A successful triathlon requires more than simply getting from point A to point B as fast as possible.
Recent evidence from exercise physiology labs and real racing scenarios has demonstrated the importance of pacing in triathlon. Even if you're new to the sport, you've probably figured out that when you start any workout too hard, you often end up crashing and burning.
Maintaining an even effort during a triathlon is important whether you're racing a sprint or a long-course event because you have to maintain proper energy levels to tackle each of the three disciplines.
Triathlon isn't about getting from point A to point B as fast as you can," says Bill Wilson, owner and head coach of Camelback Coaching in Scottsdale, Arizona. "It's about traveling from A, to B, to C in the most efficient way possible."
Marilyn Chychota, a former professional triathlete and elite coach for Endurance Corner in Boulder, Colorado, says improper pacing is often a result of emotions getting out of hand on race day.
"Pacing is one of the most talked about subjects when it comes to endurance sports," she says. "You get it wrong, and no matter how well trained you are, your day can be blown apart."
Physiologically speaking, pacing becomes more important the longer the race distance is because our bodies are only able to store so much glycogen for our muscles to burn. When you swim, ride, and run at a moderate pace, you burn more fat, thereby preserving your glycogen stores.
When you get into higher intensities, you burn right through glycogen stores at a rate that can't be replenished by consuming bars, gels, or drinks. This can lead to hitting the dreaded "wall."
This is less of an issue for a sprint race. For Olympic distance races and beyond, you will perform at a higher level, if you can learn to pace yourself in each of the three disciplines.
Starting the swim too fast is one of the biggest mistakes made by new triathletes. It takes discipline and focus to start the swim at a moderated pace and push aside the adrenaline, desire to jockey for position or fear of the open water.
One study published in 2009 shows that swimming at a reduced intensity benefited the end result for triathletes. In particular, it points out that it's not so much about the speed you're traveling in the water, but rather how much energy you're using. The more efficient you are, the more easily you'll be able to maintain a consistent pace and avoid coming into transition waterlogged and fatigued.
"We try to tell our athletes that if you feel like you're going out too slow, you're going too fast," Wilson says. "You need to be so chill, especially in the first 200 to 400 meters."
When you can take the race out at a controlled speed, athletes tend to fall into a natural rhythm for the rest of the swim. If you start out too fast, not only will you put yourself at risk of early fatigue, you may end up panicking in the water when you can't get in enough oxygen those first few hundred meters of the race. Once that happens, it can be difficult to recover and achieve a good tempo for the remainder of the swim.