Success in Sprint Triathlon: A Matter of Proper Pacing

Success in Sprint Triathlon: A Matter of Proper Pacing

Authored by Brady Holmer • 
March 12, 2019
 • 9 min read
fitnesstriathlontraining

After a strong swim segment and a quick bike course time, you've reached the final run– it whittles down a group of pack-leading triathletes to three podium spots. Some pull ahead. The others have nothing left, reading empty on the fuel tank in the most crucial moments of the race.

Avoiding that fatigued final run is both physical and strategic. In endurance sports, a proper race strategy will always require consideration of pacing. Sprint distance triathlons are a unique endeavor because of the more aggressive pacing required to cover shorter distances; they’re composed of a 750 meter swim, 12.4 mile bike, and 3.1 mile run, much shorter than Ironman or Olympic distances.

Sprint triathletes are working at (or above) their physical threshold for the duration of the race, so calculated pacing needs to be employed by novices and experts alike. With such a short race, marginal gains can mean the difference between the podium and looking up at it.

Pacing: What is it, and Why is it Important?

Pacing is the ability to properly distribute speed, power output, and energy expenditure over a given time and distance, optimizing performance while minimizing fatigue.1 It’s a strategic use of mental and physical energetic resources.

To think of pacing in terms of efficient energy distribution, imagine a candle wick burning. You light the candle at the start of the race. Throughout, the candle wick burns down slowly until it eventually flames out. Pacing is the ability to regulate the timing of your internal fire, controlling the burning wick of your energy during the race.

Pacing Strategies

Athletes use different pacing strategies, or “pacing profiles” to get to the finish line of a triathlon–some more effective than others.

Illustrations of road cyclists that show different pacing strategies: even, negative and positive

Negative Pacing

This strategy increases effort over the duration of the event, finishing at a pace faster than you start. Negative pacing may improve performance by reducing the rate of carbohydrate depletion, oxygen consumption, and other fatigue-related byproducts, such as lactic acid, early on in the race.2

Even Pacing

Even pacing maintains a constant pace throughout the beginning, middle and end stages of the race. The first mile is just as fast as the final mile. Even pacing is the most efficient way to complete most endurance events, minimizing energy cost associated with slowing down and speeding up.

Most studies find that an even pacing strategy is the best bet for both elite-level and newer triathletes in a variety of race distances.2

Positive Pacing

Less of a strategy, and more of a bonk. In positive pacing, pace gradually declines throughout the duration of the event after a strategically aggressive start speed or perhaps as a result of over-eagerness at the start. Positive pacing is commonly seen in endurance events.

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Automatic vs. Conscious Pacing

Athletes like to think they’re always in control of the race. When it comes to pacing this might be true to an extent. However, there are many ways in which pace is regulated throughout the body. Some we have little control over; some we can influence by monitoring effort, receiving feedback, and utilizing nutrition strategies.

Pacing in endurance events involves a mix of conscious and automatic pacing at different time points during the race.

Is There a Central Governor Regulating Pace?

A longstanding question in the physiology of athletic performance: why don’t we run our body to death? Our brains may be to blame (and to thank) for this restraint.

Pacing is more than choosing to consciously adopt a particular strategy.

Internal sensors that monitor the status of various body systems automatically regulate pace in response to signals coming from the body, the brain, and the environment.

Sometimes referred to as the “central governor” model of exercise pacing, automatic pacing suggests that speed (or pace) is determined by a complex algorithm.2 Input from body temperature, stretch and strain on the muscles, energy availability, and distance from the finish line are integrated in the brain. These signals fine-tune muscle output and regulate pace. The brain tries to make sure the body will get to the finish line unharmed. The central governor proposes that pacing is regulated by some sort of “anticipatory” mechanism.3

Sensing physiological stress can’t be maintained, the brain helps set a reasonable pace. How this process occurs is a topic of debate, but it likely involves fatigue signals sent to the nervous system and working muscles calling for attention.

Some highly motivated athletes can override or ignore these signals. Developing pain tolerance through training is one way to refine the ability to maintain pace even in situations of massive discomfort.

An exact location of the central governor in the brain is unlikely to exist. Rather, recent studies suggest the entire brain regulates exercise output through many complex connections.4

Conscious Pace Control

Pacing can also be awareness-based. Conscious pacing occurs when athletes make an informed decision to speed up or slow down based on knowledge of factors such as their own capabilities, previous performances, and signals of discomfort coming from the body.

