Race Pace Promises

May 7th 2020

By Matt Hill
Categories: Triathlon Training

Race Pace Promises

Triathletes are endurance athletes and to race well, at “race pace”, they need a strong and efficient aerobic system. Previously we gave an overview of the body’s physiology presenting how the body responds to different training stimuli, and primarily the aerobic energy systems adaptations.

In addition to a developing a big aerobic base, it is advantageous to supplement this with higher intensity / race pace training. To get the best out of this higher intensity training it is important to understand what is involved and not simply adhere to the “race pace promises” made by people in the media.

HIIT (High intensity interval training)

Alongside developing a good aerobic base (from low intensity training), most people are aware of “race pace training which is often referred to as:

  • VO2Max
  • sweet spot
  • tempo
  • threshold
  • lactate threshold

These are just some of the many descriptions often presented in the media; each very slightly different, at slightly different percentages of your working maxes. All suggesting that this intensity is the essential way to improve performance, promising quick gains!

We call these claims “race pace promises”.

Very often, complexity is a key selling point. “This model of training has been “scientifically” proven to be the correct way to train”, and to use it, you best sign up with them to have access to the complex tests and formulas needed to work out training levels.  Steve Magness and Jon Marcus, coaches to Olympic and World Championships level track and distance runners, discuss the confusion and myths behind scientific training intensities in their podcast.

The promise of enabling you to swim, bike or run faster with special race pace training is always based on science that studies specific populations; either sedentary athletes or elite athletes, most sport people fall in the middle. The science also lacks consideration of all other variables in the test subjects lives – other training being performed outside the tests, diet, sleep, etc. In the previous article we wrote we linked another podcast interview with scientists / author Christie Aschwanden – she was specifically discussing recovery but touches on sports science as a whole.

The common problem with all the race pace promises is that they involve too much middle ground intensity; never easy enough to be aerobic and never hard enough to be strength / speed focused. As a consequence, those following the approach, although maybe having early positive responses, soon develop the “one speed syndrome”.

Training Specificity

Training needs to be specific and consistently implemented, not changed regulary. Specificity falls into two areas:

  1. sport specific fitness – the condition of being able to physically complete the task; and
  2. sport specific movements – repeatedly training the movement patterns needed to complete the task.

Specific fitness development for any endurance sport, whether it be triathlon, cycling, long distance running, cross-country skiing, etc, is the same. All need to prioritise the development of the aerobic system; training the body at lower intensities to cause the body to make physiological changes.

Bear in mind that training for endurance sports requires a totally different approaches to those training to be strength / power athletes. A weightlifter, a track sprinter or throwing athlete need to train strength and power.

“Cross-training” for either athlete types could have compromising effects on their specific training goals. A triathlete doing heavy squatting routines is using valuable energy that would be better spent training his/her aerobic system. The same is true for a strength/power athlete that trains the aerobic system excessively.

The same can be said for sport specific movement training. Dedicating time to moving as you intend to race is going to be the key to developing efficiency. Cross-training, performing various movement patterns, confuses the body’s neuromuscular system. The body tends to “learn” the movements that require more focus; with the most mind-muscles connection and overall strain. For example, the upper body will “remember” the movement pattern of a pull up over the movement of the underwater phase of the swim stroke. Pull ups require a higher amount of focus and neuromuscular input than the underwater phase of the swim stroke…

The fitness and movements required for each sport are obviously specific, but training them is simple! You need to priorities the sport and energy system you intend to use on race day. Professor Ross Tucker describes the process very well in his recent podcast “The science of perfect training

Race Pace Training

Race pace training is an important ingredient in the overall mix of training; however, it is like salt – too much and it’ll ruin the dish! Aerobic training provides the biggest “bang for your buck” if you are an endurance athlete; however, sprinkling in higher intensity training efforts in the right amount will  provide a little spice to your performance!

Note though: you don’t want to be rushing to add the spice to your sessions if you haven’t developed a good base of aerobic training.  It is also important to note that adaptations to high intensity training is not a linear and constant progression as too much can be detrimental; again, the mix of ingredients is important.

Unfortunately, aerobic training is boring to talk / write about, so its importance and application is rarely discussed. The countless hours the top athletes / coaches commit to low intensity training is overlooked; it is just not sellable material! High intensity training is easier to talk about, get excited about and sell.

Let’s look at the two most common race pace training regimes.

Anaerobic Threshold

The anaerobic threshold (AT), also referred to a lactate threshold, is the highest intensity of movement (swim, bike, run, etc) that you can sustain whilst using the aerobic energy system. Work beyond this intensity and you will transition into the anaerobic glycolytic system and start accumulating lactate, and then become energy limited.

Tipping over your threshold can only be maintained, or repeated, a limited number of times before your body permanently remains in the anaerobic state. Your body can only operate for limited periods of time when you exceed your AT (the less trained you are the less time you will be able to maintain). You will soon hit the wall/bonk!

The AT typically occurs at 80-85% of maximum heart rate(MHR) and the good news is that your AT is highly trainable, unlike the VO2Max!

