Pacing a long endurance race involves a lot of practice and even more patience. Pacing is the art of expending your energy such that you achieve the best consistent speed for a given duration or distance. Knowing and holding your pace in a long event helps you avoid running out of energy (or bonking), some types of cramping and the dreaded DNF.
To train the skill of pacing you need to pay attention to your perceived exertion, how you feel and how you pace different intervals and rides in training.
TRAIN TO PACE YOUR RACE
In an endurance race you will generally aim to hold a fairly steady pace, a few efforts to clear a hill or to stay with a group can be necessary, but you can only do this so much. If you start a 100-mile event with your highest 20-minute functional threshold power ever, it is hard to expect the rest of the race will go well. Starting above your goal pace in a long event usually means you’ll slow down, fade and, if severe enough, put your finish in jeopardy.
Your training can prepare you to hold these steady paces and feel the difference between an effort that is too hard and a sustainable effort. Many athletes fear 20–30 minute FTP tests but these can be a great way to feel and experience the difference between sustainable and just a bit too hard. Even a hard set of hill repetitions (or whatever intervals you prefer) can teach you to pace if you observe how long each hill takes. In both of these cases, the final minutes or efforts feel much harder even if you held your wattage/pace the same. If you find you start harder than you can maintain through the middle and to the end of your effort(s) then reflect on how you could adjust your approach for your next workout and try again.
Early in a long race, especially after the excitement of the start, it is wise to feel like you have settled in and focus on pedaling (and eating) for a while. This settling in is a great ‘process goal’ for your event because you can control whether you settle in by a certain time-point or mile marker in the race. This process goal helps you avoid getting carried away with the excitement of the start, or the first climb, only to find that you don’t have enough energy in reserve to get to the finish.
CONSIDER YOUR BREATHING
There is an obvious connection between your level of exertion and your breathing. As you work harder, your breathing becomes more noticeable. It gets deeper and faster as you work more, and as you approach that familiar FTP test pace, you breathe quite deeply and rapidly, such that you can only speak a couple of words between gasps.
For the endurance racer, breathing is an accessible means to assess your pacing. If you are experiencing ragged breathing (like during your FTP test or hill intervals) then this should be a gut check. Is your current effort where you want to be at this point in the race/ride? In your big event, is the current pace appropriate for the first 10 miles or should you be backing off and settling in to save that energy for the last 10 miles? Paying attention to your perceived exertion during your big training rides, which will be your most specific training, helps take the guesswork out of ‘your pace.’
THE RULE OF THIRDS
Cave divers use a ‘rule of thirds’ to ensure they get out of dangerous dives with 1/3 of their oxygen to spare. While their risks are much higher than our long endurance races, the message of leaving a reserve and getting to the half-way point with lots in the tank is a great one to guide your endurance efforts.
For new endurance racers and experienced racers who still struggle with late-race fading and/or DNFs, this seemingly conservative rule is worth a try. If you can get to halfway feeling fresh and motivated this likely means you can continue your effort or even start to ramp up your effort and do a bit of racing in the final half or quarter of the event as the finish line comes closer. As you develop experience with long days and how your body responds, you can refine this rule using different segments or mile-markers of the race to check in on how full your fuel tank is.