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!

Stop going hard all of the time

One issue that comes up repeatedly when talking with athletes about their training is that many athletes have a tendency to go a little too hard, a little too often. Many people who enjoy feeling fit and strong, want to get better, and have a competitive streak will use their energy on most of their training sessions to push the pace more than they should. Every ride turns into a moderate to hard workout, and every group ride turns into a race for the tops of the hills and all of the town lines.

For anyone that knows me, you would know that I love to ride hard. I love getting in solid workouts and feeling depleted at the end of training sessions. For anyone that has looked over scientific studies about the training of endurance athletes, you would rightly conclude that high intensity exercise is one of the key ingredients to athletic development, and without it, you cannot reach your potential.

But, just because intensity is good for your fitness doesn’t mean that more intensity is better. The desire to have fun going hard doesn’t mean that you should do it on every ride. And, the experience that hard workouts make you fitter doesn’t mean that all of your workouts should be hard.

If you think about it for a second, this is clear. You can’t go hard on every training session and hope to get the most out of them. Whether you train 4 days a week or 7, you need to balance the stress of your training sessions with the amount and quality of recovery that you can get between sessions. And, you need to focus your intensity on the kinds of fitness that will benefit you as an individual pursuing your specific fitness goals. You need to make sure that your training is specific to your history and abilities as an athlete, as well as specific to your goals and the fitness outcomes you are trying to reach.

So what does this mean? If you go out and hammer up every climb, sprint for every town line, and race your buddies on most of your training rides together, then you are creating a lot of moderate stress and you are likely not fully recovering. If you toned it down on some of your training sessions, then you could almost certainly go harder on your hard workouts. Moderate workouts will yield moderate results. If you want to get the best fitness that you can, then you need to get in the highest quality training that you can, and you can’t do that without being fully recovered sometimes in order to do those properly hard, full-gas intervals or very long endurance sessions. And, you can’t reap the full benefit of your training sessions if you don’t allow full recovery.

Just because you feel good enough to push the pace, doesn’t mean that you should. If you could cruise at a steady pace for an extra session or two, and then go 10% harder in a few days, then maybe that’s the right call to make so that you can do that hard workout much better and get more out of it.

I think that many athletes that have work and family obligations and are tight on time feel compelled to go hard on most of their training sessions. It’s tempting to think that if you have scarce training time, then you should try to make the most of it by going hard. Yes, this is true, but you should balance the quality of your training with the quality of your recovery. You should listen to your body and make sure that your harder sessions are actually high quality training sessions and that your recovery is also high quality. That may mean that instead of going kind-of hard on 4 or 5 training sessions each week, maybe you go steady on 2 and go very hard on the other 2 or 3. And, maybe instead of doing a random mix of efforts depending on the terrain and the group that you’re riding with, you could consolidate almost all of the anaerobic intensity of your training into one workout and almost all of the high-aerobic intensity into another session.

To provide an example, maybe one day you do your longest sessoion on the weekend and you do a lot of tempo or threshold intensity climbing efforts throughout that ride. And, then mid-week on one of your shorter sessions you do all of your above-threshold work, whether that’s aerobic capacity intervals or anaerobic sprint efforts. Then, the other days you ride steady and get in some aerobic conditioning, but don’t push too hard so that you can recover well and push hard on the harder sessions.

You may end up doing the same mix of things throughout the week, but if you consolidate your recovery into 2 or 3 blocks each week and you consolidate all of your more intense training into 2 or 3 individual sessions each week, and have a focus for each of those sessions, then you should be able to get much more out of your training. You will be able to create a bigger training stress in a particular direction and then you will be able to recover from it more fully.

Just take a step back from your training, look at it, and ask yourself it makes sense. Could you be more efficient or effective about how you distribute your time and effort throughout the week, month, or season? There are no real shortcuts in training, but there are definitely more efficient ways of doing things and less efficient ways of doing things. Whenever you hear people talking about hacking the human body or hacking training outcomes, if there’s any truth to what they’re saying, it basically reveals something about how inefficiently many people may be doing things. Hacking doesn’t really exist as such, but efficiency definitely does.

I can speak from experience with myself and with my clients, effort rightly applied can get better results than spending even twice as much time and energy on training when that effort is poorly applied.

