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Does It Pay To Go Easy On The Bike During A Half-Ironman?

*full Half Ironman course gear and nutrition recommendations below this story

I admit it.

I’m a pretty proud guy and I like to pass people on my bicycle.

Especially during Half-Ironman triathlons, I get a huge rush chasing my competitors down like hunted rabbits and blowing by them. Many times, I’ll even sneak up within a few meters, chomp down a GU to get my crazy sugar high, then blast myself to extremely high heart rates just to demoralize whoever I’m passing. Eat my dust, homey.

And in the past, that strategy has served me fairly well.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not cycling my Half-Ironman bike split at an all-out 100% red-hot intensity, but in most of my Half-Ironman triathlons, I traditionally push myself very hard on the bike, respond to my competitors when they pass me by re-passing them and trying to leave them behind, and usually record one of the fastest amateur bike splits…

…then hold on for dear life on the run as my battered and slightly rubbery legs whimper from their Herculean effort on the bike.

But could I be cycling *too* hard?

Could I perhaps run faster or place higher by bicycling easier during a Half-Ironman, or “staying within my limits”?

Granted, I am a case study of just one, but I tried this different bike pacing strategy out in the recent Wildflower long course triathlon – a race at which I was also attempting to qualify for the ITU Long Course World Championships.

In other words, during the bike portion of Wildflower, I didn’t look at any “numbers on calves” and didn’t try to “ride down” other triathletes. I just checked my pride at the starting line, played the game within my physical boundaries, rode a conservatively aggressive pace, and never let my legs get that rubbery, intense burn I’ve gotten at all my other Half-Ironman triathlons.

Even on “Heartbreak Hill”, the notoriously killer part of the Wildflower course, I never let myself get to the point where I was “sucking air”, which I usually do during big grades or steep hills on Half-Ironman bike courses.

So it turned out that racing with this style (in atypically windy conditions), my bike split was nearly 9 minutes slower than previous years at Wildflower – or about 1.1 miles per hour slower over 56 miles. By comparing a handful of other competitors’ bike splits from previous years with their bike splits this year, it appears the wind was probably responsible for about 2-3 of those minutes – and my conservative pacing was responsible for the rest.

And what happened?

I proceeded to have the “run of my life” at Wildflower, and probably one of the best half-marathon performances I’ve ever put in during a Half-Ironman triathlon. My legs were turning over at a much higher cadence, I tackled every hill with much greater confidence, and I was only passed once. You’ll notice in most of the clips in the video below that I appear to be running strong.

But at the end of the day, that “fantastic” run was only about 2-3 minutes faster than what I typically run on the Wildflower long course. Granted, that’s 120% faster pace per mile on the run compared to previous years, but…

By bicycling easy, I lost 6-7 minutes on the bike, and only gained 2-3 of those minutes back by having a “better” run.

So here’s the lesson:

During a Half-Ironman triathlon, err on the side of bicycling too aggressively, and pay closer attention to your competitors – allowing their moves to dictate your pace, especially if you’re trying to podium.

As it turns out, I *did* podium, placing in the top 1% of the field, getting 4th place in my age group and also qualifying for the ITU World Championships.

But I guarantee that in Hawaii, I’ll be biking harder. ;)

Wildflower Long Course Triathlon Gear:

Race Kit: Champ-Sys One Piece Custom Triathlon Suit
Wetsuit: Blue Seventy Helix
Bike: Gray Storm TT
Helmet: Gray Aero Helmet
Wheels: Gray 9.5 Carbon Clinchers with Latex Tubes
Components: SRAM Red, SRAM return to position levers, SRAM Quarq crank
Seat: Adamo ISM Road Saddle
Bike Shoes: Specialized Trivent
Running Shoes: K-Swiss Kwicky Blade
Sunglasses: Zeal Slingshots
Fuel Belt: NEW! Using a Spi-Belt, love it. Highly recommend.

Wildflower Long Course Triathlon Nutrition:

3 days leading up to race: 2-3 nuun tablets per day for increased electrolyte intake

2 hours before race: 2 scoops LivingFuel SuperGreens with 1 teaspoon Enerprime, 1 scoop CapraColostrum, 1 banana and 1 teaspoon peanut butter

30 minutes before race: 3 Millennium Sports CreO2, 6 Millennium Sports Carnage, 1 Nutrarev, 1 Energy28 and 1 delta-E, 20 Sprays Magnetic Oil
5 minutes before race: 1 GU Roctane
Every 20 minutes on bike: 1 GU Roctane
Every 30 minutes during entire race: 2 Millennium Sports Athlytes
End of each hour on bike: 4 GU Chomps
Every 3 miles on run: 1 GU Roctane (from a Spi-Belt)
Post-Race: 8 Recoverease