a small field of 50 or less. In these circumstances you may choose to race tactically and use your strengths to damage other athletes economy and use up their energy (in an inefficient way for them) to defeat them, but this is a calculated risk based on experience and knowledge of other athletes. It may also be that at some point during the race for the win it is simply down to only two or three competitors: this is the only time when, as a coach, I can condone an athlete racing. However, for the vast majority of age group athletes this rarely happens in a race and an even pacing strategy with a low variability index is what will result in that athletes fastest performance on a given day.

Hopefully this provided plenty of food for thought over the off season. If you have any questions regarding pacing or any race strategy our coaching team will be more than happy to talk power and variability with you.

Happy racing,

Alan Ward