Pacing to win: Energy-management tips for your goal races

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The goal for most athletes in their "A" (goal) 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 of 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 it is to hold back and plug along at a pace you can maintain. Going out too fast in an Ironman distance event makes even reaching the finish line difficult.

Pacing options
The four options to monitor your pace include 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.

Runners most commonly use speed for pacing purposes. A running race is typically broken down into 1-mile increments, and a runner can follow a certain pace they know will bring them to the finish the fastest.

Road cyclists generally use heart rate or power output for pacing purposes. Road races are full of surprises such as attacks and speed surges, so using perceived exertion is also important.

Mountain biker racers 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 is 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 that you need to keep your eyes on the trail, not your monitor.

Swimmers can use speed in the pool for pacing, but in open water there are no markers to tell them how far they have swum or how fast they are going. A heart-rate monitor is tough to use while swimming, and power output is not an option. Open-water swimmers must use perceived exertion.

Triathletes can use a combination of the above pacing options. However, in short-distance triathlons, your transitions should be clean, fast and efficient. Strapping on a heart-rate monitor in the transition slows you down. Often with the rush in the transition you may not get it on right, which means you won't get any data or else you'll continue to waste time adjusting it.

One option is to wear the heart rate monitor during the swim or use perceived exertion.

Break through 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 dead or connections to come loose. There are no chest straps or pieces to fiddle with. You can use PE during the swim, bike and run, 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, including but not limited to: arousal level, diet, 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 to use perceived exertion, study data. Study your gadget data such as power output, speed and heart rate, then correlate it to signals from your body. Pay attention to body data such as your breathing rate, muscle tension, self-talk and notice any changes 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 other 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 back off to a maintainable pace, my self-talk sounds more like, "I am feeling great, 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 I am running over my lactate threshold when my lower back tightens up and my running form stiffens. You should pace an Ironman-distance event 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.

Dont let your data hold you back
On "A" priority race day, your body should be in peak condition because you are 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 hype 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 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 some 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.

Lynda Wallenfels raced professionally as a cyclist, garnering multiple championship titles. She currently specializes in coaching mountain bikers and Xterra triathletes and counts top five nationally ranked athletes among her current clientele. She is a certified coach through USA Cycling and USA Triathlon and can be reached at

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