How to pace for an XTerra: Hint, its nothing like road tri’s

If there’s one thing you learn about XTerra your first year it is that while it includes swimming, biking, and running, it bears little resemblance to road triathlon. First, bike handling skills for MTBing are almost as critical as good swim technique. Sure you can power through things, but great technique yields lots of free speed. Second, fueling and hydrating are more difficult on single track trails, requiring more thought into when to do each. Third, for events of comparable duration, it often more fatiguing for a few reasons, but the chief among them is that MTBing requires a lot more body gymnastics than “lying” on top of your aerobars. And finally, if you think you’ll come off a slow swim and pick people off on the bike, or wait to finish people off in the run you will be very disappointed. Pacing in off-road triathlon has been called a different beast; in my mind pacing is about taming and releasing the beast based on your individual strengths and weaknesses. The following article discusses tips for pacing in any XTerra!

Do your homework!

Its easy to tell people to pre-ride and run the race course, but I see too many athletes show up the day before a race and leave most of their race on the course during course inspections. That being said, knowing as much about a course as you can is imperative, especially if the race is a major season goal. So here are my top rules to course previews:

  1. PLAN by doing your research before you leave home. The best place to go is Strava, because there’s lots of data there. Follow pro’s or other top competitors and see what they’ve done on those courses and preview the profile. Before the advent of GPS, big stage races would give cyclists  course booklets with all the course info. We would study where the climbs and feed zones were, how long the climbs were, and local rider insight. Doing this early work helps you set a plan for your pre-ride. If the course is too long, you can see if there are connector trails to shave of distance. This is all stuff you don’t want to do the day you arrive.
  2. KNOW THY BIKE! This is a no brainer, because the MTB is probably the most important leg of an XTerra. Ride the damn MTB course at least once (if its long), and twice if it’s shorter; e.g., XTerra SE is one 20 mile loop, which is too long for most to ride the whole course the day before, while XTerra East is two 10 mile laps. If the course is too long to justify riding the entire course, use your pre-knowledge and ride the sections that are most important. Here’s how I prioritize sections assuming you have good MTB skills:
    • Early single track sections, where traffic may be heaviest and passing most challenging. Its also good to know because your arms will still be pretty blasted from the swim, so your bike handling may be a little off. This is where I start because I’m a poor swimmer, so I need know how much effort to put into any early road sections, and passing options early on. 
    • Highly technical/dangerous sections are also a priority, at least sections that could make, or more likely break your race (and body). Again, if you’re a highly skill MTBer, this may not be a huge deal, ride over, look at it and move on. I’ve seen riders spend 30 min trying to master a 10 foot section of trail. For what? My rule is that if you try it 3 or 4 times and cannot “clean it”, just plan to run! Think about it, if you cannot ride it, what is the likelihood you’ll find someone off their bike when you arrive, in which case you’ll run it anyway. I never hesitate on dismounting and running. If I have any inclination that my line will be obstructed by someone, I just run by. Trust me, I’ve passed MANY people this way.
    • Any section that could be a “lung buster” or “leg burner”. Big climbs are worth seeing, at least if you can ride them easy or two days in advance. Knowing how to gauge your effort can save you energy and give you an idea when to eat and drink.
    • NOTE: If you’ve raced a course a few times, there’s no need to preview the entire course. Gain confidence in the fact that you’re at another athletic level and can now focus on real performance!
  3.  Skip the run. May be it’s just me, but running makes me tired, and feeling tired the day before a race is never a good thing. Of all the courses out there, Richmond is by far the most diverse course, with no truly easy sections. You have a A mix of flat fast, unshaded sections, Mayan Ruins just 1.5 miles in, trails, rock hops and lots of stairs! The finish is fast, but you’re hurting so bad! But, Richmond is unique, so save your energy and stop doing your mini-bricks the day before the race! No really STOP! More on the run later.
  4. Swim, if you must. I generally don’t swim the day before the race. I also don’t ascribe to the “water feel” woo-pseudoscience non-sense. However, the exception is a race like XTerra East in Richmond. Knowing the local lore, the water level, and feeling the currents is extremely helpful. I’d also add knowing where the rocks are too, is good, but on race day that goes out the window. But if your race is the 3 buoy shuffle, skip it and save it for race day.

Pace to your race

There are many ways to think about pacing, and a handful of tips out there. I haven’t linked to them, because I disagree with most of them. The fact is one thing above all else dictates your pacing strategy: the SWIM. Unlike road tri, where you can hit the bike and smoothly make up time. In XTerra, passing on the bike requires skill, timing, persistence, and sometimes a little force. So if you’re mid pack or further back (as I have often been) are you going to just ride smooth and let the race happen? HELL NO! First, no matter where you are out of the water, the first mile or so is often on paved or dirt roads, so hammering that section either creates a big gap behind, or closes the gap on 20+ riders in front of you; that’s 20 riders you don’t have to yell “PASSING” to. I once did a race where I passed at least 30 riders between T1 and the first trail!

