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Pacing in Enduro MTB racing so you can ride smoother and faster

We all know Enduro racing is hard. And that’s why we like it.

As a sport, it’s a beautiful mixture of physical ability, skill and risk. As in most dynamic sports, these components cannot stand alone. For example, having balls without skill won’t get you far, and likewise, being an absolute physical specimen with no skill, you will not race well. It’s this blend that makes it interesting to race and train for, and further why we see different riders at the top on different courses.

However, one huge question remains: how do we approach a race run to enhance the effectiveness of each of these components?

We all watch the same race videos. On watching the starts for runs, it is not uncommon to see riders absolutely smashing the pedals from the gun. This makes sense- we pedal when we can to throw down the extra watts and move through the pedally terrain as fast as possible, then hold on for the rough stuff. It’s a strategy that makes sense in theory, but does it work in practice?

How many times have you smashed a pedal section and gone into a rock garden cross-eyed? Have you ever crested an uphill and gone into switchbacks like you were all thumbs? This is converse to the phrase we’ve all heard and probably repeated: “Smooth is fast”.

Smooth is fast.

Can you be smooth when you are seeing stars? Can you pump and flow when your heart rate is maxed?

Probably not. But this is our typical strategy…

It’s easy to debate this strategy basing off of ‘feel’ or from resultant performances of uncontrolled strategy fidgeting. But this is not science, and in this age of DATA, we can do

better than just feelings.

Fortunately at a recent race, I was able to collect some variables doing just this. This was a Super D race in Eastern NZ. Conditions were deplorably muddy and the track was fast. Check out the following files for my two runs (we were allowed as many as we wanted on the same track). I had one practice run and one track walk before the race.


Figure 1. Data from Run 1. Brown is elevation; blue is speed; yellow is power; red is heart rate. Peak power, speed and HR were 680 W, 28.7 mph and 197 bpm, respectively. Race time was 8 min 2 seconds.


Figure 2. Data from Run 2. Brown is elevation; blue is speed; yellow is power; red is heart rate. Peak power, speed and HR were 648 W, 26.3 mph and 189 bpm, respectively. Race time was 7 min 45 seconds.

At first glance, these files appear very similar. Yep, pretty much pedalled at the same spots, but approached them differently.

Let’s break it down.

As shown in Figures 1 & 2, Run 2 was faster by 17 seconds, successfully moving myself into second place overall in a strong field of really fast locals.

Max power, speed and HR were all higher in Run 1, however, had I taken the same approach during Run 2, I would not have walked away from the race a few hundred dollars richer.

Up until the first spike in power, the track was pretty much blasting down a steep grassy hillside. It was scary and I didn’t pedal until the same spot each time.

The first spike in power started what we will call the Climb. The Climb was ~0.2 miles and took nearly two minutes. As this was the most peal-heavy part of the track, I planned to

push this and smash the descent in Run 1.

It has never been my strategy to absolutely crush pedal sections, so I never pushed it at maximum, rather made a more conscious effort to save energy on Run 2 compared with Run 1. Indeed, during Climb 1, I averaged 365 W; it’s nothing too huge for a 60 kg rider, but I was going pretty hard. I hit my max HR soon after the climb at 197 bpm.

However, I took a more relaxed approach to Climb 2, with an average power of 305 W and peak HR at 188 bpm. Interestingly enough Climb 2 was 7% faster than Climb 1.

The interesting bit then, is the portion after the Climb. Here it was really fast (Kiwi fast trails just seem so much faster!) and real slippery. From the moment immediately following the Climb until the second pedal section is where the time gain was had (we will call this the Down). What appears to be happening is that I was able to flow faster, better, and smoother on Down 2 than Down 1. And this is likely due to doing less work on Climb 2.

So maybe pedalling every chance you get isn’t the best strategy? Perhaps this reduces your ability to ride smooth down the hill?

We published a study on this topic recently here; this is an excellent addition to our MTB research. As a matter of fact, I’ve recently applied this concept with several of the Enduro athletes I work with.

And here’s where you can try it:

Pick a few runs- maybe two.

After a warmup, do one at race pace. Record your time (don’t use Strava; a stopwatch will do).

Pedal back easy to the top of that same run, only this time pedal only where you need to, opting to save energy, pump and focus on moving fast through corners, over obstacles and through the straight bits. Record your time. Actually, record heart rate, too.

Pedal up to the top of a different run and repeat, only this time in the opposite order. This should wash out the order-effect of this ‘experiment’. You could potentially do a third trial of each run, and you’d probably want it to be a ‘flow’ run.

These results will give you an idea of the appropriate pacing for yourself on these runs. Maybe you do it right, but maybe you’re trying too hard. It’s worth finding out.

If you want more, check out the 12-Week Full Fitness Plan on Smart MTB Training. You can get this pacing practice workout and many more as part of a structured, self-coaching program.

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