New research reveals when you should up the pace on the bike.
Most triathletes are well versed in the importance of consistent pacing during races. Push too hard too early, and you’ll have little gas in the tank to optimally finish a race. Research has even shown that wide variations in power on the bike have a detrimental effect on subsequent running performances. A study published in the Journal of Science and Cycling, however, offers more nuanced information on pacing, parsing out when exactly an extra surge may be a wise move.
Researchers had a group of triathletes try two different pacing strategies. In the first test, they had the athletes ride 19K at 70 percent of VO2max, then the final kilometer at 95 percent of VO2max, followed by an all-out 5K run. In the other time trial, they had them ride 19K at 70 percent of VO2max, then the final kilometer at 50 percent of VO2max, followed by an all-out 5K run. Interestingly, they found no significant differences in terms of running performances between the two tests. The takeaway here is that we may be able push harder in the final stage of a bike course without hurting running performance.
While he generally advocates for a more even approach to pacing, Memphis-based coach Kevin Leathers says that he actually sees triathletes often doing the very opposite of this, explaining, “Sitting up and taking it easy in the final minutes of the bike leg costs time, especially in a sprint- or Olympic-distance race. It can also cause a loss of momentum, focus and rhythm, making it challenging to ramp back up to race effort, especially at shorter distances.”
Indeed, the latest research suggests experimenting with pushing a bit harder during those final moments, rather than letting off the gas, is a better strategy. In terms of knowing how hard to push, Leathers says that can vary widely depending on the athlete and the distance.
“A sprint race is going to be uncomfortable the entire race and there isn’t much time to relax or recover—throughout the race I’m asking myself, ‘Can I go harder? Am I really pushing?’” he explains. “In a longer race, it’s much trickier because there is greater opportunity to blow your race by going too hard in the early miles, so during that portion of the race I am asking myself, ‘Am I under control? Am I in the right zone? Am I going too hard?’”
To be sure, while data on your bike computer or watch is helpful, things like temperature or illness can throw off the numbers you relied on during training. By listening to your body, you’re better able to determine what is going to be most efficient to get you from point A to point B on that particular day. If you reach that final kilometer of the bike and still feel you have gas in the tank, the research suggests it may be worth picking up the pace and pushing into transition.
And while Leathers emphasizes that he prefers his athletes maintain a steady effort all the way into T2 in most cases, he reminds athletes, “Races are typically lost by pacing and fueling mistakes in the early miles, rather than the late miles.”