Avoid hitting the wall: ways to improve your pacing

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Everyone has done it. You get so excited about the ride that you start out too hard only to pay for it later. It is a bit like the old story of the frog that won’t jump out of a pot if the water temperature is gradually increased to boiling – by the time you realise something is wrong it is too late and you are already cooked.

Going too hard too early can be especially detrimental if the toughest part of the ride is towards the end, just like it was at this month’s Bicycle Network Falls Creek Three Peaks Challenge. During the 235km ride in Victoria’s alpine region with over 4,000 metres of elevation gain you face the relentlessly long and steep Falls Creek climb from the Omeo side, with 200km already in your legs.

There is a reason why the turnoff to the climb is called WTF corner. There is no pretending and no hiding – either you have got something left in the legs or you haven’t.

The toughness of the later part of the challenge is well-known amongst the riders, but it is quite easy to lose sight of what’s ahead. Starting out with a 30 kilometre descent followed by the smallest of the three climbs, Tawonga Gap, it is easy to forget that the next 150km will be a lot tougher. That is why on rides like this you have to be disciplined about pacing.

So that’s what exactly is pacing? Pacing is riding according to YOUR own individual ability so you can sustain your effort over a long period of time and make it to the finish line.

Sounds pretty easy, right?

Well, not so fast, tiger!

Having 2,000 other motivated, enthusiastic cyclists around you gets your adrenalin pumping, which makes it difficult to gauge your true effort. It feels easy to go above your sustainable pace early on. You are excited to get started, climb the first peak and follow the person in front of you. But it slowly sucks the energy out of you for when you really need it – at WTF Corner 200km into the challenge! That last climb takes a heavy toll as it starts off with 9 km at an average gradient of 8-10%. Riders cramp, suffer from dehydration and just completely hit the wall. It’s the carnage that all happens in the last 30km.

Here are some pacing strategies that could help you avoid that carnage and ride further, stronger and smarter:

1. Know your limits

Train yourself to understand your body and to work out how to best deal with the basic needs of thirst, hunger and fatigue on the bike. Test out and be aware of what you can sustain for long periods and be realistic about what you can’t.

2. Measure yourself

If you are prone to get too excited and ride too hard at the beginning, set yourself either a speed, power or heart rate limit to give yourself a tangible number that you can track during your ride. Even it feels too slow keep reminding yourself that a ride like Three Peaks takes you at least 8 hours and you’ll be glad for that early restraint later on.

3. Follow experienced pacers

On rides like the Three Peaks there are pacing cards, and experienced wave leaders that ride at a regular pace to target specific times, so following them is an easy pacing option. However, if you are doing a ride without this support, make sure you do some of your own calculations beforehand to know what speed you most likely have to maintain through those different sectors to make it within your target time. Perhaps even identify other more experienced riders that plan to ride at the same pace as you, they may be useful guides along the way.

4. Monitor yourself

If you find yourself riding with other cyclists, constantly gauge your own effort. Is it too hard? Does the advantage of sitting in the draft outweigh the benefits of sticking to your own pacing? Especially in bigger groups, micro accelerations could add up and really fatigue your legs. Of course, being in a group brings many advantages, but what does it achieve if it means you get to WTF corner and you have nothing left to climb that last 30km on your own?

Here’s a highlight video from the Falls Creek Three Peaks with a glimpse of the WTF corner pain.

 

Monika is a German ultra-endurance racer based in Melbourne. She is a gravel grinder, exercise physiologist and mental toughness coach that loves cycling challenges which push her beyond her perceived physical limits. You can find more of her writing here.

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