EPC Tips - Pacing: Off-Road

Apr. 8, 2015

With the North American racing season kicking off  this month and the first XTERRA US Regional Championship event (XTERRA West Champs: Las Vegas) in a few weeks time, it feels like a good time to talk about pacing for your off-road racing. This weeks EPC Tip crosses over between a few of our Six Components to Endurance Sports Success. Pacing a race involves Aerobic Conditioning (component #1), but perhaps more so, pacing is a skill to practice and develop (component #3), as well as a big part Mental Fitness (component #6) as it requires planning, strategizing and in-race management.

As both a coach and professional triathlete I often get the question from age-group athletes, “How do I pace my race in order to yield the best possible result?”

Pacing is critical to any kind of racing success. If you don’t go out fast enough you can lose tons of time early on that you won’t be able to make up before the finish. This can be seen all the time at races when watching the mid-pack finishers coming in; with a quarter mile to go to the finish you see an athlete kick up his/her pace substantially and mow down the racers in front of them before the finish! When I observe this, I chuckle to myself and think that this person did not pace well and has far too much left in the tank at the end. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the athlete that starts the swim or bike with everything they have to only peter-out later in the race and pay dearly for their lack of pacing on the run with a shuffle or lots of walking. In both instances, learning the art of pacing would have allowed the racers to finish their race with a faster overall time and likely a more enjoyable experience (especially in the later case).

For road triathlon, pacing is pretty straight forward. Racers can learn this skill in their first several races of their career and continue to perfect it as they become better athletes. Non-draft road triathlons of any distance are a relatively static affair, with set distances, smooth roads on which to ride and run, and low to moderate amounts of gradual elevation gain. You dial in your specific “race pace” in your training and on race day you simply settle in and execute the pace. The only real challenges are being confident in your “race pace”, being able to hold back and be at your pace early on when fresh and excited, then later digging deep to maintain that pace late in the race as fatigue sets in. In non-draft road racing, most athletes simply swim with the group they are similar to, then race to their “output data” (heart rate, power, avg. speed, perceived exertion) on the bike, and then run their ‘mile splits’ on the run…not unlike theRonco Rotisserie Oven, they simply “set it and forget it” in regards to a skillful pacing effort.

Now when you take your racing off-road, as in an XTERRA triathlon for instance, pacing becomes a much different animal. You still need to dole your energy out carefully in order to yield your fastest time, but when and how this is done throughout the race becomes far more dynamic! Off-road triathlon is more similar to draft-legal triathlon racing, where your pace is often dictated by the group of athletes with whom you are closely racing; if you can’t hang on in the swim or follow the surges and accelerations on the bike, you’ll be dropped from the group before you ever get to the run.

When you race off-road, it’s often not so much the competitors that dictate the pace but rather the course itself that dictates your pacing and energy expenditure. When taking your racing off-road you’ll be faced by a myriad of challenges: tight twisty singletrack trails, big climbs, steep hills, rocks gardens, stream crossings, technical terrain; all of which require different doses of energy to race through. This means you will often be required to sprint out of a corner, then coast as you negotiate a technical section, before giving a near maximal effort to get up a steep hill the next moment…and this can go on throughout much of the bike and run courses! As you can imagine this is no “steady state affair” but rather a highly dynamic fluctuation of intensity and skill (and so much fun)!

So how do you pace for such a dynamic race effort?

For starters, it’s often a necessity to preview the entire course. The more you know and can experience each particular course, the better you will be able to pace and perform on race day. No two XTERRA courses are the same, therefore “pre-riding” is essential and “pre-running” is highly recommend. By knowing the course, you will be confident in where you will need to be able to ‘gas it’, where you will be able to recover, and where you need to be awake and ready to tackle a tricky spot. Knowing you have a long climb ahead where you will need to put out an effort above your lactate threshold for five minutes in the middle of it, followed by a short downhill where you can “recover” a bit before the next climb will allow you to pace your race more effectively.

Second, you can better prepare for your racing experience by training more specifically to the style of racing. For road triathlon you likely spend a large portion of your training doing steady-state intervals just under your threshold as that’s where you’re going to be spending most, if not all, of your race day. When taking it off-road you will be going well above your threshold numerous times throughout a race, and unlike a road triathlon, often going deep into the anaerobic ‘red zone’ multiple times before you cross the finish line. To be able to go hard and still pace well off-road you need to train with this in mind to be ready for that kind of ‘on and off’ race pacing. Instead of, or in addition to, the long sub-threshold training sets, you should add variety with some thirty second power intervals, three minute Vo2 max intervals, and ten minute threshold sets to your training program to better prepare you for the demands of off-road racing.

Lastly, dialing your nutritional needs is crucial to pacing success. This is true for anyendurance racing, however with the highly volatile nature of effort in an off-road event, what might sit well with you when cruising along at a comfortable 200 watts mile after mile, might not sit well with you when you are pounding out 400+ watts turn after turn in tight single track (not to mention that you often can’t take you hands off the bars or eyes off the road to feed when off-road!). Regardless of exactly how many calories you need per hour, less is often more when racing off-road in order to appease the gut during the high intensity racing, and liquid calories are king when it comes to ease of consumption and digestibility.

In order to race your best possible off-road triathlon you need to pace yourself; however, this doesn’t always mean holding back early. You need to be able to hit hard when the terrain calls for it, take your recovery when you can get it, and then be ready to do that again and again. By knowing what’s in store for you on the course with some course recon, proper training to prepare yourself for the demands of the racing style, and following a smart race day nutrition plan you will be better equipped to pace yourself through the event and finish in your best possible time.

Written by Cody Waite, professional endurance athlete, endurance sport coach and founder of Endurance Performance Coaching. Looking for help with your training for 2015? Check out EPC’s Personal CoachingGroup Coaching, and Custom Training Plan options created to fit your needs and budget. Don’t forget to ‘LIKE’ our EPC Facebook Page and follow Cody on Instagram


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