How to Get Faster by Developing your Internal Pacing

A triathlete heading out of transition with her bike
February 25, 2020

Mike Ricci



Why should you develop your internal pacing when you have everything you need right in front of you on digital display? In a race, you probably know what your paces, heart rate, and power should all be ahead of time. So in an ideal world, everything goes to plan and you just follow your tracking devices all the way to the finish line. The problem stems from the fact that races rarely or never exist in an ideal world. We have to be prepared to make adjustments, and we have to be prepared to pace ourselves based on those adjustments.

By getting in touch with and developing your internal pacing mechanisms, or more casually described as racing by “feel,” you can be prepared at any point in a race to maximize everything you have left in your tank. We’ve all had those races where you show up and your body doesn’t feel how you expect it to feel. If you proceed by trying to hit your pre-planned objective measures of exertion, that could result in slowing down before the finish, or worse. From the opposite perspective, you may feel better than you expected to feel, and by rigidly adhering to your pre-planned paces, you end up crossing the finish line with energy left over. By learning how to correlate your subjective perception of effort with the objective measures, you can capitalize on all of your hard work and cross the finish line having gotten the best out of whatever you had in your tank on that day.

Data-Driven Athletes:

For athletes who have a healthy appreciation for numbers, PMC charts, and ERG-mode, learning how to separate yourselves from over-reliance on metrics is the first step. Tuning in to the difference between how a given pace feels on one day vs. another day is a great place to start. Pay attention to your rate of perceived exertion. This can help you better understand the intention of a workout, which will help you attain the appropriate training adaptations. Gaining or losing fitness throughout the year results in constantly changing zones, so the more awareness you have about how each zone should feel will allow you to get the most out of each prescribed workout.

“Feel”-Driven Athletes:

For athletes who may already feel like they listen to their bodies and race primarily by subjective exertion, it’s important to learn how to correlate your effort with the data in order to continue to make improvements. While having awareness of your body is a great starting point, athletes from this camp may fall into the trap of getting too comfortable. Check in to see where the heart rate, pace, and/or power that is supposed to correlate to an RPE zone falls throughout training cycles. For example, as you gain fitness your zone 2 RPE should correspond to an increased pace or power output. If the reverse is true, you may be either losing fitness intentionally because of the time of the year, or you may need recovery in order to keep progressing. Use this concept to stay accountable.


Below are a couple examples of how you can begin to develop your pacing mechanisms in training. As you’re training, pay attention to the cues that your body is giving you. This is a great way to stay conscious of your form and technique, acknowledge your level of hydration, and evaluate your need for calories. Even with a nutrition and hydration plan, your needs will vary based on conditions, exertion, and what you did or consumed earlier that day. See if you can match an RPE value for a prescribed effort with a pace, heart rate, or power value after the workout is complete. Monitor the changes in zones throughout training cycles to keep yourself on track to your goals.

  • When swimming consistent intervals, like 50’s or 100’s, try to hit each interval on an exact time. Pay attention to what that pace feels like and how long you can hold it for.
  • On the bike, cover up your watts or cadence for a given segment, then check in afterward to see how close you were to the prescription.
  • Do a track workout where you run each lap at the same split. If the goal is to run at 10k pace, check-in afterward to see if your paces and heart rates matched your lactate threshold.
  • Execute a build workout where each interval builds at a steady rate (i.e. the last lap is 10 seconds faster than the previous lap, which is 10 seconds faster than the lap before that, etc). Building is one of the best ways to find out if you accurately estimated the amount of fuel left in the tank. You’ll fail the set if you miscalculated.

Going forward with these new strategies, I am confident you can learn to balance data and feel, and the resulting experience = a successful race day.

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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