Why should you develop your internal pacing when you have everything you need right in front of you on digital display? In a race, you probably know what your paces, heart rate, and power should all be ahead of time. So in an ideal world, everything goes to plan and you just follow your tracking devices all the way to the finish line. The problem stems from the fact that races rarely or never exist in an ideal world. We have to be prepared to make adjustments, and we have to be prepared to pace ourselves based on those adjustments.
By getting in touch with and developing your internal pacing mechanisms, or more casually described as racing by “feel,” you can be prepared at any point in a race to maximize everything you have left in your tank. We’ve all had those races where you show up and your body doesn’t feel how you expect it to feel. If you proceed by trying to hit your pre-planned objective measures of exertion, that could result in slowing down before the finish, or worse. From the opposite perspective, you may feel better than you expected to feel, and by rigidly adhering to your pre-planned paces, you end up crossing the finish line with energy left over. By learning how to correlate your subjective perception of effort with the objective measures, you can capitalize on all of your hard work and cross the finish line having gotten the best out of whatever you had in your tank on that day.
For athletes who have a healthy appreciation for numbers, PMC charts, and ERG-mode, learning how to separate yourselves 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. Pay attention to your rate of perceived exertion. This can help you better understand the intention of a workout, which will help you attain the appropriate training adaptations. Gaining or losing fitness throughout the year results in constantly changing zones, so the more awareness you have about how each zone should feel will allow you to get the most out of each prescribed workout.
For athletes who may already feel like they listen to their bodies and race primarily by subjective exertion, it’s important to learn how to correlate your effort with the data in order to continue to make improvements. While having awareness of your body is a great starting point, athletes from this camp may fall into the trap of getting too comfortable. Check in to see where the heart rate, pace, and/or power that is supposed to correlate to an RPE zone falls throughout training cycles. For example, as you gain fitness your zone 2 RPE should correspond to an increased pace or power output. If the reverse is true, you may be either losing fitness intentionally because of the time of the year, or you may need recovery in order to keep progressing. Use this concept to stay accountable.
Below are a couple examples of how you can begin to develop your pacing mechanisms in training. As you’re training, pay attention to the cues that your body is giving you. This is a great way to stay conscious of 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 conditions, exertion, and what you did or consumed earlier that 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. Monitor the changes in zones throughout training cycles to keep yourself on track to your goals.
Going forward with these new strategies, I am confident you can learn to balance data and feel, and the resulting experience = a successful race day.