Preparing for a sprint triathlon - Your Pacing Strategy is critical

Man cycling with SUMARPO trisuit

By Gordon Polovin


Sprint distance triathlons are more forgiving than longer distance formats. So, there's room for error, but that doesn't usher in a hit-and-miss approach. Connecting to the pacing intricacies of the swim, bike, and run will significantly uplift the race experience. Moreover, it will create a consistent performance record you can be proud of over time.

When you think of it, strategies for sprint events boil down to the best collective tactics compressed into between an hour and ninety minutes for most people. The thing to remember is that the three legs follow consecutively. You may train for them separately at full speed but merging them into a continuum is quite different. So, you must race expecting to lose time versus your Full Exertion Level (FEL) for each discipline as a standalone. The idea is to sustain a competitive pace overall, knowing that misjudged single bursts of speed can throw the entire race into disarray.

As a runner, I found no significant differences in my pace for a five miler (i.e., 27 minutes/5.4 minutes a mile) and my half-marathon (76 minutes/5.8 minutes a mile). Indeed, assuming I was running the five milers at full throttle (which was always the case), the drop-off on my half marathon is only 7%. So, as long as you have trained to complete the entire triathlon sprint distance without stopping:

  • Pace yourself at between 90 and 95% of your FEL as it pertains to each skill as a standalone.
  • Be brutally honest with yourself. Therefore, rank your relative capabilities versus the typical lineup of competitors on swim, bike, and running legs as:
    • Better than average
    • Average
    • Below average
  • Also, rate your aerobic sustainability for the total distance on the same three constructs. Know the physical resources that have the power to let you push harder if necessary, and don't get discouraged by the ones that hold you back. There's no point in straining if, competitively, you'll fall back anyway.

As an aside (in training preparation - nothing to do with pacing), focus on the weaker skills to get the most out of them and give you more race traction than you otherwise expect. As a rule, a robust training schedule that extends for two hours at a time will automatically improve one's stamina and triathlon over the course.


Sprint Swim

Predetermine how the swing leg kicks off (usually a wave or mass start). Every second counts, so try to get in the middle of a draft group of swimmers that won't obstruct your path to more open water. In doing this, they should swim a little faster than you, but not by too much that you get in their way. After a minute or two of breaking through the rough ripples, focus on rhythm and hold it until the end. Don't let passing competitors disrupt your set pace.

If crowding makes you uncomfortable, avoid it and pick a clear lane, even if it means losing a little time. Early on, a steady, comfortable action makes up for lost seconds thrashing around with the crowd. As intimated in my introduction, you will pick up many suggestions about how to settle into a speed that matches your capabilities. For example, a favorite one is measuring heart rate. In my view, it's disruptive to break stroke mid-swim while trying to figure out metrics. So, this is where knowing your own body from experience and training is crucial. At best, look at a timer with split-second glances, but mostly you have to "feel" your pace and trust it.

As a gauge, the pace has to be slower than your FEL for the swim as a standalone. You should feel that your body is telling you to take it up a couple of notches. Your brain should respond with a "whoa, not so fast." In other words, you're tap-tapping the brakes, not reducing things to a crawl. Around 90% of your Threshold Heart Rate does the trick here but try to feel it rather than keep checking it.


Sprint Cycling

One thing that will gain you precious seconds is your changeover from the swim to the bike. It's especially true if a wetsuit's involved. Practice getting it off, and know precisely where your station is.

Once you're on the bike: We wish we could tell you something different, but the swim principles (above) apply to the cycling leg. However, it's much easier to use monitors and metrics to check one's speed on the ride than on the swim. Therefore, I suggest relying on a mainstream gauge, namely, FTP - the maximum power you as an athlete can hold for a single hour. In other words, click your mind on your VO2max's upper limit, and don't be afraid to get close to that.

For rides longer than 75 minutes, drop the FTP to the mid or lower nineties. Ease up on the hills and pedal hard on the flats and downhills. Your THR can likewise range in the 90 - 100 percentile. Try not to let spurts dominate your riding style. Tactical riding that plays into the ups and downs of the course pays off on the biking leg. One thing about cycling is that it allows numerous recovery intervals when traversing easy gradients - make the best of them.

In summary, it's also a tap-tap brake deployment but using the terrain wisely. You have to leave something for the run, of course.

Sprint Run

The moment you enter this leg, you should have a pretty good idea of what's left in the tank. A good finish is probably sixty seconds outside your 5k FEL time. However, that's not because you're deliberately holding back. Hitting the lactic acid wall isn't a big thing in a short distance (whereas it is in a full marathon or 21k). So, for example, twenty minutes FEL drifting to twenty-one minutes is a fair expectation. If you overdid the swim and cycle, expect the slowdown to be three minutes or more. Other than this, we can say that the last leg is a sprint to the finish. Go for it at a THR close to 100% or even over. You know your running pace; turn it on to the best of your remaining reserves.




Experience is the best teacher in triathlon sprints. Knowing your sustained pace for over an hour and a half of sustained activity will give you a foundation to fit in the three legs to make it a success. The accent is on the word "sprint," which means keeping it almost at full energy intensity from start to finish. The more you feel it, the more control you have by deliberately slowing things down and balancing the different skills to get the best results.