Determining how hard to go in the first 10 minutes takes practice as I’ve mentioned. If you were to start doing weekly 2 km time controls 10 weeks out from race day you’d get lots of opportunities to develop your sense of pacing. However I think it is always easier to acquire a skill (and properly pacing yourself is a skill) if you have a good understanding of what is involved before you start practicing it. So lets look at pacing from an exercise science perspective. It’s all about lactic acid management.
To fully understand pacing and a race I like to use the analogy of a video game. Think of many of the modern “quest” type of video games. You have a task that involves some sort of journey through a series of challenges to get to the next level. A race can be viewed as a journey through a series of challenges as well, with the objective being trying to get to the finish as quickly as possible. In video games you usually have some sort of meter that indicates your “energy level”. For every challenge that you face you use up energy, and if you’re inefficient in how you ‘kill the dragon’ and ‘pass through the valley of fire’ you use up too much energy and that puts the rest of your journey in jeopardy. On the other hand, there are usually rewards for doing things well and they tend to manifest themselves in your energy level being replenished somewhat.
A race is very similar. We have to consciously be concerned about our energy level. If we go too hard for too long too early, we run the risk of paying too high a price and “going into the red” which will cause suffering later on. On the other hand, just like in a video game, we can go hard and flirt with the red zone but be rewarded for doing certain things which allow for energy to be “given back” which makes us feel like we’re out of danger of the red zone and more comfortably able to sustain our pace.
In paddling, and especially in the early stages of a race like Chattajack, we’re not so much concerned about energy levels but instead blood lactate. If we accumulate too much it is similar to using up too much energy in the video game and we’ll die (figuratively speaking). However we can accumulate significant amounts of lactate and overcome that build-up provided we don’t work too hard for too long.
As a refresher, lactic acid is the result of anaerobic metabolism, which is a method of supplying energy to working muscles in the absence of oxygen. When we work hard anaerobically we can go for about 3 minutes maximum (if you’re extremely fit) before blood lactate becomes too high and your muscles begin to fail. What’s happening is your muscles end up swimming in lactic acid, which is being dumped from your muscles into your blood stream in a desperate attempt to get it to the liver to be removed. The rate of production so far out weighs the rate of removal that your muscles, awash in lactic acid, end up failing. We want to avoid this at all costs. So what we need to do is pace ourselves and work at a lower intensity where we produce less lactate.
Below what we call the anaerobic threshold we are working aerobically. This is where the demand that working muscles have for energy can be entirely met with energy produced using oxygen. No lactic acid is produced. As long as we stay in this zone, we can produce the energy required for our muscles to work indefinitely. But if we start to work harder and creep above the anaerobic threshold, demand for oxygen which allows aerobic energy production to continue in the paddling muscles outstrips what can be supplied via our cardiorespiratory system. To continue to meet our energy requirements we start to top off what we produce aerobically by producing energy anaerobically (without oxygen), which results in lactic acid being produced and dumped into our bloodstream. So lets think of the first 10 minutes of our race in terms of anaerobic threshold and lactic acid production.
When you go hard off the start and are trying to get clear of all the traffic, you’re likely working above your anaerobic threshold. You’re producing lactic acid. If you’re really going for it, paddling at absolute max, you’ve only got a limited amount of time before you’ll feel like you’re going to blow up. If you’re really fit it might be as long as 2 minutes, though for most of us it’s probably much less. If you’re going hard but a notch below crazy hard, you might be able to last a little longer as, while you’re still producing lactate, you won’t be producing it quite as quickly.
The key is to have an appreciation of where you are in the blood lactate range and know roughly how much longer you can go before you accumulate so much you basically tie up and stop dead in the water.
Short of doing regular blood lactate testing and correlating lactate production to heart rate, you’re going to have to estimate. And to do that with any degree of accuracy it means you’re going to have to do some high lactate work in training. The 2 km time controls I’ve already mentioned help, but you’d be well served to do some hard pieces in the 1 minute to 4 minute range as well. You’ll start to learn where you’re at as you’re accumulating lactate and approximately how much time you have left before you die at a given pace. Also, as you do this training over time there will be some physiological adaptations – you’ll slowly increase the amount of time that you can go at a given hard pace by delaying lactate build up somewhat and by increasing your ability to tolerate or buffer lactic acid in your system. So time spent paddling in a high blood lactate regime in training helps you better understand your pacing while simultaneously improving your anaerobic fitness.
The important thing to know is that just because you’re accumulating blood lactate doesn’t mean you’re necessarily messing yourself up for the rest of the race. If you can pay the price and go just a little harder with reasonable certainty that you can either get on the draft of someone in front of you before you die and then comfortably relax there or just simply slow down, you should know that over time your blood lactate will decrease. Your liver will remove lactate from your blood stream and convert large amounts of it back to glycogen which your body uses as fuel to make more energy. It won’t get lactate levels back to rest level, but it will get you well out of the danger zone.
So getting back to the first 10 minutes of your race, you want to be hovering right around your anaerobic threshold, above it for the first minute or so and then just below it as you settle into your pace. You can go over it again in your first 10 minutes and start working anaerobically but you’ll need to bring it down to just under threshold again after approximately 40 seconds to one minute so you don’t produce too much lactate. Again, think of the energy bars in a video game. Imagine something similar for blood lactate levels. As the bars go up into the red zone they’re indicating your blood lactate is getting too high. It’s time to ease off slightly for a minute or two before going a little harder again. It’s a fine line, and although you’re close to disaster if you get excited and go too hard for too long, if you manage things well you’ll be in great shape after the first 10 minutes. And at this point you should find yourself close to those of similar speed that you can form up a draft train with.
At Paddle Monster our specific preparation for Chattajack began August 7th with a 12 week training block, periodized to maximize results on October 28th. There’s never a bad time to join Paddle Monster. Paddle training is something you can do all year around. For more information, go to paddlemonster.com
Next Article: Part 3: How to form a Draft Train