A 5-Element System for Sportive Preparation and Performance

Nail your Key Sportive – A System for Preparation and Performance

A key sportive is often the big target for the year. Sometimes it is a challenge at the next level, taking us into uncharted territory both mentally and physically. We invest time, money and lifestyle compromises and hope for the very best experience and result.

However, preparation is commonly unstructured and weak, depending on just more hours on the bike. Riders often have no clear strategy for getting the very best performance on the day. All too often it ends in disappointment.

This 5-element system ensures that you leave no stone un-turned in your preparation and performance in the big event. If you are ambitious, like to follow a proven system and keen to learn more about your training and physiology, this is worth thinking about as an approach to nailing your key sportive.


This is a structured, systematic approach to preparation for a key sportive to help ensure the very best possible performance on the day. The system works well with riders who are well motivated and have performance expectations for a key event. It also suits those interested in becoming more knowledgeable about their own physiology, training and performance.

The system is also adaptable for riders of different abilities and events of different scales and ambition. Some, for example, target classic domestic sportives such as The Ring of Kerry, the Seán Kelly Classic or the Wicklow 200. Others travel abroad to iconic continental events with strict cut-off times such as the Marmotte or Étape du Tour.

Ticking off the ‘monuments’ is another items on some bucket-lists, such as Liege Bastogne Liege – 279km long with 4,200m of some exceptionally steep climbing. And others take on even more epic challenges, like the Mallorca 312 (312km, 232km or 167km), or even multi-day events such as the seven-stage Haute Route events.

Many riders will be heading into unknown territory during their ‘bucket-list’ event – both physically and mentally – and will have invested a lot in time, money and lifestyle compromises. They will need the best possible chance of realising their ambition, yet the traditional approach to a bigger challenge has primarily been based on even more ‘hours on the bike’. While this is a key part of the preparation, it is too simplistic and leaves too much to chance.

Taken together, the five elements of this system, along with attention to their minor details, will see you properly prepared with realistic, well-informed expectations and targets. You will have the very best chance of achieving you aim and to finish with a smile on your face rather than in the proverbial body-bag. The five elements are:

  1. Pacing
  2. Fitness
  3. Nutrition
  4. Planning
  5. Contingency
5-Element System for Sportive Preparation and Performance

5-Element System for Sportive Preparation and Performance


1. Pacing

You might expect that we would start with the ‘fitness’ element of the system as it seems to be the most obvious factor in success. All too often, however, poor pacing ruins performance on the day and much of the potential gain from hard-won fitness is lost.

Also, the training strategy for fitness can be better understood when we have a good grasp of the approach to pacing.

In terms of pacing, the crucial times are the first and last quarter of the event. When mistakes are made they are usually in the first quarter when enthusiasm, adrenalin and the competitive ego cause us to deplete the energy tank too early. Then the last quarter can be grim, with a lot of time lost. In events with cut-off times many riders are simply unable to continue or can’t stay ahead of the broom wagon (in the 2012 Étape du Tour, for example, the numbers outside the cut-off was approximately 40%).

Therefore, the usual advice is to ‘start easy and finish strong’. But, what is ‘easy’ and what is ‘strong’ for you and your specific target event? How do you know what your best pace should be and how do you measure it?

Ideally, in the perfect theoretical situation, we would ride consistently at the highest sustainable effort for the particular distance of the event and its terrain. There will be many variations in a real sportive of course and there will be times when it is advantageous to adjust the pace. When climbing, for example, it is worth increasing the effort as the amount of power soaked up by wind resistance is greatly reduced.

However, you still need to know what pace range you should stay within and this can only come from information collected in your training and preparation, matched with the distance and terrain of the target event – more on this in the next element below.

