Can Ultra Short Race Pace Training be effective for triathlon training? Well, the name itself implies not only no but hell no. So, why would I implement it with IRONMAN athletes?
First, what is USRPT? Ultra Short Race Pace Training (USRPT) is race-specific training designed to train the body and brain to replicate goal pace on race day. USRPT was developed by Brent Rushall, Ph.D. I’ll provide links at the bottom of this post for those who want to dive into Rushall’s published works.
Important side note- I do not coach USRPT precisely as prescribed by Rushall. He was much more intelligent than I am; even if I had spent two lifetimes studying, I would never know the physiology of sport as well as he did. That said, Rushall’s experiments took place under controlled conditions.
When I coach athletes, I believe I should recognize that their lives do not occur under such conditions. I am open to making adaptations to accommodate each athlete best while maintaining the principles of USRPT.
What does a USRPT set look like? The long answer is it depends on the race you are training for, but let’s use the 70.3 distance of 1.2 miles or 1,900 meters (1.9k).
Example Main Set:
18x200m @ RI: 15-20 seconds
Goal: hold goal race pace (ex: 1.9k goal time is 40min= 4:21 for every 200m)
WHEN the athlete misses their pace (example: on rep #6, the athlete records a time of 4:23 instead of 4:21), they “sit” or take the next rep off, then go for pace again on rep #8.
After three total misses, the athlete is finished with the set
If the athlete misses two reps in a row, they are finished with the set
Why are missed reps or “misses” included in the set? The training incorporates misses for two main reasons. First, to ensure that the athlete is not overtraining. USRPT is a great tool to show the readiness of an athlete. In my experience, there have been days where I fail out of a set early.
Admittedly it is disappointing, but it indicates that my body needs rest. Second, we need to look back at the intent of USRPT, which is to train the body and brain to replicate a specific pace. If an athlete is swimming at a slower than desired pace, that slower pace builds into the athlete’s “muscle memory.” The goal of this training is for the athlete to know the exact pace to hold on race day without giving it much thought.
A crucial thing to keep in mind with USRPT is that the athlete is going to fail. They will not make every repetition of a set; if they do, their pace time is too slow. The athlete must be aware of this. If they go into a USRPT set with the idea of failure being that they do not make each one of the repetitions, they will leave the workout dejected. Instead, talk with them beforehand and ensure they understand the purpose and intent of the set.
There are a few special accommodations that I would account for with triathletes.
First is open water. Swimming in open water is slower than swimming in a pool, so a race day goal time of 40min may be a very attainable pace for an athlete to hold in the pool. I would consider bringing down the overall pool pace by a few minutes (ex: a pace of 40min would become 32min).
Second, triathletes have two other events to complete after the swim, so I suggest that an athlete be instructed not to go over 80% of RPE at any point during this set. If the athlete trains in this style at an RPE above 80%, their body and mind will learn to compete at a pace that requires them to exert more than desired. In this scenario, an athlete may have a great swim with little left in the tank for the bike and run. We want to ensure that the athlete has a good, comfortable swim so they are ready to get after the rest of their race!
Happy swimming, biking, and running!
Swimming Science Journal: https://coachsci.sdsu.edu/swim/index.htm
USRPT Articles: https://coachsci.sdsu.edu/swim/usrpt/table.htm
Coach Sydney brings more than 20 years of swimming experience to Team MPI as both a swimmer and coach. As a swimmer, she was a Colorado State Champion, State Record Holder, and All American. She moved on to compete for the University of North Texas, an NCAA Division I team, qualifying All-American for National Invite and Conference USA Championships. As a coach, Sydney has coaching experience at the NCAA Division I level with UNT.