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How to Pace the Run for Triathlon

by Taren Gesell

Blog ▸ How to Pace the Run for Triathlon

Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MōTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.

How you pace the triathlon run is determined by a variety of factors. Your overall effort on the bike, the weather conditions, your nutrition, the race distance, and more all play into how fast you’ll be able to close out a triathlon. It’s critical to get your run pacing correct because the run is the triathlon discipline where you can lose the most time if you get your pacing strategy wrong.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • Why a “race pace test” might not be the best thing for you;
  • What race pace looks like across the different triathlon distances;
  • How to use rate of perceived exertion (RPE) to “bomb proof” your run;
  • The key sets of workouts you must do before race day to ensure you know what race pace feels like; and
  • A pacing strategy for every distance that will have you finishing strong and not fading toward the finish line.

How do I know what my race pace is?

Determining your running race pace is not as cut-and-dried as doing a calculation based on a race pace test, despite what many coaches would lead you to believe. Those run tests will get you a close approximation and range of paces to use on race day, but they won’t get you to your exact personalized absolute best possible pace.

Furthermore, everything is different on race day than it was for you in training. You may be in a different climate than where your training occurred, your taper may have you supercharged, or conversely you might be having a bad day. If you have a set-in-stone type of metric you’re trying to reach that was forged in completely different conditions; you’ll be set up to underperform. 

Instead, your goal throughout training (and I’ll explain exactly how to do this shortly) should be to determine a range of ideal paces AND what race pace feels like. Developing and practicing this sense of your internal race pace “feel” allows you to nail your best possible race, no matter the course or conditions. 

Here’s how you can start figuring out what your race pace feels like.

Rate of perceived exertionScale of 1-10
Sprint8/9
olympic7/8
half ironman (70.3)6/7
ironman5/6

If you prefer to work from a set of per kilometer pacing guidelines, here’s a general rule of thumb using your 5km running race pace.

race distance5km running pace
sprint5sec-45sec slower per km
olympic10sec-50sec slower per km
half ironman (70.3)15sec-1:10 slower per km
ironman40sec-1:40 slower per km

You can also calculate your race pace here by inputting a few data points.

As you can see, there’s a wide range of paces here. Here are steps you can take to dial in that range a bit tighter.

  • After your weekly long bike rides, perform a brick run.
  • Starting at around three months out from your race, perform longer portions of these brick bikes and runs at and above your estimated race pace using the charts above.
  • If you feel stiff, your body cramps up, or you fade significantly towards the end of the brick run, you’ve either gone too hard on the bike or the run.
  • Adjust your pace up and down until you can find the pace that feels like you can complete that brick run easily but is slightly challenging.
  • This will be close to the pace you can execute in a race.

After dialling in your comfortable race pace “feel”, review the workouts and use the paces and heart rates you achieved as a guideline on race day (just don’t forget to listen to the signals your body sends you on race day, you can always use your internally developed race pace “feel” if all hell breaks loose).

If on race day you get close to your target pace and it feels awful, back off, and you might be able to build back up to it later. If you build up to your target race pace and it feels incredibly easy, hold that target.

If it still feels easy in the final 25% of the race, then pick up the pace. You’ve now got your target race pace figured out!!!

The key workouts to determine your race pace

As you’ve probably noticed by now, the best way to determine your race pace is to train, train, and train some more. I recommend two types of key workouts in the lead-up to your race.

Race simulation day – The way to approach this workout is to build up to an over-distance bike workout. As you start building up the distance of this ride, you also increase the duration you spend in the saddle slightly above race pace. The goal is to perform longer and longer above race pace intervals strategically placed at the end of the ride.

This will cause a good amount of fatigue in your legs as they begin the run, which is exactly what happens on race day. The first few times you try this, run strictly by feel. Afterwards, look at your pace and ask: Did you fade? Did you cramp? Did you need to stop and walk? If so, you probably went too fast.

Afterwards, if you felt that you could run faster, and it wasn’t overly taxing, then perhaps you could increase the pace next time you try a race simulation workout. As you get more experience with these workouts, you’ll be able to dial in that proper pace for you.

Long run simulation day – Simply put, you’re building up your weekly long run while also inserting efforts at the end slightly above what you want to do on race day. You’ll start by including the final 10% of the long run slightly above race pace, working all the way up to the final 60% of the long run slightly above race pace. 

If you can sustain this effort to the end of the workout, you’re good! If you faded or cramped, it was probably too fast. If it felt too easy, you could probably stand to pick up the pace next time around. Again, it’s a lot of trial and error throughout your training.

We recommend doing these long runs the day after the long bike, so you’re running on tired legs, just like you’ll be doing in your race.

If you want an exact training plan to prepare you for a race with pacing guidelines and the workouts required to reach your goals, check out our training app for free here.

