Negative or evenly paced racing strategies often lead to more favorable performance outcomes for endurance athletes. However, casual inspection of race split times and observational studies both indicate that elite triathletes competing in Olympic-distance triathlon typically implement a positive pacing strategy during the last of the 3 disciplines, the 10-km run. To address this apparent contradiction, the authors examined data from 14 International Triathlon Union elite races over 3 consecutive years involving a total of 725 male athletes. Analyses of race results confirm that triathletes typically implement a positive running pace strategy, running the first lap of the standard 4-lap circuit substantially faster than laps 2 (∼7%), 3 (∼9%), and 4 (∼12%). Interestingly, mean running pace in lap 1 had a substantially lower correlation with 10-km run time (r = .82) than both laps 2 and 3. Overall triathlon race performance (ranking) was best associated with run performance (r = .82) compared with the swim and cycle sections. Lower variability in race pace during the 10-km run was also reflective of more successful run times. Given that overall race outcome is mainly explained by the 10-km run performance, with top run performances associated with a more evenly paced strategy, triathletes (and their coaches) should reevaluate their pacing strategy during the run section.

Olympic-distance triathlon comprises a sequential 1.5-km swim, 40-km cycle, and 10-km run. Although the ability to perform the 3 disciplines at a high level is critical for competitive success,1,2 it appears the run section is the main determinant in Olympic-distance triathlon.24 The last of the 3 disciplines, the run section, represents a relatively small portion of the overall triathlon race (∼25% by duration), and despite anecdotal evidence that it has the largest influence on overall race outcome in the recent years, the question is mostly unanswered. Several factors influence running performance in triathlon, such as performance in the previous swimming and cycling sections, especially the variability in cycling power output,5 and also pacing during the run.6 Given the rapid evolution in triathlon in the last decade, early studies on pacing in triathlon pacing might be outdated, and the supporting evidence was either single-race based3,4,7 or from a simulated race in the laboratory,6 which limits their application to contemporary triathlon. Single event–based evidence also shows an inverse correlation between variability in running pace and overall simulated 10-km triathlon run time.7 Apart from single-race outcomes or simulated race conditions, it is unclear what pacing strategies elite triathletes adopt in modern Olympic-distance triathlon.

Pacing Strategy During the 10-km Run

Athletes from different single-discipline endurance sports often make comments such as “I let her/him go, I knew I would catch her/him if I focused on my race plan and I didn’t let her/him affect what I came here to do, which is to execute my race as well as I could” or “her/his finish is very strong so I had to push the pace at the start, make her/him uncomfortable and not let her/him execute their perfect race.” Such statements demonstrate the importance of an athlete knowing their strengths and weaknesses and those of their competitors, and not letting race dynamics or other competitors negatively influence the race performance. Most such comments relate to pacing, where energy use needs to be distributed effectively to utilize all available resources while limiting premature fatigue in order to complete the race in the fastest possible time,8 which is particularly crucial in long-distance races such as triathlon. In endurance races, careful and continuous management of effort and energy expenditure is necessary to maintain a high speed throughout all 3 disciplines.7

It appears that adoption of a negative pacing strategy (ie, where speed gradually increases) can improve endurance performance.9 Indeed, during a simulated triathlon, performing the first 1 km of a 10-km run 5% slower than the overall mean speed resulted in a faster 10-km run.6 The benefits of a negative pacing strategy likely include a reduced rate of carbohydrate depletion, lower excessive oxygen consumption (VO2), and/or limiting accumulation of fatigue-related metabolites.9 However, despite the evidence favoring a negative pace strategy, single race–based evidence, somewhat counterintuitively, indicates that triathletes adopt a positive pacing strategy through the run section.4 Examining multiple race performances of a large cohort of top competitors during elite triathlon races would confirm how athletes race the final 10-km run, and whether there is scope for improving pacing strategies that could enhance overall race performance.

We took the opportunity to examine the performances of a total of 171 different elite male triathletes (age 27 [4] y) over 726 race outcomes over the 10-km run section of 14 elite Olympic distance triathlon races (International Triathlon Union Triathlon World Cup and World Triathlon Series events) over 3 consecutive years. The selected races included in this analysis had 52 (6) (mean [SD]) participants in each. The elapsed time for both the entire run section and each of four ∼2.5-km laps were obtained from the International Triathlon Union on-course timing system. Laps in elite triathlon races can often vary slightly in distance given variations in racing lines, transition zones, and the finish chute. Therefore, we measured each run course using a trundle wheel, taking the “racing line” and reported distance to the nearest meter. These measurements were then used to calculate pacing times, in the form of mean running pace per kilometer (in seconds) over each of four ∼2.5-km laps. Mean running pace (in minutes:seconds per kilometer) was calculated for each ∼2.5-km lap and 10-km run section. We then correlated each of the individual run laps with both total 10-km run time and overall race time to establish the patterns of pacing.