Get Your Core Strong

No matter what kind of athlete you are, no matter what sport, or how “good” you are, having a strong core is one of the most helpful things that you can do beside practicing the sport you do… Whether you’re a runner, cyclist, triathlete, swimmer, tennis player, golfer… no matter what, it’s really key to have a strong torso, so that you can do the moves you need to do, do them powerfully, and do them without pain or back problems.

For most endurance athletes, I would try to do what you can to identify 2 or 3 days each week where you can set aside at least 10m of time to work on your core (abs, obliques, back, etc.). It doesn’t have to be crazy or require a lot of equipment. If you have a boot camp workout or class you can go to, or you have a favorite routine that you can do at home or at the gym that takes longer than that, by all means, do yourself a favor and go with it. More can be better, but doing something and doing it consistently is better than doing something sporadically or not at all.

My go-to routine, that I’d offer as a starting point goes like this:

push-ups (as many as I can do repeatedly for 3 sets)

front planks (for about as long as I can until my form starts to deteriorate)

side planks

back extensions (lie down face first and raise head and shoulders in a controlled fashion… again, as many as I can for 3 sets)

bent over row (bend over a chair or bench with a dumbbell, as many as I can repeat for 3 sets)

Russian twists (sit in a crunch position with a dumbbell and twist slowly from side to side to work the abs and obliques)

pull-ups

repeat (you guessed it, 2 more times for a count of 3 sets)

The whole thing might take 15-20m max. If you don’t have dumbbells, they’re cheap and cost less than a month at the gym. Or, if you still don’t have any, just do body weight stuff and it’ll be great. If you have a pull-up bar, then you could add a TRX style suspension trainer to hang from the bar and use for planks when they get too easy. If you’re suspended, the extra instability makes your muscle engagement reach higher levels and the same amount of time is a much better workout than doing it on solid ground.

Keep it simple. Come up with a routine that you can do regularly, without pain, and have some fun doing it. Listen to music if you like. That’s always a favorite. Or listen to the news or a podcast. Just be sure that you keep moving and don’t get distracted… Just do each movement, flip over or sit up for a quick second and move on to the next. If you need to take a quick break between moves to take a few breaths at first, then do it. After some practice, you shouldn’t need more than a few moments to move from one thing to the next. I’m always in favor of quick, efficient workouts, so I can get things done and get on with other things in my life.

Believe me, if you do something like this or your own variation 2-3x weekly for 10 or even 20m, you will feel better throughout your life because you’ll feel stronger, your back will hurt less, and you will be stronger and more powerful at your chosen sport.

As a little bonus, here’s a video I made on the topic. It’s a favorite topic that comes up a lot, so I really hope that some of the above or this video are useful to you!!! Happy training!

Bonus anecdotal coaching commentary:

Personally, whenever I’ve had a gym membership and have gone to do some basic whole body conditioning or leg work, I always enjoy running to the gym, doing 15m or so of core work, and then doing my leg or body work. I would sometimes just add a couple of sets of core exercises after the workout if I had time and energy as a bonus. I love doing that in training generally. If you have extra time and energy and you have a workout that day, then go for it and do some extra. If it’s a recovery day, then make sure that you have energy for the next workout, but if you can add a few miles without taking away from tomorrow’s workout, then go for it.

Lately, I’ve been focused more on my work and have been training to stay fit, but haven’t been able to train as hard as I would want in order to be in top shape. Still, I try to get in a little core work when I can. Honestly, I haven’t been able to do nearly as much as I would like. And, there’s a part of my brain that tells me that I’m failing at something for missing out on that core work, but we should always question or dismiss that part of our brain. Whenever you feel yourself getting uncomfortable or feeling regret about not doing core work or getting in your training session yesterday, tell your brain that it’s in the past and you only care about what’s happening right now and how it sets you up for the future. For me, that means taking a step forward and doing some core work tonight an hour or two before bedtime. Who cares if I didn’t do any since last week. I’m going to do some tonight. We should always just do what we can to take action on our goals or priorities and not worry about doing more than we actually can or what we think we “should” be doing. That’s just noise. Take action and do what you can. Don’t let your brain second-guess you as you follow through on your intentions to do something.