What Does the Science say on Pacing?

In previous blogs, we’ve covered ways to pace time trials, but for this week we’ll take a look at what the science says.  A number of studies have examined various time trail pacing strategies in a number of different sports. These studies aren’t always perfect (a lot of tests are conducted within the lab where it can be tough to get that competitive atmosphere that elicits strong performances) but there’s still great information out there for you to use on race day. 

First things first, a quick disclaimer.  All the studies we are going to discuss today are based around the idea of a level time trial.  Obviously, a course profile that includes some hills can change things up a bit.  Now with that in mind, let’s talk ideal pacing strategy. 

What should come as no surprise is that the ideal pacing strategy depends on the race distance.  For short events lasting less than ~10min, a fast start strategy appears optimal.  One of the main reasons for this is that it’s advantageous to spend more energy getting up to speed as quickly as possible since the start represents a greater proportion of the race. 

With that being said, things thought up in the lab don’t always translate to actual improvements in performance.  Theoretical modeling in a study on speed skaters suggests the optimal strategy is to start faster than athletes would normally choose to.  However, when this strategy was imposed on athletes, performance actually decreased. Part of this may be that athletes did not have enough practice to fully learn this new strategy. 

As race duration increases and the start represents a small proportion of the race, evidence indicates a fast start is not the ideal strategy.  With longer duration events, the optimal pacing begins to have a more even look to it.  Again though, this even-pacing recommendation needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Imposing an even-pacing strategy on well-trained cyclists decreased performance.  

Since most bike race time trials are of longer duration, we’ll focus on that and discuss the ideal strategy.  In the well-trained cyclists study, the ideal pacing strategy looked a bit like a flattened “U”: athletes started slightly fast, settled into a steady pace, and then finished strong.  This pacing strategy has also been observed in fast 10k runners (10k in less than 35.6min) providing additional support to adopt this strategy.

All of this science is great but how can you incorporate it into improving your own performance?  To paraphrase the poets Cypress Hill, “So you wanna be a time trial superstar and live large? Better practice, so you’re in charge.”  Find a spot where you can practice a time trial and try out different pacing strategies.  The U-shaped pacing strategy sounds easy enough but practice starting and finishing at different intensities to see what helps you finish the fastest.  Everyone is different so do a bit of experimenting and find what strategy is fastest for you.  Thanks for reading!