Pacing Strategy: Flat Out or Even-Steven?

<strong>2005 Giro prologue winner Brett Lancaster of Ceremica Panaria</strong><br><br><em>Getty Images/Franck Fife</em>

If you watched the Giro Prologue (2005), you couldn't help but be struck by how many of the pros misjudged the short distance, blasting out of the gates and then crashing and burning well before the line. What pacing strategy can you use to get from A to B without flaming out?

Despite tactical nuances and racing dynamics, the essence of many endurance sports, from kayaking to swimming and long-track speedskating, comes down to an individual effort to complete a set distance in the fastest time possible. And in time trials of any distance and any sport, one of the critical determinants of success is how well you gauge your efforts.

There is nothing worse than misjudging your pace and blowing up well before the line. Well, nothing except for the bitter feeling of crossing the line knowing you still have plenty of juice to spare.

Pacing Strategies

A number of research studies have either modeled ideal pacing strategy, or else analyzed the effort of elite athletes during their time trial events. Most non-elite athletes fall into either a "go for broke" strategy or else a "J-shaped" pacing profile. As evidenced by the Giro prologue, this happens not just to beginners, but to anyone who isn't used to the effort required for a specific distance.

Going-for-Broke Strategy
In the go-for-broke pattern, you will see an athlete start out at a pace that is well beyond their sustained power output level. They fly like a bat out of hell right out of the starting gate, but then accumulate so much fatigue in their system that their power output drops dramatically throughout the event. Their hearts pound out of their throats and their legs turn to lead, such that they can barely sustain any kind of decent pace, often having to struggle at a greatly reduced pace simply to get to the finish line.

J-shaped strategy
The J-shaped strategy is a bit more sophisticated than flaming out, and is likely the default pattern that most of us fall into. Namely, we start out a bit harder than our sustainable workload, then drop below that workload for the majority of the event due to accumulated fatigue from the early effort (and also likely from lack of focus and other psychological obstacles). Then we realize that the finish line is close and we still have a lot to give, then try to make up for lost time by pushing hard the final quarter or so of the event.


The problem with both of these typical strategies is that they are, in the vast majority of cases, performed at a much lower average power output than a strategy of even, or flat, pacing. With flat pacing, your goal is to maintain an even power output throughout all segments of your race regardless of course conditions.

How do you go about achieving flat pacing? As discussed below, it requires a lot of practice and discipline, along with the right tools. A power monitor is ideal, but not always necessary.

With short hills, you have to make the decision based on your self-knowledge. Do you have the fitness and condition to "attack" the hill at a higher pace and then to recover and settle back down to your target pace? If not (e.g., hill is too long or too steep), you may be better off staying seated and maintaining your target power output throughout the hill. It's a gamble but that's what racing's all about!

Obviously, out on the road, changing terrain and wind is going to affect your speed, making both time and speed of little use in proper pacing. This is completely different in a velodrome (especially indoor ones), where you can calculate the exact lap times required to ride a particular race. So one of the benefits of track riding is that a simple $5 stopwatch is just as effective as the most expensive power monitor!

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