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Pace Strategies for Race Day

By Gale Bernhardt 
For Active.com

stretchingYou have successfully trained for your race. As the big day approaches, you begin to contemplate race-pace strategies. Should you be conservative or go for broke?

The answer depends on your current fitness level, the race distance, your predicted race finish time and your racing experience.

At any distance, the first concern is fitness level. If you consider your fitness level low, your initial choice should be a pace that enables you to comfortably complete the event. If you feel fantastic at the halfway mark during the run, then go ahead and pick up the pace.

The second consideration is race distance and current fitness. While distance is the same for every competitor in the race, the time spent on the course is not. You need to predict, based on your current fitness (not the fitness and speed you dream of having), how long it will take you to complete the event.

Race Strategies
Listed in this section are some general race strategies. These strategies reference training and racing zones. You can find a guide to heart rate and rating of perceived exertion related to the zones here.

For Races in the 1:00 to 1:30 Range:

  • Low Fitness: Keep the entire race at Zone 1 or 2 intensity.
  • Medium Fitness: Include a warm-up on the bike or running (15 to 20 minutes) and in the water (five to 10 minutes) before the race begins. Begin each leg of the event at Zone 2 intensity, and then gradually increase to Zone 4 to 5a intensity. Most of each leg will be done at Zone 4 intensity.
  • High Fitness: Warm up on the bike (20 to 30 minutes), by running (10 to 15 minutes) and in the water (10 to 15 minutes) before the race begins. Include a couple of 60- to 90-second efforts at race pace near the end of each warm-up segment. Begin each event at low-Zone 4 intensity and finish at 5a. The bike can include some short efforts above 5a. The run can begin at Zone 4 to 5a intensity and finish the last mile with what you have left, possibly in Zone 5b.

For Races in the 1:30 to 3:00 Range:

  • Low Fitness: Keep the entire race at Zone 1 to 2 intensity.
  • Medium Fitness: Include a short warm-up on the bike or running (10 to 20 minutes) and in the water (five to 10 minutes) before the race begins. Begin each leg of the event at Zone 2 intensity and get settled in. Plan to race each leg in a negative-split manner, with the second half of each leg to include effort at Zone 3 to Zone 5a intensity.
  • High Fitness: Include a warm-up on the bike (10 to 20 minutes) and running (five to 10 minutes) and in the water (five to 10 minutes) before the race begins. Include a couple of 60- to 90-second efforts at race pace near the end of each warm-up segment. Begin each event at Zone 2 to 3 intensity. Plan to increase to Zone 4 to 5a intensity during the second half of the bike and after the first mile or two on the run.

For Races in the 3:00 to 5:00 Range:

  • Low Fitness: Keep the entire race at Zone 1 to 2 intensity.
  • Medium Fitness: Include a short warm-up on the bike or running (10 to 20 minutes) and in the water (five to 10 minutes) before the race begins. Begin each leg of the event at Zone 1 to 2 intensity and get settled in. Plan to race each leg in a negative-split manner, with the second half of each leg to include a good deal of Zone 3 intensity.
  • High Fitness: Include a warm-up on the bike (10 to 20 minutes) and running (five to 10 minutes) and in the water (five to 10 minutes) before the race begins. Include a couple of 60- to 90-second efforts at race pace near the end of each warm-up segment. Begin each leg at Zone 1 to 2, and plan to include a good deal of Zone 3 intensity. You can also include Zone 4 to 5a intensity, accumulating to about an hour to two hours on the bike and the run combined. How much time you accumulate at this intensity depends on your racing experience and predicted finish time.

Races That are 5:00 or More:

  • Low Fitness: Keep the entire race at Zone 1 to 2 intensity. Begin the first half of each leg at Zone 1. If you feel great, increase to Zone 2 in the second half of the leg.
  • Medium Fitness: Begin each leg of the event at Zone 1 to 2 intensity to get settled in. Plan to race each leg in a negative-split manner, racing faster during the second half. The speed changes are subtle, so this may mean beginning at Zone 1 intensity and including low-Zone 3 on hills and in the second half of the leg. How much you spend in the higher zones depends on your racing experience and predicted finish time.
  • High Fitness: A short warm-up is optional, with 10 to 20 minutes on the bike or a short jog of five to 10 minutes. Get in the water and swim for about five minutes to settle in. Begin each leg at Zone 1 to 2, planning to spend most of it at high Zone 2. You can accumulate some Zone 3 intensity, around an hour to two hours on the bike and the run combined, depending on your racing experience and predicted finish time.

Discover What Works Best for You
These guidelines are very generalized. You need to develop your own pacing strategies for a given race distance and course. If you carry high fitness into the event, you can afford to push the pace higher and longer on race day than someone with low fitness.

If you don't have a lot of race experience, I recommend a more conservative approach by keeping the intensities on the low side. This strategy is most conducive to having a positive experience and creating the desire to race again. You can strategize for a faster event next time.

An experienced racer that would like to increase their speed but is worried about blowing up before the end of the race should experiment at a lower priority event. Pick a race you can designate as a test, and make a deal with yourself to push the limits, being aware that if you blow-up, at least you'll know where that red line is.

On the other hand, this experimental event may prove you are faster than you thought.

Gale Bernhardt was the USA Triathlon team coach at the 2003 Pan American Games and 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. 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.

This article originally appeared on Active.com — your source for event information, training plans, expert advice, and everything you need to connect with the sport you love.

Active.com