Pacing an Epic Ride or Race

Bullet points for pacing a 100 mile gravel or mountain bike race, and you don’t want to read the full article:

  • rest, eat, and drink on the descents
  • target 3-5 kcal per hour per kg of body weight
  • target .5-1.5 bottles per hour (depending on how much you’ll sweat)
  • target 55-65% of FTP on the flats
  • target 70-75% of FTP on gradual climbs
  • target 80-90% of FTP on steeper intermediate climbs
  • go as hard as FTP on short, steep climbs, but realize that you are burning through glycogen very quickly so your fuel for this is very limited (try to keep time at or above FTP below 20-30m for the whole ride)
  • relax and breathe as comfortably as you can, no matter what intensity you are riding
  • keep your HR and effort level mostly in high-endurance or tempo territory
  • try to stay calm and keep your HR from getting into threshold territory as much as possible
  • don’t get excited and hammer when you’re going fast, it won’t save you as much time as hammering when you’re going slower uphill
  • stay with one or more riders to get a draft and stay motivated whenever possible, but don’t let other people dictate your pace (i.e. don’t hold way back when you’re clearly in much better shape, and don’t go deep to stick with a group that is much fitter/faster than you)
  • keep things under control for the first 1/3, keep it steady the middle 1/3, and dig deep the last 1/3 of the ride

Okay, now for the real article:

I’ve always really loved going deep on long training rides and in long races. It’s really satisfying to feel like I’ve emptied the tank and done a good performance, wringing out every last bit of glycogen from my legs. As an athlete that is much more aerobically gifted and not great on the anaerobic end of things, this has also been an area where I’ve excelled relative to other athletes.

Some of my favorite memories in training and racing are from doing epic long rides with a lot of threshold climbing efforts up Mt Diablo or through the Sierra Nevada mountains. I’ve also been fortunate enough to be able to race the Tour of the Gila, the Tour of Utah, the Cascade Classic, Mt Hood Classic, Tour of California, Leadville, Lost and Found, and the Grinduro for probably 100 race days of 4–6 hours with long climbs and huge amounts of work done. Many of those days were over 5000 kj for me. I love it! Those days are my favorites.

In any case, aside from being fit going into those events with a lot of miles and high-aerobic workouts at and above threshold, what can you do to make the most of what your body is capable of on the big day? How do you pace a big ride like the Lost and Found, Belgian Waffle Ride, or a mountain stage in a big race? How do you fuel for it before and during?

Well, to give you a very short summary for nutrition:

  • eat 100-200g of extra carbs the last few days before the event
  • eat an extra 100-200g of carbs your last meal or two the day before the event
  • have a light breakfast so that you’re comfortable going into it
  • take in a little extra salt so that you can absorb and retain water and start the event fully hydrated
  • start drinking and eating early and keep it regular during the event
  • drink anywhere from .5-1.5 bottles per hour depending on heat and intensity
  • take electrolytes in your drink and/or food, more if it’s warm
  • take 200-300 kcal of mostly carbs per hour during the event, starting 20-40m into the event (less than that and you may suffer later, more than that and you will probably have a hard time absorbing all of the fuel)

On pacing:

  • keep it comfortable as much as you can, but keep it steady
  • try to keep your HR below threshold territory as much as possible
  • try to keep your power below threshold as much as possible, except for short efforts when you need to
  • mostly keep your HR at a high-endurance or low-tempo range
  • keep your power as high as you can without feeling like you’re suffering, which will be mostly high-endurance or tempo intensities (i.e. 65-80% of threshold most of the time)
  • go a little harder on the climbs, go a little easier on descents
  • try to stay in a group whenever you can get a draft
  • if it’s road racing, then do everything that you need to do to be in the frontmost group possible when things get hard

To go into a little more detail, there’s a lot of factors that go into exactly what the right plan is for you and for the event, but I’ll offer a few thoughts, and hopefully if your training has been good going into the event, you should know your body pretty well. Aside from actually getting fitter, one huge benefit of training is that you can practice everything from pacing and nutrition to becoming more familiar with what food and drink works well for you and how much… Your biggest asset as an athlete is self awareness of your mind and body, and knowing how to work with them both to get the most out of your body when you want to.

Before you get to the start line of your big event, clearly you need to train, but you should also be practicing what kind of hydration and nutrition strategies you want to implement on race day. This way you will know whether you want to drink Nuun or a high calorie drink mix, you’ll know whether you like gels or not, and what kind of solid foods work well for you. In general, you don’t always want to be training with a high calorie intake, because sometimes you want to finish your training session pretty depleted so that you create the biggest endurance stress that you can for your body. But, sometimes you may want to do more intensity during your longer training sessions or you want to practice your race-day nutrition strategies, in which case you should see how much you can comfortably take in during your training so that you know what will work on race day. Most people can easily handle 200 kcal per hour and usually up to 300 kcal. Some people can handle more, up to 350 or 400 kcal, but you should try that out in training first and see how much you can take and from what sources.

Likewise, most people can handle about a bottle an hour during warmer conditions when you’re sweating a lot. Sometimes if you’re doing an event in cooler conditions you may not need that much fluid, but sometimes if it’s warmer and you are sweating a lot, you may be losing a lot more water than that as you sweat. So, depending on the conditions on race day, you want to be able to take in water, electrolytes, and calories in quantities that help you stay hydrated, keep your nervous system functioning properly, and keep providing as much fuel as you can handle to keep pushing as hard as you can through the finish line. As you sweat you lose sodium. The amount varies from person to person, but it can be quite a lot, so much so that you can’t keep up with the salt losses. So, it’s good to have electrolytes in your drink mix or to have some salt in your foods along the way. The main electrolyte that you should care about is sodium, because it’s the main one that is lost in sweat. There are also small amounts of potassium, calcium, and magnesium lost in sweat but they are less of an immediate concern for your nervous system function. If you sweat a lot and drink a lot of fluids but don’t take in enough sodium, then your nervous system will have a hard time conducting nerve signals effectively. In extreme cases this can be life threatening, but if you take in a few hundred mg of sodium with each bottle, you should be okay. You may find that you need more. It’s hard to gauge exactly how much salt you lose and how much you should take per bottle when you’re training and racing unless you go to a lab and get your sweat tested, but in general, many people don’t take enough.

