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For the Long Haul: Improve Long-Course Bike Speed, Part I

By Jesse Kropelnicki | May 15, 2012, 5:26 p.m. (ET)

Riding faster for many athletes comes easy, but for others it certainly doesn’t. How do you improve over the long term if you are weaker on the bike without losing run speed? When athletes first begin triathlon, many cut corners on training volume in favor of completing intense workouts. For most, this type of an approach is a short cut to faster race times over the short term and for many, a short cut to injuries and burnout. This is especially true with beginners as they have not yet developed the durability or aerobic efficiency to require or support intense training. In this two-part article, I will discuss what it takes to gain speed on the bike efficiently and safely for the long haul.

Athletes have some current speed potential based on bike paces/wattages at lactate threshold combined with their weight. Based on these paces or power/weight ratios, you can get a good idea on how you may perform at all event distances (depending on fatigue index which helps define how aerobic or anaerobic athletes are). What most athletes don’t realize is that in order to achieve this “predicted” speed potential, you must have a certain volume of training given the event distance you plan to race. That is, longer event distances require more volume to meet the speed potential your shorter race distances may suggest.

There exists an undeniable volume threshold that must be met prior to the event in order to achieve that speed potential. The volume thresholds or “critical volumes” as I like to call them can be defined for each sport. A good rule of thumb for non-draft legal racing on the bike is 8/3 (2.67x) of the event distance per week as a minimum to not have durability limit speed potential on the bike or subsequent run. Also, many professional athletes or advanced age groupers see additional benefit on off-the-bike run performance by increasing bike volume by up to 50 percent greater than this. This tactic is pretty elite stuff and should not be considered by folks who have not already met the volume demands of the other sports for their event distance or feel that they have room to improve their pace at lactate threshold.

Does this mean you should go from wherever you are now to 300 miles per week training for an Ironman? Absolutely not! Total volume from year to year should not increase more than 30 percent in most cases on the bike. This 30 percent represents an increase to your sustainable volume which can be determined by looking at your training log from previous years, and observing what your highest volume consecutive weeks were. You should begin to see a consistent volume that you were able to perform for at least 4-6 weeks during the season without burnout or injury. Your goal should be to build up to, and meet or exceed this volume by up to 30 percent during the sustainable portion of the next season (assuming logistical limits aren’t a factor).

Now, where do you fall in terms of critical volume? Using the 8/3 factor above, you may find that you will be well trained and ready for a half Iron event but undertrained for an Iron event. Does this mean that you should not complete that Ironman you were planning? No, it just means that you will not meet your speed potential for the race, and chances are that you will not be happy (hit the wall, cramp, drastically reduce your pace) at some point during the race. If you fall into this category, you should carefully consider your pacing for the race.

Typically when we lay out a multiple month plan leading into an event at QT2 Systems, we look at where the athlete's volume is currently and whether or not it will be safely possible to reach the critical volumes for the event in time for the taper. If not, many times we have the athletes wait another year before doing the race distance they are focused on. I find many athletes rush into race distances they are not prepared for, and end up disappointed in the result, and/or injured. It should be noted that athletes with tremendous race experience can sometimes get away with lower than critical volumes, without having durability impact their day.

Speed potential (raw speed) even after years of training is not nearly worth the benefit you may get from meeting critical volume for your race distance. This is especially true on the bike due to the impact it may have on the run. Time lost by lack of durability can be huge in comparison to minor differences in speed potential (that can take years to achieve). This is why I prefer to focus on aerobic work before anything else. There is no need to dabble in speed work or other risky training methods (that may increase speed potential) until you are able to meet or get very close (at least 2/3) to critical volume to obtain the required durability. Instead, focus on the details such as nutrition and rest which are the support structure which allow one to meet critical volume without becoming sidelined due to sickness/injury.
The benefit of meeting the durability required for your race distance is much more than any improvements in speed potential for athletes at this level. Many times age-groupers are not able to fit critical volume into their schedules from a logistics standpoint even if they can handle it from a physical stress standpoint. In these cases we must increase stress via intensity within the constraints of time available for training. One thing we do know is that the same training stress results in the same race results year to year assuming equal restoration.
Stay tuned next week for part two of this article, where we will discuss training load and the appropriate balance of biking and running.
Jesse Kropelnicki is an elite/pro level triathlon coach who founded QT2 Systems, LLC, a leading provider of personal triathlon coaching;, a leading provider of sports nutrition; and Your 26.2 a marathon training company. He is the triathlon coach of professional athletes Caitlin Snow, Ethan Brown, and Pedro Gomes among others. His interests lie in coaching professional triathletes using quantitative training and nutrition protocols. You can track his other coaching comments/ideas via his blog at

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.