Race Day Pacing Strategies: Triathlon

A sign with arrows pointing to the finish line.

By Coach Maria Simone

In a previous article we reviewed race pacing basics for any type of endurance events. With those overarching guidelines in mind, let’s talk some specifics for triathlon.

Triathlon is One Sport

Regardless of your distance, it is important to remember that triathlon is one sport

In practice this means that each segment has an impact on the segment that follows. There is no such thing as a great swim or bike with a bad run. That should be catalogued as a bad race. While there are a lot of reasons for a “bad” run, improper pacing on the swim and bike is a very common cause for that outcome.

This week, we’ll review tips for executing the swim, bike and run and how these can add up to 100% of your race day success.  


While you may not win your goals during the swim, you certainly can lose them there.

Unfortunately, I often hear the importance of the swim diminished in casual talk about triathlon training and racing. I think this is a huge mistake. While the swim is the shortest portion of the race, it sets the tone for your day, and impacts performance on the bike and run. 

Start Smart

Studies of the impact of swim effort have found that improper pacing or fitness for the swim can increase blood lactate significantly in the opening moments of the race (see references at the end). When this happens, our HR often stays elevated more than it might otherwise. In some cases, this jump in HR can be 4% higher – or more.

If you race sprint or olympic triathlon, and plan to start hard to stay on the front, this must be practiced in training so your body knows how to process that lactate build up under load. For 70.3 or 140.6, the best strategy (for most triathletes) is to work into your race effort within the first few hundred yards. 

Pacing your swim starts with a warm up. If you are permitted, get in the water for a swim-based warm up. If this isn’t possible, complete a dryland functional warm up. This can include a light jog, followed by dynamic stretches that allow you to generate some body heat and feel ready to begin. 

As you wait to start, seed yourself based on your estimated swim time. This can help prevent you from becoming stuck in a pack of swimmers who are not working at your appropriate effort – either faster or slower. If the race doesn’t have markers for estimated time, then ask around you to get a sense of what other people are swimming. 

The duration of the race will dictate how you pace your swim, with sprints and olympics commanding higher intensity than 70.3+. A sprint or olympic may be in the range of 90-95% of your threshold effort. The more experienced you are as a triathlete and swimmer, the higher this effort might be. For a 70.3, the range may be more like 85-90%, and 140.6 in the 75-85% range. Again, experience will dictate the level of intensity that is appropriate for you – as these ranges may not work for your individual circumstances. 

Determine what your course strategy will be. 

Are you going to hug the buoy line? Stay outside the fray? Or, perhaps you will start to the outside of the commotion and then once you’ve found your rhythm, you’ll work in closer to the buoy line. Determine your strategy, but if circumstances change, be flexible and adapt. 

Sight regularly so you can maintain as straight a line as possible relative to your strategy. 


As you get into the work of the swim, you may have the opportunity to draft off another swimmer. This is best accomplished swimming at someone’s feet or with your head near their hip. If you swim side by side with another swimmer, you will slow each other down.

There is good reason to draft, as estimates say it can reduce energy expenditure by 30 percent, and reduce overall time by anywhere from 70 seconds (for the Olympic Distance) and up to 3 minutes or more for 2.4 miles. That is akin to years in swim math. 

But, if you find you are spending a lot of energy to find feet, in the case of smaller races or spaced out time trial starts, it is better to just focus on your effort and swim. 


A triathlon bike is not about your fastest possible bike. It is about an optimal bike that allows for a strong run. Based on your experience, there are varying degrees of wiggle room between bike effort and run effort. 

With the help of your coach, you determine these edges in training, so you can ascertain the cost of energy expenditure on the bike for energy availability for the run. This matters no matter what your race duration might be. 

Use Your Metrics

We use a variety of metrics to determine this “wiggle room”, such as intensity factor (IF). IF is a percentage of your threshold – using either watts or heart rate. Below is a table of IF for different race durations. 

Please note that these ranges should be tested and verified in training to determine what works best for you. There are always individual circumstances that will impact what is the appropriate target for you. Power is a more reliable indicator of outcome effort than HR; however, HR should be monitored as it tells you how your body is responding to an effort on any given day. 

For example, on a hot day, your usual 70% of FTP may come with a different energy cost than it does on a day with more moderate conditions. You will also notice this difference when you choose to use a fan or not in indoor training. 

Race DurationIF-PowerIF- Heart RateRPE
Sprint Triathlon (10-18 mile bike)88-98% FTP (functional threshold power)93-100% of LTHR (lactate threshold heart rate)9-10
Olympic Triathlon (25 mile bike)85-95% FTP90-97% LTHR8-9
70.3 Triathlon (56 mile bike)72-85% FTP88-95% LTHR6-7
140.6 Triathlon (112 mile bike)60-75% FTP 80-89% LTHR4-5
Double+ Triathlon (224 miles+)Under 60% FTP70-79% LTHR3

In the event of hills, you can increase the caps by 5-15% or so – depending on the nature of the hills and your bike fitness and experience. 

Training Stress Score (TSS) is another method you can use to figure out appropriate pacing and can be particularly useful to make sure you are mimicking this stress in your weekly training. Below is an overview of the TSS for the bike portion of the some common triathlon distances: 

  • Sprint – up to 60 TSS
  • Olympic – 90-120 TSS
  • 70.3 – 150-190 TSS
  • 140.6 – 250-320 TSS
  • Double+ = 500+

Completing rides that accumulate at or near the TSS you’ll generate on race day helps you to prepare adequately for the race day effort. 

