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Webinar Series 1 | The Science of Pacing For MTB, Cycling and Running

This podcast episode was the first one of a six part Webinar series. The topic for this episode is all about pacing; the what, the how, the why, and the nitty, gritty bits that you either might not know, or wanted to know more about.

Why does pacing matter?

As humans, we can only exercise at a high workload for a short amount of time. That kind of high power can be compared to a car's nitro boost / nitrous oxide (NOS). That super fast burst of speed could only be sustained by the car proportional on the amount of NOS that they have. When the car used up all of its' available NOS, the car will continue on its' normal speed because the NOS was an add-on in a sense to the car, and not their main fuel.

However, human bodies cannot sustain that speed, and will eventually need to slow down, maybe even stop, because of other factors not just the body's available energy fuel like fatigue, the heat, or the difficulty of the terrain of your sport.

Once a human body begins working above some sort of aerobic threshold (e.g. FTP, Critcial Power, Aerobic Threshold, etc.), it begins burning carbohydrates and thus accumulating byproducts of glycolytic metabolism. We can keep goin for a while, but eventually all the PCr is used up (in the case of a sprint), or we start to run out of carbohydrates.

Dr. Matt Miller also said:

"Once you get a good handle on pacing, no matter what your sport is, you started to get the most out of yourselves."

Pacing is important, in all kind of sports but mostly for endurance type of sports, because you wanted to maintain the level of your metabolic capacity in the most optimal level so that you can win. Aerobic energy expenditure can theoretically be maintained forever!

What kind of pacing strategies are there?

Dr. Will and Dr. Matt discussed six (6) common pacing strategies that you can utilized in your given sport.

  • Positive Pacing - In this type of pacing, you started with a high power outburst, and would eventually decline, and slow down as the activity goes on. This could be useful for any events that are under three (3) minutes.

  • Negative Pacing - This is the type of pacing where you started easy, and slow, then you would gradually speed up as you are nearing to the end of the race because you have the energy reserve.

  • Even-split Pacing - In this type of pacing, the athlete would try to run an "even" pace during the entire race. As seen in the graph, you would start gradually accelerating to a speed that would be your body's steady state where you can sustain that kind of speed, and energy expenditure throughout the entire event. This could also be considered the hardest to do in an actual race, but would be the most effective.

  • All-out Pacing - This is the type of pacing where you wanted to reach the below maximum to maximum speed capacity that you can, and tried to maintain that speed. This type of pacing is almost similar to positive pacing in the graph shown below, and the best application of this on events below the time of three minutes like a 100 meters sprint.

  • Parabolic or U-shaped Pacing - In this type of pacing, you start fast but also quickly slow down because you know that your starting speed is way too fast to be sustainable, and would eventually speed up as you near to end of the race.

  • Variable Pacing - This type of pacing would be dependent on the terrain that you encounter throughout the entire race. This could also be a combination of two or three other pacing strategies. That would also be the reason why the graph shows an irregular, up-and-down level of power for the whole duration of the race.

How would you apply this knowledge to your sport?

You have the chance to change your pacing strategy depending on what kind of racing event that you do. Understanding your body's limitation -- in force output, energy recovery time, and the time that you can sustain it-- and how you can get around that would help you in the long run because you can modify your training appropriately.

If you already have a pacing strategy that you do, they also said that

"You need to consider that it is worth trying a new pacing strategy. Try one, and just see how it goes."


Source (Image): Edwards, Andrew & Polman, Remco. (2013). Pacing and Awareness: Brain Regulation of Physical Activity. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.). 43. 10.1007/s40279-013-0091-4.


If you wanted to learn more, why not check these websites:

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Dr Will O'Connor and Dr Matt Miller (A.K.A MTB PhD) are sports scientists who work with a plethora of endurance athletes from professionals to amateurs. They talk about common issues athletes encounter during endurance training and how to avoid or remedy them with the help of sports science.

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