For most triathletes the lure of going long is big and within one to two years of racing a significant number of you will have plumped for a half or full Ironman. Naturally you will invest a lot of time in training for whichever event you choose, before long you will find yourself in bed at 9pm on a Friday night to get up at 6 am to do a long ride on Saturday and perhaps repeat the same again on Saturday night. Everything about your life will become focussed on your race. Ironman preparation, especially, takes over your life. Given this and obviously the considerable amount of time spent preparing for half Ironman too it would make sense to co-ordinate all your planning and preparation to a race strategy wouldn’t it? Course it would! Despite the blinding logic here, you would be surprised at how few people will either have no pre race plan what so ever, or get so carried away on race day that it goes out of the window.
If you take nothing else away from reading this remember this: Have a plan – Stick to it!
So what should this plan look like?
Swim – Relatively speaking the swim is a very short part of your day both in half and full ironman. Pacing strategy in both is the same; essentially start steady and settle early into your pace, ensuring that you don’t over reach at any point and get back to shore ready to start the race proper. Now this might sound like it is demeaning the swim. It isn’t you have to be prepared through pacing and conditioning to stand up out of the water and feel like the race is still in front of you – you cannot afford to finish the swim tired. Unless you are a very competent swimmer steer well clear of the melee at the start. Whilst swimming on feet saves energy for the well initiated, swimming in and around a lot of bodies is for the majority of athletes energy sapping and will simply mean you starting the day in energy deficit. Instead do your best to start at either side of the line if you can – if the first turn is only a short distance away start on whichever side is furthest from it to avoid the crowds. If there is no opportunity to avoid other swimmers e.g. a narrow canal swim, focus on remaining relaxed if you get bumped about a bit, any other strategy simply wastes energy.
Bike – Split the bike into three parts or if the course is ridden over laps use them to build your strategy. You have to start each third feeling like you can go a little quicker then the previous third. This means you have to control the pace heavily in the first third of the bike. Whether racing half or full IM the first third of the bike is probably the most critical part of your entire race. This is where your race is set up, the point at which it can go hugely right or horribly wrong! You will have people flying past you throughout this portion and the temptation to go with them because you are feeling good will be huge, resist and hold back! Use this section to relax and start eating and drinking. At this point you will encounter 2 types of athletes. Those who are simply faster then you and you wont see again or those who are going out far too fast and who you will pass later. In reality whilst you should feel like you are getting faster on each third of the bike all you are doing is not slowing down and riding even splits. You need to spend a lot of time in training perfecting this strategy – starting rides very comfortably, controlling your effort, holding back and so maintaining pace through the duration. If the course is hilly you must have gearing that allows you to pedal up the hills comfortably for the most part – unless very steep – if the hills are very steep you must control your effort as much as you possibly can – long course racing is an aerobic activity, going anaerobic or pushing hard is costly and creates fatigue quickly avoid it if you can and if you cant keep all such efforts as short as possible.
Run – The run is much the same as the other two disciplines; start steady for success. If you look at results for any long course race you will see the vast majority of the field start too fast and slow down significantly. As you will start under a reasonable level of pre fatigue I would aim to divide it into 4 rather 3 sections, mentally it is easier as you get more and more tired to cope and focus on shorter 5 or 10k sections rather then focus on the distance as a whole which can be daunting especially if you are getting very tired. Follow the same principle as the bike feeling like you can get slightly quicker on each section and again this will mean you run even splits. Again the first section is the most critical – it is a good plan to have a very clear idea of a pace that is very sustainable for you to maintain. If this is your first event a pace that is slower then target race pace would be sensible. It is so easy to run the first 5k of any long course race too fast with the crowds around transition and the fact that after the bike – especially if well paced – you are still relatively speaking quite fresh. So you must pay extremely close attention to pace in this section and hold back. If using a GPS refer to it constantly for this portion unless the course is very up and down e.g. UK 70.3, here you will have to rely on good old feel for pace. Spend time getting your body keyed into this pace by following most rides with a short run off the bike 15min or so at target pace so it becomes habitual and so on race day you can control yourself. Additionally as you get increasingly tired focus on your form; if you have ever watched a long course race you will see runners heads go down further and further the more tired they get, keep your chin up – metaphorically and literally!
Ensure on the bike and run that you mimic the course in training, you need to be well used to maintaining and sustaining race pace over terrain similar to the course. Hilly and flat sections obviously present different pacing and physical demands – you must be confident that your strategy is good and you are well prepared. You cant simply turn up on race day and expect to get it right, your race pace plan is born out of practice in training.
Finally if you are going to make any mistakes on race day the best one to make is starting too slowly! Bear this in mind and hold back you will be surprised at how much you need to hold back to record even splits.