Training your AT

It is important to remember that aerobic training increases your body’s ability to deliver and use oxygen and also directly influences your AT; the more oxygen you get to the working muscles, the more the muscles can work.

Lactate, a by-products of the energy exchange in the muscle, or the mitochondria, is continuously produced and is re-processed to be used as further fuel. However, as the intensity of training increases so does the amount of lactate and at some point, lactate can no longer be re-synthesised quick enough. The re-cycling process becomes saturated and this is the threshold level and is the point at which you physically become aware of the muscles fatiguing – and is not sustainable.

AT sessions are tough, they are hard work! Expect to become uncomfortable in both your breathing and heart rate as well as your working muscles. They are manageable though; you know you can sustain the discomfort for the prescribed time.

The use of AT training should be infrequent, once per week (per discipline for triathletes) typically works for most age group athletes assuming they have good quality aerobic sessions the rest of the week and rest sufficiently. AT sets require the workload to be taken to around 85% of MHR for a period of time(4 – 16min). Recovery between AT reps only needs to be short (2min) and must be VERY EASY.

AT sessions help to:

  • build your body’s movement economy
  • build your mental toughness
  • enhance your body’s ability to work that little bit harder / faster before reaching your threshold level
  • improve the body’s ability to remove (or re-process) lactate build up

These sessions get you prepared for the discomfort of race day efforts!

AT levels are a good indicator of race performance; athletes with higher AT levels tend to race better.

VO2Max: What is it?

VO2Max (maximum volume of oxygen) is the body’s ability to transport, deliver and utilise oxygen. Most of us have heard this, but what does it actually mean and what is involved?

Firstly, it is important to point out that VO2Max, like our AT, is directly influenced by the improvements that come from developing the aerobic system.

If you train your aerobic system with low intensity efforts, then these physiological factors will occur:

  • your heart becomes stronger and bigger
  • allowing it to pump more oxygenated blood to the working muscles
  • which have more blood vessels (capillaries) surrounding them
  • allowing the mitochondria to work on oxidising the fat or glucose molecule

Together, these adaptations mean that your body has an improved ability to transport, deliver and utilise oxygen: so VO2Max is improved!

Training your VO2Max

Another important point: “A high VO2Max indicates a high level of aerobic fitness…” but “…is not a good predictor of race performance” – Dr John Hellemans, Sports Medicine Practitioner and coach.

 VO2Max is largely genetic and difficult to improve. It is important to note that when we talk about making direct / pure VO2Max improvements, we are talking about just that; not what most athletes are told by smart watches – with VO2Max improvements on a regular basis from any training stimuli.

Elite / professional endurance athletes have thoroughly developed their aerobic system over many years of training and so in general will have a high VO2Max. Further increases will be limited and rarely more than 5-10%.

For the age group athlete, often using smart watches, their VO2Max is monitored by built in algorithms. However, it is often the case that there are apparently big gains presented in VO2Max, sometimes up to 20%! It is vital you understand this is not the body making quick improvements or that the smart watch is wrong, rather it is:

  1. the algorithm in the gadget “learning” your body with improved estimations as you train and
  2. your body making the aerobic adaptations, which makes your body more efficient at using oxygen

Heading to a laboratory or test centre to do a VO2Max test will provide the most accurate indicator. However, don´t be surprised when follow-up tests show little, or no improvement; no matter how much you have trained. This is not an indication that training is not working, just that your VO2Max data is limited in its trainability.

The important take away point here is that for age group athletes (also including most “new” professional / elite athletes), AEROBIC intensity training will be the biggest influencer on VO2Max.

High intensity training in any guise will NOT be the real influencer.

High intensity training is a “fine tuning” tool to squeeze the last bits of improvement out of an already peaked aerobic system.

The relationship between AT and VO2Max

You should now realise that low intensity training is the most important training intensity. Not only does it boost the efficiency of your aerobic system, it also improves your AT and VO2Max levels.

To help illustrate how AT and VO2Max interact, and that it is primarily AT that determines race performance, not VO2Max, let’s compare two hypothetical athletes. Both are male with an identical VO2Max of 50 ml/kg/min.

Athlete A’s anaerobic threshold is at 80% of VO2Max, whereas athlete B is at 85% of VO2Max.

In spite of having the same VO2Max, Athlete B is able to work to a higher percentage of VO2Max and so is more likely to be faster.

An athletes VO2Max is therefore not what allows her / him to perform well, it’s the anaerobic threshold level that matters.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that higher VO2Max levels means a faster race! Train aerobically and train your threshold levels (with infrequent, weekly, sessions) to increase your race pace ability.

Avoid the dead zone

Noting that aerobic training intensity is below 75% of MHR and that AT training is around 85-92.5% of MHR, there is a “gap” in these percentiles that is often referred to as the dead zone, grey area, red zone, etc.

