The not-so-secret “secrets” of setting PRs

img_0996The not-so-secret “secret” of setting PRs is building backward from the race distance itself in terms of time needed to prepare and to establish race “markers” for progress along the way. 

Then one must create fitness using an incrementally-based training program to build from racing shorter distances to the entire race distance, correcting flaws or weaknesses learned from empiric feedback along the way.

But most of all, don’t neglect to challenge yourself beyond your perceived capabilities.  That is the most neglected factor in setting PRs. 


The challenge of setting personal records (PRs) in any event and at any distance is the reason why many of us engage in endurance sports at all. We all thrill to the idea that we’ve just done our best ever time.

Many factors contribute to setting personal records. That’s why one actually has to work backward from the factors affecting the actual event in order to prepare for setting a personal record. A simple “unknown” variable such as strong winds or heavy precipitation on race day can ruin any hope of setting a record.

Boston strong

Witness the recent conditions of the Boston Marathon. The only thing that training helped those runners do is complete the race. Some wisely didn’t waste themselves trying to succeed on a cold, wet, windy day. Others tried and “failed” to run their best race.

So one must begin the plan to set a PR by assessing the odds. Planning a half marathon that is typically held during a really hot or cold season increases the risks. That’s why many runners plot their PR efforts for the Half Marathon or Marathon distances around races with traditionally moderate weather.

Risk factors

There is still risk involved, but it is moderated by confidence gained in the fact that you have a better chance to chase a PR. From there, you can “back date” from the race to the time needed to prepare. For a Half Marathon, a runner who normally trains year-round should expect to invest at least eight weeks of buildup to that distance. For a marathon, it is more like twelve weeks.

Racing into shape

GASP 10For targeting longer races, one should count on racing shorter distances during the buildup. This accomplishes several things.

  1. Tests training against goal–race-pace for distance
  2. Builds concentration and confidence during the training phase
  3. Gives vital feedback on mind/body strength and weakness loops
  4. Gets you used to the competitive or group atmosphere

The Tri-range

All these “tests” are important to racing success. For triathletes training for the Olympic, Half-Ironman distance, it is thus helpful to participate in races below the target distance. For Olympic triathletes, that means doing one or two Sprints to test pace capability in the water/bike/run phases and to practice realtime transitions.

The feedback from shorter races should inform adjustments to training. If the swim needs work, it should be emphasized, and so on.

Pure running and cycling

Pure runners or cyclists will also learn plenty from racing shorter distances. As a 5K to Half-Marathon competitor in my peak years, I literally ‘climbed the ladder’ from shorter to longer as the spring season progressed. Racing 5Ks requires some real speedwork, but early season races will seldom produce 5K PRs anyway. Some runners coming off an indoor track season will be in great shape come April, but many will need that month to prepare for racing late that month and into early May.

Cycling is a completely different animal, because its events are so completely different. Racing criterium events of 40:00 to one hour requires practice. Our local bike club holds weekly criterium events so that riders can race in their Category and get used to racing in tight packs, drafting and cornering. Some early-season heroes will have their sprint muscles in shape by May, but more expect to race hard starting from Memorial Day through the end of September in temperate zones such as Illinois. Further south in the United States, great racing continues well into October and November.

The wide range of cycling needs

SpinThe notion of a “PR” in pure bike racing is so highly dependent on the behavior of the pack that one cannot even measure the results or speed of one race against another without factoring in the speed of the group as a major component of a given average speed for any distance. The “PR” of which most cyclists speak is often reduced to “I was there for the bunch sprint and averaged 24 mph.”

The goal in cycling is to “be there” when the action happens. May cyclists and triathletes have taken to indoor training in order to build a base for outdoor riding come spring.

But even this base training must be structured to cover a range of efforts and encourage the efficiency necessary to stay competitive from start to finish. Come spring, that means long (steady) rides to build basal cardiovascular fitness and metabolism. Interval training and pace lines with superior riders are key to building an endurance foundation. Actual sprint training is critical to developing closing speed, and of course climbing must be included if one has any hope of sticking with the group on any grades of tarmac.

