Stay or Go? When to Follow the Race Plan (and When to Go for Broke)

“The best athletes are the ones who practice patience and self-discipline. Be ambitious but not greedy.”

Photo: Delly Carr/Getty Images

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There has been no shortage of exciting racing over the past few weeks. Kristian Blumenfelt’s sprint to the Olympic gold medal; Taylor Knibb beating multi-time world champ Daniela Ryf at the Collins Cup; and we should all be buckling up for an exciting 70.3 World Champs starring all of the above.

But behind all of that excitement is typically a race plan that needs to be dutifully followed at times, and at other times needs to be deviated from. While it may look like the pros are just reacting to everything as it happens during a race, there’s actually quite a bit of strategy at play—knowing when to go and when to be patient. But if you’re not a paid professional with years of international racing behind you, how are you to know what to do when that cyclist with the same calf marking blows by you? Or when that runner racked next to you sprints out of T2? Building a race plan takes careful planning, but also room for flexibility.

Dr. Caitlin Alexander is a Boulder-based elite amateur triathlete, Cat 3 cyclist, USA Triathlon-certified coach, and physical therapist. If there is someone who knows about race strategies it’s her.

“Race plans are critical,” Alexander said. “If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail. That being said, don’t let your race plan put you into a box.”

We like to think we’d have some superhuman sixth sense that will tell us when to forgo our calculated strategies and charge ahead of a competitor, but the reality is that rarely happens. Same goes for the (seemingly superhuman) pros. Deciding to stick with a pack or hang onto a single rival versus sticking it out on our own requires deliberate choices that can lead to success…or failure.

The Swim

The swim is one of the most anxiety-inducing parts of a triathlon for many, and with good reason: crushing crowds jumping into the water, the potential to be hit by an errant leg or arm, the tightness of a wetsuit. It’s easy to get overwhelmed.

“Tactics in the swim depend on your comfort in open water,” Dr. Alexander said. “Regardless of your confidence, it doesn’t do anyone much good to start off fast in the front of a pack and then slow way down after just a few hundred yards.”

If you’re a very fast swimmer, Dr. Alexander suggests doing your best to stick with the lead swim group—drafting off other swimmers significantly reduces your expended effort in open water, leaving your arms, legs, and mind in a less fatigued state heading into T1.

We see this play out in professional triathlon quite often.

Take, for example, Ironman-World-Championship-swim-course-record-holding pro Lucy Charles-Barclay, who swam the 2.4-mile course in Kona in just 48:13 back in 2018. Charles-Barclay is an exceptional swimmer and can afford to push hard in the swim, leveraging her talent to surge ahead of most of the other pros and get onto the bike early.

This sets Charles-Barclay up to potentially be minutes ahead of her competitors, but it doesn’t always secure her a win.

Anne Haug is the 2019 Ironman World Champion. She completed her swim that year in 54:19 while Charles swam five minutes faster, clocking a 49:02 in 2019.

Haug never appeared bothered by faster swimmers who may have been ahead of her throughout the day, instead keeping a stoic and focused demeanor during the bike and run.

It was ultimately Haug’s stellar 2:57 marathon that launched her to the top of the podium, erasing any and all deficit she incurred on the swim.

The lesson here is that leveraging swim speed can be an advantage if it’s something that comes naturally and calmly to you, but going all out in the swim just to keep up with the lead swimmer may not always be worth it, especially if you have other strengths to call upon later in the race—like Haug.

The Bike

Unlike in the swim, the bike gives you a glimpse into other competitors’ races—how fast they’re going, how they look, where on course they are.

A key part of the bike is ensuring you do not draft off the athlete in front of you (unless it’s a draft-legal race). This can make keeping a competitor in your sights difficult and frustrating, but not impossible.

“Don’t let the excitement of the race get the best of you,” Dr. Alexander cautioned. “I’ve witnessed riders who hop on their bikes and fly past me at the beginning of the bike leg, only to have me pass them 40 miles later.”

She advises sticking to your race plan for much of the bike, especially in a longer race like a half- or full-distance ironman.

