The 1% Details: Race Day Pacing Strategies 

A man is running down a road in front of a finish line.

Part 1: Pacing Basics

By Coach Maria Simone

There is no one “big” thing you can do that will add up to your optimal race day performance. Rather, our performance on race day is a consequence of a series of sometimes seemingly inconsequential choices. These are the 1% details that add up to 100% of your success in achieving your big dreams.

This post is devoted to some of the general guidelines you want to keep in mind for execution on race day—and how to maximize those 1% details. In Part 1, we will review pacing basics for any endurance event. In Part 2, we’ll cover pacing basics for triathlon, and Part 3 will cover pacing basics for running. 

To determine your best effort on the day with the conditions that exist, be sure to: 

  • Race as you trained
  • Start Smart
  • Use all available metrics
  • Understand how the course “works”
  • Stay in touch with your why and your goals

Race As You Trained

How you pace your race begins with how you trained. There is no magic on race day that will allow you to suddenly run substantively faster, or hold significantly higher watts. We know that taper may account for a 2-3% boost in performance. Depending on the length of your race, this may mean no more than a few seconds or minutes improvement on time. The main benefit of taper is to be fully recovered and fresh for the extended effort of race day. 

When developing your race day strategy, consider your key workouts from training, which include race-specific targets. Review those workouts that were especially successful. If you are coached, discuss with your coach the key workouts so that you understand how those efforts can translate to race day. If you’ve done some “prep” races, analyze your performance as well as the data to understand how that can help you develop a race strategy. Realize, however, that if your prep race was shorter or longer than your key race, there will be adjustments in effort given the duration changes. 

Start Smart

Your race day success is not about how fast you go at the start. It’s about how even you can keep your effort. Research finds consistently that endurance athletes have overall better outcomes (measured by predicted potential) when they keep a consistent, sustainable effort. It is very important to internalize this truism: Banking time is a losing strategy every single time.

We “bank time” when we go harder or faster at the start, thinking that we can “bank” time for when we slow down later. However, studies repeatedly and convincingly find that the time you lose on the back half is substantially more than if you had kept a more even effort across the duration. 

This time loss is due to a variety of factors, including the accumulation of more lactate than we can effectively clear under effort. This requires us to work harder than we would have otherwise. It also lends to an earlier onset of muscular fatigue than if we had maintained a more sustainable effort. 

Put your focus on finishing strong, rather than starting outside of what is a sustainable effort.

Take A Sustainable Approach

Taking this sustainable approach will require that you put your ego in your pocket. That can be hard to do, but it is necessary for you eventual success. 

When you start any race (or segment of a race in triathlon), there will be athletes who start out HOT. It is tempting to chase them, but when you do that, you push yourself out of your own race strategy – to follow someone else’s. 

Either: 1) that effort is their best sustainable and they can hold it, or 2) They started too hot and you’ll see them later. In either case, you will do better to stick to your plan. 

When you get to the final miles of the race – you can start chasing your rabbits (this is my FAVORITE game in racing! Big Cats on the Hunt!!).

Use All Available Metrics

In order to make the best decisions for execution on race day, tune in to how you feel in training, and understand how the body feels at projected race effort. Get a sense of what the RPE is, the HR, and the pace or power (as applicable) so that when race day comes, you can make game day decisions about your effort using all available metrics. 

As we are well into the summer heat, by now you have likely figured out that you cannot run as fast or push as much power in the heat – without increasing the RPE and HR. Some of the impact of high temps and humidity include: reducing pace by 20 or more seconds per mile and dropping watts by 6-10% on the bike. Therefore, in high temps and humidity, trying to stick to the projected pace or watts will increase HR, which could very likely result in an epic blow up at the worst, or a considerable fade at best.

But, temperatures are not the only variable that we need to be mindful of. Wind or rough water conditions may require a shift in expectations for pace in the swim, bike or run. It is important to remember that everyone experiences the same conditions on race day. The racers that make the decision to adapt to those conditions are the ones who triumph. 

Work At Your Best Effort For The Day

If conditions are not conducive to hitting your speed goals, do not become frustrated by it. Accept that pace and speed are finicky friends and the least reliable metric for how hard we are working. Rather, mindfully consider the circumstances and the conditions, and continue to work at your best effort for the day in the conditions that are handed to you. If pace or speed becomes unreliable, shift to a focus on RPE and HR. 

Do not assume that because you aren’t hitting certain targets that your race is “sunk”. Taking your foot off the gas because you may not hit a time goal is a “shit quit” (to use the parlance of Marshall and Patterson from The Brave Athlete). But, if you give your best effort, you can always be proud of the outcome.  

Understand How the Course Works

Every course has a rhythm, and understanding that rhythm can help you determine appropriate pacing throughout the different segments. Consider the following two elevation charts. Both of the races below have roughly the same amount of climbing (Western stations is 18,000 feet; Vermont is 17,000 feet). But, a simple glance shows you that the elevation is organized very differently. 

Given these differences in how the climbing (and descending) is arranged, pacing for these 100 mile runs needs to be considered differently. The last 40 miles of Western States (first profile) is very runnable. But, if you over-paced the opening climbs, you may not be able to take advantage of the milder terrain. Conversely, the opening 30 miles of the Vermont 100 are faster going. But, if you cook those “easier” miles too hard, you will pay for it on the back end. 

Elevation changes are not the only course-details to be mindful of. Other course elements that can impact pacing strategies include the number and type of turns (this is especially significant for cycling), the technicality of the terrain (particularly important for trail running), whether or not the course is open or closed to traffic, road conditions (e.g., how well maintained is the pavement?), and the like. Be sure to review the elevation profile and route description for your race.

Apply Your Why

If you pace to your best effort, at some point, the going will get tough. And when it does, it is important to re-center yourself and remember why you are out there. Your why is the primary motivation for training, racing, and finding the grit to dig deep when every fiber in your body is begging you to stop. 

Your “why” is an ongoing sense of purpose, a connective element that pulls together your beliefs, values, motivations and actions. It undergirds much of what we do every day – including our training and racing.  Getting in touch with your why can be a vulnerable process, but it is worth it. “Why” is a strong support for your commitment to getting the job done not despite the hard moments, but because of them. Remember, motivation wanes, but your commitment to your why will stand strong no matter what. 

Race Day Goals

Your race day goals can be another powerful part of pacing your best race. I ask my athletes to identify both process goals and outcome goals. Process goals are task-oriented, and often deal with the details of execution. A process goal may be to ride more bravely on descents on the bike, or to nail your fueling and hydration strategy. Outcome goals are based on the specific outcomes of a race, such as time or placement. We are in control of process goals that have to do with our execution, our effort, and our response, but we are not in control of our outcome goals, which are reliant on external factors. 

When starting a race, I recommend keeping the focus on the process goals. They will guide you to make effective decisions (especially if targets are off for any reason), remaining task-oriented and present minded. Process goals are also related to having more fun and enjoyment while racing! 

In the final third or quarter of the race, you can shift to your outcome goals. These can help you keep your effort up, as you become fatigued. For example, if you are close to your time goal, or are racing to get as far ahead of others as you can, shifting focus to these outcome goals can help you push one step further by keeping your eye on the outcome prize. 

Your race day success comes from a series of 1% details, such as your gear, fueling and hydration, daily training, and as we’ve covered here, your race day pacing approach. Use these guidelines as a framework to make sense of the specific details for your targets and race day approach.

The 1% Details: Race Day Pacing Strategies 
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