I cannot tell you how often I see riders throwing away their races by spinning tiny gears, or sitting up snacking and drink out of T1. WTF! At most the swim is 30 min, what the hell are you doing?! Make no mistake, though, this type of effort hurts, and I always feel terrible coming out of the water, but it’s time that you’ll never make up else where. Likewise, knowing the course allows you to plan for any wide road sections or climbs where you can throw down some serious heat, AND eat and drink. It all takes practice. In my upcoming XTerra training series, I’ll discuss how to train for these type of efforts. Suffice it to say, however, you need to train for XTerra, which is not like training for road tri’s. My training is specific to both my racing style, strengths and weaknesses, as well as the sport itself.

The bottom line here is that you need to make every effort to pass as many people on the bike as possible. As the crowds start to thin out and you’re riding solo, then you can ease back and set a nice even pace. Until then, crack on!

Pace to your strengths (and your training)

As I indicated above, how you pace is dictated by your strengths, as well as driven by your training. My strategy in most races is to hammer the bike hard, hard, hard! I have to make up the most time I can, and I aim to post one of the fastest bike times. My MTB skills can always be better, but road background instills in me the belief that I am one of the best bike riders out there. So I lay it all out! If I have a good swim, then that just means I can relax earlier on the bike and save more for the run. However, I’ve trained for the former, and so I know how I’ll feel on the run and I am literally on the verge of quitting the entire run…but I don’t because I’ve been there before. I know the pain will end after I cross the line. If you’ve never trained as I’ve described above, though, you cannot expect to race this way. However, you can still race with more gusto on race day, by again hammering early on, maybe the first half, then relaxing the second half. What you cannot do is ride tempo and then save it for the run, because by then it is too late. Below are two examples of pacing options from two XTerra races I’ve done:

  • XTerra Southeast Championships features a big lake swim and a MTB course with awesome single track, a 2 mile climb at half way and more fast single track and shorter climbs. In a race like this you may need to press hard the whole race; my strategy. A more conservative strategy would be to press hard until after the climb, recover on much of the fast downhill sections, then finish strong on the remaining single track. Riding easy before that early climb, though, misses a huge opportunity to gain time.
  • XTerra East Championships features urban trails that are fast and technical. The race is nearly always blistering hot (this year was one of the hottest), but with a few paved sections you can make up huge time if you opt to drop the hammer. At this year’s race, I had already done several course rides and even some intervals on the road section. I also had a good gauge of what my lap times would be; this is one huge benefit of my Power2Max power meter. After a solid swim, I rode a highly aggressive race, moving into 12th after lap 1. I blasted across the bridge so fast that I set a PR on Strava, but I decided to ease back on lap 2 because I was out of traffic and wanted to save more for the run. As it turned out, lap 2 was 1 sec faster than lap 1, which is about as perfect pacing as you can get. You can view the file here. By the time I got to the run, I was tired, but I had plenty left in the tank for a great finish. One important side note too, much ado is made about HR drift and aerobic decoupling. I used a frozen CamelBak in the MTB, and saw virtually no drift. 
Every pass matters!

Every pass matters!

But then there’s the run…

Unlike road triathlon, where a fast road racer often produces fast off the bike times (new research indicates this is no guarantee, however), a good XTerra run is a strong run more than a fast run. Obviously, the best guys are fast, but I’ve seen many an athlete who is as fast or faster in the run than me on the road, but are minutes slow in XTerra. One obvious reason is that MTBing is just more taxing and it is more difficult to maintain your ideal (i.e., similar) cadence on the bike as compared to the run. The other reason is all those accelerations, steep grinds, and hammer sections wear out your legs and increase your chance to cramp. So being able to run well off the bike requires…that’s right training.

Brick workouts are key to establishing a fast turn-over. Working on running form throughout the year, as well as practicing maintaining that form off the bike is key. Shortening your stride length early on to increase cadence is also important. As you find your rhythm, your stride will lengthen and your pace to drop. However, the key to run pacing is knowing how to run right at your limit. I have been using a foot pod this season, but the two most important variables for me are my perceived effort and my HR. Yup, I know my HR inside and out, and hitting the run I know that I’ll be hurting but my HR should be between 165 and 170, and hit 170 by mid-way, which is exactly what I saw in Richmond. I also know how I feel. Pace is not really relevant because conditions and terrain vary. If you know your effort level, then you know if you’re running at your limit, above or below.

Strong pacing requires good form right to the end!

Strong pacing requires good form right to the end!

Final Words

Hopefully this helps distinguish XTerra vs Road triathlon, as well as the importance to preparing your individual pacing strategy before you arrive. While there are many factors that can influence nuances of pacing, in my experience, even extreme whether has minimal impact on my overall race strategy. At the end of the day, like any sport, the preparation you do prior to the event will be the single most important factor determining your outcome. Train to race by training how you need to race, because miracles do happen on race day. If you have your own tips or experience, please share them in the comments! Until then, CRACK ON!


Written by