When you're fit, perfect pacing may not be the best strategy.
This past weekend was the Bogus Hill Climb. A couple hundred athletes powered up the steady slopes that overlook our city. Leading into this race, I received a number of questions from athletes on pacing. Here is the story I told:
About fifteen years ago, I was training for the Hill Climb, and wanting to break the 1 hour mark for the climb. I had done the race a few times before, each time finishing just a minute or two over an hour.
The day before the race, I ran into a friend, a professional triathlete who had gone around 56min for the climb in years past. I told him my goal of wanting to break an hour for the climb, and asked if he had any advice for me.
He asked me to explain my pacing strategy.
I'll start a few rows back from the starting line, and try to hold an even effort, about 320 watts, from beginning to end.
That's a stupid strategy. Stop being a pansy.
Oh, okay...it seems like a sensible pacing strategy.
Put yourself on the front line of the race. Stay with the leaders until you blow up. Then, just keep pushing with whoever you find yourself with.
That sounds like a bad plan.
It may be. Tell me how it goes.
The next morning, I decided to follow his advice. What did I have to lose? I lined up on the front line of the race, mentally committing to stay with the lead group for as long as possible, or die trying.
The guns went off, and riders began attacking almost immediately. After a few miles I found myself in a select group of about 15 riders. We passed the half way point a couple minutes faster than my prior personal record time. I dared not look at my power meter or heart rate monitor. Ignorance is best in moments like that.
We reached the tree line. The group had been pruned down to about 10 riders, with me holding on at the back, but somehow still holding on. At that point, a couple riders shot off the front, not to be seen again until the finish line.
Over the final miles to the summit, I died a thousand deaths. Yet somehow I stayed with that select group. A couple more shot off the front, and a few more fell off.
In the end, I crossed the line around 57 minutes. A huge PR, all thanks to a friend's advice to throw the perfect pacing strategy out the window.
I walked away from that race having learned a valuable lesson: pacing has a time and place, but it allows little chance for a breakout performance. You are less likely to be disappointed with perfect pacing, but you are also less likely to surprise yourself.
There are situations that favor pacing, and others that do not:
When to respect pacing:
- During long events
- When you feel underprepared
- When there is little drafting benefit
- If you tend to get overly excited and blow up in races
When to throw pacing out the window:
- During short events that you are well prepared for
- When you are feeling very fit, and may be ready for a breakout performance
- When there is a draft benefit from other races (swim, bike, and even some run events).
- If you have a history of pacing yourself conservatively, always finishing exactly as you expected.