In a race, you probably know what your pace, heart rate, and power should all be in order to accomplish your goal. In an ideal world, you’d just follow your tracking devices all the way to the finish line—but as you know, races rarely (if ever!) happen in an ideal world. Batteries die, devices get forgotten, and all sorts of changes can affect your body, all of which might demand a tweak to your plan.
For example, you may find your body feels less than ideal on race day. If you try to hit your pre-planned objective measures regardless of feel, you could run out of steam before the finish or even DNF. On the flip side, you may feel better than you expected to, and by rigidly adhering to your pre-planned pace, you’ll end up crossing the finish line with energy left over when you could have raced faster.
We all have to be prepared to pace ourselves when we need to adjust our plans. By decreasing your dependence on data, developing your internal pacing mechanisms, and learning to race by “feel,” as well as by the numbers, you can be prepared at any point in a race to maximize everything you have left in your tank.
For the athlete who has a healthy appreciation for numbers, PMC charts, and ERG-mode, learning how to separate yourself from over-reliance on metrics is the first step. Tuning in to the difference between how a given pace feels on one day vs. another day is a great place to start.
One of the best ways to do this is to pay attention to (and record) your rate of perceived exertion for each workout. Not only will this help you keep tabs on your fatigue, but it can also help you make sure you’re achieving the intended training adaptations. Gaining or losing fitness throughout the year results in slight changes in your zones, so a solid awareness of how each zone “should” feel will allow you to get the most out of each prescribed workout, as well as on race day.
For athletes who race and train primarily by perceived exertion, it’s important to learn how to correlate effort with data in order to continue to make improvements. While having awareness of your body is an important skill, athletes from this camp may fall into the trap of justifying excessive work or excessive rest.
One way to avoid this is to monitor your easy efforts. As you gain fitness, your zone 2 RPE should correspond to an increased pace or power output. If the reverse is true, (and you’re not losing fitness intentionally, like during the off-season) there’s a chance you’re not training hard enough. Feel-driven athletes can use data like this to hold themselves accountable to their goals.
Other Ways to Develop Internal Pacing
Below are a couple of examples of how you can begin to develop internal pacing mechanisms in training.
- First, pay attention to the cues your body is giving you. If they don’t back up the data you’re seeing, take a moment to think about your form and technique, acknowledge your level of hydration, and evaluate your need for calories. Even with a nutrition and hydration plan, your needs will vary based on the conditions, your training fatigue, and what you did or consumed earlier that day. Understanding how each can affect your pace will help you get it right on race day.
- See if you can match an RPE value for a prescribed effort with a pace, heart rate, or power value after the workout is complete. Then monitor the changes in your zones throughout training cycles to keep yourself on track.
- When swimming consistent intervals, like 50’s or 100’s, try to hit each interval on an exact time. Pay attention to what that pace feels like and how long you can hold it for.
- On the bike, cover up your watts or cadence for a given segment, then check in afterward to see how close you were to the prescription.
- Do a track workout where you run each lap at the same split. If the goal is to run at 10k pace, for example, check in afterward to see if you hit it consistently.
- Execute a workout where each interval builds at a steady rate (i.e. the last lap is 10 seconds faster than the previous lap, which is 10 seconds faster than the lap before that, etc). Building is one of the best ways to find out if you accurately estimated the amount of fuel left in the tank. You’ll fail the set if you miscalculated.
When you know how a certain pace feels, as well as what it looks like on your screen, you’ll be able to perform to the best of your ability in any circumstance. Take some time to develop your internal pacing knowledge this season, and see how it changes your training!