To determine the right combo between IF and TSS, you can use a tool like Best Bike Split to get an estimate of how long a bike will take, which in turn can help you plot the intensity appropriately both for the duration and the terrain. 

Additionally, a smooth VI (variability index) plays an important role in reducing the number of burnt matches (and lost momentum opportunities).


As you leave transition, set the foundation for a well-paced run by resisting the temptation to leave T2 as if you were shot out of a cannon. How fast you run out of T2 is relative to the duration of the event; however, for any duration, take time to find your rhythm as you begin. 

Baking Time is a Losing Strategy

Even splits across a race will produce a better outcome than trying to “bank time” at the start. Banking time refers to running substantially faster while you feel relatively more fresh. Because you feel better at the start of the run, you can expend more energy than is reasonably sustainable. This error becomes more problematic the longer the run. 

Banking time at the front often results in more lost time on the back half. While we may lose speed at the end of a race, especially for long course, this should not be a substantive loss of speed, assuming proper fitness, a well-paced bike, and adequate fueling and hydration. 

A loss of speed in the second half is not necessarily an inevitable conclusion. It is possible to even (or negative) split a triathlon run. 


In terms of intensity, see the following estimates in the table below. 

Race DurationHR RPETSS
Sprint Triathlon (5k)95-100% LTHR9-1025-40
Olympic Triathlon (10k)90-98% LTHR8-950-70
70.3 Triathlon (13.1 miles)88-95% LTHR6-7110-170
140.6 Triathlon (26.2 miles)80-89% LTHR 4-5200-250
Double+ Triathlon (52.4 miles+)Under 85% LTHR3400+

Bike Pacing Matters for the Run

What happens on the bike impacts how well you can run–this is proven time and again in research studies as well as individual experience. Bike too hard, and it will most certainly show up on your run. 

Understanding how well you paced your bike can be evaluated – in part – by your pacing on the run. Generally, a sprint or olympic run will be within 2-4% of your standalone 5k or 10k. A 70.3 half marathon will be within 4-6% of your standalone time, and a 140.6 marathon will be within 10-12% of your standalone 26.2. Of course, these ranges vary with experience and terrain. So, a newer athlete may not be within these ranges (yet), whereas we’d expect a more experienced endurance athlete to be able to get within these targets. If you are making pace-based comparisons, they should be relative to comparable terrain and conditions. 

Train to Run

Running to the best of your ability starts in training. 

Develop proper cardiovascular fitness as demanded by your race. For example, 5k and 10k racing is more dependent upon your top-end cardiovascular fitness than is a marathon. 

Conversely, your durability and strength becomes more of a determinant factor for 70.3 and longer. Be sure to run off the bike frequently and keep your transitions as short as is feasible. Take time to develop go-to mental strategies, especially those that help you manage pain and fatigue.

Race Your Run

During the race, several factors impact your ability to pace your best triathlon run, including:

  • Fuel and hydrate on the bike, as well as the run
  • Pace the bike appropriately
  • In long course, keep your HR elevated into at least Z2. In short course, be mindful it doesn’t pop over Z4. Z5 is pure anaerobic work and is appropriate for a fast finish only. 😉
  • Work hills strategically. Run or hike up as appropriate, and learn how to run skillfully and quickly downhill. 
  • Apply the mental fitness skills for pain and fatigue management.  

While your coach is keeping account of these factors in your training, we believe it is helpful if you understand the “why” behind the training, as this helps you make effective race day decisions. 

Race strong. Race smart! 


Barragan, R., Gonzalez-Mohino, F., Yustres-Amores, I., and Gonzalez Rave, JM. “Effects of swimming intensity on triathlon performance.” Research Gate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334588421_Effects_of_swimming_intensity_on_triathlon_performance (note: this study has not been fully peer-reviewed yet.) 

Etxbarria, N., Anson, J., Pyne, D., Ferguson, RA. “Cycling attributes that enhance running performance after the cycle section in triathlon.” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256501349_Cycling_Attributes_That_Enhance_Running_Performance_After_the_Cycle_Section_in_Triathlon

Lopes, RF, Oiecki, R., and Rama, L. “Heart rate and blood lactate concentration response after each segment of the olympic triathlon event.” Review of Brasilian Medical Sport. https://www.scielo.br/j/rbme/a/Y6tMwmCXy6NZVRZQ4NBMBvN/?format=pdf&lang=en

Olcina, G., Perez-Souza, MA, Escobar-Alvarez, JA, Timon, R., “Effects of cycling on subsequent running performance, stride length, and muscle saturation in triathletes.” Sports. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6572577/

Peeling, PD, Bishop, DJ, Landers, GJ. “Effect of swimming intensity on subsequent cycling and overall triathlon performance.” British Journal of Sports Medicine.  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16306507/ 

Pryor, J., et al. “Pacing strategy of a full ironman overall female winner on a course with major elevation changes.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2018/11000/Pacing_Strategy_of_a_Full_Ironman_Overall_Female.10.aspx 

Rothschild, J., and Crocker, GH. “Effects of 2km swim on markers of cycling performance in elite age group triathletes.” Sports. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30959840/

Race Day Pacing Strategies: Triathlon
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