A positive pacing strategy, where an athlete’s speed decreases over the duration of the race, was utilized by almost all triathletes in these International Triathlon Union races (Figure 1). The first of the four ∼2.5-km laps was substantially faster compared with the rest, with 6.9, ±0.2%; 8.8, ±0.3%; and 12.0, ±0.5% (standardized difference, ±90% confidence limits [CL]) slower times for laps 2, 3, and 4 (compared with lap 1). The last lap was substantially slower than laps 2 and 3. These results clearly indicate a positive pacing profile in contemporary elite triathlon in contrast to the evidence in many other sports (and research studies) that an even-paced or negative profile (with a fast finishing endspurt) is preferred. Moreover, the mean pace in the first lap had the lowest correlation (r = .82, ±.02; correlation, ±90% CL) with the 10-km total run time (Table 1), with the second (r = .93, ±.01) and third (r = .94, ±.01) laps showing a substantially higher correlation (difference r ≥ .10). The overall race performance outcome was best associated with the run performance (r = .82, ±.02; correlation, ±90% CL) compared with the swim (r = .35, ±.05) and cycle (r = .43, ±.05) sections. The top runners implemented a less variable run pace throughout the 10 km (∼4%) than the rest of the field (∼5%), which was moderately correlated with the overall 10-km run time (r = .40, ±.06).

Figure 1
Figure 1

—Mean running pace (in minutes:seconds per kilometer) for male participants in International Triathlon Union World Triathlon Series races for each of the four ∼2.5-km laps in the 10-km run section. Data are shown as mean (SD). Standardized changes compared with lap 1 are represented as *“large” and **“very large.”

Citation: International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 16, 5; 10.1123/ijspp.2020-0838

Table 1

Correlation Matrix Between Mean Running Pace in Each ∼2.5-km Lap and Overall 10-km Run Time for Each of the 14 International Triathlon Union World Triathlon Series Races

RaceNo. of participantsLap 1Lap 2Lap 3Lap 4
ChicagoYearI61.84.89.92.89
Rio60.82.94a.90.93
YokohamaYear I50.89.97.96.94
Cape TownYearI55.80.93a.97a.92
Gold Coast51.85.94.96.95
AucklandYearI48.88.95.94.86
Edmonton58.90.98.97.93
ChicagoYear II52.80.95a.97a.92
YokohamaYear II48.93.92.94.93
Cape TownYear II49.92.93.91.95
AucklandYear II44.82.93.94a.88
London60.84.98a.96aNo data
Stockholm43.78.85.96a.91a
Madrid47.91.95.95.95
Overall726.82.93a.94a.88
±90% CL.02.01.01.01

a Substantial difference (r > .10) in correlation between lap pace and 10-km run time compared with lap 1.

Race Performance Optimizing Strategies

The question is how to reconcile this recurring issue of a positive pacing strategy evident in Olympic distance triathlon races, in contradiction to the conventional (research-based) notion that a negative or even-paced strategy is preferred. These outcomes over 14 elite Olympic distance triathlon races support previous single race–based research showing triathletes typically adopt a positive pacing strategy where speed gradually declines, but not a final increase in pace (“J” shaped pacing) described in these races prior to 2012–2013.10 A positive pacing strategy is likely linked to a higher metabolic demand and greater accumulation of fatigue-related metabolites (blood lactate) compared with a negative pace strategy.6 Uncompensable pace at the start of a 10-km run could result in early accumulation of metabolites (ie, blood lactate), which impair overall performance. This strategy will see the athlete decrease their running pace gradually eliciting a suboptimal run performance and jeopardizing the overall race outcome. Of course, tactics and race dynamics during the preceding swim and bike sections will also affect the pace athletes self-select in the initial stages of the run. However, despite the psychological optimism some athletes might experience from a fast start, and positioning themselves ahead of other competitors early on, the final run result might be hindered if they cannot sustain that pace. Therefore, as >80% of the overall race outcome is explained by the 10-km run performance, athletes could benefit from adopting a more even-paced strategy that allows for the fastest overall run time. This proposition awaits further support after additional trialing and rehearsal in the field by triathletes.