Conscious pacing may only predominate under situations of extreme metabolic disturbance. Normally, most information gathered by the brain during exercise doesn’t challenge homeostasis and isn’t transmitted to higher conscious brain regions. The stress isn’t worth our attention. This allows athletes to remain on autopilot and focus on executing race plans instead of thinking about the tiny changes going on in the muscle or the liver.

During high-intensity racing, severe disruption occurs, which can include overheating or a buildup of acidic ions in the muscle. This signals the brain to wake up, demanding an athlete pay attention to the source of the discomfort and address the pain. These awareness signals call on a more conscious control of pace so the body can recover while still moving forward.

A stronger cyclist may race on autopilot during the cycle segment. An inexperienced swimmer might need more awareness-based pacing to properly pace this event. We often survive using automatic pacing in the early stages of a race when things are comfortable, but must consciously take control of pace when the going gets tough.

Factors Influencing Pace

The brain receives feedback during exercise. These factors are then integrated and provide signals to help consciously and subconsciously regulate pace.

It is possible to manipulate some factors like pre-race nutrition and your initial starting speed in hotter conditions to execute a well planned pacing strategy.

A female runner sprinting, with icons showing different influencers on pace. Fuel has a gas gauge. Body temp has a thermometer. Belief and experience is a lightbulb. Transitions has a stopwatch. The endpoint has a finish line.

Energy Availability

Fuel (like carbohydrates) is a crucial factor to consider when planning a pacing strategy.

Having a lower amount of stored carbohydrate (glycogen) at the start of an endurance event results in a slower pace and weaker performance.5 With less stored energy, muscles signal to the brain to slow down and conserve energy.

Having enough fuel allows an athlete to put their foot on the gas early on, giving the brain a green light to push hard. Proper planning of nutrition before and during the triathlon, specifically focusing on carbohydrate availability, can help with a stronger pace. Cyclists who began a time trial in a glycogen-loaded state averaged a higher power output by 14 watts throughout the trial and maintained a faster overall pace.6 Even simply rinsing the mouth with carbohydrates (read: not actually eating them) can improve performance.7 Ketones are also a natural fuel source many elite athletes are tapping into.

HVMN Ketone is the world's first ketone ester–a superfuel for triathletes containing pure, natural ketones for energy.

Ketones are a natural, clean-burning energy source used by the body. Adding ketones as extra energy can reduce the rate of carb breakdown during endurance performance.

Once consumed, HVMN Ketone spares glycogen for later in the race,8 as the body preferentially employs ketones as fuel. Endurance athletes consuming HVMN Ketone performed 2 - 3% better in a 30-minute time trial, cycling 400m further.8 Some people consider nutrition the fourth sport of a triathlon, so giving the body a ketone jet pack to boost the carb engine is a great way to level up your game.

Body Temperature

Thermoregulation is a major factor in how athletes pace endurance exercise.

In the heat, the ideal pacing strategy prevents body temperature from leading to a slower pace and decreasing performance. This critical internal temperature is theorized to be somewhere around 40 degrees Celsius–a body temperature that impairs endurance exercise performance and affects central nervous system function.9,5

Unexpected race day temperatures might require pace adjustments. Reduce pace early on during triathlon events where heat on race day is extreme. In an attempt to protect the body from heat-stress and cellular catastrophe, the brain receives feedback on how quickly the body is storing heat to alter pace. In hot race day conditions, cyclists and runners reduce their power output soon after the race starts when compared to cooler conditions.2 This slowdown is thought to be largely controlled by subconscious pacing mechanisms.

Belief and Experience

The more familiar athletes become with swimming, cycling, or running certain distances, the easier it becomes to properly distribute energy during the event and avoid early fatigue. The I’ve-been-here-before effect plays a big role in fatigue and pacing.10

In a study in which cyclists completed consecutive four kilometer cycling time trials, they were able to successfully improve times during each trial without receiving any feedback. Just the experience of repeating the same trial established a built in pacing strategy.11

Are We There Yet? Pacing Based on a Known Endpoint

Perhaps the most important factor in establishing a pacing strategy is knowledge of the endpoint.12 The decision to speed up or slow down depends highly on where the athlete is in relation to the finish line.

With the finish line in sight, pacing is disregarded.

