Mountain biking is hard. And that's why we like it. As a sport, it's a beautiful mixture of physical ability, skill, and risk.
But here's the thing: these components cannot stand alone. It's this blend that makes it interesting to ride and train for, and further why we see different racers excel on different trails.
However, one huge question remains: how do we approach a race run to ride our fastest?
The Myth of 'Pedal to the Metal' (Is Smooth Really Fast in MTB?)
We've all seen those race videos where riders unleash an all-out pedal assault from the starting line. Pedaling at every chance to squeeze out every extra watt. It all sounds good in theory, right? But does it work in practice?
How many times have you smashed a pedal section only to find yourself cross-eyed and fumbling through the rough stuff? This approach seems to contradict the timeless adage we've all heard and repeated: "Smooth is fast."
The Reality of Pacing in MTB - All-Out is Not Always Fast
Can you be smooth and fastwhen you're seeing stars? Can you maintain a perfect flow with a maxed-out heart rate? Probably not. But this is often our typical race strategy.
The result of this strategy is usually sloppy riding and overbraking. This is why many top riders race at 90% effort - they can carry more speed when they’re fully in control than when they are totally gassed.
In this age of data, we can do better than relying on feelings alone and come up with our own perfect strategy for every MTB track.
Assessing Your Pacing Strategy - Tech to Help You on Downhills
When it comes to perfecting your pacing strategy, the key lies in data-driven insights. Several crucial metrics play a pivotal role in assessing and optimizing your approach. Here are some of them:
Power Output: Monitoring your power output provides a clear picture of your physical effort during the race. It helps you gauge whether you're pushing too hard or not hard enough at different points on the course, and you can see where these places are.
Heart Rate: Your heart rate serves as an indicator of your effort. Push too hard and your HR will go up and never come down until long after your run is over. Ride within yourself and your HR will respond after a hard effort and come back down when you’re coasting.
Braking: The way you brake is a result of the demands of the trail and your physical capacity to ride with control. By identifying braking patterns and understanding how these change, you can maintain better control, ride with more flow, and have more gas for when it counts!
Lap Times: You’re most likely going for the shortest time, so record that too! Use this to find the right mix of physical effort and flow.
An Enduro Pacing Experiment
Check here for a full rundown of a pacing experiment alongside a published scientific article on pacing in MTB.
Alongside the real scientific experiment, there are also some interesting experiments you could run on yourself, such as this below.
TL;DR: Holding back on some parts of the track helped this rider get a faster downhill time.
During this race, one rider completed two runs on the same track, with the intention of approaching them differently. The trail had two short pedal sections and took place on some incredibly slipper and exposed trails!
Run 1 involved blasting down a steep grassy hillside and riding on the limit. Peak power, speed, and heart rate were all higher during this run on a slippery, exposed trail.
Run 2 had a more relaxed approach, focusing on conserving energy and riding smoothly. On the pedal sections, he rode at about 90% effort and was able to ride the slippery descents in full control.
By pacing strategically, the rider was able to ride smoother, faster and with more flow, ultimately shaving off precious seconds.
How Should You Attack MTB Downhills?
So, perhaps pedaling every chance you get isn't the best strategy? Maybe conserving energy during strategic moments allows you to ride smoother and faster downhill. The science and the race results seem to suggest just that.
You should try this for yourself on your own trails. Record your times and braking with different approaches to pacing. You’ll be looking for your best FlowScore and the shortest time on the trails.Note how your Key Opportunities change as you ride differently.
These results will give you an idea of the appropriate pacing for yourself on your runs. You might just discover that a more controlled strategy can lead you to your PB, or at least down the trail faster than your mates!
And the good news is that specific pacing training sessions can help us ride faster on downhills!
Try This Downhill Pacing/Skills Training Session to Ride Faster Yourself
No matter who you are or where you ride, you can work on your own pacing. XC riders, Enduro racers and even DH World Cup riders can optimize their pacing.
Head to your local trails and give it a go. Before riding fast, ensure that the trails are clear and safe. Ride within yourself.
A trail with a clear start and end - use a landmark or some baking flour to mark the start and end
The kit and bike you use for racing - make it as realistic as possible
Clear, safe trails
BrakeAce (optional) to assess where and how you brake with each strategy
Backup timing device like Strava or a stopwatch . Use GoPro for timing and sync it with your braking data
PACING TRAINING SESSION FOR ENDURO AND DH RACERS:
Mission: Ride smoother, stay fresher and make fewer mistakes
Set up your own downhill training pseudo-race with 1-2 race stages, preferably in terrain similar to your next goal race. If you’re doing two stages, alternate between stage 1 and 2, riding with a different pacing strategy for the first run down each one.
For the first time down stage 1, race as you normally would; note your time, FlowScore and all other braking metrics.
At stage 2, coast as much as possible. During the times you would normally be pedaling, you can look for faster lines, pump for more speed, and focus on your braking points. If there is a big pedal section, pedal at 90% effort to get through it and then focus on your flow as soon as you can. Aside from pedaling less, try to maintain race pace. Note your time, FlowScore and all other braking metrics.
Next, try these same stages again, only coast on stage 1 and pedal on stage 2. Compare your times, FlowScore and all other braking metrics.
Note the intensity you ride the liaisons, what you ate between runs and how well you recover. Keep these intensities and fueling in mind for your next race.
PACING TRAINING SESSION FOR XC RACERS:
Mission: Ride faster, use less energy and improve endurance
Head out to a local trail system with terrain similar to your next race and find a loop that takes 10-15 minutes to complete.
Get in a 15 minute warmup by riding easily for 5 minutes, and gradually raising the intensity every second minute, alternating between 1 minute going increasingly harder, and 1 minute easy. Finish the warmup with 5 minutes easy.
Once ready, commence the practice race!
Ride this loop at race pace for one lap at 90% effort. Coast as much as possible on the descents without losing speed. Make sure you don’t push too hard on the climbs and instead stay at 90% effort.
Once finished, ride one loop very easy or rest for 10-15 minutes. Eat something you'd normally eat during a hard intervaal session to ensure you keep your engine topped up before the next effort.
When ready, complete 1 lap at 100% race pace.
Compare times, power output, FlowScore and all other braking metrics.
How was your pacing? We want to know!
Mastering the art of pacing is crucial for any MTBer, whether you're an Enduro, Downhill, or XC rider. Your human engine can only go so far before you’re gassed – pushing the limits without burning out can make all the difference on race day.
Other MTB Skills Training Rides
Here at BrakeAce we're on a mission to demystify your ride and helping you discover your full potential. Check out our web app to see for your self, or learn more about how you can ride smoother and faster on downhills here!