Why Pacing is Important & How to Work on It

Learning to pace yourself is a key skill in any endurance event and while technology is now making it easier for us to monitor our effort using power output, speed and heart rate, it’s no replacement for being able to judge your own effort.

Limitations of technology
As much as it allows us to quantify our training and race data in real time as well as post session analysis, the data we get from fitness tracking equipment will only be useful if it is used properly. To do this we need to understand what it’s measuring and exactly how that is affected by other variables. In the case of measuring speed or pace, unless you’re on a treadmill or turbo trainer this measure is susceptible to changes in gradient, surface and wind.

Heart rate has long been the tool of choice for measuring effort within sport. While everyone’s preferred zones are a little different, once you’ve spent some time determining where your resting, aerobic, sub threshold and threshold zones lie, it’s quite easy to pace. However, it’s worth noting that this will differ slightly between sports, with cycling and running zones being slightly different due to different demands on the body. Usually your running heart rate sits a little higher than your cycling heart rate for the same effort. Also, your heart rate will naturally increase over the duration of a workout because of factors such as fatigue and dehydration. This is normal and should be accounted for when looking at your average and target zones.

Power measurement has now become the firm favourite tool for monitoring effort during training and racing among pro cyclists and triathletes. Unlike heart rate which has a slight delay from when you increase effort to when the heart actually starts to work harder, power is instantaneous. This means that sticking to a set output is a lot easier especially on an undulating course. However, because it doesn’t take into account fatigue, there might be days when you just can’t hit the numbers, and there might be some where you are able to surpass them. Combining power with heart rate will help create a picture of how hard you’re working and give you’re a little more feedback.

Why Learn to Pace?
Being able to hold a desired intensity without relying on technology is useful because you’ll be monitoring your effort in real time. You’ll also be listening to how your body feels and be able to adjust that effort during a race. Relying solely on the feedback from a run watch could see you bounce between going too fast and too slow as you constantly stare at your run splits. Also consider that you might not always be able to see your watch, i.e. when swimming.

How to pace yourself

Swimming
Pacing yourself over a swim is an essential skill because you cannot see your live timing and most GPS watches will have a margin of error anyway since they are submerged. In your pool sessions break pace efforts into shorter blocks and aim for consistency. One place to start is the number of strokes per length you take, the more consistent this is, the more efficient your stroke. Try the following main set in your swim:
1 x 200 m Aerobic
2 x 100 m Sub-threshold
4 x 50 m Threshold

Repeat the main set three times through, looking for consistency over intervals of the same distance in terms of strokes per length and time. In open water you can practice this skill over a larger distance to really hone your pacing skills. Pick a loop of between 300-500 m and either swim continuously or taking short breaks after each loop and either try to swim as consistently as possible or aim to take 5-10 seconds off every two laps or so.

Cycling
Learning to pace on a turbo trainer or Wattbike is a good starting point. If you’re familiar with using power, heart rate, speed and cadence on an indoor trainer then try to hold consistent efforts without looking at any data. Cover the screen or set it so you can only see the time and perform a series of efforts with short rest, aiming to be as consistent as possible. For example:
8 min @ Threshold
2 min @ Aerobic

Complete this 3-4 times through as part of a main set. You’re looking for consistency over two areas, overall average output as well as minimal variation within each effort.
Outside you can do a similar session over real world segments that you either make up yourself or using existing ones from Strava. You can perform this over a 1-5 km segment of uninterrupted road or even as hill reps. Perform reps over your given segments with a suitable gap in between over a 30-45 minute main set.

Running
Run pacing is a key skill because as triathletes we are often running on tired legs and spending the first part of the run adapting our muscles from cycling to running movement. While consistent pacing is key, being able to change your pace is also a useful skill. This may help in running a negative split race as well as increasing pace to race tactically should you need to outrun a competitor.
Running tracks are great for these kinds of session since the distance is exact and the terrain flat. Being consistent around a 400 m loop is a great test of pacing since being only 5 seconds per lap different equates to 12.5 seconds per km, which would be over a minute difference in your 5 km time.

Try the following session after a small warmup and any drill work:
1 x 1200 m Aerobic (10 km pace)
3 x 400 m Threshold (5 km pace) 45 sec rest between intervals

Repeat three times
Work out your 5 and 10 km pace as a time per lap and use this to help pace yourself over each effort. Initially you will find yourself looking at your watch every 200 m or so, as you improve your pacing you should be able to do each set blind and get pretty close to your target pace.
Learning not to rely on your technology can be difficult when you’ve been used to it for a while, especially when you’ve spent good money on it.

Tip!
Have a screen mode on all your devices that just shows time of day or just elapsed session time. This means you can track everything you do should you wish to look back at it later, but the numbers aren’t distracting you on days where you are trying to go on feel.

Coach Phil

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