pacing for endurance event

Pacing for Endurance Events: 6 Things You Need to Know

With more athletes entering extremely long endurance events, we spend a lot of time educating athletes on pacing strategies. Last weekend, one of CTS Coach Renee Eastman’s athletes provided a master class on long-distance pacing as he rode his way to a second-place finish in the Solo Men category of the 18 Hours of Fruita mountain bike race. Let’s take a look at how you can use some of the same strategies in your next ultradistance event.

The Power File

Fruita 1

There are a few notable aspects to of the athlete’s power file from the 18 Hours of Fruita.

  • His heart rate gradually declined as the race progressed, while his power output remained relatively constant lap after lap. While we often see heart rate increase from cardiac drift in short and/or hot weather events, a gradual decline in heart rate is normal in ultradistance events, especially at cooler temperatures (the race ends at midnight), due to fatigue.
  • His power output and heart rate increased slightly in the final 90 minutes, indicating he still had something left in the tank for a strong finish.
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6 Keys to Successful Ultradistance Pacing

1. Intensity Factor

Renee instructed her athlete to keep his power output under a ceiling of about 230 watts from the beginning of the race, because this is about 65% of his lactate threshold. Using Trainingpeaks’ Intensity Factor (relation of current power to threshold power) as a pacing tool, Renee’s goal was to achieve about a .6-.65 Intensity Factor for the entire event. This is very easy, and normally would be considered a recovery ride to easy endurance ride intensity for a 1-2 hour ride. In the early hours when athletes are fresh, riding with a low power ceiling takes a lot of discipline, but it’s important to remember that digging too deep too early burns energy you will never get back later in the event.

2. Use Previous Events to Determine Future Pacing

Experience is a great teacher, and with years of racing under his belt, Renee didn’t need to build a pacing strategy from scratch. To help extend his pacing strategy from shorter events to this 18-hour event, Renee looked at data from previous long rides. There are a few things to look for:

  • Trends: Data from previous rides and races can give you an indication of what happens when you start too hard or start more conservatively, and how your performance stays steady or fades as time increases. Take note of temperature, as well as any contextual information you might have about fueling and hydration when reviewing those files.
  • Forever pace: Once you have picked some files that illustrate previous successes (you finished strong rather than fading dramatically), examine your data to determine if there is some consistency around your pace or power output in the middle portion of those files. This middle section is indicative of your performance after the initial adrenaline/ego of the start is gone and before you are fighting serious fatigue.
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3. Shift Your Perspective

“You are not racing.” This may seem like a counterproductive message to give an athlete preparing for a competition, but in ultradistance events it is important to realize you are only competing against yourself. Renee’s point was that her athlete had to resist the competitive urge to start fast with racers who had very different pacing strategies. In this case the athlete had to let the “hares” leave him behind. The best way for him to ride the greatest distance he could complete in 18 hours was to stay steady and fade less. Mentally, letting the hares go can be very difficult, which is why it is important to understand and fully believe in your strategy ahead of time.

4. Ride for the Second Half

What you do in the first half of the race determines what you can do in the second half. This is important because you can lose more time in the second half than you can possibly gain in the first half. In shorter events, even events up to 5-6 hours, you can afford to burn more matches early on. But even elite racers have to ride more conservatively in the first half of a 12-24 hour race.

5. Modify Your Nutrition Strategy

Sports nutrition for ultradistance events is a much larger topic than what we’ll cover here, but the big concept to understand is that while total caloric intake during the event will be high, hourly caloric intake during an ultradistance event will be relatively low. Compared to a shorter cross-country (2hr) or marathon event (4-5hr), you will be going slower and therefore your hourly caloric expenditure will be lower. Your fueling strategy from a shorter event will likely lead to overfeeding, which is a primary cause for gastric distress.

Adding variety is the other big modification you should make for ultradistance races. Renee’s athlete has a favorite high-calorie, carbohydrate-rich drink he likes to use to consume most of his on-bike calories. In the middle of the 18 Hours of Fruita, however, he developed gastric distress and needed to adapt his nutrition strategy to incorporate more clear water and a variety of solid foods to get his gut working again. Thankfully, he had already determined in training what foods worked well for him and he had those available in aid stations.

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6. Keep Moving

It is important to incorporate some aid station time into your overall pacing strategy, but it is equally important to keep your stops short. Spending two minutes longer than necessary in 10 aid stations costs you 20 minutes. Time you’re standing still is time you have to make up by going faster, or time you lose altogether. Riding slowly while you eat is preferable to eating while you’re in the aid station. And we have a rule in CTS Aid Stations when we are supporting our athletes: No Sitting.

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During the 1,062 minutes of his race he was stationary for fewer than 60, meaning he was moving 94.4% of the time. Get to the aid stations, get what you need, and get going. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. There are definitely times when stopping in an aid station for a long time can be necessary, but typically that is when you have reached a point where the alternative is quitting altogether.

I think it is important to point out that Renee’s athlete is not an elite racer. He’s a 51-year-old athlete with a full-time job who mountain bikes for fun. In fact, due to his schedule he only rides outdoors once a week, the majority of his training is on an indoor trainer. Nevertheless, he finished second overall in the Solo Men category – not Masters or age group – in a tough 18-hour mountain bike race because he was disciplined in his training and followed a well-planned pacing strategy. You can do the same.


Have a Great Weekend,

Chris Carmichael

Founder/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 8

  1. Great subject!!!
    Are there articles about pacing strategy for XCM/XCO events? I need some fine tuning at this thing.

  2. #6 is important, bc most people never factor in Aid stations, AND, they spend time spinning their wheels. If you take 5 and 6 together, then you can have a good plan for the entire event, even if you have to write it down. Every race I plan for has a specific plan by the hour. You may diverge during the race, but without a plan you typically come up short.

  3. Thanks for a great article for pacing – very timely as I’m getting ready for DK200. On an event like this with rolling hills there may not be much difference between Normalized Power and Average power, however I am curious which of the two is the more appropriate one to pace against to stay in that 60 to 65% of FTP range.

    Thanks, Steve

  4. This is really an interesting article, I believe this is half of the picture in reality, There are other issues like the level of other athlets compared to your level of fittness.

  5. While doing a training ride with Steve Born (past solo RAAM athlete) and prepping for the 2008 MTB 24h World Solos, Steve shared his secret: “Start off slow and taper from there.” His logic follows what you just outlined. The result? My best race performance ever. I started in 8th yet my splits were consistent. My last lap was my second fastest. The result was a second place finish. Pacing is everything. Don’t loiter in the pits. If you need to rest, pedal off slowly and rest on the bike. Any forward progress is better than none.

  6. Great article and great subject. I’m doing a 24 her challenge for the third time this summer. I’d be interested in nutrition strategies for endurance events. Maybe I’ll get it right this year!

  7. Good points and nice job by both Renee and her athlete; however, I don’t understand the power file data. It shows an average power of 216w for 17+ hours but only 8520 kjs of work done.

    An average power of 216w for 17.75 hours equates to 13,768 kjs. Conversely, 8520 kjs over 17.75 hours equates to an average power of 134w. What am I missing here?

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