What is the best way to judge your pace on the day? There are a number of ways to do this and the choice will depend on your equipment, experience and approach to training:

  • Average speed – this metric is often used by cyclists new to sportives. While this may be useful for training on familiar routes, it has too many drawbacks for pacing a big event in unfamiliar conditions. It will not be a good indicator of the effort your body is making as speed will be affected by too many variables – wind, hills, road surfaces, shelter from fast-moving groups, temperature, and such like.
  • How you feel – ‘listening to the body’. This is sometimes referred to a ‘Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)’ and given a scale. Listening to the body is always good but judging effort by how you feel has some drawbacks, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience in the type of event you are targeting. For example, effort almost always feels easier in a group or competitive situation. This leads to the classic mistake of going too fast too soon – the effort feels less in this situation. It also feels less when climbing. If you make these mistakes you are likely to feel terrible in the last quarter but it’s too late to listen to your body then.
  • Power output – measured in watts. Having a power meter and knowing what ‘the numbers’ mean is very useful for training and has some uses on the big day. However, apart from long steady climbs, trying to concentrate on a steady power output is difficult in the dynamic of a busy sportive as the numbers fluctuate greatly. Also, power output gives no indication of increasing fatigue – by itself it doesn’t ring any alarm bells. If, for example, you encounter unfamiliar high temperatures and still try to maintain a target power output, you are likely to run into trouble – it doesn’t indicate that you are fatiguing and that you should slow down.
  • Heart rate – This has become less popular with the emphasis on power, but is very useful for monitoring your pacing strategy on a long sportive. Based on your training and planning for the event, you should have a target HR range you can maintain for the day, along with the limits you set for variables such as climbs. Heart rate also responds to increasing fatigue – your HR increases, indicating that perhaps you should slow down if it is occurring early on. Look on your HR as a governor for the engine – when it goes up to a certain level you slow the engine down. In the next element below on ‘training’ I will summarise how you know your optimum HR range for the event.

A pacing strategy will be more effective if a combination of all of the above is used, but this will depend on knowledge and experience. For example, monitoring power output relative to heart rate is a good way of judging pace. However, unless you have experience, trying to monitor and interpret data in this way can lead be more trouble than it’s worth.

A lot is made of mental toughness in the cycling world and it does, of course, matter. However, many riders’ mental toughness lets them down in the early stage of events when they just don’t have the discipline to slow down and stick to a plan. So, perhaps treat that as your biggest mental toughness challenge – stick to a pacing plan, especially in the first quarter!

Take-away points in relation to Pacing:

  • Learn to monitor your heart rate as a percentage of your lactate threshold (more below)
  • Be able to identify cardiac drift (more below)
  • Monitor your HR and pacing in your training
  • From the data gathered, establish the optimum, sustainable HR for your event
  • Have general guidelines on how much variation you can allow, relative to terrain and distance
  • Practice your pacing strategy on long rides and in preparatory events.

2. Fitness

Your fitness aim for the big event is to ride as fast as possible over the given distance and terrain, and to finish strong. Therefore, the overall aim of your training strategy should be to develop your aerobic and muscular endurance as much as possible given your current level, the amount of time you have to train and your lifestyle circumstances.

However, a common mistake, especially made by older riders, is to confine your training to the endurance element of your physiological system – the ‘long steady miles’. You also need to develop your anaerobic threshold and capacity even though you won’t be riding at these intensities on the day (see here for more details in my series on ‘Going the Distance’).

There are many sound approaches to this kind of training and I am suggesting this particular way because, as I emphasised above, pacing is very important on the day and this method will help you ‘train to pace’. You will also become more knowledgeable about fitness progression.

The approach is based on determining and maintaining the maximum sustainable heart rate for the likely duration of your target event. There are two key principles to understand in order to master this method:

  1. Judging fitness progression and effort on the bike by your heart rate (HR) as a percentage of your ‘threshold HR’.
  2. Understanding ‘cardiac drift’ as an indicator of fatigue and the limits of your fitness and endurance.

‘Threshold’ or ‘functional threshold power (FTP)’ is the maximum effort you can maintain for one hour and sometimes called ‘lactate threshold’ because, beyond this effort, lactate accumulates and you fatigue noticeably. Once you are relatively well trained, your heart rate at threshold varies very little and it is, therefore, a very useful metric because it is stable.

You can find plenty of guidelines on-line on how to find your threshold HR, or contact me if you would like a guide sent by email.

The purpose of your training, therefore, is to gradually extend the time you can spend at a particular percentage of your threshold HR – as high as possible – and/or to raise that percentage to the maximum possible for the anticipated time of your event.

