Over-Shoot and Ask Questions Later

In the world of triathlon there is a saying:  You can’t win a triathlon in the swim, but you can lose it.

This general philosophy can also apply to running and biking races.  You can’t win a race in the first few moments, but you can lose it.  How you say?  It happens by overshooting the effort in the opening minutes.

There are two basic energy systems to fuel the body.  There is the aerobic system that uses oxygen to create fuel with a mix of fat and sugar or the anaerobic system that doesn’t require oxygen and only taps into available sugar.  The aerobic system is the endurance system.  It is a long and slow process to create usable fuel, but the energy stores are virtually limitless and intensity level can last for hours.  The anaerobic system is quick to react and is primarily used for short efforts or high intense efforts where the quick metabolic process can provide the energy needed in the acute time frame which is often just 3 or 4 minutes, but can more or less last up to about an hour.

Over the last 30 years of coaching, we have come to believe that people use the intensity of their breathing to gauge their RPE, or Rate of Perceived Exertion.  The heavier you are breathing, the harder you think you are working.  This is a very reliable way of managing your intensity.  As a Runners World article hints at, a number of studies have concluded that athletes using their RPE can very closely estimate their Lactate Threshold, about 10K pace intensity, as accurately as a lactate blood test.


The issue is that your breathing already needs to be elevated and under a consistent stress to be an effective tool to evaluate intensity.

People get to know what their breathing feels like to be running at race pace.  They know that if it is less than expected, they can push harder and run faster.  So, at the start of the race, they charge off the line and run faster and faster until their breathing pattern matches what they expect it to be.  What they are failing to account for is that the anaerobic energy system is in charge of the fuel production for those first 1-3 minutes and doesn’t require any change in oxygen consumption or breathing pattern.  The unsuspecting runner charges forth and continues to run faster and faster convinced that the current world record pace is sustainable. They don’t have an active RPE evaluation system, or a fully engaged breathing response, to tell them that it is a fool’s errand and that they should slow down.  All the while, they are creating a back log of waste that is produced from this anaerobic activity and the only way to clean this excess waste out is to slow down so the body can catch up.

We can see this in the below graph of one of my athletes.  The red line is showing heart rate and the green line is showing pace from a race done last year.  They reached their peak pace at 35 seconds at 5:35 minutes per mile and then started to slow their pace. At 1:20 into the run, their first real feedback from their RPE and their breathing was starting to be felt.  The athlete assumed that they were now going to settle into race pace, but this only lasted for another 40 seconds.  The first acknowledgement that this wouldn’t be race pace hit and they slowed their pace again and held that for another 40 seconds.  Finally, at the 3:00 mark of the run, all pretenses were left behind and the athlete was in full realization that they had overshot the opening moments.  The pace kept decreasing over the next 5:00 to settle in a full 2:30 minutes per mile slower than the opening pace.

Image A: Overshoot

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The seconds chart is from the same athlete but exactly one year later at the same race.  Note that the heart rate line looks very similar to the line in the first image.  The most dramatic difference is that the green pace line never has a dramatic drop in Image B, but only a dramatic lift at the finish.  The second year, where the pace was honest and sustainable right from the beginning, the finish time was 45 seconds faster at 5 beats per minute average lower.  Next year, we will work on running all the way to their Lactate Threshold heart rate and I’m sure realize another course PR.

Image B: Ramp

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The lesson that we help our athletes learn at Phoenix Fitness and Training, is that by giving up a little bit of speed during the opening 2-3:00 of a race effort, the overall pace will be much higher by the end.  With the ability to honestly evaluate how close they are running to their maximum sustainable pace and with their RPE or a heart rare monitor, they have the highest possible chance to build their pace throughout the race and compete to their full potential.