Fundamental Principles of Pace

Fundamental Principles of Pace

G_headshotI am going to share some ideas on the most common training errors that I see when training alongside folks. However, rather than point out what I see you doing… I’m going to share some ideas on how you can develop into an intelligent athlete.

When people start working with me, they are often confused by my lack of interest in high intensity benchmarking. In fact, they are absolutely itching to blast 5- and 20-minute best effort benchmarks. While high intensity efforts have a role in exercise physiology, the information they offer isn’t all that useful in assessing your aerobic stamina — triathlon performance is dominated by your aerobic stamina.

What you should care about:

  • The ability to choose your pace
  • The ability to change your pace
  • The ability to sustain your pace

Your heart rate monitor, your powermeter, your GPS, a measured course, a watch, a pace clock — all of these exist to help you learn how to choose, change and sustain your pace.

I’ll offer you some practical examples that you can use to enhance these skills.

Test Sets For Choosing Pace

  • The long “group” ride: A personal favorite! Head out on a group ride with ample food and fluids. Ride 10 meters off the back of the group and let them ride away. It’s surprisingly difficult to do this! Listen to the noise in your head as they ride away. The “game” is to hold an even, steady effort. You should reel in your pals after about three and a half hours — sometimes sooner if they don’t have a leader to keep them focused. The satisfaction that you’ll feel will far outweigh the early workout despair — this is exactly what a well-paced triathlon will feel like.
  • Poker pacing: We use this pace structure a lot on our team. Figure out the effort that you want to average (works best if it is a steady effort). Split your session into thirds: (a) under; (b) then at; then (c) slightly over your goal effort. Track pace, or power, across the workout. What you are looking for is the ability to lift pace/power in the final third when effort/HR is lifted. If you find that you are not able to lift pace/power when you lift HR then start with a lower effort benchmark next time.
  • Running races: I love running races for seeing the tendencies of an athlete under stress and high arousal. To start, shoot for two goals: (a) the first mile of the race being the slowest split; and (b) the first quarter of the overall distance being the slowest quarter. For advanced athletes, add a final goal of making the third quarter of your event the fastest overall split. I use the same pacing strategy in triathlon runs but the pure running race makes it even more difficult to hold back early.

When you can do all of the above, you’ll have a portfolio of mental skills to give yourself a much better chance at racing to your potential. A lot of performance is given away when athletes let others (usually the strongest in their group) dictate pace.

Test Sets For Changing Pace
I use three main patterns:

  • Pattern A: Five intervals on short rest – examples:
    • Swim: 5×400 on 15-20s rest each one faster than the one before
    • Bike – 5×8 min continuous descending Easy/Steady/Mod-Hard/Threshold/Slightly Over-Threshold
    • Run – 5×1600-2000 meters continuous, I’ll generally do this on heart rate (120/130/140/150/160) – the goal being to benchmark up to Threshold effort
  • Pattern B: Three Longer Intervals – examples:
    • 3×15 minutes continuous at: bottom of Steady; top of Mod-hard; 10 bpm higher than top of Mod-hard. When you think you’ve mastered the pace changes then repeat the main set once, or twice, and see how things change over time;
    • 3×12/3 minutes continuous as 12 minutes Steady then 3 minutes Mod-hard; and
    • 3×25 minutes on 5 min recovery – start by targeting Steady with Easy recoveries; progress to Mod-hard with Steady recoveries.
  • Pattern C: Light it up, then back off – examples:
    • Swim: 5×400 on 20s as #1/#5 Fast, #2/#4 Mod-hard, #3 Steady — see what happens in your mind (and performance) when you lift effort early.
    • Bike: Use the 12/3 pattern from above but lift HR by 15 bpm in the 3 minute interval, then drop it back into your Steady zone; and
    • Run: Use a ten minute cycle of 3/3/3/1 (Steady; Fast; Steady; PowerWalk) – remember that Fast is not “max”; roll the cycle 3-5x with a focus on quick cadence in all segments.

Now, you’ll probably think that the benefit in the above sets comes from the “Fast” — however, I’ve found the most useful aspect in these pace-change sets is figuring out a safe level that you can lift and recover back into your steady or mod-hard zones. Fast racing, comes from the ability to change pace and recover slightly under average race pace (not Easy pace).

Test Sets For Sustaining Pace

  • Swim: 4000 meters continuous // take splits every 500, 800 or 1000 and hold a Steady effort the entire way;
  • Bike: Five hours continuous at the bottom of your Steady power zone; and
  • Run : Two hours continuous at the bottom of your Steady pace zone.

All of the above are test sets for experienced triathletes from olympic to ironman distance.

For 70.3 and ironman athletes, you can can progress further by combining the swim and bike test sets into a Big Day Training workout, and finish the day with a benchmark run of 20-60 minutes at the bottom of your steady heart rate zone. Keep lowering your definition of swim/bike “steady” until you are able to complete the benchmark run at close to normal training paces/efforts (when compared to heart rate). For this workout, I’d define “close to” as within 7% of fresh training paces/heart rates.

When you consider the work required to become a Jedi Pace Master… you can see why it’s tempting to simply blast yourself for 5-20 minutes, then apply an intensity factor to decide race pace. Be wary of paper race plans! The best race plan is built with a cushion from your best single-sport simulations. That gives you the best shot at running well on Game Day.

As an athlete that was able to beat athletes that were more “talented” than me, I can assure you that when you understand pace, you’ll be in a position to maximize the fitness that is delivered to the finish line.

Categories: Training

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