How to Set Realistic Time Goals

Use shorter distances to estimate long distance performance.

If you have raced sprint- and Olympic-distance events and you plan to race half-Ironman (70.3) or Ironman-distance events you can use the results from shorter races to get an idea of performance at longer distance events.

If you are doubling the distance of an event, a rule of thumb is to double the time performance of the shorter event and then add 5 percent to that time.

For example, the standard Olympic-distance event is 0.9 miles of swimming, 24.8 miles of cycling and 6.2 miles of running. Double the distance to get 1.8 miles of swimming, 49.6 miles of cycling and 12.4 miles of running .

Since doubling the distance of an Olympic event isn't quite long enough to estimate a half-Ironman race performance (1.2 miles of swimming, 56 miles of cycling and 13.1 miles of running or 70.3 total miles), we need to do a little more math. We will need to add some time to the Olympic-distance results before doubling that time and adding 5 percent.

Here's an example of how to get a rough estimate of finish time for a half-Ironman race, based on an Olympic-distance time:

  • Add 33 percent to your current Olympic-distance swim time to estimate your half-Ironman swim time. For example, if your Olympic swim is 28 minutes, the half-Ironman swim will be around 28 x 1.33 or around 37 minutes.
  • Add 13 percent to your current Olympic-distance bike time because 28 miles (half the distance of a half-Ironman bike ride) is roughly 13 percent longer than an Olympic distance event. Then, double that time and add 5 percent. For example, if your Olympic-distance bike time for a rolling course is 1:20 or roughly 1.3 hours, adding 13 percent (1.3 hours x 1.13) results in 1.47 hours. Double that time to get 2.94 hours, and multiply that number by 1.05 to get an estimated 56-mile bike time of 3.1 hours or roughly 3:06.
  • Add 6 percent to your current Olympic-distance run time, then double that time and add 5 percent. If you average a 9-minute-per-mile pace for a 6.2 mile run, the result is a run time near 56 minutes. Adding 6 percent to the time is 56 x 1.06 or 59.36 minutes. Double the time (118.72 minutes) and multiply by 1.05 to equal 124.66 minutes or an estimate half-Ironman run of 2:05.

Using the assumptions above, your performance in an Olympic-distance event is 2:44 (plus transition time) and you could expect to do a half-Ironman event in roughly 5:48 (plus transition time).

There are certainly other factors to consider (such as course terrain) and adequate training for the distance of the event; but you can use races that are roughly half the distance of a long event to estimate performance for the long event.  

Consider a perfect race and one that isn't.

When I have my athletes set goal times for their key events, I ask them to set a range of goal times rather than a single number. The lowest number is the fastest time they think is possible, given a perfect race. The perfect race includes perfect weather and a body that performs to best times in all categories.

The high end of the range is a number based on average paces seen in training and racing--not best times. Using the sample time from the previous section, and making some assumptions about training performance, a goal range for the half-Ironman race might be 5:45 to 6:10, plus transition time.

Summary: Use a range for goal race times and fine-tune the range as more training results become available.

Consider factors that are not in your control.

No one wants to think about a race where rain is predicted and the swim water is very cold. Other athletes fear a race day that is extremely hot and windy.

As race day nears, I ask athletes to consider how they will react when facing adverse race conditions.

Will you become consumed with worry? Get depressed because your PR (personal record) time goal is at risk?

Summary: Decide ahead of race day how you will react to any item out of your personal control that has the potential to affect your goal time.  This forward thinking and mental determination to face adversity with a positive, problem-solving mindset can give you a race day advantage over others paralyzed by imperfect situations.  

Race your best.

When race day arrives, it doesn't matter whether you far exceeded your finish time expectations or fell short. If you race the fastest you possibly can, given the conditions of the course and the weather, there are no apologies to make to anyone--yourself included.


Gale Bernhardt was the USA Triathlon team coach at the 2003 Pan American Games and 2004 Athens Olympics. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Games in Sydney. She currently serves as one of the World Cup coaches for the International Triathlon Union's Sport Development Team. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow cycling and triathlon training plans. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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