Different races require different pacing strategies. Even at the highest level of the sport. While world-class athletes are the fittest humans on earth, they still must play by the same physiological rules as the rest of us! During 2022, Kilian Jornet has raced successfully from 3 hours all the way up to 22 hours. How does he do this? How far does he push his body? What can the average athlete take away from this pacing for their own training and strategies? Read below to see how Kilian paces his efforts, and how you too can maximize your race performance.
Kilian’s Watch Model: APEX PRO
Specificity of Training
On the surface, it’s easy to see that Kilian won both Zegama and Hardrock. Many athletes and viewers will chalk this up as Kilian being one of the greatest ever to run trails, and think nothing more of it. However, when you start to look at the data, how he ran a 3:37:40 race is very different from how he ran a 21:36:29 race. Yes, both were high terrain trail races, but both used different physiological processes and required a different focus during his training. The takeaway for readers should be that specificity in training matters. Understanding what goes into performing well in a 5k, marathon, and ultra marathon can make the difference between building your performance, or hitting a plateau with your speed and results. Simply put, train the zones that will be stressed during your upcoming races. In Kilian’s case, he added a ton of Aerobic Endurance, high volume training heading into the Hardrock 100!
Zegama Race Analysis
Kilian Jornet ran Zegama in 3:37:40. For many marathoners, this is a time they would expect to see near the finish of their 26.2 miles. When looking at what the human body can sustain for this amount of time, many athletes will fall within their Aerobic Power zone. The more fit and experienced you become, the more you can flirt with your Threshold for prolonged periods of time. What makes Kilian one of the greatest all time is his ability to push beyond what’s recommended for short durations, and then recover downhill while running at top speeds. While this is a tactic Kilian can use on hilly terrain, for many marathon athletes, it would be wise to limit your effort to Threshold or below. For Kilian however, he actually went into his VO2 reserves a bit over each of the peaks.
Heart Rate Data
Kilian’s effort was well above the recommendation for how to pace a marathon properly. That being said, we previously alluded to how Kilian can recover quickly on downhills at excessive speeds. You can see from the data above that Kilian spent 22% of his time (47:08) above Threshold!
If you look closer, many of the uphills for Kilian were run between Aerobic Power and Threshold, with saving his Anaerobic Endurance for key uphill sections with steep terrain. As soon as he crests the climbs, you can see a reduction in heart rate to ensure he doesn’t create more fatigue than his body can handle!
Kilian has a world class aerobic system which can be stressed, but quickly recover. Beyond this, Kilian’s strength is his downhill running speed at easy efforts. For many readers going through this article, we would stress that for races lasting between 3 to 4 hours, you primarily utilize your Aerobic Endurance and Aerobic Power zones. Save your Threshold zone for the toughest sections, but aim to reduce your effort immediately upon finishing that section.
Hardock 100 Analysis
100 miles is a completely different beast! Consider this your all-day pacing. Even for the best runners in the world, there comes a point where time at Threshold will break your body down and result in fatigue/slower times later in the day. While Kilian does have one of the best aerobic systems in the world, there is only so much energy the human body can produce. Kilian utilized a far more conservative pacing strategy for Hardrock 100 while still maximizing his downhill running abilities! Due to his strategic and scientifically proven approach, Kilian was able to break the course record on one of the hardest courses in the world!
Heart Rate Data
The proof is in the data. The difference between a 3:37:40 race and a 21:36:29 race is obvious. Kilian scaled back his effort substantially as the body can only support effort above Aerobic Endurance for so long (roughly 3-5 hours). During Hardrock, Kilian saved his higher efforts for steep terrains and technical sections. While there were portions where Kilian needed to push, he only spent a total of 19 minutes in his Threshold zone (1%). For many amateur athletes, this should be a note you take away from this article. There are times to push, but your efforts should be dictated by the duration of the race. How far into the red can you go before your body says enough is enough. For many ultra runners, there is never a good time to race above threshold.
Racing shouldn’t be about pushing your hardest straight from the start. Rather, its about maximizing your result by racing smart! Kilian does an exceptional job of maximizing his strengths (downhill running) while pacing appropriately (uphills). As you read this article, start to think about your next upcoming race. What are your strengths as a runner? How can you develop a pacing strategy based on the time and terrain? When can you push, when should you recover?
Improve Your Performance
We have seen how the best in the world races from 3 hours all the way up to 22 hours. Different pacing strategies for different durations. What is your next key event? Are you running a 1 mile race (VO2max), 5k (VO2-Threshold), 1/2 marathon (Aerobic Power-Threshold), marathon (Aerobic Power-Aerobic Endurance) or beyond (Aerobic Endurance). Do you know the best way to build your specific fitness while also improving your speed?
Improve Aerobic Speed
Even if you’re running ultra’s, there is still a need for you to improve your speed. Essentially, all of your aerobic zones are comprised as a percentage of your Threshold. Simply put, the faster your Threshold, the faster you will run while in your Aerobic Endurance zone. While its often easy to fall into the trap of “volume, volume, volume” all runners should look to improve their Threshold and VO2max if they want to improve their speed. To help with this, we have created specific training plans to help you increase your Threshold and VO2.
12 Week Run Speed Development Plan (click to download to Training Hub)
8 Week Threshold Development Plan (click to download to Training Hub)
Periodize Your Training!
All great training is done through focused efforts. Depending on your goals for the season, you should be training in different ways throughout the year to maximize your results. This term, periodization, is centered around the idea of training different focuses throughout the year. For athletes looking to run long distances at fast paces, there should be times of speedwork, along with times of high volume training. Continually changing the stress on your body while preparing for all demands of race day is the best way to ensure you achieve your best results! Click on the link above to learn more about periodization.
Overall Coaching Thoughts
When asking athletes about their strategy for races, we often hear “I’m going to push myself to my limit”. What does that mean? Depending on the race duration, there are different energy systems that your body will need to utilize. For any race over 90 seconds, you will primarily be using your aerobic system. For any race over 80 minutes, you’ll primarily be working under your Aerobic Threshold. Therefore, when giving our final coaching thoughts, we would encourage you to set a realistic time goal for your race and understand the effort associated with this time.
Next, identify key sections of the race. For Killian, he understands that he can be aggressive for short amounts of time if there is a downhill recovery immediately after. Have you ever looked at course profiles and set “effort” levels to fit your own strategy?
Lastly, we urge all athletes to understand that we can only push so far before our bodies fatigue and we see diminishing returns. Regardless of how talented you are, you cannot defy human physiology. Understand where your current fitness is, and set realistic expectations based on the duration of the event. If you are looking to get faster for your next race, we strongly encourage you to focus on your Threshold abilities as this will make all other aerobic zones faster as well!
Best of luck on your next major race! Go in with a focused plan and look to explore perfection as you race smarter and faster!