So, in moderate conditions, you may try to get a bottle of mix or electrolyte mix per hour plus 1-2 gels and a bar of some sort. If you have drink mix and get 100-200 kcal per bottle, then maybe you can do 1 gel or 1 bar per hour. if you have Nuun or Gu electrolyte tablets in your bottles and get salt but no calories, then you may want 2 gels and a bar or some other solid food. If it’s cool, then you may get .5-1 bottle per hour. If it’s hot out, you’ll probably expect to take at least 1 bottle per hour. The more you drink, the more you will want to get some extra salt in your bottles or in your food. So, you may consider taking a tube of electrolyte tablets with you on race day so that even if you only get water, you can add some electrolytes along the way. Most food products have some salt, but not that much, so you’ll probably want to take in more than what you have in your food unless you specifically take foods that have a lot of sodium (say, 10% per serving).

On pacing, power, HR, and perceived effort are all very useful for gauging your effort. If you have all three sources of data, then don’t pay attention only to one or two of them, take them all into account when you’re pacing the event.

With power and HR, you should know what kind of power you can sustain for your longest training sessions. If you go into an event fresh and focused on doing a maximal effort, then you should be able to sustain more power than you would in training. Likewise, you can probably keep a higher HR by a good margin over your normal training. Most of your training sessions probably include some lower intensity riding, so your average will be much higher on race day, but you may also have some hard intervals integrated into your longer sessions. If you’re doing hard climbing efforts throughout your longer rides, then of course you will have to take it a little easier between those efforts, and it may be great for your fitness but will lower your average power. Still, you should have a good idea. Likewise with your perceived effort. For a long event you are probably not going to go as hard as you can at any given moment during the event, but you will probably have your foot on the gas the whole time, and will probably finish the day feeling wrecked. So you’ll want your effort level to be moderately elevated the whole time so that you have a slow burn into oblivion over the course of the event. Of course, road racing style events may require something different, but if you’re doing something like Leadville or the Lost and Found, you have a lot of control over your pacing and effort throughout the event and you should be doing what will work well for your body and not what other riders are doing around you.

To provide an example, I’ve done the Everest Challenge multiple times throughout my career. It hasn’t been held the last few years, but if you haven’t heard of it, it’s basically like doing the Death Ride back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday. Both days have about 15k feet of climbing, and for me it would take about 11 hours to complete both days. Plus it took place at elevation from 4,000-10,000 feet in the Eastern Sierras of California, near Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. It’s amazing!

Anyway, on a course like that or most courses where it’s not very punchy and there aren’t a lot of technical sections where you cannot pedal, I would think about trying to do the highest average power possible throughout the ride, pushing the pace on the climbs, but keeping it well under your threshold power/intensity, and recovering as much as possible on the descents.

From experience, I know about what my average power is for many of my long training rides. I also know what kind of power I can sustain on long climbs when I’m fresh and when I’m tired. Generally, I can average about 55-60% of my threshold power for long rides without feeling wrecked. I can average 65-70% if I really feel like I’m pushing. If I’m fresh and I want to murder myself on my ride, I can average about 75% of threshold for a 4 hour ride, but only if I’m fresh, motivated, and willing to suffer.

On a 40-60m climb, almost by definition, I can do my threshold power or a little more if I’m really going for it on, say, a 40-45m climb… If I’m tired at the end of a long ride, I can still do 75-80% of that on intermediate climbs and feel fine. I can do 85-90% of that power, but I’ll really feel like I’m pushing hard.

So, I know I can’t average 75% of my threshold for a 7 hour endurance gravel or mountain bike event, especially if it’s at altitude. But, I can probably do that on all of the climbs. This is usually about how I’ve paced the climbs at the Everest Challenge, targeting at least 75% of threshold on most of the climbs, but usually less than 80%. I know that I can easily keep up 60-65% of threshold on the flats and still be okay late in the ride, but more than that and I won’t pick up much time, but I will see a big increase in effort. And, on the descents, I’ll pedal as little as possible, eat, and drink. If it’s a gradual descent and I’m going less than 30-35 mph, I’ll pedal some, but won’t get excited and go hard for no reason. If you’re already going 35 mph or 55 kph, then going hard won’t help you go that much faster because you have so much drag at high speeds that going from 35 mph to 40 mph takes a lot of effort and only saves you a few seconds here and there. Whereas, if you’re going slower on a climb or on flat ground, going harder will save you a lot more time.

You can glance back at that summary of bullet points at the top of the article to get a handle on some safe estimates for most athletes. If you have done great training for your event, then you may be able to ride at a slightly higher percentage of your threshold during an endurance event. If your preparation has been less than ideal for whatever reason, then that’s okay. Everyone is in the same boat, and everyone has to keep going for a long time to get through the event, but you’ll just have to be very self aware and keep your targets reasonable for where you’re at in your progress as an athlete. And, of course, as you get through the event you can always modulate your effort level to match how you’re body is feeling. Ideally you can get to the finish line feeling like you left it all out there, but know that you didn’t totally crumble until you’re rolling across the finish line!