Risk Based Pacing (Part Two)


Welcome back to part two of our blog – Risk Based Pacing. In the previous blog we discussed the science and physiological responses of our brain and how it communicates to our body when assessing how we push our body through certain stressors that may occur. In this blog (part 2), we will discuss how it relates to our performance during training and/or racing.

The biggest takeaway if nothing else on race day is…STICK TO THE SCRIPT!!

It is important not to get sucked into racing at another person’s pace, but to stick to the planned pace. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of a race and go too fast. Preparation events will allow you to get exposure to the excitement of race day, while learning how not to translate that excitement into throwing off the pacing game plan.

Utilizing some or all of the assessment tools noted here during training will ensure that you are racing at the correct pace on race day.

Although it is important to stick to the script, this applies only when you are healthy, well rested, and performing at your expected fitness level. If you are having an off day and feel terrible, you should reduce the intensity to below what was originally targeted. You must listen to your body.

Risk Based Pacing During Training

Many athletes enjoy training with others for motivation and social interactions. While there are benefits for this, a common mistake is to train with groups and do workouts that don’t follow an individual’s specific training program. You must be aware of the group workout plan and pass on it if it does not adhere to your plan.

Ease Into It (Triathlon-Specific)

In many respects, the triathlon is not a singular sport, but rather three sports all put together and separated by short rest periods (transitions). Therefore, it is advised to ‘warm-up’ when starting each of the three sport disciplines. The beginning of each sport discipline should be the slowest (terrain aside). Typically, only elite/professional athletes have the ability to start out at a high level of intensity and maintain that level throughout the event.


As with most things related to sports, proper pacing comes down to risk management. Go too easy and you will likely miss the time goal. Go too fast and you will likely blow up and miss the time goal. However, with proper pacing, you can set yourself up with the best chance to succeed by managing risk appropriately.

Risk vs. Reward

In regard to pacing, these two aspects are in constant battle and therefore influence how individuals pace themselves. As an example, what at triathlete might want to ride at 25 mph during the bike leg of a full distance triathlon, they know that by doing so, they would most likely blow up before the end of the bike segment – too much risk. Conversely, if they are in the last 3 miles of the run and feel good, they pick up the pace. In this situation, the reward of finishing with a faster time outweighs the risk of running out of energy, due to the close proximity to the finish line.

It is common sense that the pace for a long distance event (ex: ultramarathon) is slower than that of a short distance event (ex: 5K). While there are physiological reasons for this, the mentality of an athlete also plays a large part. Specifically, distance will dictate how fast an individual will pace themselves.

Let’s use running as an example – Jessica can run a 5K at an eight-minute-mile pace and has never run a marathon. On a whim, Jessica decides to enter a marathon without any specific training (obviously not a smart idea!). Jessica paces herself at a 10-minute-mile pace during the marathon. But why? She has no previous experience to tell her how fast to run, so why did she slow down so much in relation to her 5K pace? The answer: While Jessica knows she can run at least 5K at an eight-minute pace, she believes that given the distance of a marathon, she would not be able to hold that pace throughout without blowing up. This is an example of risk management.

Let’s assume that Jessica miraculously (in lieu of her lack of training) makes it to 24 miles at a 10-minute pace without blowing up. She decides since there are only 2.2 miles left to go, she will pick up the pace. Jessica lifts her pace to 8:30 min/mile for the remaining distance. Why didn’t Jessica pick up the pace prior to this? For the same reason that she initially determined to run a 10-minute pace at the start ‒ there was too much risk in blowing up. With 2.2 miles left to run, she determined that the potential reward of a faster time was worth the risk. In other words, she estimated that the reward (i.e., picking up the pace and finishing with a faster time) outweighed the risk (i.e., blowing up and not finishing or finishing with a slower time).

In layman terms, this represents that the intensity one runs at is highly correlated to the distance left to run. The farther from the finish, the higher the risk – and the closer to the finish, the lower the risk.

In 2010, a group of researchers (de Koning et al.) sought out a way to quantify this phenomenon. In a paper titled, “Regulation of pacing strategy during athletic competition”, de Koning et al. created a formula called the Hazard Score.

