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Perfect Pacing

Our Perspective on Human Performance

Perfect Pacing

Perfect Pacing

My previous post on Terrain’ing briefly explores the use of available terrain for effective physiological performance training, ideal for mountainous events on the continent. Exposure to intensities for durations long enough to stress that part of the physiological spectrum is key for improving and becoming ‘better’ and faster over the course. Essentially, frequency and sequence of interval sessions and gradients stimulate adaptions for improvement to become neuromuscularly and aerobically stronger, then further training can start from a higher start point or power (supercompensation) and the cycle continues until biological saturation is achieved.

However, pacing in contrast is our cognitive ability to apply performance and maximise our advantage over terrain to beat our competition. Anatomically our muscles contain ‘spindles’ filled with sensory receptors and acts like our very own power meter allowing what is considered as a ‘Central Governor’ or central nervous system mechanism, thought to protect against organ damage and provide a loop feedback from the brain to leg muscles and cardio-respiratory system and restrict over(supra)-maximal exertion. Sub-maximally, while riding, experienced cyclists are able to make fine adjustments in response to gradients, duration and intensities throughout the physiological spectrum, to maintain optimal pace. For instance a long climb of 20km average 7% can be perfectly conquered at an effort close to threshold (what is often meant by riding within yourself), the time ridden above this intensity dictates the amount of time necessary to ride below threshold to preserve energy, usually tough European events have more than one climb. In fact the recovery intensity must be much lower than threshold, than the magnitude ridden above, due to the curvi-linear response of lactate with intensity over this turning point.  Minimising the energy expenditure over a course is crucial until race circumstances prevail and faster pacing is required. Warming-up or ‘priming’ is the first consideration of a perfect pacing strategy, oxygen kinetics determine muscle firing and hence muscle fuel use from Type I or Type II, and starting event too had usually means the rider carries an oxygen deficit until the end. Priming allows cardio-respiratory system to deliver oxygen efficiently and at a maximal rate to minimise the accumulation of a deficit…as we get older it seems that we need longer and longer warm-ups for exactly this reason!

Developing this sense of pacing can take a few years of training, racing and physical awareness as performance improves. A power meter and training zones can act as a valuable tool to facilitate learning to ride to feel. The same applies for shorter climbs in the UK, a typical sportive may have. Shorter steeper climbs rely upon a larger anaerobic component which supports a well-conditioned aerobic capacity. Everyone knows what happens when mis-pacing these efforts by riding too hard, ‘blowing-up’ is all too common. Scientifically, this is the point where the oxygen deficit is greatest, the calorific requirement is greater than available oxygen processing in the muscles, which is unsustainable and needs to be immediately rebalanced. The delay in rebalancing oxygen saturation is considered anaerobic tolerance, and muscle glycogen is rapidly plundered. Spending precious energy like this means there is less available for successive efforts…some of you will know these efforts as ‘matches’ and each of us has a finite, although the pool of energy or ‘matches’ can be increased through training. Once a certain high intensity has been reached for a duration of effort that doesn’t overcome the hill or match of pace, then the cyclist needs to reduced their intensity to threshold or lower as to recover in time for the next effort. This ability to recover determines how well someone can ‘race’ multiple efforts and challenging terrain. Too many people throw away their hard won fitness on event day due to poor pacing. Needing to recover two-thirds of the way up a climb is never ideal, and loses you significant time. The GCN video on pacing can be seen here, although they suggest basing threshold as FTP, I have explained on numerous occasions this is an inaccurate and crude attempt to estimating actual lactate threshold, performed by capillary (finger prick) blood measurements over a graded, incremental step test that any well informed sports scientist or educated coach should be able to recommend.

Studying the terrain prior to race day provides a solid advantage, and will help less experienced riders make the most of any restricted performance capacity. Pacing on the go should be a valuable part of training and preparation to understand this limitation regardless of how intuitive it may be. This is often poorly executed as participants get carried away with their ‘competitors’ and not riding within their own capacity. Switching off from other riders will preserve energy spread effectively over a course. Racing other riders, will require more superior performance characteristics, which brings us back to terrain’ing!

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