How to execute the perfect race plan

We all want to execute the perfect race. Heck we all plan to! But there are times when our race plans just don’t go to plan. When this happens, the athlete looks directly at the Coach ‘what went wrong?‘ Most of the time we can delve into the race, or review the lead in, and understand where it didn’t quite go right. Interrupted preparation, over raced, pacing off, nutrition not quite right – whatever the reasoning, it is important for athletes (and coaches) to understand, learn and implement changes into their next race/event. If you aren’t learning, you are not improving.

But still, the expectation is always there – we all want to execute the perfect race, we don’t want ‘trial and error’ or to ‘try again next race’. We all want to nail it from the outset. So the question is, how do we do it?

I share with you my tips that allowed my athlete Brett Sands to execute a perfect Half Marathon and secure a 4th place in his age group in his first stand alone Half Marathon.

Coach Sarah:

The key to perfecting a half marathon (or any long course race for that matter) is pacing. You have probably heard this before and it may not be anything new. But HOW to determine your race pace so you can pace correctly is what I’ll delve into as many don’t actually know how to work this out.  We ask all our athletes leading into their race what their race time/pace expectations are. It can sometimes be interesting on how athletes actually come up with their race pace goal: “I’d like to break 1:45 for my half marathon” an athlete may say, yet when you look at their training and their data, the numbers may not add up. They have simply guessed what they would like to achieve. It might ‘sound’ good and they might ‘want’ to break 1:45, but if the numbers aren’t there, then it can be a receipe for disaster. Race pace expectations need to match reality – or at least in the realm of reality. Of course we all aim to achieve PB’s, but the key to executing a race is knowing your race pace and sticking to it.  And this is where numbers (ie science) comes into play. Not just guess work.

Before Brett’s race we reviewed his recent training history and data, looking at his threshold paces and efforts along with his MAF Heart Rate and pace, and we were able to formulate a plan based on numbers and data – not just by plucking a figure out of the air that sounded good.

Leading into the event, Brett raced the 10km event at Run Melbourne, with the following data:
Time: 38:32
Ave Pace: 3:50min/km
Ave HR: 168
Max HR: 175

This race was 12 weeks out from the Half Marathon, and even though he wasn’t targeting the Half as a key race, we still use his training data to calculate his threshold paces and heart rates for training over the coming weeks/months and use them to build through his training.

Between that race and the Half Marathon, Brett completed specific sessions to simulate his race pace and continue to develop his threshold. An example of a specific endurance run including tempo pacing he completed 4 weeks out from his race:

Focus: Pacing / tempo. Form to be held throughout
20min MAF/easy aerobic
15min at half mara pace/effort (4:00min/km)
5min float ~10sec slower than half mara pace
10min at 10km pace (3:50min/km)
5min float ~10sec slower than half mara pace
5min 5km pace (3:40min/km)
15-20min easy aerobic / cool down

For the main set (40min) of this session, Brett nailed it to a tee, and his averages for the 40min were:
Ave pace: 4:01min/km
Ave HR: 152bpm
Max HR: 168bpm

Compare this to his 10km race, the numbers are pretty much spot on what I was expecting, and again provides me with further data to calculate his Half Marathon Race Pace Goal.

Sessions like this are not only physiological, but also psychological – being able to develop the ability to pace and know what each pace/effort feels like without having to look at a watch. Learning to run to feel is crucial for athletes and something that everyone should work on. If an athlete can learn how it is ‘supposed’ to feel at a given pace, then it is a lot easier to know if you are running too fast or too slow during a race, and you can make adjustments. Brett is extremely good at knowing and understanding the purpose of the session and understanding his pacing and zones and this benefits him immensely in a race.

From an energy-use perspective, athletes should generally be running slightly below their lactate threshold pace for a half marathon. Running faster than your threshold (generally your 5km or 10km race pace) can create a situation where your aerobic system is unable to remove the waste products that are generated by anaerobic energy production – which in return causes muscle fatigue, and your body (ie pace) to slow down. So athletes should know their threshold pace (and heart rate) and run slightly below so as not to ‘blow up’ in the back half of their race.

So with the data collected and calculated above (and a number of other sessions to go off), we calculated his Half Marathon Race Pace at 4:00min/km (remembering his threshold for 10km was 3:50min/km).


Want to know exactly how Brett’s race ended up? Find out below: 

Q: What race plan did you have leading into the race? 
Brett: Coach Sarah and I discussed my race plan and we agreed that my plan would be to go out at a pace of 4min/km from the outset and be comfortable and relaxed from the start. We discussed the weather conditions which we checked a couple of days in advance so we could factor that in too. Knowing it was going to be a windy day, the plan was to find a group of runners with a similar pace and hang with them and work together in the winds. That was a key part of our strategy, as our worst case scenario would be battling the wind by myself in no-mans-land.  A good warm-up was also a key factor in my race preparation and timing that to the start of the race.

