How to Build a Race Day Pacing Plan
article by Jonathan Lee of TrainerRoad
Most bike races and triathlons are endurance events that require you to pace your effort. To make sure your next race is successful, create a pacing plan and follow it with precision.
In every bike race your energy should be viewed as an hourglass. The harder you work, the faster the sand falls to the bottom. If you pace correctly, you’ll be able to time it so that the last grain of sand drops as you cross the line. For years pacing your effort has been a based off of perception and prone to error, but that is changing.
Power meters have enabled cyclists to objectively measure their actual work. Since they are measuring joules, a unit of energy, you can correctly understand how much energy potential you have and pace yourself so that you don’t run out of energy too early.
Pacing with Perception
If you don’t have a power meter, all is not lost. Perception, no matter what the data tells you, is an irreplaceable gauge of your performance. By combining knowledge of past performances over a similar course or distance, you should be able to roughly estimate what type of effort you can put out on race day.
To give you a point of reference, your FTP is usually about a 7.5-8 out of 10 on a 1-10 rate of perceived exertion scale. Whatever output or speed that is, you should be able to sustain your 7.5 or 8/10 pace for an hour. No more, no less.
That is pretty straight forward if you are riding a one hour TT, but this is most likely not the case. Over time, it’s important to pay attention to what rate of perceived exertion you can sustain for a variety of durations. As experience and knowledge accumulates, you will have a rough idea of how to pace yourself.
The problem with pacing by perception is that most races are far from consistent. Course undulations, wind, racing tactics and a host of other variables are sure to throw a wrench in the proverbial spokes of riding at a constant rate of perceived exertion. This is where power meters steal the show.
Pacing with Power
Power meters will give you an objective measurement of your output that you can rely on. By having reliable data to reference from all of your training and racing, you will know exactly what you can and cannot do. Utilizing Average Power is one of the best ways to use your power meter to pace an effort. By assessing your max power output over defined durations, you’ll be able to use your power meter to react to the ever-changing landscape of a race.
For example, if a rider with an FTP of 300 is going to race an hour long criterium, a maximal effort would be an average of 300 watts for the whole duration. However, since this is a criterium, chances are the rider will have to chase down moves and breakaways, and maybe even start a breakaway.
If this rider is in a breakaway and is wondering if it is sustainable, they can keep an eye on their average power. If the pace shows no signs of relenting and the current average power is over 300, they’ll know the pace isn’t personally sustainable.
Same goes for a late race breakaway. If a rider gets away from the pack with five minutes of racing left, having a knowledge of a max five minute power is extremely helpful. This allows you to race with a plan instead of hoping and risking a last lap blow up.
As helpful as a power meter is, you can never race by numbers alone. Perception still plays a necessary role in pacing while power data simply informs your perception with objective data.
Pacing with Best Bike Split
Have you ever wondered if it’s better to push hard on a climb and recover on the descent? Or to hold a lower, sustainable pace over the climb and go harder on the descent? These questions have long been a source of contention, but tech is once again debunking myths and showing us the way.
To get even more value from your power meter, you can use an app called Best Bike Split. This app tells you how to pace every second of your race in order to fulfill your maximum potential or meet a goal time. Best Bike Split isn’t affiliated with TrainerRoad in any way, but we’re big fans of their app and what they do. We regularly use it to build our race strategies. In fact, it was instrumental in nearly every one of my race wins last year. Here’s how to use it:
Download The Course
You can use Strava, Garmin Connect, Ride With GPS, or other mapping services to create, replicate and download a GPS file of the race route. You can even download the GPS file of a course from a past ride by you or somebody else. If the event is a recurring event, make sure the route hasn’t changed.
Set Up Best Bike Split
Best Bike Split allows you to generate a limited amount of race plans for free, but their paid models allow you to create and compare even more race models. Once you create your account, set up your profile. This involves entering everything from rider weight, height and age to what depth wheels and groupset you have. It’s detailed because the details matter.
Upload Your Course and Create a Plan
The next step is to upload the GPS file of your course and build a race plan using that course. There are a few different ways you can do this, and each of them depend on your objective on race day.
If you want to know what type of performance you are capable of, then use the FTP model. Best Bike Split will use your threshold to calculate where you should go hard and where you should go easy in order to do your absolute best. Since this represents your potential, I always recommend generating this race plan and using it as a point of reference for others.
For longer races or events where you are hoping to PR in terms of time, this is a great method. Whether you want to break 11 hours at your next IRONMAN or do a 4:30 century, this will tell you exactly what you need to do every step of the way.
Watch out for unattainable numbers with this method. If you have just finished with a 12- hour IRONMAN time but want to do a sub 10 next year, chances it is far outside of your potential. This is where a time-based race plan can really help with goal setting.
If you are a triathlete looking to come off the bike with energy to spare for your run, this is a great option. This does require knowledge of your typical energy consumption, but if you have that, you can get really specific.
Listen to Certified Cycling Coaches Discuss Race Pacing
Race day pacing is one topic we covered in last week’s episode of the Ask a Cycling Coach podcast. Listen to the episode’s full recording below to hear this and other questions from cyclists get answered by our certified cycling coaches.
TrainerRoad’s Ask a Cycling Coach podcast is dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. It gives you the chance to get answers to your cycling and triathlon training questions from USAC certified coaches Chad Timmerman, Jonathan Lee and special guests. Learn more about other topics we covered in the latest episode with our resources below:
Jonathan Lee is a Level II USA certified cycling coach and the host of the Ask a Cycling Coach podcast. His background in the sport of motocross has translated into a passion for cycling, mountain biking and all things training.
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