A time trial: what is it and how to pace one

Updated: Apr 9

The time trial is known as the race of truth. Time trials are events where riders race on their own, riding against the clock. In the world of racing, an individual time trial (TT) is an event in which the winner is the rider that covers the course in the shortest time. In the world of training, the goal of a time trial is to test the maximum sustainable wattage that a rider can hold for a prescribed time. Either way they are all-out efforts and unlike a sprint, pacing is crucial to having a good ride.

In training we use two time trial lengths for testing: 20-minutes and 5-minutes. In the common training paradigm the 20-minutes is used as a test to determine FTP and the 5-minute TT is a good proxy for your VO2 abilities. Despite the difference in length you should be close to reaching your max heart rate at the end of either time trial. When we do a good TT all we can do is get across the line and collapse. Fun and a great workout.

How do we pace our time trials? Ideal pacing is a flat wattage line on the workout graph, with a heart rate that builds. Something like the one below. Power (pink line) and cadence (orange) are stable, while the heart rate (red) builds across the effort.

Do you see the the mistake in this effort? Look closely at the opening spike in wattage where the rider was overly optimistic in what they could sustain. This is often the time when we go too hard, putting ourselves into the red right off the gun. When we start an effort we can’t “feel” it for the first minute so the excitement sometimes makes us overshoot the actual wattage we can sustain over the TT

Conversely, we don’t want to start out at too low a wattage and have a wattage profile that rises all the way across the effort. This is a bit of a cheat as you are essentially holding back the whole time, ensuring you don’t “blow up”. Doing a time trial this way you will never reach your max average wattage.

These efforts are is in some ways a test of how well we know ourselves as riders. Each time you do one you will get to know your abilities better.

Our pacing for the time trial has real world applications. Think of your pacing on the local climb and how you usually approach it when trying to do a good time. Do you fade as the climb progresses? If you are trying to hammer out your best Strava PR then you are doing a time trial. Overdo the first bit of the climb and you are going to go slower overall than you could with good pacing.

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