Question: I am doing a 24 hour solo race and am hoping to be competitive. How do you recommend pacing?
Oooh! This is a big thorny question! 24 hours is a long time to be racing your bike, and the answer to this question contains more than 24 hours worth of variables. The accurate pacing plan depends on race day/night weather, course profile, training and personal limiters.
For example, in a summer 24 hour race when it is hot during the day and cooler at night, it is best to put more effort into riding after sunset when the heat stress is lower. For a winter 24 hour event such as 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo this is not a variable to consider when formulating your pacing plan.
A 24 hour solo mountain bike race pacing plan is best broken down into five segments. It is easier to focus on distinct blocks of time as opposed to one full 24-hour chunk of time.
The Le Mans Start:
24 hour solo mountain bike races start with a Le Mans style run of about 800 yards to your bike. The race is never won on the run, but it definitely can be lost. Pacing the run is all about risk management.
If you haven’t run a lick in training, run at an easy pace with short frequent strides – kind of like pedaling on your feet! Taking long fast running strides and slapping your feet down without any training to do so will tear muscle fibers and create soreness in your legs. This will haunt you for the next 24 hours and may even create a DNF-causing injury. If you have been running short fast bursts in training, stage at the front and run fast.
Noon Start Time to 2 pm:
The next most crucial pacing period is the noon start time to around 2pm. You will have more than enough speed, motivation and energy on tap to over-pace. You need ‘governors’ in place – things to slow you down and keep the pace in check. The solo racer who comes in first place off the first lap is often also high up on the DNF list.
Use a power meter or heart rate monitor to pace yourself. Start the first couple of race laps in heart rate zone 2-3 (or with normalized power near 0.7 Intensity Factor (IF), or about 70% of functional threshold power). A power level and heart rate zone calculator can be found here.
Also, pace yourself by Perceived Exertion (PE). During the first 2 hours of the race, spin uphill in your granny gear, ride one gear easier than you feel you can on the flats, keep your breathing level quiet and ride with no burn in your legs.
2 pm to Sunset:
Keep your heart rate mostly in zone 2, and normalized power in the 0.7 IF range. Aim for even-paced lap splits. Chip away at the lap count at a comfortable PE.
Sunset to Dawn:
At the 6-7 hour mark in a 24 hour solo, heart rate becomes depressed with fatigue and natural circadian rhythm. Allow your heart rate to drop. Fighting to keep your heart rate up after sunset will lead to over-pacing. Lap splits and PE become the key pacing tools after sunset. Keep lap splits as tight and consistent as possible. Keep PE in a comfortable range. No drilling it yet!
Keep pit stops short to avoid cooling down and resist the temptation to crawl into your sleeping bag during the “witching hours”.
Dawn to Finish:
Dawn to finish is the time to spend what you have left. If you are in survival mode, keep it steady, manage problems that have appeared, and stay on the course for as long as possible. Placing is often determined by laps at this point. One more lap can bump you up ten places in the standings. Use the mantra “a slow lap is better than no lap”.
Ideally, you have paced and fueled the first 18 hours accurately. Dawn is the time to start spending big and pick up the pace. Ride faster, bring your heart rate back up and drop your lap split times. Push the pace a little past your comfort level and ride as fast as you can to the finish!
Below is a heart rate file from a beautifully paced 24-hour solo mountain bike race. This athlete finished on the podium.