Q: How did the race pan out to the plan that you went in with? 
Brett: It went perfectly to plan with only a couple of small adjustments as I went. I planned on settling into a group and work together in the head winds and that’s exactly what I did and that’s what made my race. I ran a little quicker at the start due to the massive tail wind for the first 5km, but I knew this was potentially going to happen and planned for it. I checked my heart rate and it was at my predicted race pace HR, and I felt comfortable so I knew I was tracking well. Going out that little bit faster (but maintaining my effort level/HR) I knew I would then have the time up my sleeve when we turned into the headwind and the pace would drop slightly. The key here though was that I was continually monitoring and assessing, running to what I knew of my body based on my training and that helps immensely to not over race.

Q: How satisfied are you with your race? 
Brett: I’m ecstatic and super stoked. Not just with the result, but that we had a race plan and tactics and I stuck to it. I hit my dream time and I can’t wipe the smile off my face!

Time: 1:24:43
Ave pace: 4:01min/km.
Placing: 4th ! M45-49
No peaks, no troughs. A solid all round performance and a well executed race plan.
So – instead of just ‘plucking’ a race pace out of thin air in the lead up to your next race, review your numbers and data (doing this with your coach will help you understand better) around 12 weeks out, 8 weeks out and 2-4 weeks out so you can see where your pacing sits, your zone lie and a true indication of what you should calculate as your half marathon race pace. This can be scaled for any distance and calculations can be done for the swim and bike also as you lead into the triathlon season. So good luck – and here’s to executing your next perfect race plan!
Don’t know what your threshold zones are? Don’t know how to review your training data and numbers to maximise your performance?  Contact me find out how having personalised approach can help you achieve your optimal performance. 

This article was originally created and seen on 

My next big event

Follow Coach Sarah as she shares her training and racing journey. She will share not only what her training looks like, but her day to day nutrition, recovery, the mental side of training, the 1%rs, the ups and the downs, her favourite sessions, break throughs, realisations and more. She will show you that training to your optimal performance doesn’t have to mean spending every spare hour training or every waking moment tired….

It’s been over 3 months since my return to racing at IM Western Australia 70.3. A race that I looked forward to for so long and that went pretty much to plan. I could not have been happier! Post race I had some loose plans on ‘what was next’. But I wanted to ensure first and foremost my recovery was my number 1 priority before jumping straight back on the long course band wagon.

So post race, I enjoyed some down time to recover – which went super well and was feeling great just a couple of weeks after. A HUGE improvement on previous years when it would take anywhere up to 3 months to fully recover. I actually had to try and hold myself back – which as any athlete knows, is hard to do! Port Macquarie Half Ironman was my next target race and that was still 5 months away. So I pulled back and held back. Sitting back in my aerobic zone, working again on strength endurance – the key to racing strong in long course.
But just as quick as I felt good, I started to feel tired again. I found sessions a little harder and recovery a little slower. So I backed it off thinking maybe I hadn’t recovered as well as I thought I had. A few more weeks and then I realised a big change was ahead of me. My body was changing. It wasn’t the same as before and I’d have to change my race plans and aim for something new.
SO instead of being in final preparations for my next Half Ironman in Port Macquarie, I’m prepping for something much bigger now.
The event I’m now aiming for is early September and I have no doubt it will be far more challenging, a lot harder but at the same time way more satisfying than any other event or race I’ve competed in before. And I’m excited and maybe a little scared at the same time. For this one isn’t just about me anymore. This one is about a little human being that will be arriving early September, an event that I have 6 more months to prepare for. And I’m ready to embrace every part of the journey to motherhood… (eek!)
I’ve already had similar emotions and doubts to those I remember in prepping for my first Ironman. Am I ready for this? Can I do this? Ok I can do this. Argh. I know nothing about this! How am I going to do this. (And breath…) An exciting, scary, daunting but amazing journey all rolled into one.
I don’t know any other full time female triathlon coaches who have gone through the transition to motherhood – balancing their health, training and coaching all in one (if you do let me know!) but I intend to use my experience not only as learning for myself but further learning so I can share with other female athletes (and coaches!)
So far, everything has gone along smoothly. I’m training as much as I was before, but the intensity (and pace!) has certainly dropped. And to be honest that was the hardest thing to grasp to begin with – I’ve even had a few tearies with my partner exclaiming to him ‘I just can’t go fast anymore!” as I came to the realisation that my body was changing and it was getting ready for something far bigger than an Ironman!
Acceptance of this for me will be the key. Knowing that my body is now serving another purpose and putting as much energy and focus into that as I do my racing. And as I have always done I’ll be listening to my body and using my intuition to know when to go easier, when to have a day off, when to rest and recover. But all along my aim will be maintaining my health and happiness while creating the healthiest environment for the little being growing inside of me.
I can’t wait to share my new journey with you as  I aim to share the highs and the lows. The challenges, doubts and the milestones. It’s going to be an amazing ride! 🙂