Swimrun Pacing & Energy Management
Ask three random athletes the following question: “So what’s your race pace?”
Marathon runner: I run about 4:20/km so my marathon time is usually around 3:02:51 give or take two minutes, depending on how much I fade in the last 5-10 km’s.
“Small error margin, no room for any mistakes”
IRONMAN distance triathlete: Under normal conditions my pace on the swim is: 1:30/100m, 36 km/hr on the bike and 5:00/km for the run (provided the course is reasonably flat). So finish time is usually around: 9 ½ hrs give or take 10 minutes depending on weather conditions, speed of transitions, energy intake and gear set-up.
“Small to Intermediate error margin, improvements can often be found in the details of final preparation and race execution.”
42km course SWIMRUNNERS team: It can be anywhere between 4 ½ hrs’ on a great day and 6 ½ hrs on a tough day.
“Intermediate to big error margin, lots of room for mistakes but also lots of opportunities to optimise in different areas ranging from team dynamics, course knowledge, race experience, tactics, equipment set-up, energy management, run and swim economy and last but not least prevailing weather and course conditions”
Find below 10 mantra’s to “stay in the driving seat” as far as team pacing is concerned:
1. Act like a “Smooth Operator” – Minimise (frequent) peaks in intensity. Changes in speed are OK if they serve a purpose to keep intensity constant. The principle is the same as a Watt meter on the bike. It’s more efficient to keep your Watt output constant and vary your speed then the other way around. I think Kaisa Sali was or still is involved in the development of power paddles. i.e. paddles that measure the amount of force you exert on each paddle to see how balanced you are in your stroke and see if you’re getting efficient (i.e. faster with less power effort).
2. “Superman has a short life span” – Months of dedicated training, perfect taper, zero injuries, pumped up to the max…ready to “unleash the animal”. The gun goes off….throttling all that enormous mental and physical energy over a long race is one of the hardest things to do. It takes a lot of self control to hold back and be aware of your movements. Especially at the start it always feels like you’re not consuming any energy at all. Everything just seems to go effortless. The sad reality is that you’re more than likely to consume energy at a rate that’s no longer in “eco-mode”. (but hey, the tank is still full so you don’t notice it until it’s half empty). Compare it to a balloon full of air: letting too much air out at the start means you go fast in the beginning but as soon as the air pressure is gone so is the speed. It happens to all of us from beginners to experienced swimrunners. Being aware of this pitfall (read: being impatient) is half the battle won.
3. Ten meters is all you get – Think about it. During a swimrun race the maximum pace difference between you and your team partner is just 10 meters. In other words your optimum team pace is determined by the ability to judge eachother’s “maximum sustainable pace” for each swim and run section. For instance in Team AB: person A may be a slower swimmer compared to person B which means that person A has to be told (or better know!) to hold back. So being fully aware of each others pace is vitally important for racing economically for both the swim and run discipline. Every team has a unique and optimum team pace & bandwith. Graphically displayed below you can see the optimum pace for person A is probably around 1:25/100m but in a team set-up it is slightly slower (1:30/100m) to avoid “killing your partner”.
4. See no Evil, Hear no Evil! – if you don’t tell your partner (clearly) to slow down when needed then the race for both of you will be over before you know it. It also helps a lot to inform each other of upcoming aid stations, distance to next swim, upcoming terrain changes, time for energy in-take, water entry routine sequence. A lot boils down to communication and trust in your own and your partner’s capabilities often under extreme conditions.
5. Energy preservation is King – If there is one thing that people underestimate in swimrun (compared to other endurance sports) then it is the amount of energy you consume. In the water you burn precious calories to stay warm and on land your sweat glands work overtime keep your head cool. It’s a bit like being a thermometer constantly dipping yourself in and out of the water. Of course, exposure to hot and cold in swimrun is part of it and therefore the trick is to preserve as much energy when and where you can by taking the consumption peaks off. The way to preserve energy is to learn how to interpret upcoming swim and run distances in relation to optimum pace required to maintain a relatively constant body temperature. Playing with three variables: distance, pace and body temperature….is interesting brain gymnastics but it can be done by practicing a swimrun loop and experimenting with different (team) pace settings. Tip: always take more energy gels with you then you think you need because rate of consumption tends to go up towards the end of the race when your exhausted.
6. Expose to Adapt – Refrigerator effect: Swim too slow and your body temperature drops faster simply because the exposure time between hot and cold is longer. Redirecting the blood flow from your core to your working muscles takes relatively more energy then swimming slightly faster to keep your body warm.
Sauna effect: Run too fast (for too long) and your body temperature will steadily increase to the point where you’re overheating and start to dehydrate. Regular sauna sessions and cold water exposure are an effective way for your body to get used to dealing with big temperature swings between air and water.
