Tips for Pacing your Next XTERRA

Pacing an XTERRA race can be a tough nut to crack.  It’s not uncommon for athletes to finish a race disappointed because they thought they could hold a faster pace or more power than actually panned out on race day. On paper an XTERRA race looks easy and the results can be deceiving.  No two courses are the same and even from year to year conditions can change the course significantly.  So how do you know how to pace yourself? We have a few tips that we think will help:


Know Your Zones and Fitness but Don’t Rely on Just One Metric

In general if an event is more than 2-3 hours in length, but less than 6-7 hours, you will likely spend most of your time in zone 3 if you are a well trained athlete. However, an athlete with little experience will find maintaining zone 3 for even a short time very difficult whereas an elite athlete can race up to 4 hours with most of their time spent in zone 4. Elite XTERRA athletes often finish a course in 1.5-3 hours. It is likely they will spend most of their time in zone 4 with bouts of zone 5 on short punchy climbs or when trying to separate themselves from their competition. That same course might take an age group athlete 3-5 hours. It is not realistic for these athletes to spend much time in zone 4 because they will be out on the course much longer.


One of the first things we like to do with athletes is set up their training zones based on heart rate, power, pace, and perceived exertion. Each workout is built around these zones, but the zones serve as a guide and you don’t want to be tied to any one metric.  For example, what does your heart rate do when riding at 100% of your functional threshold power for a given amount of time and how long can you stay there during a race?


Decoupling is a term used to describe the relationship between heart rate and power (biking), or heart rate and pace (running), during steady state exercise.  For example, if you keep the power steady during a somewhat hard, zone 3 ride you should observe heart rate ramping up into zone 3, plateauing for a while and then one of two things will happen.  Either heart rate will slope up as you hold the power steady, or heart rate remains in zone 3 and power drops.


Middaugh Coaching Bike Zones Calculator:

Middaugh Coaching Run Zones Calculator:


Tune into Your Body

Whether you are using power, heart rate or perceived exertion, it is helpful to know your zones so that you can monitor your output during training and races. Even if you never race with heart rate or power, training with a variety of metrics can give you greater insight into your capabilities. Tune into your body during key sessions and think about how it relates to a race effort.  If you are performing two minute intervals for example, that would likely be 10-15% higher than race effort, so don’t expect to be able to race all out, all the time.  Another term to be aware of is Critical Power, which describes what power you can average for different durations.  So CP30 is a power you can sustain for 30 minutes, CP60 is your highest average for 60 minutes and so on.  The same would apply for pace while running.  During a race I am always asking myself, is this hard enough and is this sustainable?  On some dynamic XTERRA courses you might be able to push above that limit on an undulating course, because the is recovery waiting on the downhills.


Know Your Course Type and Distances

XTERRA can be super tricky because every course is so variable in both length and terrain and requires a different strategy when it comes to monitoring your effort. Some courses are very short and may take just over an hour to complete while others can take up to 4-5 hours. Obviously, these races require very different effort output. If you’re not sure how long a race might take, look up the last two year’s results for your age group. This will give you a general idea of how long you might expect to be out on the course. You also must know the course. Pre-riding or running the course if possible is always recommended, but if you can’t see if you can look at the race profile and description. Check Youtube as well. There might be some video of the course out there.


Flat Courses

A flat course requires a steady sustained effort overall unless you are trying to catch or drop a competitor. You can settle into a rhythm and depending on the length probably ride in zones 3 and 4 if you are well trained. If you are a beginner, zones 2-3 is a safer bet to start with. We like to encourage athletes to pay attention to more than one metric. Perceived exertion is still a useful tool especially for racing. If it feels too hard to maintain and you haven’t hit the midpoint of the bike, it probably is. This type of course you can measure out your effort pretty evenly throughout the day with the most effort exerted on the run. For a relatively flat course, think about trying to gradually ramp your effort as the race progresses, and likely your output will stay fairly even.


Mountain Courses

Mountain courses such as Beaver Creek, Ogden, and Maui have long sustained climbs.  A long steady climb can be somewhat self-limiting, but if you attack too hard in the first few minutes you can really pay the price later.  Try to settle into a sustainable pace at or slightly below threshold so you know you can hang in there for 20-30 minutes.  Output is usually 90-95% Threshold power for these long climbs.


I also describe these mountainous courses as very energetically hard courses.  The energy you expend in a triathlon is a closed system and this becomes very evident on these challenging mountain courses.  Running off the bike after 3000+ feet of elevation gain in your legs is tough and you are not alone.  Pacing is much more critical and if you get it wrong you pay a huge penalty on the run.


Undulating Courses

Many of the XTERRA courses are going to be a mixed bag. They might have one long climb, lots of twisty single track, short punchy climbs with short downhills and a few jeep road sections. For these courses, you still need to have a plan that you have simulated in training. Will you settle into zone 3 for long climbs and singletrack sections, hammer the short climbs and recover on downhills? These courses might require short anaerobic efforts less than 1-2 minutes in length. You might be able to attack each short climb at well above functional threshold power without your heart rate getting above zone 3-4. How do you feel when you do these efforts in training? Have you tried running after doing threshold (zone 4) or VO2 Max (zone 5) intervals on the bike? Remember, you can only go anaerobic so many times before you can no longer recover quickly.  If you are not fit and haven’t simulated this in training you will have fewer bullets in your anaerobic chamber to utilize.


Reflect on Each Race

Each race is different. It is its own experiment used to fine tune your pacing for the next race. In order to truly know how to pace yourself in a race you need to know how you have responded in a race and this takes racing and reflection. Write down a brief plan for each race and then take a few minutes to revisit that plan when you’re done. What would you do the same/different? Where did you make up time or lose time your competition? This reflection can help drive your training and guide you as you prepare to plan your next race strategy.


Swim Pacing

Proper swim pacing can help set up the rest of your race and it needs to be better planned than get out hard and find some feet. Getting out hard means something different for each person. If swimming is your strength it might mean sprinting nearly all out for the first 200+ meters, for a novice it might simply mean staging properly and starting just slightly harder than they plan to for the rest of the race for just 20-30 strokes. We train our weaknesses, but should race our strengths.  If swimming is your background, then you can burn a few matches there without it affecting the rest of your race.  If swimming is not your strength, you can pay a big penalty for going out too hard. In fact, I made this very mistake at XTERRA Blackwater this year. It was an 800 yard swim so I decided to go out very hard. I found myself just off the front and instead of backing off and settling into a hard, but manageable effort I kept the pace near maximum for too long only to get passed with a few meters left in the swim as I floundered. I stumbled into transition and I had to recover the first 5-10 minutes of the bike allowing a gap to form that I couldn’t close until near the end of the bike. I should not have sprinted for so long at the start of the swim, and I should have settled into my “strong” perceived exertion effort sooner. I likely would have come out of the water in the same position, but feeling much better. Luckily I wrote that down and will not make that mistake again.


Pacing Takeaways

  • Know your zones and use them to gain understanding of your own abilities.
  • Practice race pace efforts in training.
  • Be familiar with the terrain and distance of your race course.
  • Simulate the race course as closely as possible in training.
  • Don’t rely on just one metric to monitor effort.
  • Come up with a pacing plan for each race and reflect on it after it’s over.
  • Incorporate key brick sessions at race intensity and monitor how your pace, power and effort respond.
  • If you haven’t been able to do it in training, don’t expect to be able to do it in a race.


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