Multisport “PRs”

The same goes to some extent for racing any triathlon. While there are no “hills” in the water, there are sometimes currents or choppy lake conditions for which one must prepare. Bike training should follow the menu in which a pure cyclist must engage, with a mix of long training rides and hard, muscle-building intervals and climbing.

Finally comes the “brick” portion when triathletes feel the grunt and strain of cadence coming off the bike into the run. While many choose to do “brick” runs, I think it is perhaps a “secret” that hard running intervals with short recoveries are better in the long run for triathletes trying to build the capability to run fast on legs tired from a hard bike. The effectiveness of so-called “brick” runs may be overestimated.

Having witnessed hundreds of triathletes do run training over the past five years, I am convinced that 90% of these multisport athletes never run speed workouts hard or fast enough to genuinely test or strain their muscles in preparation for the sensations of racing. Running four mile intervals at “Ironman pace” does absolutely nothing to teach the body how to handle strain beyond the comfort zone. Nor does jumping off the bike and slogging along until the body feels better. One can argue this is a type of “specificity” training, but it may be deceptive and teach a triathlete all the wrong things. Because in practice, how many triathletes truly push themselves on these bricks (or duathletes from run to bike)?

Common themes

Last Climb Horribly HillyThus the “common theme” in failure to set PRs is that athletes simply do not challenge themselves sufficiently along the way. That is the only way to gain confidence and strength in the pursuit of PRs. 

The best way to improve toward setting a PR is to race early, race hard and race relative often. That’s the only way you can get truly honest, empiric feedback on the effectiveness and outcomes of your training.

Let’s face it, if you can’t PR at the 5K distance, how do you expect to run 10 miles longer and still go faster? It all starts from intense focus on the foundations of swimming, cycling and running. That’s why some swim coaches are now recommending triathletes break their training into faster, shorter intervals. That’s the only way to make faster swimmers. By swimming faster. The “longer” endurance phase will come by adding workload incrementally.

Then one should test the arms in an open water swim separate from a multisport event. That is an honest take on the baseline, and many multisport athletes do use open water events in advance of Olympic, Half or Ironman races.

But do triathletes also find a time trial bike race to get down in aero and go all out against a specific distance? Those races exist, and there is no judgement by the pure cycling crowd against a tri-bike showing up for that. Just don’t try to enter a cycling criterium using your tri-bike. It is not designed for that purpose at all, and you will not be allowed to enter.

Incremental PRs add up to full distance accomplishments

Most importantly, everyone who runs should enter shorter races from 5K to 10K and practice their race pace. The focus here should be on “running well.” That is, establish a target pace and practice it with full intention. If your race pace in an Olympic (10K) or Half Ironman (Half-Marathon) is 8:00 per mile, then it is a reasonable early season expectation that you run that 8:00 per mile pace at a distance of five kilometers. Progress toward full-distance fitness will be determined by one’s ability to race that pace for 10K and if possible, a 10-mile race before testing the body in the Half-Marathon distance.

These concepts are true for any athlete of any age. As we grow older, our times may not equate to lifetime records, but our age-group efforts depend just as strongly, and perhaps moreso, on this ‘step-ladder’ approach to racing your way up the rungs to full-distance racing.

Ladder workoutIn that light, one of the most effective training device in all three sports; swimming, cycling and running, is the true “ladder workout” in which one performs intervals from short to long and back down again. All at race pace or below. This replicates both race pace and the challenges of “brick” performance when legs and heart and mind are tired. 

We repeat:

The not-so-secret “secret” of setting PRs is building backward from the race distance itself in terms of time needed to prepare and to establish race “markers” for progress along the way. 

Then one must create fitness using an incrementally-based training program to build from racing shorter distances to the entire race distance, correcting flaws or weaknesses learned from empiric feedback along the way.

But most of all, don’t neglect to challenge yourself beyond your perceived capabilities.  That is the most neglected factor in setting PRs. 

It’s realistic. It’s fact-based. And it’s honest. That’s the only way to set a PR. The rest is just dreaming about it.




About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at, and Online portfolio:
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