In our analyses, we established that the top 8 best run times of each race were achieved by adopting a more even-paced run strategy than the rest of the field over the course of the 10 km. Less variability in running pace is associated with better run performances during triathlon7 and also during 10-km races without any preceding swimming or cycling.11 Race tactics and dynamics, placing during the swim and the cycle sections, transitions, and other competitors’ race strategies need to be considered in triathlon. However, the large association of the run time to overall race placing warrants a race strategy that prioritizes and enhances the final 10-km run time. Perhaps individual pacing profiles12 that align with physiological attributes of each athlete should be considered, accounting for how physiological responses during the run section are affected by preceding cycling.13 For example, a triathlete with a large anaerobic energy reserve could benefit from adopting a fast start or employing a mid-race surge to break away from the competition, as anaerobic power can vary substantially between triathletes.14 Conversely, a triathlete capable of running at a relatively high speed while obtaining much of the necessary energy from the aerobic system, and hence sparing the anaerobic energy reserve, could benefit from a more even-paced approach. Individual race-pace enhancement where running pace strategies are matched to physiological profiles of each athlete should promote the best run and overall performances.

The high variability in race conditions both in regard to swimming (swimming in open water or lake and the use [or not] of a swimsuit) and also cycling courses (technicality, topography, and race dynamics) in Olympic distance triathlon makes it difficult to isolate and control all factors that influence triathlon performance. However, there are aspects of triathlon racing that triathletes should try to control and influence so they can maximize their strengths as an athlete (fast running ability) and minimize exposure to the less strong skills and abilities (eg, poorer technical cycling skills). The order in which athletes come out of both the swimming and cycling sections results in critical transition points where race dynamics take shape. Strong swimmers will come out of the water first and try to create a gap between themselves and any stronger runners who might have been left behind during the swim. Bunch riding during the cycle is beneficial to the energy savings that drafting provides, but also provides the opportunity to create/increase a gap between a leading group composed of strong cyclists and weaker ones who might be stronger runners. This strategy should assist the stronger cyclists who might be less performed runners obtain a modest head start for the last 10-km run.

Triathletes, as part of their training and competition readiness plan,15 should consider and implement a race strategy that is likely to yield a competitive advantage. Race dynamics during the initial swim and cycle sections should play to the strengths of slower runners, whereas fast runners should maximize drafting by seeking shelter behind other competitors during the swim and cycle sections. For example, it would make little competitive sense for a slow runner who is a strong cyclist to sit at the back of the cycling bunch during the cycle section without pushing the pace. It would be better for this athlete to hurt faster runners who are weaker cyclists and create a substantial gap ahead of the final 10-km run. Similarly, it would be risky, physiologically, to start the 10-km run at a pace that is substantially higher than the average pace the athlete is able to sustain for ∼30 minutes. Developing cycling technical skills that allow triathletes to maintain momentum during technical courses, and minimize constant deceleration and acceleration, would prove beneficial for strong cyclists who break away or weaker cyclists who “save their legs” as much as possible for the subsequent run. Finally, a stronger focus on individual performance is suggested, rather than pacing being dictated or detrimentally affected by other competitors’ pace and/or race dynamics. Individual pacing profiles that align with each athlete’s physiological attributes and skills should enhance triathletes’ performance.

Summary

Triathletes typically adopt a positive pacing strategy during the final run section of the elite International Triathlon Union World Cup and World Championship series. However, this strategy is at odds with evidence pointing to the benefits of a negative pacing strategy during endurance events. Given the small margins in performance between world-class triathletes, small differences in pacing strategy, especially minimizing variations in pacing, are worthwhile avenues for triathletes and coaches to enhance performance. Trying to keep up with a leading group while forsaking the athlete’s individual race plan might compromise 10-km run performance, overall race outcome, and loss of valuable ranking points. Triathletes and coaches should consider adopting a more conservative pacing strategy in the first lap of the 10-km run section to perform better in subsequent laps and enhance overall race performance.

Acknowledgments

The lead author thanks Mark Pearce, and all the incredibly talented athletes and ingenious coaches whose insights on triathlon training, race preparation, and racing strategies have inspired and helped inform this commentary. The authors also acknowledge the cooperation of Triathlon Australia and Dr Annette Eastwood for their contributions to the data collection.

