Figuring how to effectively regulate effort and intensity is one of the greatest challenges triathletes face. Your body is trying to figure out how hard it can go without bonking before the finish line.
Holding yourself back and maintaining an even effort can be a major test in mental patience during the early stages of a race when you're feeling fresh.
Take It Easy On the Bike
While there's plenty of evidence to support the importance of pacing, a recent study emphasizes the benefits of regulating effort on the bike.
The researchers used GPS and heart rate monitors to the track speed and effort in relation to the racecourse terrain on a group of triathletes competing in the Ironman World Championships. They discovered that the athletes who had fewer fluctuations in their heart rate between consecutive uphill and downhill segments tended to be more successful in relation to their goal times. Those who maintained a more even output of effort performed better over the entire 120-mile course.
While they may have identified the ideal strategy for approaching a long-course race, it's important to keep in mind that it might not apply to shorter events.
"For any given race, you have a bank account of fitness which allows you to write some checks," says Katie Malone, a USA Triathlon certified coach based in Landrum, South Carolina. "In a sprint race, you have the ability to push harder and write more of those checks and not have it hurt your overall race performance. But in an Ironman, you have to be much more careful with pacing and effort."
Know When to Go Hard
If you spend too much energy early by mashing up hills and overextending yourself, you'll pay for the effort on the run. In a shorter race, it's all about pushing hard for a short amount of time. But in a long-course event, there's little room for error, particularly if the course is hilly.
"You have to have a plan and know when and if it's safe to go hard," says Malone.
In longer races, preserving your muscles and overall energy levels is of the utmost importance.
"In an Ironman, I am going to typically recommend to athletes that they spin up the hills and save their legs, use all the gearing they have, but still move along," Malone says. "Heart rate might go up a little, but you shouldn't see any spikes. Once you crest the hill, really work and take advantage of the free speed."
Pay Attention to Your Cadence
Malone suggests shifting gears when cadence drops below 85. If it's a steeper hill and you're on a tri bike, you can sit up and scoot back on the seat in order to better engage your glutes and quads. "I only recommend getting out of the saddle if the hill is really steep, you're grinding your gears and you're still at a low cadence," Malone says.
Newer triathletes might struggle with the idea of shifting and maintaining a higher cadence up hills because it often isn't the fastest way to reach the top. It is, however, the most efficient way to get from point A to point B in a long race.
"When an athlete comes to me and asks why their run didn't go well, my first question is 'what was your average cadence on the bike?'" Malone says. "The best triathletes tend to have a higher cadence going up the hills, many 95 or higher, and a little lower cadence—more power—going down the hills."
While you may not go as fast as possible up the hill, you should embrace speed on the downhills. By shifting gears and continuing to pedal, you gain speed with only medium effort, what many refer to as "free speed." Of course, your comfort level at faster speeds and bike handling skills should also be considered when planning your approach to downhills.
While many long-course triathletes intellectually understand the importance of regulating intensity on the bike, it can be easier said than done during a race. This is why you should practice how you take on uphills and downhills in training. Overtime, your body and mind will adjust to this strategy, allowing you to finish the bike strong and hit the run with legs that'll carry you to the finish.
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