“You guys want to know how to finish the Death Race?” The question rings out, punctuating a moment of quiet. It’s around 1:30 in the morning, a group of us are on Vermont’s Long Trail, somewhere north of Chittenden. We’ve been hiking since 8PM the previous evening, and now we’re stopped. One member of our group is struggling with a strained groin, and another is seriously struggling with the challenges—both physical and emotional of undertaking a 20-mile hike, overnight, in the chill of autumn in Vermont—so our pace has slowed down considerably, punctuated by frequent breaks. It’s during one of these breaks that the group’s leader puts her question to us. “If you want to finish the Death Race, you have to realize it’s just 5-minutes long,” She offers. “Once you get to the point of wondering if you can keep going, and considering quitting, just make yourself a deal that you’ll just keep going for five more minutes. After that you can pause, refocus your effort and make the same deal again: Just five more minutes. Because you can do anything for 5 minutes.”

            The Death Race was one of the most fearsome and challenging obstacle courses around its 10-year run in the idyllic Green Mountain hillsides around Pittsfield, Vermont. Described in Outside Magazine as “an idiosyncratic form of punishment that can't be compared to any other race in the world,” The Death race might best be summed up by the event’s slogan: You may die. As cruel and grueling as the event was, it was what brought that group of a dozen crazed, adventure-enthusiasts together that night in Vermont. Most members of the group were Death Race alumni, looking for a training opportunity to help them fare better in their next attempt, and most of the rest of the group were aspiring Death Race participants. Then there was me, not only uninterested in ever participating in the Death Race, but deeply worried that I was in way over my head with this merry band of masochistic misfits. I had agreed to join them because a friend, rock climbing partner, and multiple-time Death Race participant had invited me, and it sounded like an adventure. The hike was a struggle sometime, both when we took off from the trailhead at a torrid pace, and perhaps even more so when the struggles of a couple of the group forced us to slow to a crawl, and to take forced rest breaks that became too-frequent and too-long. But that piece of advice, “Just do 5 more minutes” has become a creed for me that I brandish as a sort of psychological weapon against the torment of long and difficult efforts.

This idea of subdividing longer intervals into more manageable bits is known as “chunking” and it can be a powerful tool to both guide your effort as well to make larger undertakings seem more manageable. Bradley Wiggins employed just such a strategy during his Hour Record attempt, breaking the hour up into 12-minute “chunks” which he could then use to help gauge pace and progress—Was he on track to reach his goal? How did he feel physically? Psychologically? Was the effort sustainable? Instead of focusing on an hour’s worth of effort, Wiggins was simply doing a 12-minute interval, albeit 5 of them consecutively.

This is a technique we can all use to help us get through those minutes and hours on the bike that otherwise seem unconquerable. You can break what might seem like an impossibly long interval into shorter bits to save you from that “Oh my God is this interval EVER going to end how am I going to get through this whole thing I swear I must be reaching relativistic velocities because the passage of time is slowing down” feeling we all know and love. This technique can work for any sort of effort, of any duration. For longer efforts like 2 x 20:00 at SST or FTP intensity, I like using 5-minute chunks to break the effort up. VO2 Max intervals can be broken up minute by minute, centuries (or longer!) can be broken up by distance to next rest by hour, or distance in between rest stops, and we can borrow Wiggins’ technique for efforts around an hour (like a 40-km TT, or a long hill climb) by using 10 or 12-minute chunks.

Some keys to effectively using chunking as a tool to effectively manage your future intervals or

  • Plan your chunks ahead of time and plan chunks that make the most sense to you. You might find that shorter or longer chunks works best, or an asymmetric division makes more sense for you, for example breaking a 20-minute FTP test into a 5-minute “opening statement,” 10 minutes of “sustaining the effort,” And 5 minutes of “pushing through the finish.” Just make sure that they feel right to
  • Building on the first point, it can be helpful to give yourself a sort of task or theme for each chunk, especially when you’re dealing with efforts done at higher intensities. Chunking is as much about pacing an entire effort well as it is about making it feel more manageable. Giving your entire effort a sort of overarching structure through a sort of narrative can help you make sure you get the most out of your interval without blowing up in the middle of it, or having way too much left at the end.
  • Practice, practice, practice! These techniques can become second nature for you and become easier to implement if you practice them regularly. This will also help you figure out the type of chunks (e.g. shorter or longer) chunks that are going to work best for you.
  •  During each chunk, that chunk is the only thing you’re focusing on. Don’t worry about the next chunk, or the one you just did. Focus entirely on the chunk you’re tackling in that moment. Think of it as an interval set with a rest interval of zero. By really narrowing your focus to the chunk at hand you are maximizing the potential for this technique to help you psychologically manage those harder/longer efforts. Focusing on 5-minutes at a time 4 times in a row is much easier than a 20-minute effort.
  • For intervals, you can periodically check your cycling computer to make sure your effort is consistent and within the range you want within each chunk, but this is a great opportunity to start freeing yourself from the tyranny of the power field. Try checking in with your computer only at the end of each chunk. Setting up a structured workout with laps corresponding to each chunk can help here.
  • Chunks can be anything from a duration of time, a pre-set distance, or even something specific to the road/course you’re on. You can use landmarks or changes in the road to breakdown and guide your efforts appropriately.

The goal of chunking is to give you a better and more manageable strategy for maximally executing your next interval, workout or time-trial. Nothing is going to make 2 x 20:00 FTP or 4 x 5:00 VO2 Max intervals feel “easy,” but it might make them seem a little less interminable, and put you in the driver’s seat for the effort.