Setting Time Goals For A Half-Ironman

  • By John Newsom
  • Published Jul 29, 2015
  • Updated Jul 29, 2015 at 5:14 PM UTC
Photo: Vanessa Belfiore /

Dear Coach: How do I set time goals for my next half-Ironman?

How many times have you heard coaches tell athletes that they should avoid setting time-based goals? I’m going to echo those words of advice but appreciate that it is human nature to want to do it. Here are some general guidelines to ensure you are setting your day up for success.

The Swim

It is very, very difficult to set a swim goal time as conditions change, buoys move, navigation accuracy can vary and you may or may not get a draft. Bottom line: Setting a swim time goal can give you a false sense of satisfaction (or disappointment) when you exit the swim. You are better off learning the feel for a pace that is appropriate for the distance. A simple test is to go to the pool, get warmed up and perform a max effort 400 time trial (with fairly even pacing). As a rough guide, your half-Ironman pace would likely be around 5–8 seconds per 100 slower than your 400 time for beginner to intermediate level athletes. Go back to the pool and try swimming 1000 at 5–8 seconds slower than your 400 pace and assess how this feels. Repeat this over several sessions and remember if you plan on starting fast in the race, you must practice this regularly in training. Note: An all-out sprint start is not advised for beginner to intermediate-level athletes.

RELATED: Open-Water Swimming Tips From The Pros

The Bike

Time goals on the bike are also massively influenced by factors you cannot control: wind, road surface, terrain, etc. I encourage athletes to set power or heart rate ceiling numbers not to exceed. For most age-group athletes, a ceiling of 85 percent of functional threshold power (FTP) works well. If you are racing by heart rate, the ceiling should also be around 85 percent of your maximum heart rate on the bike. These are ceiling numbers, not targets—learning what “feels” right is important.

RELATED: Kelly Williamson’s Five Tips For Half-Ironman Bike Speed

The Run

The run is the safest place to set time goals. As with the bike I encourage athletes to have a ceiling pace. This ceiling should only apply for the first third of the run, then racing by feel should take over (but using a GPS watch can help keep you on task). To set a realistic pace, you need to know your fresh pace times. If you have an accurate 5K or 10K time, you can use the Jack Daniels Vdot system to get a good estimate of what you are capable of running for a standalone half-marathon (search online for Jack Daniels Vdot calculator). Add around 8–10 percent to your fresh half-marathon time for a 70.3, and that should ensure you don’t go out too hard.

All of the above points take into account you train specifically for your main race. That means plenty of simulating race conditions at target race pace with solid back-to-back swim/bike/run workouts.

RELATED: Half-Ironman Taper Plan

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FILED UNDER: Getting Started / Ironman / Training TAGS: /

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