Episode #57 – Plotting Your Pace in a Time Trial Race

Episode #57 – Plotting Your Pace in a Time Trial Race

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Pacing a time trial correctly can be the difference between winning and losing. Learn how to plot and train for your race based on the different types of resistance you are likely to encounter.

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Once the hard work in training is done, it’s time to start thinking about optimising your race through pacing.

Pacing is super important – it can be more powerful than your overall power output.

One thing that every racing cyclist faces is the challenge of thinking clearly while you’re on the edge, that’s where having a plan can help you to make decisions under pressure. While some riders that race on heart alone may disagree, being able to ride a calculated race is a skill in itself.

Choosing a pacing strategy becomes an important default position when your brain turns to mush.

In it’s simplest form, bike racing is about who can ride a set distance the fastest. We know that in reality this isn’t true for nearly all types of bike racing.

There is no way in a road race that you are going to be able to ride at your own pace. You have a much better chance to use a pacing strategy in a race that requires constant effort – In Time Trials, CX and MTB you have a lot more control over these efforts than a road race.

So, this episode is just going to focus on the race of truth strategy, Time Trials. Specifically, Time Trials over 10 mins. Why? Because anything under 10mins has one strategy – balls out, all out from start to finish.

Also, I’m only going to reference power, because it’s the best metric for monitoring and gauging effort during both training and racing. Power is far superior to heart rate or subjective feelings.

What is Pacing?

At it’s most basic level, pacing can be thought of as the distribution of the watts you are capable of producing over a set time.

Pretty straight forward. Except if you were to just go out and ride a TT without planning your distribution – you will may soon find yourself blowing up, or at least not leaving all your watts on the road.

Self-Selected vs Planned Pacing

It’s the logical first question to ask. When do you even need to pace? After all, there are counter intuitive recommendations for self-selecting your cadence, and even how much you drink on the bike.

Our natural tendency for pacing seems to be starting out much higher than what we end up averaging. This is referred to as the J curve, and seems to result in a slightly slower overall TT than either a constant pacing or a more conservative initial increase strategy.

To investigate this point further, Atkinson G & Brunskill A. from Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, UK. did a study called: Pacing strategies during a cycling time trial with simulated headwinds and tailwinds. To examine the effects of one self-selected and two enforced pacing strategies (constant and variable power output) on cycling performance during a time trial in which variable wind conditions were simulated.

This study brings up a few interesting points. Firstly that pre-riding the course without a strategy is a good way to test your output, and secondly that the type of resistance is going to play a big part when selecting your output pace.

How Do You Find Your Average Watts?

Time is the biggest factor here. A close second is your potential power output or power profile. Pacing said another way, is the maximal power that you can hold for a given time frame.

The first thing to ask yourself when looking at a specific course is, how long do I think the course is going to take me?

Just like in the study, the best method would be to ride the course and go as hard as possible to test out what average watts your output is. This takes all factors that affect a certain course, and also gives you a physiological indicator in how you feel after the effort so you can look for signs over or under working.

Another way to do this – model the course, obtain an ‘ideal’ power profile and then load that data into a programmable ergometer. This would allow the you to both confirm the physiological feasibility of the profile and to train for a particular event.

This has been possible for a few years now, but using technology like the newly released Wahoo Fitness Segments is a game changer in this space.

You could just base this figure on your power profile, and this might work for smaller events. Leaving nothing to chance to for bigger events is more my focus here. I’m sure you could come up with a decent estimate, especially if you experience on a variety of course.

Once you have this figure, next comes the important part. Working out the distribution of that power. This is going to be largely based on the type of resistance you will encounter, this is where it starts to get interesting.

Resistive forces such as wind and gravity are the main culprits when how and when to adjust your pacing plan.

Pacing Strategies for Wind

Flat courses are at minimum subjected air resistance, and at maximum air resistance and wind.


4 Wind Conditions

Given that air resistance will always be present. The 4 types of wind you will encounter are:


No wind

Ideally you are aiming for an even pacing strategy. Keeping your watts consistent and steady for the entire race – which I think is very hard to do. My suggestion is negative splitting, which is starting slow and getting faster by breaking the race down into segments.

The segments can be as small or as big as you want. Even if it’s just racing the first half of a race slower than the second. This is seen as a way to reduce carbohydrate as a fuel and limiting accumulation of such things as lactic build up early on in the race.



Much like riding with no wind, the one thing you have in a crosswind is consistency, especially if it’s an out and back course. Again, a constant wattage pacing strategy would work best to battle the constant resistance. Trying to also negative split a constant crosswind is the best best in my mind because it cancels out any benefit, and really is like racing with no wind.


Headwind and Tailwind

Any course is going to have a variation of wind directions. So I will clump head and tail winds in together. Assuming the course is similar to the study, that is a flat out and back course, you will benefit from riding a higher than average pace into a headwind and a lower than average pace with a tailwind. Whether you start with the headwind or tailwind will make no difference (on paper).

How much should the difference be? This is something you will have to play with. I would start as high as 15% depending on your ability to recover after hard efforts. This is where your power profile will come in handy when looking at what you’re capable of. Don’t leave this for race day though – it’s a risky gamble to take.

Pacing Strategies for Hills

When the road goes up gravity takes over from wind as greatest resistance factor.

At the top I mentioned that constant pacing strategy is ideal in an ideal world. It’s just not possible to keep the same wattage on both the climb and descent. To counter this, the same idea as riding with a headwind and tailwind, which is to temporarily go into the red zone with a higher wattage and then recover at a slightly lower wattage on the descent.

This is where knowing the course becomes important in planning your strategy. The types of hill plays a big role in planning out the wattage. And again, using your power profile to guide you on how hard to ride up each type of hill will give you a good starting point. 5% is a good starting point here.

Where a course has flat sections and hills you will want to adjust down by riding at a little less on the flat than you would on the hills. This will give you a chance to increase your power as your cadence reduces on the climbs. If there is a flat after the climb though, ride at your normal wind adjusted pace.

If all that sounds complicated, it kind of is. A lot will be innate for you if you’ve been riding for a while. But this is about optimisation, and it’s definitely something to work up to rather than starting out with a complicated plan that goes to shit. Start with something simple like a negative split at the halfway point. Knowing what time you should hit half way, then bring it home.

It’s the PROs that have a DS in their ear, checking wind, working out the length of climbs, and the riders ability, training for specific events etc. So don’t be too bummed if you can’t find a way to work all of these elements into your plan.

3 Extra Tips for Sticking to the Plan

  1. There is no harm in taking 15-30 secs to get up to your target watts from the start.

  1. During the event itself, a small gradient map of the course can be taped to the bars and marked-up with speed or power bands for pacing aid. A more sophisticated solution, would be the Recon Jet.

  1. Train your pacing strategy, including intervals.

Interval Pacing where the Best effort possible is indicated by a U shape. The U shape – Start strong – settle in then finish strong. Think of it as negative spitting the J curve.



Photo Credit: rcrhee on Flickr


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Build fitness on a realistic schedule with this time-saving planner.

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Build fitness on a realistic schedule with The Weekly Workout Stack™

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