Triathlon Training: Power Pacing for Winning Performance

By Nick White and Chris Carmichael

We’re in the age of power, and on-bike power meters have forever changed the landscape of triathlon training. But while more athletes are analyzing their workouts, many stumble when using a power meter during competition. In training you rely on your power meter to ensure that you’re challenging yourself enough to cause an adaptation; on race day your power meter can be a very powerful pacing tool, as long as you view the data with a different perspective.

While you’re preparing for races, you spend a lot of time training at intensities meant to improve your sustainable power at lactate threshold, and triathletes aiming to win sprint and Olympic-distance races also spend significant time working at power outputs approaching VO2 max. But your pace on race day doesn’t need to be – nor should it be – absolutely as fast as you can go from T1 to T2. To achieve the perfect race performance you need to achieve a balance between going fast on the bike and saving energy for the run. As a result, developing into a faster triathlete becomes a matter of increasing your power at threshold and VO2 max as high as possible so that you can use a smaller percentage of your aerobic capacity to maintain the pace necessary to achieve your goals.

This is what we worked on with Craig Alexander as he made the jump to Ironman World Championships and finished 2nd, 1st, and 1st from 2007-2009. Coming from the shorter, faster disciplines within triathlon, Craig had speed; more speed than he could effectively utilize in Kona. As with almost any athlete, the power he could sustain for 56 miles was greater than the power he could sustain for 112, and still run effectively. Finding the optimal pace strategy was a process, and it’s one that every triathlete should engage in. Here’s how we do it:

  1. Determine Maximum Sustainable Power Output on the bike.

There are a number of popular methods for determining an athlete’s maximum sustainable power output, including lab-based lactate threshold testing and a variety of field tests. For most age-group athletes we prefer to use a combined cycling/running field test. The test consists of two 8-minute cycling time trials separated by 10 minutes recovery. Following the second cycling time trial, take 10 minutes to recover, get into running gear, and then complete an 8-minute running time trial. On the bike you’re looking for the higher of your two average power outputs, which will be about 10% above your lab-tested LT power. On the run you’re looking for the distance covered in 8 minutes and your minutes/mile pace. While the field test is typically used to establish training intensities, the cycling portion is also a great starting point for power pacing.

  1. Factor in the length of the race

The shorter the race, the harder you can ride. In Sprint triathlons you’re likely to be off the bike in about 30 minutes or less, which means you can ride up to and above your average power from the field test. As events get longer, the gap between your race power and your field test or lactate threshold power needs to increase so you’re not burning through carbohydrate so fast, nor forcing your body to process as much lactate. Power ranges for the four most typical triathlon distance are listed below.

Race Distance

Race Power Range as % of CTS Field Test

Race Power Ranges for 300 Watt Field Test

Ironman

65-85

195 – 255

70.3 Ironman

75-87

225 – 261

ITU (Olympic distance)

85-90

255 – 270

Sprint

90-105

270 – 315

  1. Narrow In Your Pace Ranges

Power pacing ranges start out broad and we use a combination of factors to narrow them down to a personal range for each athlete. The goal is not to arrive at a singular number – it’s unrealistic for an athlete to maintain a constant output in real-world conditions – but to provide a range that spans 10-15 watts.

Racing history: Don’t just look at power files from your best bike splits for specific distances. Look at your best overall performances, particularly ones where you had a great run. From a cautionary standpoint, also look at races where you had a fast bike split and a terrible run.

Course demands: The harder the bike course, the harder you’re going to have to ride. If you’re expecting heavy winds, prolonged climbs or endless rolling hills, bring the bottom of your race power range up by 10 watts. If the run course is particularly difficult, consider taking 5-10 watts off the top of your race power range to save energy. You can gain more time with a great run on a difficult course than you will lose through a moderate reduction in pace on the bike.

Weather: In hot and humid conditions, you’re going to want to take 5-10 watts off the top of your race power ranges. Dialing back the power makes it easier to control core temperature, stay hydrated, and conserve energy for a hot run.

  1. Test Your Race Power Ranges

From Week 8 to Week 4 before your race, include race pace tests during your longest weekly ride. The duration depends on the event you’re training for: 15 minutes for a Sprint, 30min for an Olympic-distance, 45min for a 70.3, and 60min for an Ironman. The goal is to evaluate the sustainability of that power range. At least once before race day it is a good idea to transition into a 20-minute run following this race-pace bike segment to test the impact of the bike pace on your running. Since these tests are shorter than your race distances, they will likely seem a bit slow or easy. It’s when they feel hard that you should be concerned and make adjustments.

In the end, power pacing for triathlon comes down to a blend of science, experience, and experimentation. But when you get it right, power pacing can set you up for a fantastic run. Just remember, you still have to eat and drink properly in order to maintain your pace on the bike and have the energy for a strong run.

Nick White is a Premier Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. (CTS). He coached Craig Alexander to Ironman World Championships in 2008 and 2009; as well as 2010 Ironman St. George winner Heather Wurtele. Chris Carmichael is the Founder and Head Coach of CTS, the Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. For information on coaching, camps, and performance testing, visit www.trainright.com. This article was originally published in Triathlete Magazine.

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