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Congratulations! You’ve signed up for a triathlon. Maybe it’s your first. Maybe you’ve done one before, but want to try a new distance. Maybe you want to give your spectator squad an idea about where and when they can cheer you on. So you’re wondering, based on all your workouts, how long will the race take you? How can you estimate your triathlon finish time?
If you know how fast you swim, bike, and run, it stands to reason that you could estimate how long it might take you to finish the race. However, there are many variables that make this challenging.
Weather conditions and terrain play a big part in pacing on race day. Total distance is another factor that not only affects speed, but also the extra time that must be added for transitions. Plus, many athletes make the mistake of basing their estimate on best times or PRs achieved during training, which results in a predicted finisher’s time that might be an unlikely best-case scenario. Even if you pick a reasonable average from your single sport workouts to base your estimation upon, you likely weren’t doing all three events back-to-back, which can lead to fatigue and slower overall times.
How to estimate your triathlon time
The first thing to keep in mind is that your times will differ from regular training and a triathlon estimate shouldn’t be based on your best race times for each stand-alone sport.
“You should be able to point to training sessions or other races as evidence to support your estimates; otherwise, you’re just guessing,” said Russell Cox, a triathlon coach and data expert, who has crunched the numbers on thousands of age-group finishes.
Instead, it’s best to base estimates on training sessions or workouts that target race-specific intensity. This might consist of purposeful long rides and runs at goal pace or key interval sessions for shorter races.
Another factor to consider is your level of triathlon experience. Olivia Dietzel, owner of LivFit Coaching, explains that finishing times for pros or elite age-group athletes will be much more predictable, because these athletes regularly push themselves during testing and in hard training sessions. They also have previous performances that can be analyzed to create more accurate estimates. On the other hand, middle-of-the-pack age-groupers or beginners might not be accustomed to the intensity that comes with racing and may not really have similar efforts or results to compare.
“These athletes often struggle to break down mental barriers to let themselves physically push their bodies to the limits during fitness tests or hard training sessions, making it hard to predict what they’re truly capable of,” she said.
As a general rule of thumb, Dietzel expects that most age-group athletes can hold a zone 2 heart rate or effort for an Ironman, zone 3 for a 70.3, zone 4 for an Olympic, and high zone 4 to zone 5 for a sprint. In the build-up to a big event, race simulations provide a testing ground where those zones can be refined and translated into pace, power numbers, and times.
Another trick is to look at past race results from the event you’re targeting to give a sense of whether a course might be slower or faster than you anticipate. “If it’s a particularly hilly bike course, you can’t use your flat time trial to determine your potential speed,” Cox noted.
Also, be sure to consider external factors that could have a big impact on your race time, like temperature, wind, humidity, water conditions, altitude, terrain, and course layout.
Average triathlon finish times
It also helps to have an idea of average finishing times for different distances. You probably have a general idea of how you compare to an average athlete, based on your training and level of fitness, but you might surprise yourself!
|Average Triathlon Finish Times||Total time||Swim time||Bike time||Run time|
|Sprint||1:30-2:00||20-25 min.||45 min. - 1 hr||30-40 min.|
|Olympic-distance||2:52 (men) & 3:07 (women)||32-35 min.||1:30-1:40||50-55 min.|
|70.3 or Half-distance||5:51 (men) & 6:18 (women)||37-38 min.||2:55-3:10||2:07-2:17|
|Iron-distance||12:27 (men) & 13:16 (women)||1:10-1:13||6:10-6:40||4:50-5:15|
RELATED: What’s a Good Triathlon Time?
70.3 to Iron distance: The 2x + 30-60 method
Probably one of the most sought after finishing estimates is for the Iron-distance event, because it’s the longest triathlon most people will attempt, and there’s so much unknown for even the most experienced athletes. A common practice to estimate your time for a full iron-distance is to double your 70.3 time and add 30-60 minutes. But is that accurate?
