Wednesday Workout: Finding Your Realistic Race Pace

Steven McCarthySeptember 11, 2013
Maine Winter Sports Center (MWSC) biathletes working on uphill pace identification in Fort Kent, Maine. (Photo: Seth Hubbard)

Welcome to Wednesday Workout, where we round up training ideas on a weekly basis. This week Will Sweetser, competitive programs director of the Maine Winter Sports Center, explains how to identify your personal race pace using his Reality Race Pace Progression rollerski workout. 


Like most clubs around the country, our focus here in northern Maine is on youth and junior skier development. We want, first and foremost, to help the next generation of skiers earn spots on college teams, international trips, and the U.S. Biathlon and U.S. Ski Teams.

While it is quite common for us to hear junior racers vocalize their dreams of representing the red, white and blue, it is equally common to see the same racers destroy any hopes of doing so, through poor pace identification in race after race. The start timer counts down and kid after kid across Maine throws caution to the wind and hammers out of the gate at Level “Go!”.

Over the course of my time here in Aroostook County, I’ve steadily refined a workout aimed specifically at curing this lack of pace sense. I call it: Reality Race Pace Progression. This workout is aimed at identifying one’s 10 kilometer race pace. The beauty of the system is that it gives athletes a tremendous amount of worthwhile feedback.

The concept is simple, and shamelessly stolen from track and field sessions practiced in Africa. All that is required is a lightly traveled stretch of road at least 500 meters long. Athletes should warm up as though it is race day — this is a great way to fine-tune race day prep.

MWSC post-graduate Emily Ramsey racing in the 2012 U.S. Ski Association (USSA) SuperTour at Bohart Ranch in Bozeman, Montana.
MWSC post-graduate Emily Ramsey (57) racing in the 2012 U.S. Ski Association (USSA) SuperTour at Bohart Ranch near Bozeman, Montana. (Photo: Will Sweetser)

After warm up:

• 1 kilometer time trial at maximum effort.

• 15-20 minutes easy recovery skiing at Level 1.

• 7-12 x 1 kilometer (over the same course as the time trial) at 15-20 percent slower than time trial pace. 2-3 minutes moving recovery between intervals.

• Cool down 15-20 minutes.

The time trial helps identify one’s current performance level. As I said earlier, it’s easy to set a goal of making a team, but most younger athletes do not have any idea of how fast they actually need to ski to do so. With the advent of improved grooming, snow making and sizably better waxing knowledge, most races throughout the year are relatively comparable in terms of per-kilometer times.

Frequently, I’ve had athletes realize that their current sprint pace is not yet fast enough to compete in 10 k races on the New England Nordic Ski Association (NENSA) circuit. Even more often, I’ve had athletes show up and realize after the time trial that they just aren’t ready for the workout. Time trial times just don’t lie!

The repeats, themselves, are aimed specifically at pace averages taken directly from a 10 year sample of International Ski Federation (FIS) sprint and distance races held at the same venue, in the same technique, in stable weather.

All-around European racers averaged 18-percent slower per-kilometer over 10-15 k than they did in sprints. Distance specialists averaged 12-percent slower. Women tended to keep the gap a bit closer at around 15-percent (likely due to the generally shorter race distances for women and relatively longer early race times for women’s sprints). Interestingly, U.S. racers averaged 22-percent slower across the board in distance races versus sprints.

Most athletes will claim immediately that the pace for the repeats is far too slow. It is important to keep the recovery times no longer than equal to repeat time. It’s also critical to emphasize that the goal of the workout is to get through enough repeats to accurately reflect race distance. If the athlete can only get through four repeats, he/she has done it wrong! Remember, these are Reality Race Pace Progression pieces. If the athlete can’t perform 10 repeats at the same pace, it’s not 10 k pace.

With a little bit of research, athletes go into the workout with a goal per-kilometer time in mind. They immediately get feedback from the time trial, and then with each repeat. Athletes can readily identify where they’ve lost or gained time by repeating the same course. Especially with juniors or inexperienced racers, coaches will see athletes able to repeat their time trial time or even improve it through 7, 8, or even 10 repeats. This typically indicates either the need for technique development or an inadequate warm-up.

At MWSC, we use our rollerski loops (paved ski trails at Nordic Heritage Center, 10th Mountain Ski Center) for these workouts. Since we’ve got an established loop, we don’t always use the time trial, especially if we’re repeating this workout within a week of the last time. As many athletes find this workout a bit of a mental strain, we don’t often use it more than 2-3 times per month during the fall. But, for those few times we repeat this workout, we see some fantastic results.

Steven McCarthy

Steven McCarthy discovered a passion for sportswriting in the classrooms of the University of Maine school of journalism. He earned his Bachelor's degree in 2010, while complementing his studies covering two years of UMaine sports and summer college baseball on Cape Cod. He resides in southern Maine and works in a private school for kids with autism. In his spare time he's training for his next marathon (running or skiing) or coaching at a local high school.

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