References

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If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

Etxebarria, Wright, and Pyne are with the Research Inst for Sport and Exercise, University of Canberra, Canberra, ACT, Australia. Jeacocke is with the Australian Institute of Sport, Canberra, ACT, Australia. Mesquida is with the Dept of Applied Science, Technological University Dublin–Tallaght Campus, Dublin, Ireland.

Etxebarria (naroa.etxebarria@canberra.edu.au) is corresponding author.
  • View in gallery

    —Mean running pace (in minutes:seconds per kilometer) for male participants in International Triathlon Union World Triathlon Series races for each of the four ∼2.5-km laps in the 10-km run section. Data are shown as mean (SD). Standardized changes compared with lap 1 are represented as *“large” and **“very large.”

  • 1.

    Hausswirth C, Brisswalter J. Strategies for improving performance in long duration events: Olympic distance triathlon. Sports Med. 2008;38(11):881891. PubMed ID: 18937520 doi:10.2165/00007256-200838110-00001

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 2.

    Ofoghi B, Zeleznikow J, Macmahon C, Rehula J, Dwyer DB. Performance analysis and prediction in triathlon. J Sports Sci. 2016;34(7):607612. PubMed ID: 26177783 doi:10.1080/02640414.2015.1065341

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 3.

    Vleck VE, Bentley DJ, Millet GP, Bürgi A. Pacing during an elite Olympic distance triathlon: comparison between male and female competitors. J Sci Med Sport. 2008;11(4):424432. PubMed ID: 17350889 doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2007.01.006

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 4.

    Le Meur Y, Hausswirth C, Dorel S, et al. Influence of gender on pacing adopted by elite triathletes during a competition. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2009;106(4):535545. PubMed ID: 19340453 doi:10.1007/s00421-009-1043-4

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 5.

    Etxebarria N, D’Auria S, Anson JM, Pyne DB, Ferguson RA. Variability in power output during cycling in international Olympic-distance triathlon. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2014;9(4):732734. PubMed ID: 24235776 doi:10.1123/ijspp.2013-0303

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 6.

    Hausswirth C, Le Meur Y, Bieuzen F, Brisswalter J, Bernard T. Pacing strategy during the initial phase of the run in triathlon: influence on overall performance. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010;108(6):11151123. PubMed ID: 20024576 doi:10.1007/s00421-009-1322-0

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 7.

    Le Meur Y, Bernard T, Dorel S, et al. Relationships between triathlon performance and pacing strategy during the run in an international competition. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2011;6(2):183194. PubMed ID: 21725104 doi:10.1123/ijspp.6.2.183

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 8.

    Foster C, De Koning JJ, Hettinga F, et al. Pattern of energy expenditure during simulated competition. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003;35(5):826831. PubMed ID: 12750593 doi:10.1249/01.MSS.0000065001.17658.68

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 9.

    Abbiss CR, Laursen PB. Describing and understanding pacing strategies during athletic competition. Sports Med. 2008;38(3):239252. PubMed ID: 18278984 doi:10.2165/00007256-200838030-00004

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 10.

    Wu SS, Peiffer JJ, Brisswalter J, Nosaka K, Abbiss CR. Factors influencing pacing in triathlon. Open Access J Sports Med. 2014;5:223234. PubMed ID: 25258562 doi:10.2147/OAJSM.S44392

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 11.

    Tucker R, Lambert MI, Noakes TD. An analysis of pacing strategies during men’s world-record performances in track athletics. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2006;1(3):233245. PubMed ID: 19116437 doi:10.1123/ijspp.1.3.233

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 12.

    Lima-Silva AE, Bertuzzi RC, Pires FO, et al. Effect of performance level on pacing strategy during a 10-km running race. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010;108(5):10451053. PubMed ID: 20012450 doi:10.1007/s00421-009-1300-6

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 13.

    Etxebarria N, Hunt J, Ingham S, Ferguson R. Physiological assessment of isolated running does not directly replicate running capacity after triathlon-specific cycling. J Sports Sci. 2014;32(3):229238. PubMed ID: 24016097 doi:10.1080/02640414.2013.819520

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 14.

    Bernard T, Hausswirth C, Le Meur Y, et al. Distribution of power output during the cycling stage of a Triathlon World Cup. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(6):12961302. PubMed ID: 19461535 doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e318195a233

    • Crossref
    • PubMed
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 15.

    Etxebarria N, Mujika I, Pyne DB. Training and competition readiness in triathlon. Sports. 2019;7(5):101. PubMed ID: 31035719 doi:10.3390/sports7050101

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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