Pacing Strategies

Interesting topic which I had a discussion with a physiologist before Christmas about pacing strategies. His question was why rowers go out so hard at the start of races then have such big fades in speed. My response was simple, it's often easier to race from in front than to get behind and to have to work back through the field.

How important is pacing in rowing races? Depends is the answer I will give. What's meant by pacing? From a physiology stand point it was explained to me that the cost of going out so hard in relation to the speed which is maintained some time after the start. Yet often as has been seen crews and athletes fade even further. My take on things is that the good crews once into the second 500m don't slow any further most times they race. So how important is the pacing verse ensuring the start puts you close to if not in front of the competition through 500m.

The physical demand of a fast start can be counted but is the cost as high as assumed. What does it take to hit a high speed and transition in to a rhythm which is slower in relation to the max but carries good speed relative to the effort. Years ago an eights coach I had was clear that if we could do 1.21 / 1.21 / 1.21 /1.21 then it would be successful. The challenge is being behind by a boat length or more when you do it and having the presence and patience to enable the superior rhythm to enable you to slide back up and through your competitors. It's a great idea in theory, but experience say that any margin given early to competitive people seems to become larger and more difficult to overcome the close you get the the finish.

The lesson I learned from 2002 came from two events. Luzern World cup the the Worlds in Spain. Great athlete know how to manage themselves even if the go out very fast. Great athletes can chase others down, but the risk of not making it is high. What's required to blast out from the start and to go on with it needs to be understood. Like wise whats required to sit with the field or even behind and to build, surge and storm home needs real consideration as to what it takes. My lesson was if you give anyone margin it's hard later on. Give great athletes that kind of slack and it becomes an even bigger challenge.

Now pacing can relate to many things. I am using rowing as the example here. In 2002 after have what I would say was a well paced race. Pretty even splits down the track with a slightly faster first 500 but not a big difference to the rest of the race. In fact we carried our speed so well through 1000m and then 1500m that we literally stepped away from the Skelin brothers and Matt and James (GB) that we surprised them and ourselves I guess. It was a well paced race, the kicker here was by the World Matt and James really went away with a focus and on return they pumped out 1.30 / 1.35 / 1.36 / 1.33 splits down the Seville course and we never really saw them until after we crossed the line. From a physiology perspective this would be regarded as having a huge cost for the high early speed. Question would be what would have happened if they had of gone 1.33 all the way? The early cost is lower for the more casual split but would they then have been able to kick it along 500m after 500m at the same speed? On the other hand James and I did 1.34 / 1.37 / 1.35 / 1.30 and we came home with a potato medal. IN my heart of heart I feel that if we had of at least maintain contact in that first 500 then it could have been different. Even if we had of maintained the 1.34 on that day we still would have gone home with 4th. True the GB crew may have been able to go even fast by dialing it back a little in the first 500 but that also would have opened things up to the other crews. The great crews can go hard early and know how to manage themselves to ensure they hang on.

The cost of going hard early and even keeping the foot on the gas might be high. The advantages seem to outweigh the costs though from what I have often  experienced. We are talking small margins and often in sport and life the difference between getting the result or missing out is small. Pacing does not mean even splitting. I figure my physiologist friend was referring to the cost of going out so hard in relation the the majority of the race.

Having spent the time on the bike I appreciate the cost associated with going 60km/h on a bike and the limited time you can spend there on your own. The power required to go fast increase 3 fold. Water is the same and maybe even worse I am not sure. If you can sustain 440w for an hour the best way to ride as fast as you can for an hour is to get on 440 and hold it rather than going out at 500 and running out of puff later. The simple reality is you can loose minutes once the bear jumps on your back and you are riding with less power once that cost is being taken. 500 down to 450 then 420 and finally you are suffering at 380 wondering where those great numbers went from training.

Rowing though has not had the luxury of real time power meters in boat while racing. I am sure it will open our eyes to the cost, but strange things happen when you begin to get better measures of performance. Surprises often appear. The good and bad of what you are doing becomes clear. What will be discovered will be fascinating, but for now we have assumption. We have effort, fatigue, rate per stroke, speed, splits, and the cost we assume for all of the ups and downs which create increase and decreases in performance.

My sense is pacing is critical but it might not be the pacing we expect. The way we get boat speed my not appear as straight forward as what it looks like on the surface. The fuel an athlete or crew gain from being in the race can not be under estimated. Lab testing environments are not the same. Training is not the same as racing. Belief is a factor not well understood and the list of factors on performance is huge.

What I love is the discussion about better ways to get a performance. How you pace your effort is key no doubt. What the strategy is I feel needs thought, intent and follow through, but it's not a one shoe fits all. It's individual and this is the challenge with teams. So yes there is a cost for how hard you go out physically. The cost mentally of being behind in a team when expectations are for a better position is huge. Not many teams can sit back and manage that situation under pressure well. Individuals maybe but teams have that extra complexity.

Anyway this was just some thoughts on pacing strategies which won't have clarifies anything really but for me it is doing the best with what you have with out over cooking it, but not making it harder than it has to be. One boat length gets longer the closer you get to the finish line. My thinking is if a meter can be hard to pass with the last 50m of a race then why give away that meter early. 1 Length is almost impossible to pass with 250m to go and yet crew often give this margin away in the first 500m and hope that a finishing burst might bring them back. To me every cm counts and it's worth fighting for at the start as much as it is at the end.


Gavin said…
I agree with you when it comes to racing on the water. There is such a psychological benefit about being in front.

As my main competititive focus is indoor rowing. My race paln is to try and go even all the way from the start and not go out hard and then go as hard as possible in the final 500m. Do you think that approach is best for competing on the erg?

Unknown said…
Hi Gavin,

Interesting thing I have found with ergo's is I have found doing three things has worked over time.

1. Going out and getting slightly ahead of the split has helped me mentally many times.

2. I did a few good tests years ago doing something like this... 1.32/1.30/1.28/1.26 Target with actual being that the last step I did 1.27. At the time this was my PB by 1sec.

3. As you mentioned even splitting with a surge at the end. But when I have done this I have found myself getting edgy around the 1000m mark of 2k and usually given it a kick along then rather than waiting for the last 500m. Even with this I have found the first 500 is say 1 sec faster than the second and often I have done a better 3rd 500m than my last.

What's best I think has to do with preparation in training and what you are willing to experience. Personally I find it easier to hang on at the end than to wind it up.

When it's only you on the machine I do think the safest option is to hold steady for the first 1000m usually. Then again you never know unless you try something different and even extreme to see what is possible. Motivation plays a huge part and what you are wanting to achieve. If a PB is what you are after then subtle change may or may not get you the result your after. If you what to improve your chances so risk has to be taken and step beyond the normal way you would pace it and even how you might row the ergo needs consideration. Chances are you will break your PB by a few seconds or miss the mark by the same margin.
john said…
As someone who has raced bikes for 28 years and is now a novice rower with 1 race under my belt I agree it is "easier to lead" in the boat. That is not necessarily true on the bike (aerodynamics aside).
The reason in my opinion?
In a boat you are going backwards and can not see the competition but on a bike you can and that is very motivating.

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