Will learning to slow down help you to speed up?

Coaching triathletes at the pool and on the running track these last two weeks has given me some insight into the unique athletic mind of overachievers.

Firstly, take this example from the pool. I was working with a group who wanted to improve their 400m times. The test set that the athletes were attempting sounded simple – swim a 400m time trial, but swim it with even splits over each 25m. (You can try this yourself – it’s an exercise that brings benefits that are way out of proportion with it’s simplicity.) As coach, I was taking splits every 25m so that the athletes knew exactly what each 25m had been swum in.

Without fail, every athlete in the group swam way too fast over the first 25, gradually slowed down each length, before speeding up again over the last 50m, with the last 25m being faster than the penultimate 25. (Worth noting that in every case, the fastest 25 was the first one, not the last one.)

One the athletes were armed with this information, they then had to swim 4 x 100m, each in one quarter of their 400m time, with each 25 evenly paced. There was plenty of recovery between each 100m – this was a pacing set, not a set aimed at developing speed or threshold. I was working on the theory that the thing that was actually limiting the athletes was not their fitness – it was their ability to apply that fitness appropriately. Pacing errors early in the swim meant their technique was falling apart later in the swim – probably the result of being unable to clear away the early lactate accumulation.

We saw a wide range of results with this set. The most successful were able to identify that how it felt to swim even paced 100s was not how they thought it would. They got that even split, but they commented that it required a very uneven effort. One of the guys commented that it took real concentration to swim slowly enough on the first rep!

To paraphrase Gordo, the way it feels at the beginning isn’t how it is.

We ended with a timed 100m, aiming to hit a time that was exactly one quarter of their 400m PB. A few of the athletes nailed it – and managed to do so with increasingly fast 25s. However, one of the guys just hammered that last 100 as fast as he could, and commented that he was pleased with his last effort, as he didn’t feel that he’d been working hard enough during the set. It’ll be interesting to see whether he improves his 400m as much as the guys who really got the pacing set right when we do a test set next week. I suspect he won’t.

The second example comes from the running session that I coach on a Wednesday night. The session was a set of functional threshold pace runs, with short recoveries – the aim being to hold a specific pace through each of the runs, and so through all of the session. ‘Functional threshold pace’ is the pace that an athlete can hold for a 60 minute best effort, so in theory repeated runs of 4-8 minutes should not be that challenging – however, getting the pacing right is crucial, as even a small pacing mistake will result in rapid lactate accumulation. It’s a great session to teach pacing because athletes get rapid feedback if they go off too fast!

I saw the same thing that I saw at the pool earlier that week – most of the athletes were running the first 400m 5 seconds faster than target pace, before ending the rep ‘on target’ – so if the target was, say, 3 minutes, the splits would be 1.25 and 1.35, rather than the 1.30 pace we were looking for. End result – after half the set, people were looking pretty tired! No surprise, given that the first 400 was being run at closer to a VO2max pace than a threshold pace. When we got the athletes to hold back over that first lap, and especially over the first 200m of that lap, they found that the effort to hold threshold pace was reduced significantly. End result? Faster running for less effort.

Triathlon is unique in that it gives you half a dozen chances to mess up your pacing within each race, unlike our single sport friends, who usually only get the chance once… we’ve got the swim start, the run to transition, the bike start, the run back through transition, and the run start… that’s a lot of opportunities to get carried away! Really, is it any surprise that we see so many people fall apart in the second half of a triathlon run?

Pacing is probably the single most important skill that a triathlete can learn. It is a skill – it can be practiced and learned, and we can get better at it. We have the opportunity every training session, and if we take it, then come race day we’ll vastly increase our chances of performing to our ability.

If you can’t control your pacing in training, what chance do you have on race day?