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The Triathlete Blueprint newsletter #13-Race Pacing: 5 things I Wish I Knew as a Beginner!

Updated: Apr 8

Read time: 5min.

By Coach Yan Busset

One of the big untold truths about being a experienced coach is that a bunch of the advices I give are based on tons of mistakes I made, and the lessons I learned the hard way. I've done these reckless things so you don't have to, you're welcome. And one of the common ones is poor pacing on race day. I was more of a short-distance specialist when I used to be fast and furious (these days I am just furious…). In short distances, you have more chances to get away with pacing mistakes, but in long distances, you better keep in check your warrior instincts and follow some rules. I wish I had a coach (I was mostly self-coached during my career), it would have saved me a ton of precious time. Here are 5 things I wish I knew earlier on race pacing:

#1 Don’t race the race

As a beginner, resist the temptation to follow the flow and accelerate each time someone overtakes you. Try as much as possible to do your own race, at your own pace. The longer the race distance will be, the more you need to follow this principle. For example, on a long-distance triathlon, if you catch yourself "racing," it most probably means you went too fast, this will be a recipe for bonking later on the race. On the swim: seed yourself according to your level, so you won’t have to sprint out of the swim start mess, and you will be able to place your technique sooner. An exception to the rule is drafting in swimming, getting in the feet of someone slightly faster than you will help you, for the same given effort, to go faster. On the bike, forget what you learned binge-watching the Tour de France series on Netflix, and don’t worry about that guy passing you on the climb; there are no KOM / polka-dotted jerseys waiting for you at the end. On the second half of the run, you can finally go for it. If paced well, you will even have the is energy to sprint on the finish-line to overtake that guy that wants to photobomb your finisher pic!

#2 Set a ceiling

It’s the law of physics: It costs more energy to create momentum than to maintain speed. What it means for you on race day is that you want to avoid peak efforts; you want to smooth your effort and keep a ceiling. Triathlon is an energy management race. You can picture it as if you would start your race with a limited budget, where you have X amount of energy resources to spend. If you burn it too fast, you will be out of gas too soon, and your body will shut down. You will "bonk" or "hit the wall," as we call it. By avoiding burning all your matches too soon, you can make sure you have enough energy to finish the race strong. When starting a race, we have a limited amount of carbs and almost an unlimited amount of fat as the main energy sources. Without going into details, we unfortunately can’t run only on fat burning, we need some carbs left in the mix to burn it. So carb management via wise pacing is crucial because, unfortunately, we cannot refill/eat as much carb as what we spend during our race effort. (More on how to define the race pace effort in point #5).

#3 Bike to run

Bike for show, run for dough. Maybe we could have extended it to "Swim and bike for show, run for dough". Probably because many beginners in triathlon don’t have much to showcase in the swim other than primal survival skills, that motto has skipped the swim part. Which is a shame, because triathlon starts with the swim, and if, in the first place, you underestimate it, you will lose lots of energy in the battle. (volume in training is one of the most underrated things in swimming I listed in this article: ). As many triathletes are struggling with the swim, they feel like once on the bike, it’s their time to shine and end up pushing too hard. Bike and swim in triathlon differ from a swim race or a bike time trial race because the race is not over once you complete it. A triathlete doesn't just have to be fast but also has to be efficient. You need the best ratio of speed vs. effort output. So swallow your pride if someone overtakes you; don’t try to follow someone else's pace and focus on your own race. If done well, you will pass that same guy on the run. The "Bike to Run" motto is a mindset that sets you up to bike so that your run can be as fast as possible. You have to push a lot harder on the pedals to win an extra five minutes, but these will evaporate when you start walking on the run course. Always think of triathlon as a whole and not only the addition of swim/bike/run separate blocks.

Bike to Run reminder on TCF athlete Jussi Ranta's bike

#4 Be progressive

With experience, you will be able to fine-tune your pacing and play with your limits. But as a beginner, you will need to be more conservative with your pacing approach. When starting after T1 or T2, the change of position might give you a fake feel of freshness, and the temptation is great to go fast from the get-go. Try instead to make it so that the first half of each segment will be more conservative than the next one; in other terms, aim for a negative split. Especially on the swim, resist the group pressure to go all out from the start, or you will feel quickly out of breath, and it will take some time to get back to normal.

#5 Don’t improvise

Set up a battle plan, know the course well beforehand so that you can expect what's coming for you. For example, on a hilly bike course, you will need to know if your chainring and cassette size will allow you to climb with ease. Know your numbers: for beginners, you will mostly pace by feel, but it will be useful for you to perform tests before the race that will give you more insights into what level of effort to aim for. Setting up your athlete's training and racing zones profile is a must-do if you want to get your training and race performance to the next level. ( You may want to read the article I wrote about understanding and setting up zones here: ). Your race pace will depend on different factors: the distances, your fitness level (If less well-prepared, you will need to be more conservative), your experience and skills, the course profile, weather conditions, and your race goals (if you are aiming for your personal best or "just" getting the -well deserved- finisher T-shirt, the pacing strategies won't be the same.)

I will post more tips on how to pace your next race in the coming weeks, so remember to stay tuned and subscribe to this newsletter so you don't miss it! (link below)


- Don't race others, do your own race, at your own pace.

-Triathlon is an energy management race.

-Avoid burning all your matches too soon, place a ceiling on your pacing.

- Swim and Bike efficiently, thinking your will have to run behind.

- Know the course so you understand the race demand.

- Set up your zones with tests before race day.

Thank you for reading and see you next week!


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