So last week we discussed training at the correct intensity during long, endurance sessions. This week, we are following a similar theme but we are focusing more on race strategy and how to pace yourself during an event. Many of the things we’ve discussed in the past weeks are critical not just for training but also during competition, so let’s complete an overview of past topics and how they relate to race pacing:
- For longer events, fat utilisation is critical to prevent glycogen stores depleting quickly. You should have optimised this in training beforehand, but during your race, riding and running at the correct intensity is critical. If your race pace is too quick, then you are in danger of running your glycogen stores low, resulting in a poor performance.
- Maintain a constant intensity and avoiding spikes is also critical. If you push hard on uphills and recover on the downhills, your intensity will vary greatly throughout the race. Remember, when you pick your intensity for any event, average figures (average heart rate or average power) or pretty useless as a guide. You need to hold the intensity constant, with little change in intensity. If you aim to ride or run at a heart rate figure of 130 beats per minute, then set yourself a tight range of 125-135 for the duration of the event. Slow on the uphills and hold pace on the flat and downhills.
- Avoid the fast start or you’ll suffer later in the event. It’s very clear watching ironman races, marathon and ultra races that at least 90% of the field start at a quicker pace than they finish. There are 3 main reasons for this: The first is that you are fresh, so going hard feels easy. Coupled with this, you have an adrenaline shot at the start, so this exaggerates how good you feel. The killer shot is the fact that everyone else feels the same, so they all go too quick and it takes a very brave person not to react and follow everyone else!
There is an element of sheer panic for many people during the first hour of an event, when riders and runners are streaming past them at a quicker pace. From a psychological standpoint, this is incredibly difficult to handle, so we inevitably end up going with the flow of traffic and picking up our pace.
Here’s the thing, most of those people passing you in the early hours of an ironman bike course, or the opening miles of an ultra race, will be walking huge chunks of the event in the latter stages. If your better pacing means that you are still running in the latter stages, any time losses now will be erased and reversed without any issues whatsoever. In fact, many of them might actually drop out and not even finish!! This is the most important race of the year for you, having spent 12 months preparing, are you going to blindly follow someone who is pacing the event badly? Knowing deep inside that you’re riding or running at the wrong pace, are you going to chase them, only to ‘blow up’ in spectacular fashion later in the day and destroy your chances of a great performance? Sound stupid? Well that’s how a lot of people race.
Focus on the process and not on the outcome
Let’s make this very simple. In a long distance endurance event, you can only go at the pace that YOU are able to sustain for the duration of the event, what everyone else does, should not affect your race strategy. Prior to your event, you should have a pre-set intensity that you are intending to sustain. You may have a power meter on your bike to measure watts or you may have a heart rate monitor to gauge how hard you are working. Once you have that pre-set intensity, you should stick to it and ignore all other competitors. This concept is termed ‘process orientated’ as opposed to ‘goal orientated’ racing.
What’s the difference?
Goal orientated is simple, you set a target of 12 hours for your event and you swim, ride or run as fast as required to achieve that 12 hour time. It doesn’t matter if you’re going quicker than you can handle, you simply chase the pre-set time. Process orientated refers to you focusing on the process of swimming, cycling and running at the right pace. Following a nutrition plan and doing all the things you’ve trained to do beforehand. You focus on the process only and ultimately, when you reach the line, the finish time is whatever the finish time is. What’s key, is that is you focus well on the processes, your finish time will be the best you are capable of on that day.
Process orientated racing works best in longer events as tactics play less of a role. You can’t control who enters the event and you can’t control how well those people race. As a consequence, you cannot control your finish position at the end of the day. The only thing you CAN control is your own pacing and race strategy, to give you the best possible chance of achieving the finish time you hoped for.
Live in the here and now
Ultimately, whilst you will have a pre-set pacing plan, you will have to be flexible on the day. Your pacing strategy and other actions should be based on the ‘here and now’. You should be making regular checks and asking yourself how you feel at that moment in time and whether there is anything you need to do as a consequence. For example, if you had planned to run at 5 minutes per Km pace and you feel that pace slowing, then you should not panic. Instead, think about what you need to do at that time to solve the problem. Do you need to eat and drink? Do you need to slow a little? Be flexible, don’t just continue in a blind manner trying to hold the same pace or it will result in a major collapse.
One of the key things to remember when competing in long distance events such as Ironman or ultra running is that energy can fluctuate. In a simple marathon race, you tend to feel ok at the start and then gradually get worse as the event progresses. In an Ironman marathon or ultra race, you can have patched where you have to walk because you feel so low, but 5 miles later, you may be running at a strong pace.
When you have a drop in energy, don’t lose focus and don’t lose your head. That’s the point where lots of people just give up, start walking and never start running again. Focus on the here and now, what do you have to do to solve the problem and get back to the plan? Whatever happens, you can only be as good as you can be on that particular day. If you focus on the processes, you’ll know that when you cross that line, that’s as good as you are, for today at least.
– Marc Laithwaite
Sports Science lecturer for 10 years at St Helens HE College.
2004 established The Endurance Coach LTD sports science and coaching business. Worked with British Cycling as physiology support 2008-2008. Previous Triathlon England Regional Academy Head Coach, North West.
In 2006 established Epic Events Management LTD. Now one of the largest event companies in the NW, organising a range of triathlon, swimming and cycling events. EPIC EVENTS also encompasses Montane Trail 26 and Petzl Night Runner events.
In 2010 established Montane Lakeland 50 & 100 LTD. This has now become the UKs leading ultra distance trail running event.
In 2010 established The Endurance Store triathlon, trail running and open water swimming store. Based in Appley Bridge, Wigan, we are the North West’s community store, organising and supporting local athletes and local events.
Check out the endurance store HERE