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In this article Jason Short looks at pacing a time trial. Jason is the head coach and owner of Threshold Endurance Sports. He has been racing for 15 years between the U.S and Europe. After wrapping up his degree in exercise physiology, he decided to focus more on helping aspiring athletes achieve their goals.
Have you ever raced a time trial, rode as hard as you could, crossed the line completely on empty, and upon seeing the results, found your time not to be representative of how hard you rode? Most of us have been there at some point and felt the dissatisfaction that goes along with a disappointing result paired with such an immense effort. If there’s one thing I have learned over the years in both my own races and those of my clients is that riding off feel can be very deceiving unless you already have a very good understanding of how to pace yourself. The danger in riding off feel is that it becomes easy to drain the tank too early into your time trial and puts you in a position of having to get to the finish on an empty, which in turn puts you in a world of hurt while going at a slower pace. The trick is to gradually drain your tank and time it so you’re emptying that last little bit of your tank in your final run up to the line. It really takes time and consistent practice to nail down pacing to the point where you can effectively pace yourself off feel, but the tips in this article will help you get there sooner rather than later.
Let’s take a look at what a file might look like when pacing off feel rather than output. This particular file came from a client who did feel good at a higher power output for the first 10 minutes of his TT.
Looking above, you can see that the first part of this TT had a higher power output with a lower heart rate than the second part of the TT. At about 10 to 13 minutes into the TT he realised that he was draining his tank too quickly to make it to the end. As you can see, at that point it was too late and the last 16 minutes of his TT show a rather excruciating decrease in power output with an increasing heart rate. This client said that this was one of the hardest efforts he’s ever had to suffer through, but it wasn’t his best performance in a TT by far.
Below is an example of a properly paced TT with a steady and gradual increase in power output. You can see this athlete is a little more trained as heart rate didn’t elicit any major spikes as a result of power spikes, but this athlete also did a good job of gradually ramping up power to keep heart rate under control.
One of the notable features of this file is that there is a gradual increase in power rather than a sustained decrease. You can also see where this rider drained the remainder of their tank in the final minute averaging nearly 400 watts. This portion is easily defined by the only big heart rate spike at the very end. This second file was a much more controlled effort based around the pacing strategies touched on earlier and was one of this clients best TT results to date.
One of the more important aspects of being able to properly pace yourself when dangerously flirting with your limit, is to keep your heart rate under control. This will come with proper training for time trialling, strengthening your lactate threshold and teaching your body to recover without having to drop completely back down to a recovery pace. One interval that I find to be very effective in both of these areas are “Over and Unders”. These intervals consist of turning your threshold interval into a mix of sub-threshold and supra-threshold work, teaching your body to float above and just below your limit without blowing up. For example you may do 1x12 minute over and under interval which would consist of the first 4 minutes at sub-threshold (typically known as tempo), with the next 4 minutes just above threshold (supra-threshold), and the final 4 minutes back down at sub-threshold (tempo). This is a great workout that allows you to kill two birds with one stone. Your body will have to adapt to being efficient enough at sub-threshold to be able to enter and re-enter a supra-threshold pace without dropping down to recovery pace. These sorts of intervals can also help improve your threshold output as well, making this a great type of interval to use when lacking time.
How does this help you keep your heart rate under control in a TT? In many TT’s there may be headwinds, hills, crosswinds, and all kinds of other environmental or course factors that may cause you to have to temporarily increase your power output for short periods of time. What you want to avoid is a sharp heart rate spike as a result of a higher power output. Uncontrollable heart rate spikes will often require a significant decrease in power output for some time to adequately recover from, much like having to take two steps back after taking one step forward. Teaching your body to adapt to sustained increases in output from a TT pace and to recover back down at a TT pace in training will make you more efficient come race day. The other benefit to doing this in training is that you will begin to recognise what it feels like when you extend yourself too far above threshold, to be able to recover just below your threshold and avoid over extending yourself in a race.
As you can see, pacing is about being in control of your output and flirting with that fine line of what you can sustain. Targeted training will help you raise that threshold to keep you from experiencing unwanted heart rate spikes for temporary increases in power output caused by weather or course conditions. From there, knowing what output and heart rate is sustainable for you will allow you to pace yourself effectively throughout a TT. When you go out there and do intervals, pay close attention to your heart rate and/or power numbers and take note of how you respond to output changes along with how quickly you recover from them. All that information will help you pace yourself successfully come race day.