For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
Many triathletes think of a flat bike course as being easier than a hilly one, but that’s not necessarily the case. For a triathlete whose goal is to finish, it might be an easier task to complete a flat course within the allotted time, but for anyone going for a personal best, the pancake-flat Ironman Florida is going to hurt the same as the hilly Ironman Wisconsin. Why? Because basically you’re going to tackle both courses with the same overall amount of effort; it’s just a matter of how that effort is distributed.
What can make a hilly course hard is mastering the pacing. On a flat course, it’s easier to dial in the appropriate effort because it shouldn’t change much. On a hilly course, well, we’ve all had athletes blow by us on the first climb, heard them breathe, and think, “OK, I’ll see you on the run!” When an athlete paces a hilly race more appropriately, he or she may actually come to prefer a little roll as it allows for micro breaks that a flat course does not.
Pacing a hilly course
A hilly course requires a variable effort. So while you’ll be spending periods of time pushing past your overall goal race intensity, you’ll also get the respite of coasting when going downhill.
A hill in a long race should not be treated as an all-out effort and, depending on your pacing strategy, the length of the hills and other variables, will instead be treated as a controlled effort within a range of your overall intensity goal. For example, in an Ironman race with gentle grades, your pacing strategy could be to not exceed threshold effort, or Zone 4, for more than 60 seconds at a time. Some might even consider climbing a hill to be a nice break from holding aero position for hours on end!
Also, if you treat hills within the limits of your fitness, then you shouldn’t be putting out an inordinate amount of extra effort to climb versus spin in aero on the flats. A common term to describe appropriate long-course pacing is to “flatten the course.” This refers to the strategy of riding the terrain at an even effort, thus using your energy more efficiently and leading to an overall faster time.
*Sample pacing strategy: Plan to ride the course at a low Zone 2 heart rate and build to high Zone 2 over the course of the day. The goal is to minimize the time that your HR reaches the top of Zone 3 on the climbs and back off immediately when your HR hits Zone 4 to avoid burning matches for the run. Avoid looking at speed so it doesn’t lead to emotional decisions.
Pacing a flat course
A flat course is an even, steady effort for a long period of time. If the course is truly flat and you want to ride your best, this means no coasting or getting out of the aero position for long periods of time. In order to be trained to do this, you really have to practice! If all you do is train outdoors on surgey group rides, then you simply won’t be able to have the bike split you’re truly capable of.
*Sample pacing strategy: Plan to ride the course at a high cadence, staying in your Zone 2 power range. You will build in strategic 60-second breaks every hour where you can either coast, spin easy or even stand to stretch your legs. At aid stations, you will stretch when you come out of aero briefly to grab and refill. Finally, keep your effort even in the headwind sections by continuing to pace by power and not speed.
Develop your pacing strategy
Common methods used to successfully pace efforts on both flat and hilly courses include power, heart rate, rate of perceived exertion and speed. Let’s start with the best-case scenario.
Power + heart rate
If you’re looking at this combo (the most ideal situation), then you can precisely monitor your effort (power) as well as monitor how your body is responding to it (heart rate) and make race adjustments accordingly. If your heart rate and power start to decouple—as in heart rate going up at a given power—you can look at execution variables to get yourself on track (nutrition, hydration) first. Even if there are external factors (heat) you can make adjustments to make sure you’re giving the course the right physiological effort. This method of pacing is good for any type of terrain. All you need is the right equipment, and some knowledge of your body and training to decide on the appropriate effort and parameters (e.g., “I won’t exceed 200 watts for more than 60 seconds”).
Just heart rate
If you’re rolling without power, heart rate alone can also be a good metric to keep yourself on point. And if you’ve trained for a long period of time and successfully paced previous races through rate of perceived exertion, focusing on those metrics instead of getting caught up in the excitement of race day can also serve you well.
The use of speed as a metric to pace is one of the top issues that leads to problems. Avoid the use of speed so you don’t make mistakes related to ego that will hurt your overall race. For instance, if you’re tied to a mental goal of 17 miles per hour, this can cause you to go too hard on a headwind or hilly section and too easy on a tailwind section.
Workouts to train for flat courses
If you don’t live in a flat low-traffic area without stoplights or traffic for miles, a trainer can be a great help in prepping for a flat race.
Start out with 1–2 20-minute sections gradually increasing effort from low Zone 2 to high Zone 2 with a 3–5-minute break to stretch and get out of the aero position between each interval.
Once you’ve got that one down, you can mix in longer sets in aero position.
4 x 15–20 minutes on the race course building from 70–85%
*Bonus points for adding in sporadic periods of slightly higher power to simulate passes or small rollers.