What is Your Number?
If you look around you after your next race, you will see or maybe be a part of a group of athletes studying their watches and talking about magic numbers. Among the questions of “How fast?” and “What was your time?” you will also hear “What was your pace?”
Do you know what your pace is?
If you don’t know what your paces are, we should discuss why pace should be important to you. Outside of being able to compare your speed with that of other people (admit it, we all do it!), your pace will provide you with feedback in every training session and in every race – valuable feedback that will help you to spend your energy resources wisely. If you find that you have trouble with going out too hard and slowing down toward the end of the race, learning pacing is essential to improving your race performance.
Learning pacing in the swim is even more important than either the bike or the run. Why is pace in the swim so important? It’s the one sport in triathlon where you usually have no feedback from the time you begin until you are running out of the water into T1. If the swim part of your race plan usually includes “just get to the bike,” maybe learning pacing in the water is not so important to you. But if you want to get faster in the swim working on your pacing will be a valuable tool.
Take a look at your training data for the run and the bike or the results from your last few races, whether road races or triathlons. Is your pace consistent over similar distances? If it isn’t, why not? Weather? Terrain? Or are you finding that consistent pace still just out of your grasp?
If you want to be good at pacing, you have to practice pacing every time you train. You know that round thing at the end of the pool with hands on it? It’s a PACE clock! When you start timing your intervals, you’ll be able to tell if you are actually descending when you’re supposed to descend or if you’re just splashing more. Start timing your even-paced intervals and see if you can swim them all at the same pace. With no feedback other than the clock at the end of the interval, you’ll start learning to feel different paces, which will eventually lead to being able to choose your race pace and actually swim that pace in open water.
Bike pacing is less about speed than energy, it seems. Your speed is affected by so many different things like wind and terrain, but your energy output is under your control. If you aren’t training with a power meter, which provides you great feedback for your energy output, you need to practice pushing yourself to a race effort that allows you to run predictably off the bike. If you over-bike, you’re going to pay for it on the run! Your training rides should be at a specific rate of perceived exertion; practice how you expect to feel in your races so that you aren’t guessing at your optimal energy output on race day. If you spend enough time on the bike, you will learn just how hard you can push yourself before you start sacrificing your run.
Run pacing is actually the easiest pacing to practice. If you have a watch with a GPS, if you have a track, or even if you have a place where you know the distance from one point to another, you can practice pacing. When you run, run with intent. Using paces from this season’s races, choose the paces you want to work for–maybe those race paces, maybe five or ten seconds faster. If you practice the paces that you want to race at, you won’t have to wait for a mile marker to know if you’re hitting them because you’ll learn how to run by feel. As you practice pacing with a heart rate monitor, you will also learn what your heart rate is at each of your target paces, which will show you when (not if!) you are getting faster.
Pacing is also a great tool in identifying if you are just having an off day. If you are tired, if you don’t run well in the heat, if you didn’t fuel right, you will see all those things reflect in your pace. If you see that your pace is off compared with your heart rate or rate of perceived exertion that’s also good feedback that tells you what you can expect on race day if any of these conditions are duplicated. Obviously we rest and fuel well before races, but one of the most critical things we can’t control on race day is the weather, and if you have a race day like so many of us have had this summer, you know that on those hot days you will have to sacrifice pace to finish the race strong. Your pace is one of those messages your body sends advising you to pay attention. It’s normal to slow down when it’s hot as your body restricts your energy output to keep you at a safe temperature, and it’s also normal to slow down when it’s very cold as your body works harder to keep you warm.
Pacing, as you might have guessed by now, is one of my favorite things to practice because it yields so many great results! It takes some time and effort but it’s worth it. And if you show up on race day, toe the starting line, and look down to find that your watch battery is dead, you won’t panic because when you know your numbers and can execute by feel you still might get a PR that day.
Judie Refvik is a USA Certified Triathlon Coach with Experience Triathlon. As leaders in the endurance coaching industry, Coach Judie and the Experience Triathlon coaching team help athletes of all ages and abilities achieve success in training, racing and life. Learn more about Coach Judie and Experience Triathlon at www.experiencetriathlon.com and www.ET-Youth.com.