This will vary greatly between individuals, depending on fitness and their unique physiologies. For example:

  • Over a 4-hour event a moderately fit person might aim for between 75% – 90%, while a very fit person might aim for between 85% – 95%
  • Over a 10-hour event a moderately fit person might aim for between 65% – 70%, while a very fit person might aim for between 75% – 90%

You may need an informed friend or coach to help plan a training programme and, crucially, to monitor and interpret your progression so that you can set your clear targets. Also, with such a programme, you can avoid common mistakes made by sportive riders in training, especially by ultra-distance ones, such as too much volume, inadequate intensity and lack of specificity.

Understanding your ‘cardiac drift (CD)’ will also help your training and pacing. When you begin exercising at a steady pace your heart rate will initially remain stable once you are warmed up. However, at some point fatigue sets in and your HR rises even though you maintain the same output. This is the point of cardiac drift.

Clearly, the more fit you are the longer it will be before cardiac drift occurs, or the higher the pace you can maintain before it sets in.

Once it sets in it gets steadily worse and it is therefore a good warning sign of impending fatigue. Extending the point at which CD begins is a key purpose of your training and tracking this will be a key part of planning your pacing strategy. Modern analytic software helps greatly with this.

You can, of course, allow cardiac drift towards the end of your event and it should be part of your pacing strategy depending on the length of the event, your fitness and your prior experience.

Take-away points in relation to Fitness:

  • Determine your FTP or ‘threshold’ heart rate
  • Train to gradually increase the percentage of your threshold HR that you can maintain, over longer times
  • Be able to identify when cardiac drift begins and how quickly it escalates at a given pace
  • Develop a pacing strategy based on this information.


3. Nutrition

Everybody knows the importance of nutrition on long and challenging sportives but many take a hit-and-miss approach to it. If you enquire of riders, for example, how much carbohydrate and water they aim to consume per hour, and in what form, many won’t know – their plan is all a bit vague. Along with pacing errors, this is one of the biggest causes of poor performance and disappointment for many riders.

Nutritional approaches aren’t helped by much of the advice provided in ‘How To’ websites and magazine articles. They usually go along the lines – in general terms – of what to eat the day before, the evening before, the morning of the event, and during the event. This, however, is months too late. You should have a nutrition strategy worked out for your event well in advance and should be practicing and refining it on long training rides and in practice sportives.

If, for example, you take a nutrition guideline such as ‘1gm of carbohydrate per kg per hour’, what does that convert to in terms of actual food? How much of will you take as ‘real’ natural food and how much as supplements in the form of gels and energy drinks? Do you know how many grams of carbohydrate are in a banana, a gel, or a scoop of drink supplement?

Your strategy should be based on a number of basic principles, matched against the demands of your particular event.

  1. Your body can only synthesise a certain amount of food per hour and consuming more than that is a waste of time. Therefore, ‘stuffing yourself’ at food stations can be counter-productive.
  2. The harder you ride the more difficult it is for your digestive system to synthesise food. Therefore, for example, you can usually eat more natural food on longer events as you will be going slower, while on shorter ones you might rely more on gels and drinks. Or, you could mix-and-match, using more natural food towards the beginning and relying more on gels and drink supplements as the day goes on and your systems tire.
  3. You will process food more effectively if you consume it more often and in smaller amounts – some find it useful to set an alert on their computer every 20 min, for example.
  4. Your liquid and electrolyte needs will depend a lot on the weather and your level of effort.

From these you can see how basic mistakes occur, ranging from eating too little and bonking, to eating too much and ending up with ‘gastric distress’ from having a lumpy slurry of un-digested food sloshing around in the stomach.

From the above I hope you can see that a nutrition plan has to be pretty specific to yourself and the nature of the event, but it doesn’t have to be complicated either. Mistakes are commonly made from not understanding the basics and not paying attention to what everyone knows is a key element in your performance.

