Pacing a Workout

03 Sep 2020

Today we are going to talk about something that most of us aren't all that good at. We all know about it and we all tend to ignore it from time to time (or all of the time!)... Pacing! Or, how NOT to blow up in a workout.

In this article we are going to talk about pacing and the importance of it in training. We are also going to break down a few sample workouts with some possible strategies as to how you might pace a workout for yourself.

In general, for training, pacing strategy is going to be linked to the desired stimulus to the workout. In a previous article I discussed the topic of stimulus in detail, you can find that here (Stimulus The Why Behind The Workout). When we consider pacing and its relationship to stimulus, it is fairly straightforward in general. If your workout is 7 minutes in duration, the stimulus is more than likely going to be high power output, high intensity and sprint endurance. For a workout like this, pacing isn't really something you will consider too much. The workout is short, your goal is to push as hard as you can and complete the most work in the time. For this short time domain, you are going to be going out very fast and more than likely just holding on to the end. These are the kind of workouts that leave you on your back gasping for air wondering what the hell just happened.

So, I know I just said that in a short time domain workout you are not concerned with pacing and you just need to get it done as fast as possible. In general this might be true, but you need to consider your own capacity and where your own endurance is for a specific workout. Let's look at a few examples. In the 2019 Crossfit Games, in the Ringer 1 event, James Newbery went "Full Send" and won the event finishing two seconds in front of Mat Fraser. In the second part of this two scored event, Ringer 2, Newbury finished in 8th place more than a minute slower than the top times (Fraser won). Let's look at what happened here; Newbury is well known for his capacity on the bike, he knew going into this that if he went full send, he could win it and pick up those 100 points. Maybe the strategy backfired on Newbury, but he still picked up an event win for the first part of the workout, of which each was considered a scored event. Let's take a step back to your local box. There are many average level everyday Crossfiters who could probably do 30 calories on the Assault Bike as fast as Newbury did his first 30 calories in that workout. Does that mean they could finish the workout in the same time as him? Probably not.

"If you have a heart attack, get sick in the middle of the workout, or slow to a crawl by the end - you have paced it wrong."

If you are attempting this workout, even though it is only 7 minutes, there is no point in going all out for 30 calories if you can't move for the rest of the workout. I for example know that I can do a max effort 30 calories on the Assault Bike in about 24 seconds, can I do much after that? No. If I were to do Ringer 1, I would not be going at my all out max pace. The simple rule is, short equals fast, but not so fast that you can't complete the workout. If you have a heart attack, get sick in the middle of the workout, or slow to a crawl by the end - you have paced it wrong.

"What all of the above is really saying is, know yourself. Understand your abilities, strengths, weaknesses and factor that in."

What all of the above is really saying is, know yourself. Understand your abilities, strengths, weaknesses and factor that in. This is probably one of the most difficult things to master in terms of pacing. Unfortunately, there isn't really any short cut for it, it just takes time. The longer you train, the more modalities you train across different time domains, the more you will understand how you react and where your ideal pace lies. If you are new to Crossfit and have no real sporting or fitness background, a reasonable goal is just to keep moving consistently. Try to keep moving for the whole workout, taking the rest you need as you need it. Your pace might be slow, but just try not to stop completely. However, if you come from a running or sports background, you might be able to run fast in a workout and not have it burn you out, but you might get flattened trying to move fast with a barbell in hand. Again, this comes back to knowing your strengths and knowing where to push and where to slow down and take your time.

"...it's an AMRAP; which means you have to keep moving for the entire 20 minutes. There is no maximum work that you could try to sprint through just to get it over with."

With the above in mind, let's consider a longer workout and how we might break it down. For this example, we are going to look at a 20 minutes AMRAP (as many round/reps as possible) of a 400m run and 7 overhead squats at 61/43kg - 135/95lb. So first thing is first, time domain. In Crossfit terms, this would be considered a mid to long time domain. The first thing that you should be thinking is, long equals slow. Or at least, slower than you might think you should start out with. Also, let's consider the style of the workout, it's an AMRAP; which means you have to keep moving for the entire 20 minutes. There is no maximum work that you could try to sprint through just to get it over with. It doesn't matter how fast you go, you are working for 20 minutes. A high level athlete will look at this and know how hard they need to go to keep just at a level they can keep moving but while setting a high pace.

"You went out too hot! If this sounds familiar to you, then you have experienced something that I and many others also have, many times."

Let's go back to our everyday Crossfitter again. One of the most common mistakes in a workout like this (I am guilty of this on many occasions 😬) is simply going out too hot. Most of us have experienced this before, you go out on the first run, you notice you are keeping up with the good runners in your gym, you get back and the clock says you just got a PR 400m time... The only thing you should think is, "I have made a terrible, terrible mistake". What has happened is, you have pushed the limits of your aerobic capacity, your body is going to start freaking out (I believe that is the medical term). You will pick up your barbell and your anerobic system will kick in. However you are gassed out and breathing and bracing will be hard for the overhead squats. Next you will find that your runs start to slow down, you get more and more out of breath and your sets of squats get smaller. You get slower and everything starts to feel harder. You went out too hot! If this sounds familiar to you, then you have experienced something that I and many others also have, many times.

If you are a good runner, you might not have much of an issue with the pacing of this workout. You are going to be able to do the run without much stress. If you have decent strength and skill and/or have scaled the weight of the barbell correctly, the overhead squats are also probably going to be okay. In this case, you might start to slow down as the workout progresses but that will really just be fatigue setting in from the volume of work you are doing rather than pushing past your capacity for the time domain early.

What we have just described is not just true for good runners, really it is the ideal way for this workout to be paced. Ultimately, your strength and skill and how you deal with weight under fatigue will determine how you can get through the overhead squats. In other words, they will kind of take as long as they take to get through. The run is the real variable here where you can measure your pacing. Even if you are not a great runner, pick a nice even (and slow if needs be) pace so that you can keep moving without blowing up. This will allow you to attack the barbell better each round and get back out to the run as fast as possible. If you are a strong athlete, you may even be able to make light work of the overhead squats and really focus your attention on keeping the runs at the pace you want. You might even have enough left in the tank to push a bit harder at the end and finish with a bang!

"...DON'T GO OUT TOO HOT!!"

I hope this discussion on pacing has been valuable and that at least some of what I have described has been relevant to you. Really the most important part of what I have talked about is knowing yourself. If you struggle with pacing, make a deliberate effort to figure out what part of the workout made you struggle the most. Ask yourself, did I push too hard on something that if I took my time with, I would have had a better workout. Before a workout, look at the movements and try figure out where you can push and where you need to step back a bit. However, above all else, DON'T GO OUT TOO HOT!!

Ian Carey
Better. Every. Day.

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