Pacing with Power in Competition
Guest Post by Nick Traggis, Director of the Horizon Organic / Einstein Bros Cycling Team
The widespread availability of reliable power measuring and feedback devices has provided a great toolset for more focused training in endurance sports like cycling and triathlon. However these tools can also be utilized to give advantages during competition. Anyone who has ever raced knows that the rush of excitement from competition can greatly mask your perceived exertion. However, by using real-time power feedback an athlete can properly pace his or her efforts regardless of what is going on in the ‘heat of battle’.
In addition to knowing your functional threshold power (FTP) and resultant training zones, throughout the season you should be gathering data on your peak power averages for various time increments (1, 5, 20, 60 minute, etc.) from both hard training rides and racing. (Most training software does this automatically for you.) With those reference points you can use your power meter for real-time pacing feedback during races just as you do during training.
For instance, if your peak 5 minute power is 350 watts, and you attack the field with 5 minutes left to go in the race, then your target should be 350 watts (after you get the initial separation) and you should be confident that you can hold that effort to the line. So if you look down and see 400W for too long, you are going to blow up!
Same goes for an hour-long hill climb race, use your power meter to keep from getting too excited and going too fast at the start. Settle into a group that is going a pace you know you can hold for one hour. This will help you optimize your performance for your current level of fitness and prevent you from ‘blowing-up’ before the finish of the race.
More Advanced Tactics:
More advanced riders can also use their power meter to help determine race tactics out on the road. The best time to attack a group and gain separation is when everyone it tired and at their limit, as they are less likely to chase. Since nerves and the excitement of the race and affect your perceived exertion quite a bit, using feedback from your power meter can tell you how hard the group is actually riding. (This requires experience in enough races to know what the ‘normal’ pace of the peloton in your category is.)
In another example, let’s say you make the early break away in a road race and quickly find yourself with a two minute lead on the peloton with 50 miles to go. With about two hours left in the race, you want to go as fast as you can to maintain or grow that gap while saving enough energy to have something left for the finish. If your breakaway mates are pushing the pace such that you are maintaining a power higher than you can sustain for two hours, then you should be looking to skip or take shorter pulls. Consequently, if you are one of the stronger riders in the group you will have feedback that should give you confidence to take longer pulls and help ensure you stay away.
The real take-away here is that the number on your screen is a much more accurate indicator of how hard you are going than your perceived exertion in the heat of a race.
Steady state efforts like time trials benefit greatly from power feedback since you are able to pace against your own ability and don’t have to worry about the rhythm of other racers around you. I asked one of my team’s riders, Mac Cassin, for his thoughts on pacing in time trials. Mac is a time trial specialist, former national collegiate champion in the individual pursuit, and is studying Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado. Here is what Mac had to say:
The 4 cardinal sins of time trialing are as follows:
- Going out too hard.
- Going out too hard.
- Finishing with too much left in the tank.
- Going out too hard.
Being able to race with power (assuming you have trained with power and know your relative abilities) will improve your time trialing immensely. Really the most gain you get from racing with power comes from preventing yourself from going too hard in the first 20% of a TT. In that first 20%, when you are fresh and motivated, you can exhaust yourself to the point that you are creeping along for the second half of the race, losing 3 seconds for every 1 second you gained in that first 20%. Being calm and patient at the start of a time trial is almost always the hardest part of the race, and certainly the part that most riders get wrong. Pacing yourself properly (slowly) at the start comes from having the utmost confidence in your pacing strategy.
Once you get a handle on reining in your effort for the first part of a TT, using a power meter then gives you the ability to squeeze every last second out of a given course. The perfect pacing for any TT is increasing the effort on the slower sections, and decreasing the effort on the faster sections. This means on any uphill or headwind section, you push the power above what you plan to average for the whole race, and how much you push it above depends on how long the effort is. For a 7 minute effort, it can be as much as 80% higher, for an hour long TT, no more than 10%. Ideally you will be able to ride the course a few days or weeks before the race, to determine the slow sections (at least uphill sections, wind is something you have to take into consideration day of because it is so variable) you should go ride the entire course at a consistent power, somewhere around 75% of race pace is ideal. That means ride the uphills at the same effort as the downhills so you can then take note of what your speed is at any point. If you are riding some sections at 14mph, then you know that’s where you should increase the effort, and if you are hitting other sections at 30mph, then you know you can back off the effort and still maintain speed.
Ultimately riding a fast TT is about proper pacing, and almost all of proper pacing is making sure you do not go out too hard. After getting a handle on that, you can fine tune your pacing based on each course you race and really ride from point A to B as fast as you possibly can.
Hopefully this gives you some ideas on how to use your power meter as more than just a tool for training. If you have other ways in which you use your power meter to give you an advantage in competition I would love to hear them!
About the Author:
A category 1 cyclist and the owner/Director of the Horizon Organic / Einstein Bros Cycling Team, Nick has been racing at the elite level on the road and track for over 15 years. Nick enjoys working with professional riders/teams as well as riders looking to balance school, career, and family commitments with their cycling goals – as he has had to do the same for his entire career!