Take-away points in relation to Nutrition:

  • Work out your basic nutritional needs, relative to your weight – know the numbers
  • Using the four basic principles outlined above, work out a nutritional strategy based on the duration and the level of effort you plan for
  • Have a plan for carrying your nutrition, or for stocking up on the route
  • Practice your nutritional strategy on longer training rides and practice sportives


4. Strategy

From summarising the first three elements – pacing, fitness and nutrition – it should be clear that a specific strategy is needed for your big target event based on the nature of the sportive and your own unique physiology and fitness. This should be developed from what you learn during training and preparation sportives, and closely referenced to the event’s features such as duration, gradients, descents, likely weather, food availability, and such like.

With pacing, for example, you will know the approximate time it will take and, based on what you have learned during preparation about your fitness, you will have an average heart range that you should stay within, and know when can you allow cardiac drift to occur.

You will also have decided how much higher you can allow your HR to rise on the climbs of various gradient and distance, in order to take advantage of the reduced aerodynamic drag.

You should know about the descents – whether you can coast on them and recover or whether you can ride them – and factor any possible recovery time into your plan, especially if they are very long.

It is sometimes useful to ‘segment’ the route – to break it into distinct chunks if each needs a different approach. This also helps psychologically on longer sportives.

You will have a nutritional strategy but how are you going to obtain the food and drink to support it? Do you need to carry most of it, or can you depend on food-stops? For example, a top-tube bag may not look cool, but it’s useful for storing gels, drink mixtures, and extra food you pick up at food-stops – you shouldn’t fall into the trap of over-eating at these. If you have a support person to hand you supplies, are you both sure where the designated spot(s) are?

It goes without saying that your equipment should be in good order and your gearing suitable for the gradients, especially towards the latter part of the course.

It also goes without saying that it’s best to start your event well rested and relaxed, and your travel and accommodation plans should be fine-tuned – it’s pretty common for things to go awry at this stage.

Take away points in relation to Strategy:

  • Have a clear strategy for pacing and nutrition on the day
  • Get intelligence on the route and mentally rehearse it
  • Segment the route and have a plan for each segment, if different
  • Have your equipment well organised, with enough clothing for differing conditions you are likely to meet
  • Have your travel and accommodation plans well organised and, if possible, allow some time to acclimatize to the new location


5. Contingencies

There is an old military saying along the lines of: ‘The best laid plans go out the window when the first shot is fired’. In sportives also, you need to be prepared for contingencies that aren’t covered in your plan. You can’t anticipate all of these of course, or they would be in the plan in the first place!

Excessive heat and/or humidity may be one. After poor pacing, nutrition and planning it is one of the biggest causes of disappointing results for Irish and UK riders in some of the bigger continental and US events as output can drop by up to 20% in unusually hot weather if not acclimatized.

Yet, this contingency is rarely prepared for, even when the risks are high, although it is relatively easy to do so in a home environment and doesn’t take a lot of time.

Many also underestimate the effects of cold on long descents in the higher mountains – and if rain or snow is unexpectedly added it can become dangerous if not prepared. So, you may need to carry some basic contingency clothing if this is a possibility.

You should also have though out various other scenarios with your pacing strategy. For example, if you get into a fast-moving group and are getting a lot of free speed but working over your target heart rate, should you stay with it to take the advantage and possibly gain a lot of time, or is it worth the risk of imploding at the latter end of the day?

Mechanicals are another worry and decide what contingencies you intend to cover. Anything other than a puncture is very bad luck if your bike is maintained and many don’t bother with chain breakers and other such tools. Yet, many face their big event without really being confident in changing a puncture properly – including checking the tyre for impaled debris which will cause another puncture when the tube is changed. It’s a basic that’s often neglected and ruins the day.

If something goes seriously wrong and you have to abandon, know how you are going to get back to base.

Take away points in relation to Contingencies:

  • Be prepared for the unexpected
  • In as much as is possible, have mentally rehearsed what you will do for various contingencies that may arise
  • Have a plan to get back to base if you have to abandon for any reason


Have Some Systematic Plan

This particular approach to preparation for a key sportive isn’t the only one or necessarily the theoretical best. The most important thing is to have some type of structure and plan to your preparation and performance as the investment you are going to make is large and you deserve the very best chance.

However, this approach does work well when applied properly. It’s well worth thinking about If you are not already working to a system.

Thanks for reading and get in contact if you have any queries.


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