7. Feeling HOT HOT HOT! – Heat transfer & retention in swimrun wetsuits: fast teams generate a lot of heat AND they spend less time in the water compared to slower teams that’s why they tend to use thinner wetsuits which promotes easy heat transfer. Slower teams generate less heat AND spend more time in the water so it makes more sense to preserve or slow down heat transfer. Likewise slower teams will also have more time exposure to sun radiation on the run sections making it very important to have a wetsuit that can be cabbed down fast and has storage capabilities for a hydration system. The trade of between a thick or thin swimrun wetsuit mainly depends on body type, level of fitness, most common race / training conditions and your race goals. The best way to find out is to try out a demo wetsuit. Swimrunners Finland will organise a few of these try out events in collaboration with HEAD but there are also other good swimrun brands like ARK, Mako, Orca, Aquasphere, NuNu, etc. Other important characteristics of a good swimrun wetsuit are: a perfect fit, good shoulder mobility and perfect sealing around the neck and arm cuffs.
8. “You can’t put on what you left behind” – The lag swimmer uses less energy to move forward, this accelerates the cooling effect. The lag swimmer can use slightly smaller paddles to ensure a higher stroke rate so that you generate that extra bit of body heat on the swims to stay warm. A pair of arm sleeves, neoprene swim cap or an extra marino wool base layer are also good options to insulate yourself on a course where there are a lot of long swim sections. It seems to be a trend that a lot of races are nowadays organised around the edges of the tourist season meaning late autumn and early spring making the course conditions often unpredictable and colder than usual. Tip: it’s always easier to remove layers of insulation then wanting to add something you left behind in the hotel room to “save a few grams” (e.g. sleeves, neoprene headband, gels, etc).
9. Train to Race! – practice race pace conditions Leading up to your key A race of the year it’s good to practise or simulate one or more of the following race pace scenarios: 1) select a 500m (max) technical trail run section and run it a few times together as a team (three / four times at the same speed and the last one at max speed) and preferably from the same direction. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to run fast on the last repetition. Cognitive mind mapping facilitates faster team pacing. 2) hook-up and run 3 x 10 minutes as a team on an undulating gravel road with 5 minutes rest in between. Aim to cover more distance on the last 10 minutes. Intensity should be high enough so that you start to feel lactic build-up after 9 minutes on the first rep, 8 minutes on the second rep and 6-7 minutes on the last rep. The idea is to simulate “end of race conditions” where your body is screaming to stop but you’re not at the finish line yet….3) go for a 4-5km openwater non-stop swim with full swimrun race gear set-up. The idea is to simulate fatigued shoulder muscles in the latter part of a swimrun race. For all three work-outs it’s essential to do them fresh and motivated. Make sure you take time to recover with plenty of (active) rest.
10. 3 seconds of pure focus – entry and exit points: Take those extra split seconds before getting into the water to mind map your swim trajectory to the next swim exit. Coming out of the water, give your body (especially your legs) a few minutes to switch from an oxygen deprived state to a well blood circulated (warmed-up) state after a long swim. Force yourself to take time to prevent tripping or slipping on rocks or roots. Balance and sense of orientation is never 100% coming out of the water and that’s why it is a high risk area for long term injuries. Acknowledge changes in terrain and conditions and adjust your pace accordingly. Take the opportunity to cab down your wetsuit to prevent SIPE, also known as: Swimming-Induced Pulmonary Edema which is a potentially life threating condition which can lead to an acute breathlesness of athletes. SIPE occurs when fluid accumulates in the lungs in the absence of water aspiration during swimming, causing acute shortness of breath and a cough productive of blood-tinged sputum. Now here’s the thing for swimrunners: 1) avoid wearing tight & thick wetsuits that restrict blood flow to the extremities (use a swimrun specific wetsuit that is thinner and avoid using triathlon or pure open water wetsuits which are designed for a horizontal position only!)
2) ALWAYS open up your wetsuit at the start of any run section if not, it can make symptoms worse! Even when you feel cold just zip open the chest section.
3) When you practise swimrun on your own be aware that SIPE feels like you’re drowning so never forget to take your safety buoy with you! It’s for your own good. Tip: when you buy a new swimrun wetsuit make sure you wear a top under neath filled with 10 gels, a soft flask and an emergency kit. You need this extra bit of chest space for a reason.Thanks Thommy Carlson (ÖtillÖ medic) for enlightening us with your wisdom (once again..). SIPE
After Drop – is the situation when the majority of your blood is concentrated in the core of your body to protect your vital organs from cooling down too much and the blood flow is slowly diverted back to the extremities of your body (i.e. leg muscles muscle and skin area) to heat them up. This often gives the sensation of getting really cold because the colder blood then gets back to the core of your body. This process of heating up has to be done gradually not to shock the body. Hence the fact that you should not sprint out of the water to get warm in 100m. Do it more gentle over a distance of a few hundred metes it’s safer an burns less calories
11. Know your way home – There is a reason why the Swedes dominate the podium at ÖtillÖ most of the time and it’s not because they are that much faster than other teams. It’s because they know the course inside out. Study the course using google maps or organise a trip to Sweden to practise the course (preferably with people who have done the race before).