Your triathlon bike training has been going great and you’re almost ready to race your first sprint, Olympic, 70.3 or Ironman-distance event. That’s great! However, if you haven't yet worked out your pacing strategies for each leg of your race day, it’s time to start doing so to get the most out of your triathlon.
Whether you’re a beginner triathlete or just looking to improve your triathlon performance, having a strong pacing strategy is key. As race distance increases, so does the importance of an effective pacing strategy since you want to be as fresh as possible during each part of the race. And, as you’ve seen with our advice on how to prepare for the triathlon bike with just two bike workouts per week, the bike portion is where beginner triathletes risk losing the most time on race day.
So, let’s look at how you can be faster on the bike with the proper pacing strategies. In this article, we’ll cover:
- Why pacing strategies are so important on the bike;
- How to develop your triathlon bike pacing strategies with FTP (functional threshold power) or RPE (rate of perceived exertion);
- How to train for your race pace;
- Pacing tips for every race distance.
Why Are Bike Pacing Strategies Important?
You might think that doing a triathlon simply means going as hard as you can for each part of the race and hoping for the best result. That’s not the case! In fact, when it comes to triathlon, the ultimate goal is to get to the run fresh enough to be able to put in your best performance at that point. This means that properly pacing your bike is critical.
Let me explain the relationship between speed and effort on the bike versus on the run:
As you cycle harder, you don’t necessarily get a 1:1 increase in speed - the relationship is not linear. After you reach a speed of 25-35 km/h, you start needing to exert more and more effort for smaller and smaller incremental speed gains.
Ultimately, the difference between a killer bike ride where you’ve gone the absolute fastest you could have done, but “cooked” your legs, and a smooth, controlled bike ride where you’re keeping enough energy back to do well on the run, might not be massive. It could even only be a 15 minute difference in your Ironman bike split. However, the difference between a great run and a bad run afterwards could be as big as 90 minutes! This is because the effort required to finish a marathon after overdoing it on the bike is so much higher than if you’re doing it on relatively fresh legs.
That's why you need to find a sweet spot: a speed at which you’re not putting out too much effort while still being close to your maximum possible speed. This means you’re sitting comfortably at a pace where your legs aren’t getting over-solicited, and your cardio system can take you through a nice, good run where you can even hit a personal best.
The main takeaway is that the bike pacing strategies that work are the ones that avoid overexerting yourself before you hit the ground running (literally!).
How to Establish Your Triathlon Bike Pace Strategy
We’ve established that, when it comes to triathlon bike pacing, the ultimate goal is to start the run as fresh as possible while putting out a fast bike time.
This means, of course, getting through the swim panic free and relaxed, first of all. Then, heading onto the bike, using your energy appropriately and ensuring that you’re not pushing yourself too hard. The triathlon bike is not about setting your absolute best possible time; it’s about doing well while setting yourself up for a fast run.
So, how do you figure out your ideal bike race pace? There are two options: FTP and RPE (acronyms galore!), then you need to do the right training.
Using FTP to set your bike pacing strategy
To find out your functional threshold power (FTP), you need a power meter and to do an FTP test. Beginner triathletes likely don't own a power meter, and I don’t think you should feel pressured to buy one for your first triathlon (especially since you can also use the RPE method for creating pacing strategies!).
But, in a nutshell, if you have a power meter, you need to do your FTP test to find your functional threshold power. We recommend the Zwift ramp test to find your FTP first and explain exactly how to do it in our article: What is a Training Zone?
Do your FTP test 3-4 months before race day so that you can work with it during all your bike workouts and become familiar with how it feels. This last bit is important, too: if you taper well before your race, you may actually be able to hit a higher power number than expected on race day.
So, it’s important not to become stuck on a metric, but to recognize how those power outputs feel when you’re going at FTP, at 85% of your FTP, and lower. On race day, you could push beyond the power numbers you’ve been putting out in training if you’re having a good day.
To build your pacing strategy in training, here are the rough guidelines of where you should pace yourself relative to your FTP:
- Sprint triathlon: 95-105% of FTP;
- Olympic triathlon: 85-100% of FTP;
- 70.3 / Half-Ironman triathlon: 75-85% of FTP;
- Ironman distance triathlon: 60-70% of FTP.
These measures can be used to determine training zones, which you can then use for your triathlon bike training for the 3 to 4 months in the lead-up to your race.
Ultimately, you need to link your FTP to your RPE (rate of perceived exertion). During a race, you may or may not have a power meter with you, and it’s best that you don’t stay stuck on a metric. Once you’ve rested and tapered appropriately, you’re likely to be able to produce bigger power outputs anyway.
So, train with awareness of your FTP levels and learn to recognize what that feels like. Being able to combine that feeling with knowledge of your power outputs will then help you visualize your race pace, and perform at it or better.
