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Energy Lab Advanced: Should I Use AP, NP, or HR to Pace IRONMAN Races?

This question was recently asked in the USA Triathlon coaches forum. “Avg. Pwr or Normalized Pwr? 140.6 and 70.3 races and training. I’ve been using NP for the last 4 years and have had a tremendous amount of success but have been seeing the trend move over to Avg. Power. I’m very curious to see what folks thoughts are on this and some good reading / videos on this that you might find useful. Thanks, Dave”

 

The Emotional Side of Power

My thoughts on this subject could also be summed up as the emotional consequences of (singularly) pacing with power.  By the way, this advice applies to pacing with power in long races such as 70.3 and 140.6.

 

Let me illustrate with a story. It was the summer of 2013 in Louisville, KY and I was midway through the IRONMAN Louisville bike leg. As it turns out, I was having one of the best races of my life despite having to sit up a ton on the bike. I was obsessed with staring at my NP for the ride and willing that number not to go down. I had it in my mind that I wanted to average 170 for the bike leg, yet my power hovered stubbornly around 165. I stared at that number for nearly six hours, obsessing, berating, and lamenting the fact that my chance was lost, so I thought.

 

This wasn’t the first time I had let power interfere with my mental state either.  And although to someone outside of the sport may think this scenario sounds crazy, it happens on some level to more athletes I have coached than not whether it’s not hitting a coveted number in training or in the actual race.

 

Heart Rate Still Trumps Power

This illustrates one of the many reasons that I know use and recommend heart rate as a primary driver in races. Your heart rate will never lie to you. It will tell you how you’re responding to the work, what you actually can do. Pacing by NP or AP, is a recipe for self – flagellation and disappointment. What if the course has a lot of downhills? What if it’s 90 degrees. What if, for whatever reason, you spend extra time coasting and it causes your AP to be less than planned?

 

The reactions to these situations sound dramatic but are remarkably common. The same thing happens in daily training when athletes become overly obsessed with their pool times, their easy run pace, or any other metric that will naturally vary. Not only will the situation dictate variations on what you can do performance wise on any given day, so will your body. Whether you’re fighting off an illness, are under load, or forgot to drink fluids on the day the result is the same.

 

There’s also device fallibility to consider. Power meters are not perfect. I once got a unit that read about 60 watts low on any given effort and I had to give it back. My psyche simply couldn’t handle that shift, even though the unit read true to itself.  And there are plenty of days you won’t even know why you can’t hit your number and you may never find out!

 

I had a great conversation with Abby Keenan yesterday about goal setting. She emphasized and put much more eloquently the same thing I preach about process versus outcome goals. We feel like maintaining a certain run pace or power is a process goal but it’s really not because it involves variables outside of our control.  Instead the process goal should be to maintain an effort. In a long race like an IRONMAN, some days that effort may translate to a .65 IF and some days it might be more like a .78. One thing that’s for sure is if you try to force a .78 on a day you’re feeling like a .6, things won’t end well.

 

The Exception of Tactical Races

 

When I asked Dave if it was okay to quote him in this article he introduced an important caveat. If your race is tactical, then you probably won’t use any of the metrics we mentioned and your goal may be to stay with a person. He used the example of Andy Potts, who when asked, told Dave he uses HR but at the end of the day he stays with the lead group regardless.

 

As an age grouper, this scenario may not come into play, or it may only factor into smaller, shorter races where you would ordinarily pace off of effort anyways. I know personally there have been plenty of local sprints where I know I have to keep within a certain time of someone on the bike in order to have a chance at catching them on the run. For example, if I’m racing with Carrie Smith, cyclist extraordinaire, I KNOW I have to keep her in sight on the bike to have a chance on the run leg! This said, most of the time it makes more sense to pace evenly and race your race against the clock using your pre- defined effort levels.

 

Back to IRONMAN Lou. In the end I was able to run down six athletes in my age group and nab a Kona slot. However,  instead of enjoying a scenario that doesn’t come around on any given race, I wasted time staring at that number and getting angry and regretful if it didn’t live up to exactly what I should be. Now I pace with HR as a primary driver for IRONMAN and recommend the same to my athletes, except in a few exceptional cases.

 

One thing we didn’t explore is how to actually pace an IRONMAN with a power meter. If you’re interested in learning more about that, check out this previous article I wrote on the subject for Triathlete Mag .

 

Best Practices on Pacing Long Races with Power

 

Use power in training on days where hitting numbers is paramount

consider dropping the PM (or not looking at it) during easy rides, recovery rides, and rides where your effort is dictated by the situation (ie a group ride with roadies)

Use efforts in training along with WKO to effectively plan a range of effort

Use a tool like Best Bike Split to get an estimate. PAD that number slightly to ensure your goal is realistic

Look at HR or go by feel during the actual race. If pacing is tricky, then can refer to power periodically to make sure your number are in the appropriate range

Use the power data to analyze what you could have done better and tweak future efforts accordingly

 

General Best Practices

 

Keep your power curve clean by only including the data from one device

Always include zeros in averaging

 

Agree? Disagree? We’re always happy to hear your feedback. Email the coaches at info@energylabatl.com




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