New research shows us some interesting things about how we should pace ourselves during triathlons and, therefore, gives us insight into how we can delay race fatigue. This research also validates the hard lesson that many of us have learned when we have gone out too fast in our races then hung on grimly to the bitter end, vowing never to do that again as we stagger across the finish line.
Very seldom can you get away with starting your triathlons flat out and maintaining that pace to the finish. The longer the triathlon, the more this “rule” becomes an absolute. Your race strategy and pace should be based on your current level of fitness and your most recent triathlons.
The science bit
This is where an interesting survival mechanism in our brain enters the game. It’s somewhat scientific, so I’ll keep it short and sweet.
Our Cerebral Motor Cortex (CMT)-the motor section of our brain-processes incoming neural messages about any voluntary movements we are performing at the time – in this case swimming, cycling and running long distances at a fast clip. These messages enter the CMT constantly like ticker tape on a 19th century telegraph machine.
The CMT monitors and processes feedback from our arm and leg muscles such as fatigue and soreness, our core body temperature, fuel levels, heart rate and respiration rate, all in relation to the course profiles and ambient temperature, and then processes this data with the distance remaining in mind. Interestingly, it seems to focus on the finishing point of our race and work backwards from there, continuously making on-the-spot calculations as to whether we can maintain our pace to the finish or not.
This computer-like mechanism recalculates the maximum pace we can sustain without going over the edge and harming ourselves. Like the central governor on a rental truck, the CMT sends messages to our brain to slow down if we are getting in the “red line” zone.
This “central programmer” process is referred to as teleoanticipation, and has emerged as the subject of much study. Proof of this phenomenon has been found in several research studies. In one study, runners were told to run at a steady pace to complete a 20-minute run on the treadmill. Some days later, when the runners were told they would be running on the treadmill for 30 minutes, they ran at a more cautious pace than during their previous 20- minute run.
When they were suddenly stopped after 20 minutes, the runner’s heart rates and Ratings of Perceived Exertion (RPE) were lower than at the end of the previous 20-minute run. It is surmised that this lower rate of exertion was to enable the runners to cope with what they thought would be a 50 percent longer run. Makes sense, doesn’t it? (Rating of perceived exertion might sound complicated, but it’s simply our subjective sensation of fatigue as we run).
In another study, done by students at the University of Exeter, using nine male and female runners who ran both a 7-mile and 13.1 mile race, further proof was found that our RPE is scaled upon the proportion of exercise time that remains in the race. In other words, the longer the race, the slower the pace the runners set from the start.
In yet another study, exercisers on bicycle ergometers found that when they cycled for 16 minutes, versus a previous eight-minute cycle, their heart rate was significantly lower throughout the longer ride. This means, as with the other studies, that the cyclists exercised at a lower RPE in the longer ride, in all likelihood to compensate for the extra time.
Exercise scientists also believe that the teleoanticipation mechanism in our CMT is calibrated based on our most recent races. In other words, our brain “remembers” our previous racing pace so we tend to maintain a pace close to that in subsequent races. And it is likely that your cruising pace in all three triathlon events are “programmed” into your CMT.
Utilising teleoanticipation for triathlon race pace judgement and racing strategy
This knowledge is well and good, but of what practical use? How can we use teleoanticipation to postpone fatigue during triathlons and pace ourselves better? Here are several important lessons we can learn from this.
Our CMT prefers that we do our races at an even pace for the entire distance because we are less likely to hit the “red zone” where we are running on borrowed time. To validate this, a research study done on ultra-marathoners found that the runners with faster times run with fewer changes in speed and are able to maintain initial speed for a longer distance before slowing down.
Therefore, you should start each event in your triathlons at a pace you can maintain all the way to the finish. Even pacing has proven extraordinarily difficult for most endurance athletes-especially novices-but the good news is that your pace judgement improves with every race, largely as a result of teleoanticipation.
Ideally for triathletes, where the slightest early pace miscalculation can be disastrous, your second half of each event should be faster than your first. This strategy is called negative splitting. The vast majority of world distance-running records from 5,000 m up have been achieved in this fashion.
Another advantage of disciplined early pacing is that the triathlete blazing through the running field in the second half experiences a tremendous psychological boost when passing all the early sprinters who are crashing. Conversely, excessively fast starts inevitably results in walking, or the dreaded DNF. And, of course, the longer the race, the more the effects of rash early pace are felt.
Getting your pace judgement right
Clearly, to benefit from our knowledge of teleoanticipation, you should have some idea of what pace you can maintain through the swim, bike and run sections from your training efforts. Your goal pace in each event must be reasonable and tie in with your previous training performances. Obviously if you’ve done a triathlon within the past six months, and are in similar condition, this pace can be used to establish your goal pace.
However, without a recent triathlon under your belt, you’ll need to do a tempo efforts over each event to establish your triathlon pace. These should be done well before your big triathlon, say six to10 weeks before. In these tempo efforts, you go out at slightly faster than training pace and establish a comfortable cruising pace you know you can hold.
Using pace charts
There are many running pace charts available in books and on the Internet that provide you with split times according to your predetermined pace. Use them to establish a chart of even split times to carry with you. Consider writing them down on some sort of laminated crib sheet, because your mathematical abilities may decline as you fatigue.
Reprogramming the CMT using teleoanticipation
Because our current race pace is thought to originate from our previous racing and training experiences, if we up our training game to a newer, higher intensity level, it will reprogram the teleoanticipatory center in our brain and reset a higher cruising speed for future races. What sort of training does this involve? Doing time trial race simulations, interval training, fartlek and shorter, faster races in the bike and run events will all achieve this effect.
Don’t get carried away with mid-race surges
Remember the well-meaning fans that yell out “not far to go”, or “the finish is just around the corner?” Avoid increasing your pace just to please them, or because you trust their sense of distance. Most people have a notoriously poor sense of distance and you could still have several miles left to the finish line. Putting in mid-race surges in the bike and run are counterproductive, and it won’t be long before your CMT is screaming, “slow down” at you.
The author learned this lesson well in the Boston Marathon aeons ago. At around the halfway mark, hundreds of nubile young women from Wellesley College line the course, dressed in a manner that Queen Victoria would definitely not approve of. As the aged male runners enter this long funnel of cheerleaders, their pace picks up by about one minute per mile. Sadly, most pay for it later on the course by slowing considerably. I hit the half way in 1:18, feeling considerably boosted by these young ladies, only to slow 12 minutes in my second half. I ended up on an army cot with IV lines in my arms. Lesson learned.
A final caveat here: Your estimated racing pace in each event fails to take into account the topography of the course, temperature and the myriad other things, major and minor, that dramatically affect the triathlete’s performance. You will need to adjust to these as they occur by slowing down (or speeding up), and avoid sticking dogmatically to your predetermined pace in each event. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
With this introduction to teleoanticipation, you now know the importance of starting off at a pace that you can maintain to the finish, and running and cycling negative splits. In addition, doing at least one higher intensity workout each week in each event will help reset your teleoanticipatory center to a higher level, and you will be able to go out faster in your races and maintain your newly learned pace. And, in your races, never be tempted to surge unless you are positive that the finish line is, indeed, just around the corner.
Roy Stevenson is a regular contributor to Triathlon Magazine Canada.