Knowing how to pace a workout is critical to both the success of the individual session and an athlete’s long-term progress. Training is not testing, and while working hard and high physical effort are always of primary importance, these things need to be tempered within the context and intent of training and not simply led by ego.
For example, let’s say a workout like this appears on Monday:
At 70-80% effort:
But Ryan ate at least 90% Paleo this past weekend and came into the gym feeling JACKED and wants to get after it. He looks at the times and they seem slow, and then he sees the coach has written “70-80% effort” which makes Ryan’s mind melt because he wants to make it to the Games 2016 baby and there’s no way Froning takes workouts at anything less than WINNING%, so the coach is full of crap and the prescription was probably just for weak and sick people and he is not weak and sick so now the pacing instruction is ULTRA SWOLE BEAST OBLITERATION!!!!!/////!!!!.
Ryan takes out the door and PRs his 800m time. Sweet. NBD. He heads into Fran and finishes about 2 minutes under his previous best because he couldn’t feel his legs during the thrusters and he felt like he was about to pass out. The second 800m was brutal and the last 21-15-9 into the final 800m almost put him into a coma.
But heck yes he beat Brandon by four seconds. Eat it, Brandon, Eat it.
After 40 minutes of lying on the floor, he picks himself up, dusts the victory off his shoulders and hobbles out the door.
The problem here is that now Ryan is a complete wreck. Not only did he destroy the intended training adaptations, but now the weightlifting/high intensity work tomorrow will be garbage because of the rhabdo in his legs. The gym is also testing some one-rep maxes on Friday which he will bomb, and neither coaches or Ryan have any idea where’s he’s at in regards to absolute strength.
He “won” one training sessions at the expense of losing four others. That’s…..losing.
So…pacing is important. Knowing how to strategically perform work comes from knowing the training intent of the work, personal experience, being aware of your current physical state, and the advice of a coach.
Personal experience is something unteachable via the internet. Just go out and DO – sometimes you’ll do it right and sometimes not, but you learn something either way. Reflection can be selfish and dumb, but after a workout take a second to think about what happened – both what you did well and what could be improved. Part of that inner conversation should be in regards to how you performed the work.
Being aware of current physical state also is something only you can tune into – am I ready to puke on an aerobic session? Slow down. Do I feel ok during 1 minute AirDyne sprint intervals? Speed up. Tuning out and AGHHHHHH EVERYTHING SUKCSSSSSS will negate this ability to evaluate current effort, so always be present and mentally engaged in training.
Pacing based on training intent requires an understanding of what the workout is and the advice of a coach. This lies on a spectrum, so it can be a little messy, especially within the mixed-modal fitness community, but here’s a general cheat sheet. I took just the two ends of the spectrum for simplicity:
Conservative pacing: Aerobic threshold work, WODs 15+ minutes, high volume/multiple piece training sessions, skill focused sessions
Aerobic threshold work is very specific – the work needs to be around that 70-80% maximum heart rate in order to improve the body’s ability to produce work aerobically. Too easy and we lose the opportunity to move that threshold up; too hard and the heart doesn’t adapt in the ways needed to increase aerobic capacity.
A WOD 15, 20, 25+ minutes and longer need to be paced to ensure the greatest quality and amount of work over time, and because of the extended length of time, there is a lot of room for error. Imagine sprinting the first 400m of a 5k. No bueno.
High volume/multiple piece training sessions need to have a conservative pace in order to preserve high quality movement and effort. Remember a basic rule of thumb – the higher the volume, the lower the intensity. It’s more important to have done all the work well than to have done great bits and pieces. Individual pieces of a multiple piece workout can be performed at a high intensity, but this will necessitate longer rest periods between sections.
Skill focused sessions should be conservatively paced because movement is prioritized before effort. In these situations, a new skill is trying to be learned or practiced, bad movement is trying to be fixed, or the athlete is trying to apply a learned skill in different situations.
Aggressive Pacing: Anaerobic (or lactate) threshold training, certain kinds of testing, mental training, short duration workouts <5 minutes
Much like aerobic threshold training, lactate threshold training is very specific in its requirements – go as hard as possible given the time domain. This kind of work requires movements that are cyclical with a high turnover rate – AirDyne, Row, Skierg, sled push, sprints, etc. This is the nasty, puking, “I can’t see” type work and so it’s easy to turn away from the level of intensity required, but it needs to be maximal effort pacing.
Testing but saying “I didn’t go as hard as I could have because…..” is useless to both the coach and the athlete. A 400m time trial needs to be maximal, a 500m Row, “Fran” – maximal effort gives both the athlete and the coach insight and it gives direction to the training.
Summary: Sometimes go as fast as possible, sometimes go slower than that.