There are times when it’s ok, even necessary, to start the race very fast. Some events just start that way and if you want to be with the lead group or have an advantageous position then you have no choice but to go anaerobic. Examples are the starts of bicycle criterium races, mountain bike races and triathlon swim starts. But even then you still need to pace yourself. Only in this instance “pacing” means starting at an effort that you are capable of maintaining for a predetermined time. That means having trained to build the fitness necessary for the effort. If you don’t have the anaerobic fitness to sustain such an effort then you’ll quickly self-destruct. So it’s still “pacing” as discussed in the previous post, only with a different twist.
Someone asked if there was a way to pull off such a hard effort by being smarter rather than fitter. Yes, there could be an element of strategic planning for such fast starts. I once coached a young woman who won an elite national mountain bike championship twice. She never started fast to get position for when the course narrowed to single file. Instead, she always started at her own comfortable pace and then took the chance that she would find spots on the course wide enough to allow her to pass and move up. It usually worked. But not always.
I go to a lot of bike crits in Colorado. There’s one guy in the pro/1/2 field there who has the same strategy every week. He starts at the back and sits on in last place for the first half of the race doing as little work as necessary coming out of the corners. In the latter stages of the race he begins to work his way up looking for help in forming a break. It’s remarkable how often he is in the final selection.
This isn’t necessarily at the start, but in bike road races it’s common for riders who aren’t particularly adept at climbing to be near the front as the group approaches hills. That allows them to drift back as the climb progresses yet still be with the group at the top. But you better be very good at descending, just in case.
If you follow road running you know that the lead group of elites in a race seldom run at a steady effort. At the start and throughout the race there are surges to thin the select group. At the speed they are running there is a definite drafting effect. As lone runners they know they will work harder to run the same pace. There’s also the psychological advantage that comes from being a part of the lead group.
This phenomenon is seen in the elite-athlete bike leg of triathlons also. Even though it is supposedly a non-drafting event there is a slight draft created with several riders going down the road separated. Being in this “wake” often requires working extra hard at the start of the race. In fact, if you get an opportunity to review the power files of elite athletes from an Ironman triathlon you’ll see that they don’t race steady at all. Their power is very high at the start, higher than they can possibly maintain for 180km. Throughout the bike leg their power then drifts downward.
Please realize that to be successful racing with these non-steady-state strategies that these athletes had to train for what they knew would happen. It’s not like they were surprised that the race unfolded as it did. They were still pacing themselves, it’s just that the pace was not steady. The same goes for you. If you want to be with the leaders at the start of a triathlon swim, bike crit or mountain bike race then you had better get in shape to go anaerobic from the gun for some predetermined period of time before backing off and settling in at a manageable pace. Training to go steady at an aerobic effort for long periods of time may allow you to finish strongly. But, depending on the type of racing you do and how your race category typically goes from the gun, you may have no chance of being a contender if you don’t prepare for an anaerobic start.
NEXT: Why heart rate monitors train us to pace poorly.