Far too often, athletes set their race goals and define their race-day execution based off of fantasy. That fantasy might violate the time-space continuum, as in: I did [insert race] in [insert time] back in [insert today’s date minus 3 or 5 or 10 years], so I’m going to beat that time. Or the fantasy might exist in some parallel universe, as in: I’ve been doing my long rides at [some number of] watts so I’m going to bike at [number plus 10 or 20 or 40] watts on race day. Or the fantasy might ignore reality, as in: I ran a [insert road race distance] at [insert time] so I’m going to run [time minus 2 or 5 or 10 minutes] in my tri.

I’m not saying you can’t beat your younger self, or bike faster on race day, or run stronger in your upcoming tri, just that you need to have a basis in the training you’re doing today in order to back up those goals. Which, of course, begs the question: what basis am I supposed to use to set my race goals?

While triathlon doesn’t have race-pace benchmarks that are nearly as straightforward and precise as Yasso 800s are for the marathon, we can rely on benchmark workouts, race simulations, and threshold multipliers to set race-day effort and pacing goals.

Race simulations are a fabulous way to test out your race-day effort and pacing targets to see if they are too aggressive, too conservative, or just right. The following guidelines can be used to structure your race simulation:

Distance

A metric version of your race distance can serve as a solid race simulation distance. So an Olympic-distance triathlon – 1 mile swim, 24.8 mile bike, and a 6.2 mile run – becomes (with some rounding) a 1k swim, 25k (15 mile) bike, and a 6k (3.5 mile) run. A half-distance triathlon becomes a 1.2k swim, 35 mile bike, and an 8 mile run. An exception is made for a full-distance race simulation in order to limit the run duration; that simulation would be a 2.4k swim, 70 mile bike, and a 90 minute run.

Structure

You’ll complete the swim as a single, long continuous block of swimming. The first half of the distance will serve as your warm up. Then, build to your target race pace during the next 25% of your swim. Hold that target pace during the final 25% of your swim.

After a quick transition, you’ll be on the bike. Spend 10 to 20 minutes at the lower end of Zone 2 / at your “easy endurance” effort level before starting your bike intervals if you’re doing a sprint- or Olympic-distance race simulation, 30 to 60 minutes if you’re doing a half- or full-distance race simulation. You can then begin your race-effort intervals, as follows:

  • For a sprint-distance race, complete two to three 5-minute intervals, with three minutes of Zone 1 recovery between intervals.
  • For an Olympic-distance race, complete two to three 10-minute intervals, with four minutes of Zone 1 recovery between intervals.
  • For a half-distance race, complete three 15-minute intervals, with 15 minutes of Zone 2 / endurance effort between intervals.
  • For a full-distance race, complete three 30-minute intervals, with 20 minutes of low Zone 2 / “easy endurance-effort” between intervals.

Time the intervals such that you have up to 5 minutes of Zone 2 / endurance effort following the final interval for sprint- or Olympic-distance race simulations, up to 15 mines of Zone 2 / endurance effort for half- and full-distance race simulations.

After another quick transition, you’ll start your run. The first third of your run will be executed at your endurance pace. The second third of your run is executed at a pace that is half-way between your endurance pace and your target race pace. The final third of your run is executed at your target race pace.

A couple of notes about bike and run interval targets: First, if you haven’t ever executed your target pace/effort level in training for durations similar to the race simulation interval durations, they are not the correct race-day targets. You must prove your targets in training before they actually become targets. Second, if you are unable to maintain your targets in the race simulation, it’s time to re-evaluate those targets. Keep in mind that missed run targets in the simulation can be due to overly aggressive bike targets just as much as overly aggressive run targets, so take a hard look at both.

Final pointer: don’t get overzealous and try to complete the entire simulation at your race-day targets. You won’t be fully rested and fully tapered, you won’t have the same on-course support, and you don’t have the luxury of a full recovery afterward. Stick to the plan.

Timing

I like to schedule race simulations four weeks out from your goal race, at the end of a recovery week. I use the race simulation as the sole long workout for the weekend, so you’re rewarded for the big day of training with a bonus rest day. You’re welcome!

If you have the lead time, you can do a “metric-metric” version of the race simulation – 75-80% of the metric version, or about half the total race distance – eight weeks out from your goal race. I structure this simulation as an all-endurance / Zone 2 day, allowing you to get a feel for the upcoming race simulation day.

Final Note

The race simulation day isn’t just for testing out your race-day effort and pacing targets. It’s also a great time to practice your transitions, fueling and hydration strategies, the gear you plan to use on race day, etcetera. Remember: nothing new on race day!

Coach Alison Freeman is a USAT Certified Coach and a Training Peaks Level 2 Certified Coach.  She thinks of her role as a coach as being a partner in a quality assurance program. It’s her job to keep an eye on the big picture and the goals you want to achieve. But part of that process also involves the smaller pieces, continually assessing and making adjustments as needed to ensure that progress stays on track. She also likes to plan for the good side of the equation by getting to know my athletes and their comfort zones and then building positive experiences into their training plan.

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