Tip: Pros actually cover their power data on the bike during a triathlon. That way, they work on feeling only and draw upon the memory of how certain power outputs felt in training.
Using RPE to set your bike pacing strategy
The other metric you can use for your bike pacing is RPE, the rate of perceived exertion. This is a subjective metric because you assign yourself a number from 1 to 10 to determine the amount of effort. However, RPE is absolutely free, and it’s reliable as long as you stay consistent with your scoring.
Because pacing is unique to each athlete, using RPE helps you understand how the metrics relate to what you’re feeling during your training rides. As a result, you’ll be more attuned to the way you’re riding on race day, focusing less on specific power outputs. After all, you’re not a machine!
Moreover, race day comes after (ideally) a good taper period where you’ll be well rested, fueled and ready to compete. More often than not, you’ll be able to hit higher power numbers than you were in training, and you’ll be getting close to your personal best performance.
Here’s a guide to your ideal effort levels depending on the length of your race:
- Sprint triathlon pacing is roughly a 9 out of 10. You’ll be pushing just below your absolute maximum effort level. While you shouldn’t be training that way all the time, I’d advise keeping this max effort level in mind when you’re visualizing your race pace.
- Olympic distance triathlon pacing should sit at 8-9 out of 10. You’re below your absolute maximum, as you’re still out for a relatively short amount of time and can keep high effort levels throughout the ride. Again, there is no need to train at this intensity all the time, but you should know and recognize this effort level when you ride and use this to visualize your race pace.
- Half-Ironman distance pacing needs to be relatively lower, around 7-8 out of 10. The top age group athletes race this distance fast and hard, so you’ll be flirting with the proverbial “do not cross” line of effort here, while recognizing the longer bike distance.
- Ironman distance triathlon pacing is a 5-6 out of 10. This is the longest bike ride you’ll do, and you need to pace yourself conservatively and with the run leg in mind.
How to Train for Your Triathlon Bike Race Pace
Now you know how to determine some key biking metrics, the main question is how to use them in the race so you have the best bike leg possible.
As we’ve said already, a good triathlon bike leg is one that has you going as fast as you can while preparing you to feel good and move fast on the run leg. If you pace your bike section too hard, you might fade toward the end of your bike or have a nightmare run. Therefore, the goal of pacing a triathlon bike is to find the effort level that will lead to a bad run, then dial the effort level back roughly 5%.
Here’s where race simulations come in. During the long rides in the final few months before your target race, focus on riding at roughly the RPE values for your race or your target power numbers. You should be doing many intervals over your “guesstimated” target race pace in your long rides.
Immediately after the bike, do a race simulation brick run and make a note of how it feels. Perform a little analysis: if the run felt good, you’ve paced your bike right and you could maybe push more. Try that in the next week’s session, then adjust if you’ve pushed too hard.
If the run feels awkward, your body is stiff and sore, or by the end of the run you find that you can’t keep a good pace, then it means you’ve pushed too hard on the bike. Dial it down a bit in your next week’s long ride. Do this a few weeks in a row and you’ll develop the ability to know your race pace without data.
You’ll also be able to retroactively look back at the workout data and see the power and heart rate numbers you hit during the workout that were too much, just right, or not enough. This is how you get the best sense of the effort level and hard metric ranges you should be targeting during your race.
This is so important, because it helps you avoid being stuck to a metric when you could do so much better if you’ve nailed your taper and are race ready.
Factors That Influence Your Race Pacing Strategy
You should be aware of a few elements that influence how fast you can ride on race day:
- Distance. The longer the race, the more cautious you’re going to want to be in your race pacing strategy. Start your race simulation intervals at the low end of the RPE and power number ranges then increase your effort as you get fitter and more comfortable..
- Fitness levels. Inversely to distance, the fitter and more competitive athlete you are, the higher your race pace can be within the ranges we provided.
- Experience. Just like with fitness, expect your race pace to improve as you gain more experience in the sport.
Bike Pacing Strategies for Your Triathlon
Here are a few tips to get you to visualize each race distance individually.
- Once you’re on the bike, build up to your target race effort over 1-2 minutes.
- Hold that effort evenly until up to 2 minutes before the end at which point you should ease off the gas a little.
- The sprint distance is short enough that you can get away with overexerting yourself, so feel free to push the pace if you’re feeling strong. You should find it fairly challenging to keep the pace.
- Stretch your lower back and legs a little before the end (2 minutes to go).
- As you approach transition, bring your effort level down 5-10% from your race pace, helping your legs loosen up a little before you head into the run.
- The pacing here is similar to sprint distance, holding a solid race effort, just a bit lower than your sprint effort level.
- Olympic distance bike rides are long enough that you could fade significantly if you don’t pace yourself correctly, and this will affect your run negatively.