“The best athletes are the ones who practice patience and self-discipline,” Dr. Alexander said. “Be ambitious but not greedy.”

Depending on your race goals, it could be beneficial to use some extra energy to stay close to (but not draft off of) a rival in the final miles of the bike. This way, you’re able to start the run with some contact and let the competition fire you up.

At the Tokyo Olympics this year, gold medalist Kristian Blummenfelt was strategic when he surged and eased up (if you can call an average power of 313 watts as having any “easing up” mixed in). These deliberate decisions helped him secure a spot in the lead group on the run without evaporating his leg strength on the bike.

Sports Psychology Today suggests training your brain to not be “on” or “off,” as in hyper-focused or not present at all, but instead to tune in to how you’re feeling much earlier in your ride. “If bike racing is all about who can suffer the most, then asking your body to work beyond the point of comfort in order to stay with a lead group becomes a requirement…involve your mind much earlier [in the race],” the piece says.

By incorporating surges into long, steady rides, you begin to gain familiarity and confidence in knowing when—and how—to push these efforts when it counts on race day.

The Run

No matter the distance triathlon, the run always presents a unique challenge. It’s the last leg of any race and must be conquered with exhausted muscles and a fatigued mind.

One of the nine key mental skills for athletes to develop is concentration, according to the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology.

The center defines concentration as an athlete’s ability to:

  • Know what to pay attention to and what is merely a distraction during competition
  • Regain focus after a misstep or interaction with a competitor
  • Race in the present without thinking about past events or too far in the future

These traits could not be more applicable than in the run.

When a fellow age-grouper sprints ahead at a blistering pace, it’s best to discard that as a distraction and stick to your race plan. You may very well catch the runner when they slow up in a few miles.

Dr. Alexander notes that running next to a competitor can be an advantage—let them do the work and allow yourself to stay focused and in the present. “Running stride for stride can take some of the mental energy out of pacing,” Dr. Alexander said.

At some point, though, you’ll want to take a calculated risk to break away from your temporary running buddy.

Dr. Alexander also advises that athletes “build into the last half of their run.” What she means by this is pacing yourself to run stronger and faster in the final miles than the first miles. Many athletes do the opposite and are barely hanging on as the real estate runs out, leaving you with the perfect opportunity to thoughtfully surge ahead and pass those who planned poorly.

For 2019 Ironman 35-39 age-group world champion Jana Richtrova, the run has always been a game of strategy.

Richtrova came off the bike in second and said she knew she had to start the run at her own pace and not chase the speedy first place woman ahead of her.

“26.2 miles is a long way to run above one’s comfortable effort,” Richtrova said. “My initial focus was ticking off the miles without a focus on anyone but myself and my pace.”

As the Hawaiian pavement melted into a blur, Richtrova remembered feeling her worst as she exited the Energy Lab with about six miles to go.

“I wasn’t thinking about first place at this time,” Richtrova said. “I was more so thinking about how everyone else looks so good and how I am going to end up off the podium if I don’t get my act together.”

Richtrova “got her act together” and made a deal with herself: to simply try to run with anyone she could for as long as she could before either getting dropped or passing them. This game she played allowed her to stick with her race plan pace and return to a more positive mindset.

Then, the most amazing thing happened.

“Out of nowhere, I looked up and saw the first place woman, who I had pretty much forgotten about,” she said. “My mind went into overdrive and two options came to mind: Do I run behind her until the finish and try to outsprint her; or do I pass her now with four miles to go and see what happens?”

Richtrova chose the latter.

“When I made the decision to go for it and forget any plan, it felt like someone flipped a switch in my brain,” Richtrova shared. “I began to feel so much stronger than before. I was going to win or die trying; the last 4.2 miles of the marathon were my fastest of the day.”

In situations like this, taking an intentional, late-race risk can pay off big-time like it did for Richtrova.

Athletes have to make hundreds of decisions throughout a race. Some have little effect while some can make or break the day. Knowing when, how, and why to take risks can be the differentiator between a podium finish or a DNF—choose wisely.

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