“It actually isn’t too far off the mark,” Cox said. “When I compare athletes’ times at a 70.3 with their times at an Ironman in the same year, on average, their Ironman times are around 2.15-2.2 x their 70.3 race. But, the types of courses you’re comparing could have a huge impact.”
Triathlon run times vs. open run times
Another popular method is to look at your open run times, since you’ve probably run an open 5K, 10K, or half-marathon before. But the run is also the most challenging part of a triathlon to estimate, because it comes at the end of a race when fatigue is high. A good rule of thumb is to plan to be 10-15% slower in your run split than your time for an equivalent running race.
For example, a runner with a 40-minute 10K PR might expect a best-case scenario of a 45-minute run in an Olympic-distance triathlon. A 3-hour open marathon time might indicate the potential for approximately a 3:25 iron-distance run.
One way to develop an accurate run estimate is with benchmark testing. “Based on the results of an all-out 5K test, I can predict what an athlete might be capable of running for an open 10K, half-marathon, and full marathon,” Dietzel said. However, when translating those open run times to a triathlon run, you still need to consider the two legs that come before it. “One factor that creates a lot of variation is bike ability. Sometimes, strong cyclists have a higher tendency to over-bike, causing them to blow up on the run and perform significantly below their potential.”
Dietzel recommends the following offsets from open run times to triathlon run times:
- 5K: 30-90 seconds
- 10K: 90 seconds to 3 minutes
- Half-marathon: 5-8 minutes
- Marathon: 20-60 minutes
Don’t forget transition time!
A common mistake athletes make is adding up the best possible times they’re capable of for each leg and voila! You have a PR prediction. But don’t forget to add enough transition time between events. Looking at the course and transition layout can help, as well as examining past results, and considering the overall race distance.
For a first-time Iron-distance athlete, Dietzel suggests adding 15-20 minutes of total transition time to account for the possibility of changing clothes. Even for an experienced iron-distance racer, she expects 10 minutes of total transition time, simply because of the large transition areas at most large events. For an Ironman 70.3 branded race, this might look like 3-5 minutes per transition, but for a local half-distance, it might only take 2-3 minutes per transition. For a sprint or Olympic-distance, transition times can range from 45 seconds to 2 minutes.
If you’re not going to change clothes between events, your transitions will be much faster. For shorter distance events, transitions should simply be a matter of changing gear, putting on your shoes, and grabbing some extra gels!
How to use your estimated tri finish time
Once you have a good idea of your estimated finisher’s time, you can use this to set goals for each segment of the race and help with power targets and pacing.
“Estimating finisher’s times can also help with planning fueling timing and the amount of fuel to carry, especially for long-course racing,” Dietzel said.
You can also share your estimated times with friends and family members, so they can be in the right places on course at roughly the right time. Pro tip: Give them a range that includes your absolute best-case scenario, what’s likely, and potential times if it’s hot or hilly and you might be slower than expected.
Estimating a range of possible times is also good for you, as athlete, too. Because the most important thing to keep in mind when estimating a finisher’s time is that it’s just an educated guess. The most successful athletes have the ability to adjust their plan and remain flexible on race day.
“The biggest mistake I see is athletes who fixate too much on the times they want and not on their effort,” Cox said. “If you’ve planned for a specific bike time, and it turns out to be the windiest day the race has seen, your goals may have to change.”
Dietzel agrees and suggests that first-time athletes (even if it’s just your first time at a new distance) don’t focus on time estimates at all. “I think it adds unnecessary stress when their focus should be on finishing and learning how their body handles the distance,” she said.
Above all, be ready to adapt and adjust your plan in case of situations like GI distress, a mechanical, or changing weather conditions.
“Predicting finishing times is as much of an art as it is a science,” Dietzel said. “There are some well-educated assumptions we can make to give ourselves some confidence in the prediction, but ultimately, no human is the same and general guidelines won’t produce accurate estimates for everyone.”
“Anything can happen on race day. Though many of those things are out of our control, we can control how we react to them.”