- Try to build up to your race effort level in the first 2-3 minutes, and hold it even up to about 3 minutes before the end.
- Stretch your lower back and legs as you’re approaching the end of the ride, with 3 minutes to go.
- As with the sprint distance, reduce effort levels by 5-10% as you’re getting to the end of the ride, to allow your legs to loosen up before the run.
Half Ironman 70.3 Tips
- At this long distance, pacing yourself correctly is critical to avoid mishaps on the run. So, until you have an excellent handle on the fine line between just the right amount of effort and too much effort, my recommendation is to hold yourself back and ride conservatively.
- During the first 5-7 minutes of the ride, build up to just under your ideal race effort level.
- For the quarter third of the bike, ride cautiously - 3-5% under what you believe your race effort should feel like.
- Then, if you’re feeling good, during the middle half of the bike you can ride at or just above your target race pace. Check in with your body regularly throughout the race and dial the effort back as soon as you feel like you might be going too hard. If it feels too good, you should probably just maintain that.
- During the last quarter, even if you truly feel amazing, then you should still dial it back to your target race effort to give your legs a break heading into transition. If you’re not feeling great then bring the effort down even a little more
- Stretch your lower back and legs a few times, even sit up to make sure you’re comfortable in the final 10 minutes. Then, during the final 3-5 minutes, dial down your effort so you loosen up the legs going into transition.
- If a 70.3 distance bike ride could be dangerous if you overexert yourself, the full Ironman distance is even more critical. The difference this bike ride can make to your run and your overall race time is crucial, so you need to pace yourself conservatively.
- During the first 5-7 minutes, build up to just under race effort.
- Ride cautiously during the first quarter of the bike, keeping yourself around 3-5% below what you think the effort should feel like.
- During the middle half, if you’re feeling good, then bring up the effort to or just barely above your desired race levels.
- Continue to check in with your body and see how you’re feeling. If the effort feels too hard, dial it down a bit. If the effort feels too easy, you should probably maintain it.
- During the last quarter of the bike, decide how your body is feeling. If it’s great, then still just bring the pace down to your target race effort. If you’re not feeling great then bring the effort down even a little more.
- Just like with the half-Ironman distance bike ride, stretch your lower back and legs a few times and even sit up to make sure you’re comfortable in the final 10 minutes of the ride.
- As you’re coming into transition, dial down your effort by 5-10% so you can loosen up your legs and have your body ready to run.
Hills and Wind
Many coaches say that the best paced triathlon bike strategy is an even pacing strategy throughout. I don’t believe this is true, especially when it comes to wind and hills.
When you’re riding uphill or into the wind the speed penalty for easing up off the effort level is severe, but when you’re riding with the wind or downhill it takes a tremendous effort level to keep the power numbers steady. So I feel that the best bike pacing strategy on hills and in wind is slightly variable.
When you’re riding into the wind or uphill it’s ok to push 5-10% above your target average power or effort level, but no more. This will make a huge difference in maintaining your speed.
When you’re riding downhill or with the wind you’ll want to back off the effort level or power numbers and coast a bit. This will give your legs a break and the speed loss will be minimal.
This pacing strategy can gain many minutes over the course of an entire triathlon all while keeping your average power numbers and effort levels in check.
Extra Bike Pacing Tips
In addition to achieving and sustaining effort levels that don't risk a horrible run on race day, here are a few more quick tips to help you on your first triathlon bike race:
- Resist the urge to go fast at the start of the bike leg. This applies to any race distance. Once you’re done with the swim, you’ll be excited and happy to move on to more familiar territory. This inevitably ends with you burning out, so stick to your pacing plan and go easy!
- Don’t neglect your nutrition and hydration. Throughout the bike, make sure you sip on your drink and refuel continuously, so you can hit the run with optimal energy levels.
- Race your own race. Don’t get distracted by what others are doing! Remember how we talked about swimming away from the main group if you want to keep focused and calm in the water? With the bike, you want to obviously avoid drafting but also stay on your race plan and “in your bubble.” This means not chasing after people when they overtake you and not letting what happens in other people’s race phase you.
- Keep the run in mind. That’s why we’re creating these pacing strategies and why it’s super important that you don’t go off too hard on the bike. Set yourself up to finish strong and have a great overall race instead.
- Break the bike into three chunks: build to power, hold power or slightly over power, then drop down to no more than target power towards the end (similar for if you’re using RPE).
Ace the Triathlon Bike With the Right Pacing Strategies
For your first triathlon, or if you’re looking to level up your race game, the most important thing to remember about bike pacing is that you need to go a lot easier than your maximum possible. Go too hard, and you’ll be toast by the time the run comes. It’s not about how fast you can go; it’s about how little you slow down!
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