How Hard Should I Push In My Next Triathlon?

For all those racing Ironman St. George 70.3 this coming weekend, you may all be wondering the same thing…. How hard should I push myself in a race?

Q: How do I know how hard to push during a race? I want to give everything I have but still make it to the finish line in one piece.

A: That is the million-dollar question and a tough one to answer. It takes athletes years of racing to find the balance between leaving it all out on the course and going so hard that they blow up before the finish. The short answer is experience. Consider that a pro might race 10 to 20 times per year for 10 years; that’s a lot of chances to get it right or wrong. And everyone gets it wrong at one point. If you race long enough, you will have a day that gets ugly and ends with a long walk home, or worse, a trip to the med tent. Those races definitely make for tough days, but they can be valuable learning experiences. So how to learn where the edge is without wasting a key race? Try it out in training or at a low-key, shorter race. Go out a little harder than you think is wise and try to pinpoint your personal limits.

A test set in training can act as an indicator of fitness and give some good guidelines for where your effort should be in a race. Go to the track and run 10x1K at goal pace for Olympic-distance race training or head out for a timed 20-miler to see if that marathon pace is possible. (The goal is to reach failure, so if you don’t make it through the set it just means you did it right.) Now you have an indicator of what is realistic. On the bike, wattage can be a very helpful tool. I train with an SRM to give me constant feedback of what kind of power I can sustain over different distances. Get used to the feel of each effort during training and you can be a good judge of pace and power in races.

On race day you should be rested and fueled properly, so ideally you should be able to sustain a slightly higher maximal effort than in training. This is where a time trial or a low-key road race in your training can be helpful. Compete in a local 10K or 40K bike TT and be prepared to go a little harder than you think is wise. Push yourself to sustain the pace as long as possible and note where the wheels come off. These barrier-breaking workouts will help you discover where your absolute limit is—it is probably higher than you might have thought. They can also help you identify what type of athlete you are: speed- or endurance-oriented. Typically, men seem to have higher power and speed and need to work on endurance; they may find they go out too hard early on and have to slow down considerably. Women tend to be more naturally suited to endurance events and maintain a more even pace, but they often find they reach the finish line with energy to spare. By using these smaller races and test sets we can figure out our strengths and what we need to work on, whether it is starting off more moderately and saving some juice for the second half, or getting on it right away and pushing hard throughout the whole event. I fall into the second category: I need to go as hard as I can straight from the gun otherwise I naturally settle into a pace that is too slow. In my best races I have hit a point where I think the effort is way too hard and I won’t be able to sustain it. Then I just keep hanging on (and it hurts like hell) but surprise myself at the end with a new PR.

The goal in a race should be to measure your energy throughout so you cross the finish line using the absolute last drop of gas in the tank. This takes time, experience and practice. And just remember: No true athletic career is complete without one epic blowup story to tell around the campfire.

Wishing all of our patients good luck racing St. George this weekend, from Dr. Tom Fletcher’s office in Murray, Utah.