Race Tips

Executing Your Race Strategy: The Run

Proper fueling and pacing is the key to executing a successful run in spite of whatever obstacles are thrown at you.

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Races are the exciting part of your journey, an opportunity to put all of your training, focus, and intent into action. After months of dedicated, hard work amid the rest of your busy life, you have the chance to execute your goals. Although you might prioritize training around specific races (A versus B races), any race is a chance to prove your mettle on the racecourse.

You must have a race plan, but you can’t expect everything to go according to that plan. Even in training, things go wrong or differently. Ultimately, you must execute a race with the cards you are dealt that day. A wide variety of situations can come up, and you need to be poised to respond.

Run Course

Run the main parts of the course and consider driving the entire route, if possible. You don’t need to run the whole course, and whatever you do before the race, it shouldn’t deplete you. It’s always less stressful when you see something for the second time and you know the way. If you become somewhat familiar with the course, your focus can be on terrain management and pacing instead of looking at the road ahead and asking how long before the next turn. Knowledge is power, allowing you to focus on what will return your best speed relative to your distribution of work and effort.

Executing the Run

As with the swim and the bike, your first priority is to execute the run well. You only get one chance to set the tone of the run as far as posture is concerned. Don’t fight the inevitable stress and awkwardness of coming off the bike. Good form starts with upright posture, shoulders slightly forward from your hips, a supple arm swing, and a quick cadence to generate the appropriate foot speed and propulsion. Remember that speed and efficiency will come out of good form, not harder effort.

Pacing on the Run

The biggest limit on the run in a 70.3 or Ironman race is typically mechanical fatigue. It’s not usually the case that athletes run out of cardiovascular fitness or energy, but their legs no longer move as efficiently or effectively as possible because of muscular-skeletal fatigue. This forces athletes to make a decision: Walk or run?

At every Ironman event, including the Ironman World Championships in Kona, you’ll see athletes walking during the run section. Many athletes scoff at that and do everything they can to keep jogging, even though it’s barely faster than walking. Some people repeat the mantra “do not walk.” Let it be understood: That’s completely misguided. If you’re spending the entire half-marathon or marathon running with poor form, you should consider taking a walking break. When you’re running, you want to be running well, with the best form and speed possible. If that includes taking some strategic walking breaks to enable you to run the majority of the race well, it’s in your best interest to do that. The run is an optimization challenge, not a toughness challenge. If you have to walk for 100 yards at a time or walk through aid stations to get yourself in position to run better, then do it. I’ve coached three-hour marathoners off the bike who have walked 10 to 15 times during the run portion of an Ironman. Remember, it’s all about getting from Point A to Point B as fast as you can.

Although I support walking as necessary during a 70.3 or an Ironman, I am not a fan of a strict walking program. In other words, I wouldn’t advocate running 4 minutes, then walking 1 minute, or whatever the case might be. This negates active energy management and doesn’t take into account the terrain and opportunities it presents. If you’re running along and your form is declining, it’s better to take 15- to 20-second walk breaks to reset your form than it is to run with really bad form and have to take a 1- or 2-minute walk break because you pushed through 9 minutes of running. In addition, if you’re running along and come to a steep hill, the speed penalty for walking up that hill rather than running up with a much higher heart rate and energy cost is minimal, so it makes sense to walk up that hill with purpose. On the contrary, the speed penalty for walking down a hill as opposed to running is huge. Decide when you need to walk relative to your energy level to retain good form given the terrain rather than when your watch tells you to do so.

During the run, you must relentlessly move forward with purpose no matter whether you’re running or walking. Even if you’re walking to relieve fatigue, you must be mentally present and execute proper form. A walk break is not a slow wander; it is purposeful, with good locomotion. The majority of the time you should be running with good form or walking with purpose, but you can also sprinkle in recovery walking just to bring your heart rate down before you move on to walking purposefully.

  • Running with good form: Maintaining an upright posture and steady cadence
  • Walking for recovery: 5- to 15-second walking sessions to lower stress, heart rate, anxiousness
  • Walking with purpose: Vigorous speed-walking, swinging arms, driving off back foot, with good, consistent, forward locomotion (at 5-hour marathon pace) for 30 seconds to 2 minutes or until you can return to running with good form

Because the run is the last discipline in a triathlon, it can also be the most frustrating. Even if you’ve completed the swim and bike sections effectively, you might not be able to do much on the run because of mechanical fatigue or because you’ve reached the limits of your fitness. That’s when you have to revert to the positive mindset you’ve held since the start of the season. When things go wrong, don’t panic or give up. You have to do what’s necessary to execute.

For some very fit, higher-level athletes, running in a triathlon is a pace-driven effort. Those athletes are able to execute consistent 6:45, 7:10, or 7:30 miles with good form for the entire run course. However, it’s important to note that many athletes can’t get their heart rate up as high as it needs to be to run that fast because of mechanical fatigue. Most athletes need to think about pacing the triathlon half-marathon or marathon differently than pacing a standard half-marathon or marathon. Rather than being focused on a consistent pace building to negative splits, think about running consistently and relentlessly driven by form, maximizing the time you are running with good mechanics.

Fueling and Hydration on the Run

In many ways, fueling and hydration is the last but not least aspect of the run. Much could be said on this topic, but the key is consistency. One of the biggest mistakes athletes can make on the run is following the fueling plan as it is written on a spreadsheet and not listening to their own bodies.

Responding to the body’s signals is as important as any plan. There is no point in piling in more calories when your system is not absorbing what you’ve already consumed. GI stress is greatest on the run, so don’t fuel to a point at which you throw up because that is dehydrating. Drink 6 to 10 ounces of water, give yourself time, and back off the intensity while you wait for your gut to clear.

Celebrate the Moment

After you’ve crossed the finish line of a race, relish what you’ve accomplished. Whether your initial read on the race is good, bad, or indifferent, celebrate your finish and realize that every time you complete a race, it’s an achievement. Take the time to remember why you compete and how fortunate you are. Remember all of the work you did to get to this point, and reflect on the sacrifices you made. Embrace the moment, and save your deep analysis for 24–48 hours later, after you’ve had a chance to let your feelings settle. You certainly don’t want to make any big decisions in the 12 hours immediately following the race, unless, of course, you qualified for a spot in the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.

Read On

Executing Your Race Strategy: The Swim

Executing Your Race Strategy: The Bike


Adapted from Fast-Track Triathlete by Matt Dixon with permission of VeloPress.