Ask any coach about pacing whether for a single event, match, or the duration of a competitive season, and they will tell you it's a vital component for success. Ask any athlete about the most appropriate pacing strategy to achieve peak performance for their event and they will probably say they have learned it by trial and error. Go out too hard and you'll "blow the race." Go out too slow, you'll get dropped by the pack, and you're likely never to be in contention. At the top level of competition there are often very small differences between winning and losing. In Olympic Games or World Championships, the margin between the glory of a medal and total anonymity is usually less than one per cent. Given the importance of correct pacing in any event which lasts more than 30 seconds, the lack of scientific study of how different pacing strategies can influence competitive performance is surprising.
In events where the sole aim of the athlete is to cover a set distance in the quickest possible time, the usual advice to competitors has been maintain an even pace. This sentiment was largely based on a single experiment conducted nearly forty years ago in which three well-trained (but certainly not competitive) athletes were asked to run 1,200 meters using three different pacing strategies: a fast start, a slow start, and even pacing. (Robinson et al., 1958). The fastest start produced the worst performance while even pacing produced the fastest time. Largely as a result of that single study, athletes were told to delay the heaviest effort as late in the run as possible.
More recently, Foster et al. (1993) studied the effects of different pacing strategies on a 2,000 meter cycle time-trial. They had nine well-trained cyclists complete the first 1,000 meters of the time-trial riding at a predetermined pace (very slow, slow, even-paced, fast or very fast) and then complete the second 1,000 meters as fast as possible. The difference between the slowest time-trial (the very slow start) and the fastest trial (even-pace throughout) was 4.3%, something like the gap between first and eleventh in an Olympic pursuit-cycling race or between first and last in a middle-distance running event. Foster et al. (1993) concluded that even pacing was the best strategy for middle-distance athletic events, and that there were negative consequences for even small variations in this strategy. Further scientific evidence in support of this hypothesis comes from observations on Olympic gold medal cyclist Chris Boardman during a 80 km (50 mile) time-trial on an undulating course (total elevation 400 meters). For the duration of the race, which he won in 1:44:49, Boardman sustained a heart-rate of 178 beats per minute with only a five-beat deviation from this average (Palmer et al., 1994).
While a steady-state or even-pace strategy is likely to result in the best performance in events where the athlete has to beat the clock, racing directly against an opponent may call for changes in pace as a matter of race tactics and strategy. Often such races are won by those athletes with superior tactical skill. For example, in mass start cycle races such as the Tour de France, it is very unusual to see the peleton ride at the same pace throughout the day's stage. This is because cyclists in groups, whether riding for a team or as an individual, are nearly always drafting behind another competitor's wheel, or riding in a bunch. In addition, there are changes in pace as groups of riders attack a hill, or try and break away from the main pack (Palmer et al., 1994). Distance running is also a matter of skill and tactics, with runners making use of their advantage (e.g. a fast finishing kick) or the course conditions (e.g. a hilly section) to break away from competitors at strategic times.
To investigate the effects of two different pacing strategies on endurance cycling performance, we studied the effects of a session of steady-state, even-paced cycling or stochastic, variable cycling on subsequent time-trial performance (Palmer et al., 1997). Six highly-trained riders performed two and a half hours of cycling, followed by a 20 km time-trial. The rides undertaken before the time trial were of the same average power or speed. During one ride cyclists rode even pace for 150 minutes. During the other they varied their pace within a 12% range above and below this average. Their paced or random efforts were immediately followed by the time trial, during which they covered the 20 km as fast as possible. Despite identical average power outputs during the first 2.5 hours of cycling, there was a significant improvement in the time to complete the 20-km time-trial following the even-paced ride. All six riders went faster under these conditions by an average of 1:36 min:s. These lab results are in agreement with earlier research.
A major difference between laboratory and field conditions is that in many races, the successful athlete dictates any change in pace to suit their own strengths and exploit an opponent's weakness. The race winner is the first athlete to cross the finish line, rather than the fastest time trialist. Sport scientists may need to design studies that examine performance in tests with pace varying as in a real event. The findings from such studies may be more useful for coaches and athletes.
Hawley, J.A. and Burke, L.M. (1998). Peak Performance: Training and Nutritional Strategies for Sport. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
Foster, C., Snyder, A.C., Thompson, N.N., Green, M.A., Foley, M., Schrager, M. (1993). Effect of pacing strategy on cycle time trial performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 25, 383-388.
Palmer, G.S., Hawley, J.A., Dennis, S.C., Noakes, T.D. (1994). Heart rate response during a 4-d cycle stage race. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 26, 1278-1283.
Palmer, G.A., Noakes, T.D., Hawley, J.A. (1997). Effects of steady-state versus stochastic exercise on subsequent cycling performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 25, 684-687.
Robinson, S., Robinson, D.L., Mountjoy, R.J. and Bullard, R.W. (1958). Influence of fatigue on the efficiency of men during exhausting runs. Journal of Applied Physiology, 12, 197-201.