How to properly pace your next triathlon run

Racing, particularly the longer distances, isn’t as simple as going out and running your exact target pace from the start. With the pacing strategy you’re about to learn, you’ll save your legs from being overcooked, and you’ll turn the screws on your competitors when you’re feeling good.

Sprint distance

In a sprint distance triathlon, use the first 500 meters of the run to build up to your target run pace; then over the following 500 meters, check in with your body to see how your target race pace is feeling. Get a sense of whether it’s going to be too hard or too easy.

If the pace feels unsustainable, back it off a little. If the pace feels hard but attainable, it’s best to maintain it. If the pace feels easy, pick it up a little because you should be hurting quite a bit in a Sprint.

Check-off your pace goals at each one-kilometer mark and focus on running five good kilometers with fast foot turnover and good upright posture.

During the final kilometre pick up the effort (even though the pace might not get any faster) and see how much time you can gain to the finish. 

Olympic distance

An Olympic distance triathlon is where you’ll start to benefit from mentally breaking up the race into chunks. An Olympic distance run is aerobic, meaning it’s a paced, controlled run; at no point should you feel like you’re close to a max effort level.

Just like in a Sprint race, use the first kilometer of the run to build up to your target run pace over the first 500 meters. Over the following 500 meters, check in with your body to see how your target race pace feels. Get a sense of whether it’s going to be too hard or too easy.

If the pace feels unsustainable, back it off a little. If the pace feels hard but attainable, it’s best to maintain it. If the pace feels easy, pick it up just a little bit because you shouldn’t be in pain early on in an Olympic (that pain will come later in the run 😉 ).

After your pace check in the first kilometer, focus on six kilometers controlled and smooth, executing a good race that feels almost easy.

Once you reach the seven-kilometer mark, check in with your pace and calculate how much you’ve got in the tank. Either pick up the pace for the final three kilometers or push hard to maintain your effort. You should have paced your first seven kilometers, so there’s not a significant (if any) drop-off in pace in the final three kilometers.

Half Ironman (70.3) distance

A half-Ironman race is where it really starts getting crucial to pace yourself properly and break up the race into stages. You want the pace to be as close to even as possible throughout, with maybe a 5-10 second per kilometre (9-19 seconds per mile) drop in pace from the start of the run to the finish.

Set yourself up for success by dosing your effort for the best run possible with this strategy:

  • Run easy out of Transition 2. No matter how good you feel, hold back in the first 2 kilometers.
  • In the next 3 kilometres, build up to your target pace and no faster. 
  • From kilometers 5 to 10, hold your target race pace or just slightly above your target race pace.
  • At the 10-km mark, check in with your body to see how you feel. If going slightly faster than your target pace feels good, great. Hold that. If going slightly above your target pace feels hard, back down to your target pace.
  • If you’ve dosed your pace correctly, you’ll be tired by the 15-km mark. Don’t worry; this is what we want. You’ll have to dig deep to push through the fatigue to try to keep your pace as close as possible to your target race pace.

This variable running pace, where you start easy and then build up to slightly faster than your target race pace, pushing harder at the end, should get you close to your target average race pace while also working with what your body wants to do at every point along the way.

You may have heard that the best way to run fast in a race is with a “negative split” where you run the second half faster than the first half, this is an old-wives tale and not the case. Studies have proven that even elite triathletes run positive splits where the first half is faster than the second.

Ironman Distance

Run pacing is especially critical at the full distance. Get it wrong, and you’ll be limping to the finish. Get it right, and you’ll be passing dozens of your competitors in the final half of the marathon.

If you can keep a steady pace that allows you to run the entire marathon without stopping to walk, you’ll have a race you may never have thought possible. Here’s how to do it:

  • Choose a pace that is quite a bit slower than you think you’re capable of.
  • If you’re on a hilly course, your target pace will likely be even a little slower than you’d like because your pace might increase by 30 seconds per kilometer on uphills.
  • During the first 10 kilometers, that slow pace is good. DO NOT have even a single kilometer that’s more than three to five seconds faster per kilometer than that pace.
  • During the next 15 km, keep your target pace in mind and only allow your kilometer splits to vary from the target pace by 5 to 10 seconds per kilometer.
  • Let your pace vary on hills; getting roughly 15 seconds per kilometre faster on downhills, and 30 seconds per kilometer slower on uphills. 
  • After the 25-km mark, be prepared to dig for your target pace. If you’ve chosen the right pace and executed the first 25 km properly, you’ll have to find the motivation to keep up that pace. It’s going to hurt, but it is entirely possible.
  • For the rest of the race, keep focused on a few key points: stay upright, pump the arms, and keep your feet fast.

Regardless of the distance, if you’ve chosen the right pace and executed your race plan well, you’ll cross that finish line feeling strong, accomplished and knowing you gave it everything you had.

Read more

  • Start your triathlon training prep with your 101 Guide here
  • Learn all about training zones here
Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MōTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.