The intensity in this dead zone is too hard to be aerobic, thus not providing the beneficial aerobic adaptations but is too easy to build the AT. Spending too much time in this dead zone develops what we call the “one speed syndrome”. Dr Phil Maffetone calls it the “aerobic deficiency syndrome” (ADS) training zone, and many others call it something similar.

It is a very common “syndrome”.

Many athletes train here because it still feels somewhat comfortable, but is uncomfortable enough to fit the “no pain, no gain” mantra; which, by the way, is possibly the most miss-used and abused mantra ever. Legendary run coach Arthur Lydiard summarised this decades ago:

I have a saying ‘train, don’t strain.’ The Americans have the saying ‘no pain, no gain’ and that’s why they have no distance running champions. They get down to the track with a stopwatch and flog their guts out thinking that it’ll make them a champion, but they’ll never make a champion that way.”

We often hear athletes complain “I’ve only got one speed – it’s not fast and it’s not slow – it’s my training pace and racing pace… I just can’t get faster”

Maybe this is something you can relate to?

If so, this is almost certainly related to training in the dead zone.

The good news is that it is easy to resolve! A period of low intensity training will be the first intervention, to allow the body to recover, followed by “polarising” training efforts in future session.

Polarised training

Polarised training, coined by Dr Stephen Seiler describes training intensity distribution based on  analysing numerous non-elite and elite athletes across a range of endurance sports. He found that their training intensities were “polarised” (contrary to his expectations based on traditional knowledge).

75-85% of ALL the training time of ALL the athletes lay in the easy, aerobic intensity level, while only 15-25% occurred in the hard, threshold levels (>85% MHR). Very little to no time was spent in the dead zone (75-85% MHR). Age groupers would do well to replicate this, as Stephen discusses in a TEDx talk.

Put that into context: an elite standard distance triathlete may train for a total of 20hrs per week (generally between 20-30hrs maximum). Splitting their training intensity 80% : 20% , that’s 16hrs easy, 4hrs medium-hard. Those 4hrs in the higher intensity range is the equivalent to a 70.3 distance race!

Reflect on that: threshold sessions are tough; imagine doing a 70.3 at >85% max HR each week!

Elite / pro athletes are being coached to train their AEROBIC system, using AT level training for “fine-tuning”.

Training in the dead zone is not going to benefit you any more than it benefits the elite / pro athletes.

The caveat to the above is that MORE time should be spent in the lower aerobic ranges, especially for age groupers; 90% : 10% would be ideal to enable them to develop their aerobic system. This will allow them to reach a better VO2Max potential to further improve their blood and oxygen delivery service.

Removing the HIIT temptation

In the common pursuit to get fast and to do so quickly, high intensity interval training has become the bedrock of many age group athletes training, especially those with limited training time. Unfortunately, the findings that low intensity training being the key ingredient in elite endurance athletes success is being ignored.

The “no pain, no gain” mentality, misinformation, and proliferation of online training platforms (Zwift, TrainerRoad, Sufferfest, etc) all encourage high intensity training above any other intensity. All the hype makes athletes feel cheated, guilty or self-conscious for training in the low intensity zone. Low intensity training isn’t sexy and so doesn´t sell as well as the “beasting” sessions prevalent on online platforms; making money is the primary goal, not the best interests of most participants.

If you truly want to avoid the one speed syndrome, you need to learn to listen to your body. “Switching off” whilst using virtual training platforms that have visual stimuli distracts you from listening to your body and managing it effectively.

Another quote by Arthur Lydiard:

No one will burn out doing aerobic running. It is too much anaerobic running, which the American scholastic athletic system tends to put young athletes through, that burns them out.”


The human body functions in the same way whether a sedentary non-athlete or an elite athlete; it’s the ranges and onset of the various systems that are different.

Yes, genetics can help some respond to training faster / better. However, energy systems within our body kick into action at the same time, suited to the activity being performed.

Triathlon is an aerobic sport, therefore requiring aerobic training.

Aerobic development can ONLY occur by training aerobically at an EASY/low intensity (and relatively slowly to start with). This does not mean that racing will be slow, it means the opposite.

Training at high intensity aerobic levels without strategic planning WILL yield returns, albeit relatively short-lived. It’s too hard to allow the body to make aerobic adaptations but too easy to raise your threshold level. It often results in injury or illnesses, as the body never gets the chance to fully recover.

In some cases, early season success can be achieved if HIIT training is employed. However, over the season, a gradual deterioration in results through the year occurs; the body gets increasingly fatigued, times start slowing and injuries occur.

Contrast (polarise) the effort / intensity of your aerobic training and prioritise the lower end (<75% max heart rate) above all else with a distribution of approximately 80% low intensity, 20% higher intensity.

You can’t change the way your body has evolved. Accept this, take the pressure and stress off, enjoy the process and see your performance and health improve!

Can you somehow ignore physiology and train against the way the body works? No!

Ask yourself these two questions:

Do you want to have a long and healthy “career” in triathlon (or your chosen endurance event)?

Do you want to continue to perform well, with much reduced chances of injury?

In both cases, hopefully: YES!