This well known override of the brain and body can be observed in the final sprint seen in many endurance events. Our threshold for pain is higher at the end of a race than at the beginning.10 It’s not that an athlete has more left at the end–it’s the body giving the signal to let loose when the finish is near.

Mood, age-group, skill-level, and gender are other factors influencing the way multi-sport athletes determine pacing strategies.12,13,14,15

Transitions

Rather than isolated events, the open water swim (or pool swim), bike, and run segments of a sprint triathlon take place in quick succession with no break. Pacing choices in each event influence the next like dominoes. This might require extra planning for transition areas, but will result in the best possible performance on race day.

Optimizing Pacing During Swim, Cycle and Run

A successful triathlon race requires measured energy distribution across the entire event. Athletes should consider individual strengths and weaknesses as well as the priority given to events during training. While considerably shorter than triathlons, the sprint triathlon still requires adopting a particular strategy for each event.

A male swimmer doing the butterfly stroke, a cyclist in a race and a male runner sprinting, all showing how to optimize pace

750 Meter Swim

This is where the race starts, nearly a half mile swim. A good strategy might be sticking with the lead pack while maintaining an even pace; many racers don’t swim at maximal speed to save energy for the bike and run.

Swimming near maximal effort is likely to induce greater fatigue, lactic acid buildup, and perceived exertion. Aim for a pace of 80 - 85% max capacity–this can result in an overall faster triathlon time.16 Despite the possibility of a worse position exiting the water, energy saved during slower-paced swimming has a positive impact on cycling and run performances. Recover lost time later.

Triathlon pacing is like a chain reaction: one slow event can force a change in pacing to the others. When preceded by a swim, a bike segment results in a lower efficiency, produces higher lactic acid concentrations, and leads to a greater perceived exertion and lower cycling work output than the same cycling effort done on its own.17 Studies of elite skill-level triathletes confirm a majority choose to adopt a consistent swim intensity (even pacing) to minimize fatigue and improve bike performance.18

12.4 Mile Cycle

Even pacing strategy is a good idea for a longer race course, but for shorter distances, positive pacing is a feasible option for cycling.19 This may be due to the desire of athletes to acquire an optimal drafting position (for draft-legal races).

A faster starting pace during the 12-mile bike enables an athlete to secure a good position for drafting other cyclists. Cycling in a sheltered position minimizes wind resistance and requires a lower oxygen uptake, heart rate, and reduces lactate production. This means less energy expended for the same amount of work.

Athletes cycling in a drafted position improve speed and performance on the subsequent running leg compared to those who don’t draft. Saving energy on the bike should be considered when designing in pacing strategy.

Transitioning from the bike segment into the final run requires modifications to biomechanics and physiology. Both sports use different muscle groups and activation patterns.

Running after cycling requires a higher energy cost than an identical run completed without a previous cycling effort. Increased oxygen use, glycogen depletion, muscle fatigue, and dehydration are byproducts of the bike segment and can negatively influence triathlon running performance. Even-paced cycling is the optimal strategy when followed by a run due to reduced carry-over fatigue and fewer exercise-related metabolites that build up on the bike.20

Cycle to run transition requires an increased energy demand, resulting in a higher heart rate, and reduced efficiency, as athletes must adapt to a new type of exercise.

3.1 Mile Run

The run segment has been shown to have the greatest influence on overall triathlon performance compared to swimming or cycling.21

Gradually increase pace during the run until ventilatory, cardiovascular, and neuromuscular “steady state” are achieved.22 This is the most efficient way to transition into a comfortable pace during the run. Start the 5k run at a pace around 5% slower than average predicted pace for the entire distance. This leads to improved performance versus a starting speed 5% or 10% faster than your average predicted pace.

An even pacing strategy is optimal for endurance running events.21 The shorter overall 3.1 mile run in a sprint triathlon might allow for a negative pacing strategy to be adopted. Run the first few kilometers evenly, and once the finish line nears, unleash that deadly finishing sprint.

Sprint Triathlons are a Pacing Mind Game

For athletes to be successful in sprint triathlon, pacing technique requires significant attention. Understanding your strengths and weakness can become a strength in its own right–with this knowledge, you’ll be able to develop a pacing strategy for optimal performance. Pacing may help you cross the finish line with a sprint as competitors bonk around you.

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Scientific Citations

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