The goal for most athletes in their A races is to go as fast as they can, use up every ounce of energy resources and cross the finish line completely spent, yet still going strong. A pacing strategy is needed to avoid blowing up before the finish line, but also know you gave the race all you had. You spent all your beans.
Pacing Mistakes The most common pacing mistake is to go out too fast and blow before the finish. Equally frustrating can be finishing with enough energy to do the race over again. Pacing is a skill learned during countless training days and races.
To pace perfectly, you need to know exactly where and when to spend your energy, and how much energy you have available to spend. You must know how long your race is going to last and what intensity you can maintain for that duration. The longer the distance of the race, the more important holding back and plugging along at a pace you can maintain becomes. Going out too fast in an endurance distance event, makes even reaching the finish line difficult.
Pacing Options There are four options to monitor your pace; speed, heart rate, power output and perceived exertion. Using numbers from a training gadget, such as a heart rate monitor or power meter is a good starting point to establish your pacing strategy. For example, if you know you can maintain a heart rate of 150 beats per minutes for 90 minutes in training you can probably maintain this in a race for two hours.
Mountain Bikers should use perceived exertion as their primary race pace monitor. Speed cannot be used due to the changing nature of trail conditions. A muddy race will be slower than a race on the same course in dry hard packed conditions. Heart rate and power output are difficult to use for pacing purposes off-road due to difficulty in seeing the monitor. During off-road races the numbers on a heart rate or power monitor may be covered in mud or the course may be so technical, you need to keep your eyes on the trail, not your monitor. Exceptions to this are endurance events, from the marathon to 24-hour solo durations. Power meters and heart rate monitors are excellent pacing tools for the longer duration off-road events.
Breakthrough Barriers with Perceived Exertion (PE) Perceived exertion is king when it comes to race pacing. PE is always switched on; it has no batteries to go flat or connections to come loose. There are no chest straps, or pieces to fiddle with. You can use PE in rain, in mud, anywhere, anytime. Pacing by PE may allow you to maintain faster paces than you ever have before.
Pacing by Heart Rate Heart rate is a clouded measure of performance and pacing. It is affected by many things; arousal level, diet, coffee binges, dehydration, altitude, cardiac drift, heat and humidity. Using heart rate alone to pace yourself in races is the most unreliable option of the four pacing options. Unfortunately it is one of the most common due to the widespread ownership of heart rate monitors among endurance athletes.
Failing Gadgets Reliance on a data producing gadget in a race can be tenuous. What if the battery dies, you lose a part or the wires come loose? What now? How do you know how fast to go? Is your race over when your gadgets fail?
Elite Athletes A characteristic common to all elite athletes, in all sports, is they have a fine tuned sense of perceived exertion. Elites read a combination of signals put out by their bodies to know what level they are working at, that day, and at that moment. For example, an elite athlete will be able to tell you what heart rate they are working at without looking at their monitor. This heightened connection with their body is developed during thousands of hours of training and paying attention.
How to learn Perceived Exertion Skills To teach yourself the skill of perceived exertion, study data, such as power output, speed and heart rate, and correlate it to signals from your body. Body signals to listen to include breathing rate, muscle tension, self-talk and change in form. In a two hour race I know I am pacing myself too fast when a little voice in my head starts to say
“What are you doing this for? There are more pleasant ways to recreate on a Saturday morning.”
I have learned to recognize this self-talk and reduce my pace slightly in response. When I have backed off to a maintainable pace, my self-talk will sound more like this
“I feel so great and am going so fast, this is the way I want to feel every Saturday morning.”
Perceive Your Race Pace Using perceived exertion as a race pacing measure requires you to correlate the exercise intensity that is optimal for your race distance with key body signals. For a short race, know where your lactate threshold is and the point of non returnable anaerobic debt. I know when I am over my lactate threshold when my lower back tightens up and my form stiffens. You should pace long endurance distance events at your aerobic threshold. This is the point at which you first perceive a deepening of the breath. Learn to correlate a variety of body signals with a certain level of exercise intensity.
Don’t Let Your Data Hold You Back On A priority race day your body should be in peak condition; trained, tapered, fueled, hydrated and ready to go. You should be in the position for a breakthrough performance producing more power, and going faster than ever before. Pacing yourself using numbers from a data producing gadget (heart rate monitor or power meter) you have seen in training may act as a governor and hold you back from a breakthrough performance.
Long Distance Events PE and heart rate can be misleading on the occasions where there is a lot of buzz surrounding a race and you are at a high arousal level. You can easily start a race too fast by losing sight of your race strategy and speeding along with or ahead of the pack. This is a costly mistake in a long distance event. In long distance races it is important to use concrete measurements such as speed and power output to hold you back and ensure that you are moving at a pace you can maintain for the duration of the event.
It takes trial an error to hone in on exactly the right pacing strategy for each race. Experiment by using a combination of perceived exertion plus one or more of the other pacing options to find your perfect formula.