The hazard score correlates the intensity at which an individual is performing to the distance or time remaining in the exercise bout and thus looks to determine the likelihood that an individual will change pace. The formula is as follows:

Hazard = Momentary RPE * Fraction of the distance remaining

While we won’t go into the specifics of the hazard score paper by de Koning et al., the primary thing to understand is that the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of an individual at a set point in time and the distance remaining of an event influence the pace of an athlete.


While there are likely countless pace assessment tools, UESCA has identified those which also are likely the most popular.

  • Heart rate monitor
  • Power meter (cycling)
  • Cadence (cycling)
  • GPS that gives real-time pace (typically used for running or cycling)
  • Time
  • Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale (RPE)
  • Swimming: strokes per minute (SPM)
  • Swimming: timing strokes with breathing

In regard to heart rate, cardiac drift is a phenomenon that elevates one’s heart rate without an increase in other performance metrics. It is natural for cardiac drift to occur while exercising, especially in the latter parts of a training session or race. Cardiac drift can artificially increase one’s heart rate by as much as 10‒15 bpm. Therefore, it is important to pace not only by heart rate, but also by RPE.

Sample Workout Structures Using Pace Tools

Using some or all of the pace assessment tools, you can create structured workout sessions. Below are examples of workout structures using the pace assessment tools:

Heart Rate Monitor: Easy run, keep heart rate between 110-130 bpm for 30 minutes.

Power Meter: Do 4 laps of a 5-mile road circuit. Do the first lap averaging 200 watts, the second at 250 watts, the third at 275 watts, the fourth at 300 watts, and sprint all out the last 100 meters while trying to hit 525 watts.

GPS: 5 mile run, warm up for first mile at 9 minute pace, then run the next three miles at 6:30 pace, and cool down at 9 minute pace for the last mile.

Time: Swim 400m at (1:50/100m), easy 100m at (2:30/100m). Repeat the cycle two more times.

Based on the above pace tools, it is very easy to allow numbers and quantitative metrics to rule your coaching practice. It is also easy for athletes to obsess about their quantitative stats. While pace assessment tools are extremely valuable and a necessity in the training and racing process, it is also important to unplug from this data stream every now and then. For example, go for a swim, ride or run purely for the fun of it and check out the scenery versus staring at their GPS watch the whole time! Unplugging is easiest to accomplish and most practical on easy workout days.

Pacing By Feel

Many experienced athletes are able to accurately determine their pace by feel. This comes from lots of experience and correlating their pace to pacing tools and RPE. As discussed below, open water swimming is the one sport discipline that is paced by feel. So how does one become accustomed to pacing by feel, whether it is in the water, on the bike, or when running? Below are ways to test one’s ‘feel’ for pace.


Swim a set pool distance using a stopwatch with a set pace in mind, but only look at the stopwatch once finished to see how close the actual pace was to the target pace.


Guess at what speed you are riding then they look at their cycle computer to see if you guessed right.


Using a stopwatch, run a set distance at a desired pace (ex: run 3 miles in 24 minutes – 8 min/mile pace), but only look at the time once the distance has been run. If you have a real-time GPS watch, you can guess your pace then look at the watch to see how close you are.

While these are just some examples of how to test one’s ability to ‘feel’ the pace, the tests must be done with some frequency in order to increase one’s proficiency at correctly pacing themselves by feel.

If you use a pacing tool(s) to determine your effort level, it is important to correlate the pacing tool pace with how you feel. For example, your pacing strategy is to maintain an 8:30 min/mile pace during the run portion of a triathlon but you cannot maintain this pace due to exhaustion or injury, you MUST slow down. Failure to do so will likely result in a slower overall time at best, and a ‘Did Not Finish (DNF)’ at worst. Learning how to pace by feel is very important for any endurance athlete.


We’ve covered a lot of information over the last two weeks regarding the physiology of pacing through variables and program ideas to incorporate. Pacing takes time, discipline, and a commitment in order to implement and be successful with it. Communication and training logs can take the guess work out of it and allow for progression in your endurance sports journey.


Sean Begley is an advisor and contributor to United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA), a science-based endurance sports education company. UESCA educates and certifies running, ultrarunning and triathlon coaches (cycling and nutrition coming soon!) worldwide on a 100% online platform.

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Rick Prince

Rick Prince

Founder/Director of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA).

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